The Pros and Cons of an Unpaid Internship

Michael Koliner

An internship can be an integral part of a liberal and fine arts education, though what an internship is and what it should be is not always clear. Is it a job? Is it a class? The definition of a job is rooted in receiving compensation for time worked, and while an internship may sometimes include pay, its main focus is on the intern’s education and opportunity to gain an advantage in the industry. To get an idea of what an internship actually is, I spoke with several colleagues about their varied experiences. 

Theo Willis accepted an internship at a Chicago gallery and was quickly promoted from unpaid intern to paid worker. Despite being compensated for his time, he received little to no educational experience during his short-lived stint as an intern. He said, “Within a month of [beginning] my internship, I was given opportunities for paid work through the gallery, but still maintain a schedule of unpaid work every Saturday.”

In Willis’ case, the gallery decided to hire him instead of assert their right to fix the duration of his internship. When starting an internship of any kind, paid or unpaid, make sure you discuss the length of your tenure in advance so you feel comfortable with the employer’s expectations of you as a worker. 

Chelsea Kelly was hired as an unpaid intern at the same Chicago gallery as Theo Willis. Kelly was somewhat satisfied with her exposure to gallery operations. Kelly says the position gave her invaluable insight into how she hopes to use her art education, but without receiving monetary compensation, the internship was financially challenging. “It was a really great learning experience. I learned a lot about the business side of art and it has changed my view about what I might want from the art world. I would like to pursue a Master’s in business now.”

Although Kelly’s experience in the gallery system was vital to her career path, she just happened to be lucky she had supplemental income from other various jobs as well as from her family. Sadly, this is not a possibility for many students, so an unpaid internship just may not be an option.

Maryland-based sculptor David Hess says that he prefers to pay interns working in the studio. Hess feels that unpaid interns are less committed to learning skills and forming lasting professional relationships. He feels that paying them leads to greater accountability and is really the only fair way to compensate them for ‘real work.’ As a former studio assistant of Hess’, I can attest to the fast-paced workflow and the meticulous quality control. In the studio, the paid assistant and the artist both have a stake in the sculptures being well-crafted. If a paid internships goes well, Hess frequently hires that person on a more permanent basis. 

Opinions on internships often fall along a fault line citing privilege as its division. Students with financial backing from family or other sources are the only people able to accept unpaid positions. Students that don’t have any financial cushion to support them during their internship can’t realistically take on unpaid positions, especially full time. That’s where students working internships for educational credits come in. They balance the trade off of working unpaid for experience with option of avoiding paying for additional credits through their school. 

While interning with Theatre Group PowerBoat-Rotterdam in the Netherlands during my education at The Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), I received two credits and resume filler as compensation (but now that I’m out of school unpaid positions just aren’t an option anymore). The internship required me to work with a company, organization, artist or group for a month or longer, with a regimented curriculum that would ensure a quality learning experience. Though the internship was unpaid, it allowed me to learn valuable tricks of the trade and techniques for surviving as a professional artist and ended up being a positive academic choice. 

Let’s do the math now. If you work an unpaid internship (worth, let’s say $12/hour) for 15 hours a week for 4 months, that’s 195 hours working in an industry related to your degree. One undergraduate credit at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago costs $1327. If your internship only covers two credits, you just avoided paying $2654 in class costs. As a paid intern, you might have only made $2340, not including taxes you might have had to pay otherwise. Though this equation might not work for everyone, it’s certainly something to take into consideration when weighing out your financial options. Most companies see two credits as a fair substitute for financial compensation.

Emily Blumenthal, the Head of Family and Community Programs for The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, is charged with hiring interns as prospects for future part-time positions. Blumenthal argues that unpaid internships at the Museum offer experience beyond just buying coffee and running errands. Even if the interns aren’t eventually hired for a paid position, they get to experience the inner workings of the institution firsthand. She says her interns “don’t just laminate and cut things; they brainstorm, design and create these interpretive materials that they get to see in action in one of our programs.” 

Peter D’Amato, a student and course assistant at New York University, says that this might be part of the problem. In his article The Unpaid Internship is Indefensible, D’Amato criticizes companies that use interns beyond their learning positions.

“The U.S. Department of Labor has issued clear, strict guidelines stating that any position providing an ‘immediate advantage’ to its employer should be classified as a paid job, not an internship… Consider that language and then contemplate these jobs posted at NYU: was hiring an editorial intern, part of whose job was SEO optimization. Time Out New York wanted an intern to work on its local deals page creating ‘e-commerce features.’ The immediate advantages aren’t hard to find here.”

Specifically, the U.S. Department of Labor states:

“If the employer is providing job shadowing opportunities that allow an intern to learn certain functions under the close and constant supervision of regular employees, but the intern performs no or minimal work, the activity is more likely to be viewed as a bona fide education experience.  On the other hand, if the intern receives the same level of supervision as the employer’s regular workforce, this would suggest an employment relationship, rather than training.”

A survey conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media’s Marketplace tells us that “all industry and hiring levels placed slightly more weight on student work or internship experiences than on academic credentials.” For Media/Communications industries, internships were the single most important credential for recent college grads to have on their resume when applying for jobs. However, the National Association of Colleges and Employers surveyed over 38,000 college students and seniors and found that “Among 2013 graduates who had applied for a job, those who took part in paid internships enjoyed a distinct advantage over their peers who undertook an unpaid experience or who didn’t do an internship.” The article goes on to say that their 2013 Student Survey shows that 63.1% of paid interns received at least at least one job offer and only 37% of unpaid interns received the same. Only 35.2% of those that didn’t take on an internship received an offer.

Outside of the design industry (including fields like graphic, industrial, interior and architectural design), an art education doesn’t necessarily teach a student how to acclimate to the workforce. The internship should function as a bridge between school and the real world, and serve as a form of continued training post-academia. Experience at an internship should translate into learning practical applications of creative skills in a professional setting. 

To lay it out in black and white, the U.S. Department of Labor and The Fair Labor Standards Act outlined six requirements for an unpaid internship in Fact Sheet #71:

The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;

The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;

The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;

The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;

The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and

The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

Fact Sheet #71 defines an internship as an educational opportunity, and if an intern begins doing work that directly serves the company, that individual is entitled to minimum wage under Federal Law. 

Unpaid work, whether it’s an internship or volunteering, is a service rooted in the belief that you are achieving something beyond financial benefit. From the employer’s standpoint, recruiting an intern should be a way of paying it forward to the workforce, not just testing the value of a potential employee. The intern should not have to sacrifice their time for a resume filler that doesn’t provide them real world experience. 

The only way to hold companies and institutions accountable is to stay informed about your rights as a worker. Whether you’re working a paid or unpaid internship, it’s essential that you gauge an institution or company’s capacity to support you as you enter that new job market so that you can determine your own career path and whether that internship will help lead you there. 


For additional information on internships, wages and job definitions, visit the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division Website and/or call the toll-free information and helpline (available 8AM - 5PM in your time zone) at 1-866-4USWAGE (1-866-487-9243)

Michael Koliner was born in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1989. He earned his BFA in sculpture with a minor in art history at Maryland Institute College of Art in 2012. Koliner's work explores the potential of built environments to influence their consumption through materials, architecture, media and people. His installations and inventions address issues of functionality and emphasize the open-ended possibilities of the material world. Koliner's work is a continual allusion to how the artist's body interacts with sculpture, installation and space. He currently lives and works in Chicago.

Published by CAR_Editor on Tue, 04/15/2014 - 1:56pm
Updated on Wed, 03/09/2016 - 1:25pm