Unpaid experience

Many graduates would do anything to get relevant work experience on their CV. But how far would you go? Would you be willing to work unpaid for up to 12 months? This is the question companies are now asking graduates to consider when advertising unpaid internships.

Here at the careers service we do not endorse unpaid internships. With the exception of charity and voluntary organisations we will only advertise unpaid positions if they are short, and will clearly benefit you. In our experience, some employers are trying it on to see what they can get for free. Since the start of the recession we have received an increasing number of requests from employers for unpaid interns. In the vast majority of cases we say no as they are proper jobs and should be paying a salary. We offer to reverse our decision if they pay minimum wage or above. A surprising number agree to do this.

What you can draw from this is – don’t be afraid to negotiate. Your time and skills are valuable, and whilst you may be prepared to offer them unsalaried for a while, don’t be afraid to draw a line in the sand at a certain point.

Although we do not back unpaid internships we understand that for many of you they represent your only way to get work experience.  With that in mind we thought we would give you some tips if you are planning to do this…

Weigh up the benefits

Yes, the experience will boost your CV but at the end of the internship will you meet the entry requirements for paid positions in this field? If you do not gain the relevant skills, the internship may not be worthwhile. For example, we see a lot of ‘distance internships’ but in most cases these allow you little interaction with the employer, so how much would you really learn? You can check websites like Prospects to see the skills typically needed for the type of role you want to do (look under ‘entry requirements’ for the relevant occupation).

Be realistic about the pitfalls

Websites such as interns anonymous allow you to read other people’s experiences of unpaid work, they may give you a head’s up on which organisations to avoid, or useful tips on how to handle situations.

Have a plan

Some employers would let you work for free forever. Agree with the employer some areas of work you will get to experience, have personal objectives and an idea of how long you are prepared to work unpaid.


If the employer isn’t giving you the experience you need, negotiate to improve the situation. If it still doesn’t, move on. Don’t let the vague promise of some paid work keep you there for months longer than you intended.

Negotiate to be paid expenses, at least

If you are working beyond a few weeks and an employer won’t even pay for a bus ticket or the cost of a sandwich, they aren’t taking your contribution seriously. So how seriously are they going to take your future job application?

Be proactive on your internship

Ask questions, make friends, get involved. Become a person to them, not just ‘the intern’. They won’t be impressed if they just see you as the person who does the work no-one else wants, makes the tea and stays quiet. Don’t sit back and wait for work to come to you. You want to learn about how to organise events? Offer to help. You want to be a journalist? Don’t wait for the editor to suggest some stories you can research, get a feel for the publication and start researching something yourself. Show enthusiasm, show them what you can do.

Understand your rights

Is this turning into a regular 9-5 job? Do you have a proper job description and your manager is giving demands and deadlines? There’s a good chance they should be paying you the minimum wage. Currently £5.80 per hour (adult rate), this rises to £5.93 on Oct 1st this year. More advice on the minimum wage in our link below, ‘advice on unpaid experience’.

We hope these help. We put together some additional advice on unpaid experience to help you weigh up the pros and cons, decide if it’s right for you, and manage it in the best way possible so you don’t get exploited. If you have any doubts or queries about certain opportunities, come into the careers service to talk it over.

Written by Scott Foley & Natasha Whitfield


One Response to Unpaid experience

  1. internsanonymous says:

    Good article and thanks for the link! Both the founders of interns anonymous are ex-manchester graduates (circa 2008) and ex-users of the careers service. keep up the good work! Alex and Rosy

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