It’s true that the ability to take on an unpaid internship is not available to everyone, which can create inequality in the workforce when individuals with more experience are more likely to be hired—leaving those that couldn’t afford to get that same experience in the dust.

But if you want to stay ahead of the curve without the unpaid internship conundrum, there are still lots of ways you can break into your dream field. To find out how, we talked to several collegiettes and Emily Mienther, founder and CEO of FindSpark, a community dedicated to connecting young professionals and setting them up for career success.

1. If at all possible, go for the paid option

This seems like a no-brainer: if you want to get paid, apply for paid positions. Duh! But as we all know, not every field is going to have paid opportunities galore. Despite this, Mienther encourages you to really do your research and find a paid program.

“My number one tip would be to focus on connecting with people in companies that have paid internship programs,” she says. “Most major companies are not doing unpaid internships anymore, and focusing on programs that are paid is a way to protest companies that are still doing unpaid. Companies that aren’t doing unpaid internships also see the value in diverse talent, and they’re most likely going to have an actual structured program.”

2. Try freelancing work

You’ve probably heard the term “side hustle” a billion times, especially if you’re hoping to score work in media or the arts. Fitting yet another commitment into your busy schedule on top of schoolwork, extracurriculars, a part-time job and anything else you might have going on (like, oh, a social life or actual sleep) might feel daunting, but it’s worked out for many a college student in the past, like Endicott College junior Eva Graef.

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“I was looking for internships for [the 2018] summer and there was a constant pressure of having to give up awesome internships because they were unpaid,” Eva recalls. “I … was offered a really good experience at a nonprofit for the marketing and special events intern, but it was nonpaid. … So, I found a loophole and was able to make my own schedule running my own business while doing my unpaid internship. I’m a marketing major with a graphic design minor and I had done logo and graphic design work in the past so I figured, why not make a business out of it?”

Even with the extra work, Eva loves the experience she’s getting. “I go to my 9 to 5 internship and run my freelance graphic design business, egdesigns on the side from my computer, and it’s a great balance!” she says. “I have met great people and love what I’m doing and know that I’ll be [continuing my side hustle] for a while, no matter where I end up!”

3. Work for your university

If freelancing doesn’t have enough structure for you or doesn’t exactly align with your field of interest, there’s another way to get your foot in the door without even leaving campus. Utilizing the opportunities of your school’s academic departments can help you gain experience related to your major or field of choice, so you’re doing more meaningful work than any old part-time job. Whether you take on a university job part-time during the year or stay for the summer, you’re still getting new connections and skills specific to your field without sacrificing the sweet, sweet feeling of getting paid.

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“At my school … a lot of different departments within different schools offer on-campus positions that allow students to gain real industry experience,” says Colleen Byrne, a senior at Temple University. “For example, a bunch of different departments within the communications college offer social media management jobs and blogging positions that give students real experience, and they’re paid!”

Being stuck on campus may not be what you had in mind when you said you wanted to be a working woman, but trust us, it’ll take you far.

“It’s much better to make some money and work a student job that actually helps you gain skills in your field than it is being at an unpaid internship where you do nothing but coffee runs,” Ohio University graduate Sophia Borghese says. “Future employers want to hear that you learned skills to do the job much more than they want to see a respected company name on a resume.”

4. Network, network, network

At the end of the day, networking is one of the most important things you can be doing both now and throughout your career, no matter what industry you’re hoping to break into.

“I’m a huge believer in networking online and offline, and balancing both of those things,” Mienther says. “Reach out via social media or email to a few people each week who are in your industry who you admire.

“One of the best things college students and recent grads can do is start networking within companies before they are actually applying for internships. Set up informational interviews and attend networking events. … Then, when roles do open up, you’re already in the network of that company.”

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Not all your networking has to be online, either: remember, Mienther stresses the importance of networking both in-person and through a screen. So how can you find people in your area that would make great connections?

“Consider joining professional organizations that are related to [your] area of study,” says Audrey Lent, a fifth-year at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. “Through these connections, you could potentially find a job or apprenticeship in your field. Even if it’s just working as an office assistant for someone who has a career in your field, that is a great foot in the door!”

Unpaid internships are an almost unavoidable evil of being a millennial or Gen Z-er trying to make it in the workforce, but there are ways around it. Hopefully this guide has given you some ideas of how you can still be making waves without the “intern” title—now get to it!


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