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When an Unpaid Internship is Appropriate

Although I have been fortunate enough to attain paid internships, I have listened to many of my fellow Northwestern students describe their unpaid summer internships. Some helped to run non-profit organizations, while others edited copy at prestigious publications. Students have crunched numbers, checked over data, ran errands, and did many essential tasks for businesses while being unpaid. One student in my Chicago Field Studies class completed a research project that her boss sold to a client during a presentation, without crediting it to the intern.

When I looked at the U.S. Department of Labor’s criteria for unpaid internships, I realize that what many of my fellow students did for their employers does not fall under the criteria for an unpaid internship. Consider below the 6 main criteria that the Department of Labor lists for an unpaid internship:


1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an education environment;

2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;

3. The internship does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;

4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operation may actually be impeded;

5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and

6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

These criteria affirm that an internship should not provide any tangible benefits to the company, and in fact may sometimes “impede” the operations of the employer. An internship, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, is “for the benefit of the intern.” According to these qualifications, the tasks that my fellow students performed would quality them for a paid internship.

All of the tasks these students performed, from checking data to editing copy and performing research, benefited the employer in some fashion. In some cases, the interns did displace regular employees. For example, the publications that had unpaid interns check copy should have been required to hire an employee for that task, such as an editor or a copywriter. And the intern that contributed research to her company should absolutely be compensated for her contributions, which mirror that of a regular employee.

Even with these criteria, employers and interns alike are still confused about what an actual unpaid internship would look like and what fields it would be relevant for. Personally, I think it would make sense to include some of the traditional pre-professional fields, such as law and medicine. Many times, students have trouble deciding if they want to put forth the effort (and thousands of dollars) to go to law school or med school and follow these career paths. An unpaid internship in a law firm or a hospital would give students the chance to experience these career fields without having to commit to the.

Unpaid internships in law or medicine would also most likely meet the Labor Department’s criteria. There is no way that college students could displace regular doctors or lawyers, as they have no formal training. “The employer would derive no immediate advantage” from an intern as the intern would not be qualified to handle any legal or medical tasks. An employer’s operations “would be impeded” by having to explain to an intern how surgery works or a how cases are argued in court. Finally, these internships would be for the benefit of the intern – they would get to personally see the fields of law and medicine and decide on their future careers paths.

Currently, I believe that many NU students, and college students across the country, are being placed in unpaid internships that should actually be paid. These students deserve compensation for their work that benefits the companies they intern for. But there are also opportunities for students to benefit from unpaid internships. As long as these employers follow the 6 criteria for unpaid internships, they can give students valuable educational experiences that will help guide them in their future career paths.


About Meredith Goodman

Meredith Goodman is a junior Economics major who enjoys writing, learning about business, and college football. Despite her mom's pleading, she will never eat fruit.

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