Are Unpaid Internships Worth It?
I’ve been passionate about writing for as long as I can remember. It was the one part of me, the one talent, in which I was completely confident — something that no one could take away from me.
However, when I tell people I want to be a writer, they often ask me what type of writing I want to pursue, which is a goal I have a hard time putting into words. Some might see my uncertainty about the future as a lack of focus, but it’s not.
In fact, this is what I enjoy most about writing. I like the ambiguity, not knowing where this passion will take me. However, three years ago, I wouldn’t have been singing the same tune.
I remember the feeling as a high school sophomore navigating through annual college fairs. I debated whether or not to tell college representatives that I wanted to study English.
Though I was passionate about my studies, I did worry about the practicality. What high-paying job could I get with a degree in English?
What if I’m unable to churn out bestsellers like Suzanne Collins or Stephenie Meyer and make millions?
Sometimes it’s difficult to balance my liberal arts passion with the goal of making more than just a living four to five years from now. I know I will eventually need to start saving for retirement, and might one day think about buying a house.
Once, a friend and I spoke with a stranger at a college fair. She wasn’t a representative for any college, but when my friend mentioned that she was interested in a pre-med track, the stranger’s face lit up with interest.
When I gathered my courage and said I wanted to get my degree in English, she dismissed me with, “Oh, you’ll be fine. That’s easy work,” and quickly turned back to my friend to talk more about medical careers.
I was hurt at first, but then doubt began: Was I on the wrong track?
Your arts degree can take you many places, but have you ever wondered which potential job pays the most? We checked the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for some of the most profitable careers.
- Art director: You can be the director of the images that go on inside your head, bringing art to life in so many ways. The median annual wage for art directors is $92,500.
- Freelance writer: Annual salary ranges from $20,903 to $106,383, with the median for writers and authors being $61,280. That may seem like a lot, but freelancing is all about hustling!
- Editor: Love fixing other people’s work? Editing is a creative outlet for those with a good eye for detail. Median annual salary: $58,770.
- English professor: The median salary is $63,370 a year. Yes, you will need a higher level of education, but you can test your knack for it while studying by being a teaching assistant.
- Animator: Been drawing since you could hold a crayon? Use your liberal arts degree to propel your visual side to infinity and beyond. Annual salary is around $70,530.
Choosing a High School Internship
Luckily for me, my high school — The Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem (TYWLS) — has an annual tradition of releasing seniors a few weeks early so they can complete an internship in or outside of school. The goal is to let TYWLS girls experience a job or a professional environment before heading off to college.
I decided to do my internship at my school. (Though if you’re looking for an internship or job outside of your school, sites like Jobscan and Monster can make the search and application process easier. Not only can you search for opportunities with these sites, but you can also use their services to optimize your résumé.)
I worked for my 11th grade English teacher, Ms. Conn. In the last few weeks of school, Ms. Conn’s English class took a break from the regular academic curriculum. Instead, they focused on something more personal: drafting and completing the college essay.
How My Unpaid Internship Paid Off
The internship at my school was, sadly, unpaid. It would have been great if I made some money from it, but I knew I had another paid internship lined up for that summer just as a way to make some money and save. Being an intern for Ms. Conn’s class changed all that.
As someone who tends to be shy, I found it a bit hard at first to stand in front of the room and get the class to focus on command.
But with each passing day at the internship, my public speaking skills improved tremendously.
My voice wielded enough power not only to silence a classroom of highly energetic girls, but also to pique their interest in what the lesson encompassed that day.
“Seanna, what do you want to do when you’re older?” one of my students asked during one class session.
I was ready to start my “professional ambiguity” speech for the umpteenth time. But then the student interrupted me. “You should be a teacher one day. You would be amazing,” she said.
That statement moved me. When I think about it, I would gladly take up another unpaid internship if it meant discovering more about myself as a writer, not to mention my potential to be an English teacher.
Despite wanting to be an English major, I never considered becoming an English teacher. I pictured myself writing magazine articles or important contracts for a business. But my student’s comment gave me fresh hope.
Are Unpaid Internships Worth It? The Bottom Line
I do look forward to earning some cash during another internship at Publicis Healthcare Communications Group before I head to college. However, I don’t think I can say either internship will be better than the other.
I think all internships are vital — paid or not. It’s an opportunity to gain experience that can help you map out your professional future.
I would gladly take up another unpaid internship if it meant discovering more about myself as a writer, and my potential to be an English teacher.
That said, in my financial position, it helps to get paid. A paid internship that inspires me professionally would be a win-win. I would gain insight into my future, and I could save up and financially prepare for it, too.
It’s reassuring to know that my years in college will help me figure out what I want to do with my writing. But it’s even more reassuring to know that future internships will be crucial toward figuring it out, as well.
Additional reporting by Emma Finnerty and Jazmin Rosa.