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Should you do unpaid internships as a postgrad?

James Davis

Careers Commentator
Experience can be hard to come by, especially with the huge number of graduates coming out of universities each year. Is working for free the answer?

It has been a trend for several years now to start searching for work experience during university rather than after. This is for good reason; in 1981, just shy of 400,000 students went to university in Australia. That number’s beyond 1.3 million now.

The effect this has on students looking for a job is simple: more competition for a similar number of jobs. Employers have their pick of the litter, so to speak; they can simply choose to hire the highest GPAs, prettiest looking extracurriculars and anything else they may desire. That leaves everyone else in a difficult situation.

So what if you’re a seasoned postgrad? You’ve done your time doing a master’s degree. You know your way around the block. Surely because you’ve got a higher level qualification, you should be a step ahead of the competition? Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Employers prefer graduates with plenty of experience to their name, even for graduate or entry-level positions.

Unpaid internships appear to be the practical solution to this sordid state of affairs, don’t they? Graduates get experience while employers get free labour. Unfortunately, it’s a bit more complicated than that. The Fair Work Ombudsman stipulates that there cannot be an employment relationship for the internship to be legal. Great, but what does that mean other than not getting paid? In short, it means there’s no legally binding commitment to perform work for the organisation that a paid employee would otherwise do. If you’re a postgraduate marine engineer designing ships doing the same job as paid engineers 9 - 5, you’re in an illegal internship.

So what’s legal then? Work placements. You’ll notice some courses have requirements or electives that entail going somewhere else to work. It’s no secret that students of nursing or medicine have to do work placement in hospitals; this is perfectly legal because it’s a requirement for earning these degrees. The grey area is when internships are optional electives that provide credit for course completion. Legally speaking, it’s still ok. Whether or not it’s something you ought to be doing is another thing entirely.

Let’s look at the positives first. It’s still the case that you’re getting experience when you elect to do one of these ‘coursework internships.’ It’s a chance to gain insight into the industry of your choosing you wouldn’t have otherwise had. It’s also a great opportunity to show you’ve got the work ethic to get up at early o’clock, do a full day’s work and be raring to go tomorrow. These are all undoubtedly valuable things.

Where’s the hang-up then? Well, it’s pricey in more ways than one. Not only are you not getting paid for these internships, but the opposite is true. Universities can end up charging the full price of a standard unit, because after all… it is technically a standard unit, only they aren’t employing any professors or lecturers to teach it. These internships are all gravy for them. That’s not such a bad thing though, is it? Universities make a pretty penny while you get some coveted experience. Seems pretty symbiotic. What fails to make it a slam dunk are your opportunity costs. What else could you be doing that’s better?

  • Paid internships. Seems obvious, but a lot of postgrads like to sell themselves short and not even apply for these. No matter what degree you thought you were in, think again. You’re in an advertising degree. What’s the product? It’s you, you beautiful, well-educated, rational biped. Sell yourself properly and you might just be in for a pleasant surprise.
  • Personal projects. A great way to show off your mettle to employers is by doing the kind of work they’ll expect from you. Are you a comp-sci student down on your luck? Put that pretty piece of paper to good use and build up your GitHub account with the cool projects you did throughout your study. Congratulations, you’ve now got some more brownie points for that resume. Photography student? Build a website to show off that portfolio. Don’t know how? Enlist the comp-sci person from the earlier example. Don’t know each other? Not a problem; I’ll introduce you. Photography person, this is compsci person. Compsci, this is photography. There, you’re introduced. You’ll be married in three years. See you at the reception.
  • Network a whole lot. You hear this all the time, but what specifically does it mean? It means cold calls and hopeful emails. It means logging into facebook, typing in the name of your subject area and appending the phrase, “events near me” to the search query. It means leveraging your existing contacts like professors and friends to at worst book some coffee dates and at best line up an interview. Treat ‘networking’ like a task you’ve got planned, setting aside time for it. As a postgraduate, you ought to have exceptional time management skills, so you can put them to good use here.

Of course, the existence of these opportunities doesn’t preclude the chance to do all of them in concert. An unpaid internship could facilitate networking, or even teach you something to build that portfolio. Maybe it’ll even lead to paid employment, who knows?

Ultimately, the decision to do an unpaid internship within a university course comes primarily down to what other courses are on offer because they’ll be directly competing with it. You need those units either way, after all.

Most of the time however, it’s plausible to see the internship as the higher priority. It’s unlikely that a non-work experience course will improve your chances of landing work, after all. It’ll undoubtedly be interesting sure, but if your aim is employment then the internship is probably a good idea. Just remember that you have rights according to the Ombudsman, so you don’t settle for less than you’re worth. For the record, that just so happens to be a lot.