The ULTIMATE guide to work experience and internships

Unpaid internships, are they worth it? That is what we all want to know. With more and more jobs demanding work experience, should you be jumping on the bandwagon?

Work experience of any kind can boost your CV as well give you useful insight into different careers, but how can you tell if you are being exploited? Here are the things you need to know before you start an internship.

1. Know the purpose

Make sure that you know why you are doing the internship. You need to make sure that the placement is going to be of value to you so ask a lot of questions. Make sure you are told what you will be doing before you commit. Will it give you the skills you need?

2. Know the law

According to UK law, if an intern is working under a contract then they must be paid. Some companies try and get around this by saying that interns aren’t doing proper work, or that they aren’t under a real contract. If you are doing set hours and tasks, it is likely that you should be being paid.  If you are just shadowing someone, and not doing any actual work, then it is unlikely that you are entitled to be paid. Working for a charity and as part of your study can mean that you aren’t entitled to be paid, but always ask your employer first.


Image Credit: Rex Features

3. Know the costs

Take potential outgoings into account. If your internship is in London, think about extra costs that you will have to foot the bill for. The Sutton Trust estimated in a recent study that it costs £926 a month to afford an expenses-only internship in London. Many people start internships and then have to suffer the financial consequences later. Intern Aware found that 74 per cent of people said that they, or someone from a family like theirs, could not afford to do an unpaid internship. Make sure you weigh up the costs versus the gains.

4. Know where to look for help

If you feel you are being exploited then speak to your supervisor. Keep a record of the hours that you have done, and keep all of the emails you are sent regarding start times, hours and so on, so that if you did want to challenge your employer you would have some evidence to show. The Pay and Work Rights Helpline, run by the government, is a service which investigates complaints from interns. Make use of it if you feel that you need some guidance. You can also report unpaid internships here.

5. Know when to quit

If an internship is going terribly and you feel you are not gaining any valuable experience (for example you are being made to organise shelves in a cupboard or clean) then you should quit. It is not worth your health, financial security or dignity to carry on if you feel you aren’t gaining anything from it. Leaving may be your only option and you should not be afraid to use that power.

Now what?