500 Unpaid Days Of Summer

Unpaid internships offer students the chance to really explore the area of work that they want to enter, without being blinded by a five-figure salary.

Like thousands of other hard-working and ambitious undergraduates, my summer holiday has revolved around gaining CV points. Every day, I’ve got up early, done the rush-hour commute, answered my emails, quickly grabbed lunch and gone back to the hard slog of an eight-hour working day in an office. The only thing that separates me from the rest of the staff is my salary, or lack of it.

A recent by The Guardian found that half of students spend their university holidays doing unpaid interning. In a society recovering from economic downturn, the competition is well and truly on. The only thing that distinguishes you from millions of other fantastic candidates is your work experience, so you naturally grab any opportunity that draws you a little closer into the field you eventually want to be. And yet, despite regular condemnations of the “unpaid internship” in the press over the last few years, many companies simply refuse to pay students.

This poses an interesting question: are companies playing on students’ vulnerability, or do internships help us really question our desire to pursue a certain career without a five-figured salary influencing our decision?

I have plenty of friends who have sacrificed their summers to the world of banking. All of these friends have been very generously financially rewarded. But I can’t say they have much respect for the industry they want to enter, or its work ethic. Meanwhile, my foray into the magazine world has shown me that journalists can expect years of unpaid work before making their hard graft, quite literally, pay off. And although the salary we’re working towards isn’t great, I’m quite glad the places I worked at this summer didn’t pay me more than expenses.

This summer has certainly been a learning curve, and it’s provided me with a real insight into what life is going to be like when I’m forced to leave the comforts of learning and loans behind. The fact that I wasn’t paid more than expenses made me focus on what I was doing rather than what I was earning, ensuring that the term ‘work experience’ really rang true. It made me realise that in the real world, it really helps if you enjoy what you do – because somehow, weekly essays and supervisions don’t seem so burdensome compared with the reality of long working days and minimal breaks.

So set a balance, and try sometimes to fill your CV rather than your pockets; it can prove strangely insightful.

Illustration by Olivia Vane

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