Should you take a paid or unpaid internship?

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The fact of the matter is that these days, in order to get a job in many cases, an internship, or a slew of them, is what will help you get ahead. Students are constantly bombarded with propaganda from academic advisers, and peers, which suggest that these internships will magically make post-undergraduate job searching a thousand times easier.

These claims may or may not be true for anyone who’s actually gotten an internship or two while in college. However, there’s one painfully obvious question that lots of students tend to overlook.

Despite the good and the bad we hear about on a regular basis, do internships really work at their stated goal, which is to help graduates get the experience they need to land good jobs faster, and for higher pay, after graduating?

Yes, but with a rather large asterisk.

Only paid internships give students a leg up, while unpaid internships provide no help, according to a report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) on the employment prospects of the class of 2013, which was released last fall.

The report’s data came from a survey of nearly 38,000 college students from over 800 NACE member institutions, conducted from February 15 to April 30 of 2013, which included nearly 10,000 seniors who earned bachelor’s degrees that year and who applied to at least one job before graduation.

The data discussed from this survey is from seniors only.

The most striking numbers include, according to the survey, while 61 percent of students who took paid internships received at least one job offer, only 37 percent of students who took unpaid internships received at least one job offer.

What’s more striking is that 35 percent students who didn’t take any internships at all received at least one job offer.
The similarity between those last two numbers seems to be a strong argument against unpaid internships itself just by itself.
The NACE survey also notes that the 2013 survey was the third such year, and that every year, the above trend repeats itself.

Another notable conclusion of the survey is that paid intern students enjoyed the highest median starting salaries by far. The median starting salary for graduates with paid internship experience was $51,190, compared to the $35,721 for students with unpaid interning experience and $37,087 for graduates with no internship experience.

So, perhaps to the chagrin of many college students, in terms of median starting salaries, it may be better to enjoy that summer off, or to take extra classes, instead of doing an unpaid internship.

Ouch again.

Other miscellaneous figures include that of those nearly 10,000 seniors surveyed, 63 percent had some sort of internship, and about half of those students had unpaid internships. According to previous NACE surveys, this figure has stayed more or less constant since those surveys began in 2007, with only slight variations of 3-4 percentage points annually.

Also, gender and ethnicity don’t seem to have a significant impact on whether a student takes an internship or not, as nearly equal numbers with variations of only a percentage point or two of all groups had internships.

Majors have an appreciable impact on what internships are available for students. The traditionally more employable majors, such as accounting and engineering, lead to more interning opportunities than traditionally less employable majors, such as English and philosophy.

At the same time, out of all the majors sampled, having a paid internship made landing a job offer before graduation easier for accounting, business administration, engineering and political science majors.

However, there was no appreciable difference for pre-graduation hire rates between unpaid and paid internships for communications majors.

Also, pre-graduation employment rates were essentially equal for English majors, whether they had a paid or unpaid internship, or no internship at all.

Finally, and surprisingly, psychology majors were the only group to receive the most pre-graduation employment offers from having unpaid internships, rather than paid ones.

Regarding unpaid and paid internships, the NACE data from 2013 found that non-profit and government internships tended to be unpaid and private sector for-profit internships tended to be paid.

Of unpaid internships, 62 percent were non-profit and government, with the remainder filled by private sector company internships. According to NACE data beginning in 2011, when they started tracking this trend, that ratio has remained very stable.

So, as would be expected, for-profit companies are much more often than not the way to go when looking for a paid internship.

However, there’s the fact that sometimes students don’t have the choice of taking a paid internship in the field they want to get some experience in, such as non-profit or government work. In those fields, it may be better for a student to intern where they want to, because paid alternatives are unlikely to exist.

Also, it’s worth noting that the survey data specifically only refer to students who search for jobs before they graduate. The NACE survey does not tackle the subject of whether paid or unpaid internships are helpful or not for students applying to jobs after graduation.

Still, for most students, when it comes time to search for a summer enrichment activity or for something extra to boost your experience during the semester, it seems clear to look to paid internships or relevant employment over unpaid internships, any day.

Check out the full summary of 2013 NACE survey results and data online.

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