Cultural Experience | London

Eight Questions I Learned to ask Before Accepting an Unpaid Internship Abroad

Is an Unpaid Internship for you?

Questions you should ask during your interview to make sure you’re not jeopardizing your financial, emotional, or mental stability. Maybe “money can’t buy happiness” … BUT “work experience” definitely isn’t paying your rent. Especially in a different country.

1. How many of your current employees started as interns here?

Unpaid internships are notoriously awful at promoting their interns to full time staff. According to the U.S. NACE only about 39% of unpaid interns end up with job offers from the place they interned, and it’s even lower in other countries. Based on the size of the company and amount of people they’ve promoted you can probably figure out what your odds are. If they have hired a lot of interns you might consider taking this one.

2. Will my travel expenses be covered?

According to CNN Money, Americans living in cities spend about $10 a day commuting to and from work. While that might not seem like a lot it definitely is. To do the math for you that’s $50/week, $200/month, which means an average unpaid 3 month internship is going to cost you about $600 just to get to. Londoners for example, can spend £250 just on public transport alone getting to and from their place of work.

3. Who would be my supervisor?

If companies don’t know the answer to this question right away, or can’t give you a definite answer without a good explanation, it’s a huge warning sign that the whole internship might be a bit disorganized. Internships can be nerve wracking enough as is without having to worry about who you are supposed to go to with questions. While you obviously don’t need their full name yet, they should probably be able give you the person’s job title (ex. One of our account managers). Internships with established mentors and organized programs will help you get the most out of your time there.

4. What exactly will I be doing most days?

Let me let you in on a secret… No matter what company you’re interviewing with and where in the world you are… “If personal assistant to _____” or “You might be asked to run a few errands for_____” is anywhere in the description, no matter how far down the list, then you may have just applied to be an unpaid personal assistant. Getting the CEO’s coffee and dry cleaning not the sort of industry knowledge you were hoping to get out of your internship?

5. What is the company culture like?

You should be able to get a feel for this when you step into the office. All countries are different. They’ll have different dress codes, different views on friendships in the office. These are all things you want to look to observe. Other things to observe are: Where are people sitting? Are there cubicles or is everyone just out and about?  You know how you’re going to work best so take that all of that into account. Usually if it’s going to be a fun place to work you’ll know it right away. If the person interviewing you is enthusiastic about working there and people you’ve talked to all seem upbeat and happy, that’s a good sign there’s a positive company culture.

6. Do your interns get invited to company conferences or other networking opportunities?

Meet who you can while you can. Sponsorship is not easy for most companies. If you want to stay in the country you have got to make an impression. Most people find other job opportunities through people they know. I know you’ve heard it 100 times but seriously, networking is so important. If you’re invited to company events you’ll meet people naturally, so you won’t even have to try very hard to network.

7. Do you offer any other benefits to your interns?

Your experience probably won’t pay your rent but it might pay for some other things! Money is tight while you’re abroad and it’s even tighter if you’re working 9-5 for nothing. Some companies run workshops on important skills to add to your resume. Some companies even sneak in little perks like gym memberships for the duration of your internship and flexible work days for their interns. You might not even know about this kind of stuff until you get hired or unless you ask, and it might help you to make your decision a bit easier. Any financial pressure they’re willing to take off you will help while you’re not making any money.

8. Will I get a letter of recommendation or contact information for someone to be a reference at the end of my internship?

If they’re not going to hire you they’ve got to at least be willing to vouch for you when someone else wants to! It may seem like planning ahead but it’s something you definitely need to know. Obviously if they say it’s based on your performance that’s understandable, but if they say you’re going to get one make sure you ACTUALLY get one.

Not all unpaid internships will be nightmarish but make sure you’re doing something worth your time. If you’re not getting a monetary benefit out of your unpaid internship it has to complies with the Labor Department of the country where you are doing your internship. Some places, like the US and UK have very strict guidelines on unpaid internships. That’s an important document to read before you go in for your interview.

Erin Mahoney

Richmond, the International University | 1 story

Erin Mahoney, a graduate student from Richmond University in London, has done extensive research on internships by surveying over 150 students globally about what motivates them to accept unpaid positions. As a both a student, and a unpaid intern, she uses the information from her own personal experience, as well as her research, to educate other students on how to get the most both financially, and experientially out of their unpaid internships.


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