The Thing about Unpaid Internships…

In response to my post last week (which you should all feel free to comment on), Heavyheartedlove asked if I have any suggestions for people worried about unpaid internships.

This post is a prelude to my answer.

Before I give advice on how to deal with not being paid for your work, I want to lay out some very basic information about unpaid internships in publishing. Please note that this post focuses specifically on the negatives of the issue. Interning unpaid is not all negative, it’s just that the negatives are pertinent to the question at hand, namely: How do you survive while working for free?

So here we go.


I have a very mixed relationship with the apprenticeship model that’s used in the publishing industry (and make no mistake, unpaid internships at their best are just this).

On the one hand: the people who get these internships and complete them professionally are very greatly benefitted. It gets their foot in the door, it gives them experience, contacts, and professional references, and it’s often a great experience.

On the other hand: a HUGE amount of people are discouraged from even applying to unpaid internships because they don’t have the money. The ability to work without pay for an extended period of time by definition means that you have a certain amount of economic privilege. I’ll say that again. If you can afford to go unpaid as an intern, you are privileged, if only slightly (and for the record, I fit into this category when I was an intern).This does not mean that you’re rolling in money, that you’re not struggling to pay your bills, etc. It does mean that you’re better off than like-minded, like-educated publishing hopefuls who really can’t go unpaid. And of course, if you can afford an unpaid internship, then you’re more likely to get a paying job later, meaning that the people who can’t go unpaid are less likely to get paid in the long run.

So you can see where this model puts many people at a disadvantage.

With that established, lets move onto one very important aspect of unpaid internships: they are questionably legal.

My Dad The Lawyer (tm) brought this up regularly during my year and a half of working on and off as an unpaid intern (to which my response was always something along the lines of God, Dad, just let me intern in peace). Now, my dad doesn’t practice this particular type of law, so he’s not an expert, and I certainly don’t pretend to be. There are a number of nuanced provisions that allow for unpaid internships (for example, taking them for academic credit is a-okay, and it’s acceptable if you work unpaid for less than number of hours), but my guess is that not all companies adhere to them—likely due to ignorance instead of malicious intent.

I’m not bringing this up in an effort to get you guys to SUE PUBLISHING COMPANIES OMG (please don’t), but rather to remind you that you have rights, and your time and effort is worth something even if you aren’t getting paid.

Some publishing companies (a minority, thankfully) take advantage. Go ahead and read my response to Publishing Peon's rant about how his/her former company treated their interns and employees. Don't put up with that shit. Don't work for longer than you signed on for without getting paid. Don't do an unpaid internship with a shady company (because not only will they take advantage, but it won't look as good on your resume). And for God's sake, if a company wants you to work full time without paying you, RUN IN THE OTHER FUCKING DIRECTION. I don’t care if it’s for academic credit or it’s a really well-known name, RUN.

Because that’s the bottom line about unpaid internships: they aren’t fair.

Of course, it’s up to individuals to decide whether their own experiences are worth it (which is different than the system being fair to everyone). As someone who interned unpaid for a year and half, managed to stay out of the financial red, and received a job as a direct result of my internships, it was worth it to me. For others—who perhaps don’t get a job in publishing or who suffer from financial problems while interning—donating their time isn’t worth it.And the system sure as hell isn’t fair to people who can’t afford to enter it in the first place.

So how do you deal with the financial disadvantages and unfairness you’ll face as an unpaid intern? Find some advice here.


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