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Burden or Blessing: Unpaid Internships for Students

As the job market becomes increasingly selective, some Boston College students look to a controversial source to perhaps improve employment prospects after graduation: unpaid internships.

According to post-graduate plans surveys and the BC Career Center, over 63% of Boston College seniors in the Class of 2015 completed at least one internship and over 80% participated in experiential learning opportunities.

Though paid internships can be found, their unpaid counterparts are far more common, especially for undergraduate students in the Boston area.

Unpaid internships are garnering much criticism, as some decry the unfairness of the situation; affluent students can afford to work for no pay, whereas other students must pass up these opportunities in favor of paid employment.

The Boston College Career Center seeks to remedy this inequity with the Eagle Intern Fellowship Program, which provides a generous stipend to those pursuing unpaid internships during the summer months. This program does require an application process, but it is an example of a resource that students can use to reduce the burden of unpaid internships.

Some proponents of unpaid internships point to the educational value gained from the experience. They emphasize that working without compensation now can potentially translate into employment at the same organization after graduation.

Other people caution that students should only accept unpaid internships that promise to help develop specific skills or to educate the student about a certain industry.

Joe Du Pont, associate vice president of Student Affairs and Career Services, stated that, “The Career Center reminds for-profit employers promoting unpaid internships that they must follow guidelines set forth by the U.S. Department of Labor. Unpaid internships must be structured around the student’s educational experience and development of skills rather than the direct benefit of the employer.”

Natalie Alexander, MCAS ’19, is currently interning for a Harvard Medical School professor at Massachusetts General Hospital. While she is unpaid, the internship helps strengthen the skills needed to pursue a career in biology.

“It would be nice if the internship were paid because that would cover transportation costs,” Alexander said. “But the research is similar to the work I do in biology lab at BC, so it's nice that it builds on my education.”  

Many academic departments at Boston College recognize the need for unpaid internships, especially when these opportunities offer a unique educational experience.

Kenji Hayao, associate professor of political science at BC, stated that the benefits gained from unpaid internships often vary significantly.

“For some, unpaid internships can be beneficial,” Hayao said. “For example, students majoring in political science would gain valuable experience interning on a political campaign. Other internships might help students get their foot in the door for future employment opportunities.”

Professor Hayao also pointed out that students in the political science department can receive a 1-credit pass/fail course for participating in an internship related to their studies. This credit does not count for the political science major, but instead towards the student’s graduation requirement of 120 credits.

With some effort, students can gain modest funding and college credit for an unpaid internship, but they still must weigh the advantages and disadvantages of such an opportunity.

The pursuit of unpaid internships is ultimately a personal decision; students must decide if the individual opportunity is the right one for them. Internships will always vary in terms of the educational experience and skill development that they provide, so students should be prudent in accepting offers.

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I am a Massachusetts native who loves her dogs more than life itself. Also a big fan of Boston, Disney World, and anything buffalo chicken.