The cost of unpaid experience

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I’m well aware of the cost-benefit risks in pursuing an “impractical” humanities degree … you know, all those click-bait headlines proclaiming the death of the bachelor’s degree and the countless tales of graduates not finding a job in this economy and resorting to working some dead-end job as a barista at some nationwide coffee chain or whatever the new disparaging remark for humanities majors is.

I’m also well aware of the single saving grace that can carry me out of the depths of retail hell: the ever-elusive internship. And a ton of students, STEM or otherwise, are hearing the siren calls of the internship, too. God knows I spent a good portion of my winter break trolling through Indeed and Craigslist just to see what internships I could try applying for … in maybe two years.

Yet there is a certainty that has become routine for students looking into the glitzy world of interning: the lack of pay. The significant majority of unpaid internships, too, comes from the humanities and social science fields, which is a sobering realization — a foreshadowing of the demeaning stereotype that non-STEM majors have to face on the regular. The gruesome reality of unpaid internships is beginning to come to light – unpaid internships have garnered greater amounts of contempt, with critics revealing these oft-ridiculed positions as merely another form of indentured servitude.

For some students here at UC Berkeley, including myself, it’s hard to forego any part-time income — even if it’s barely above minimum wage — in lieu of some unpaid work that might not even help me land a job once I graduate. It would be nice to be able to quit my job to pursue a prospective internship at some glamorous media corporation (if someone at BuzzFeed is reading this, hit me up). But if the chances of me nabbing a post-graduation job at said corporation, even with the internship, are futile, then what’s the point of taking on the “unemployed and underpaid” route?

Really, for most college kids on the hunt for unpaid internships, it’s a bust. Ultimately, these unpaid positions get idealistic interns nowhere — the National Association of Colleges and Employers, a nonprofit think tank that offers career services to unemployed college graduates, reported that students who opt to take unpaid internships are at a merely 1.8 percent advantage in receiving job offers, as opposed to those who take on paid internships.

Let’s not forget the students who would otherwise vie for an unpaid position at their dream company or position, were it not for their sheer inability to afford the expenditures necessary to do so. Broke UC Berkeley kids (i.e. me) have to pay for things — after all, UC Berkeley is only behind Princeton, according to an article on CNBC. For the most part, only the students with significant financial backing from their families can take on risky unpaid internships without any drastic cutbacks to their welfare. I’m thankful that my parents can help me cover a big chunk of my tuition, but not all students have that kind of privilege to take on unpaid internships. Those students, too, are the ones who need the kind of opportunity that comes with paid internships (job advancement, relative financial stability) and who are the ones most screwed over in the process.

Tellingly enough, those who can afford to not have to earn money through an internship can buy their way into the internship-job-playing field. If you’ve got some thousands to blow and need a head start in the job market, companies such as Dream Careers can nab a few thousand of those dollars, land you a lucrative, exclusive (probably unpaid) internship, and provide that slight edge to break into the industry of your choosing, whether it be finance, marketing or (ironically enough) nonprofits. I’ll never be able to pay that hefty, almost $8,000 sum, but for those who can, congrats on getting your gilded foot into the door of the job market!

Frankly, the fact that someone was able to capitalize on the fears of privileged college graduates everywhere is terrifying — who knows what could happen if the Dream Careers business model becomes sustainable? It might eventually become a vicious cycle of 1 percenters getting unpaid internships, which will culminate in them getting paid jobs, which will result in their general success in life. Sign me up!

And yeah, I’ve become accustomed to the sheer number of my peers in technical majors chastising anyone for pursuing a major that doesn’t lead to a high-paying position after graduation, especially if they don’t already have a trust fund to their name. Their pragmatism is valid, of course, but students should be pursuing majors that they are clearly passionate about, even if that means they will never step foot in the halls of Cory or UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. The privilege of exploring one’s passion shouldn’t have to be restrained by socioeconomic background.

Neither should internships. The issue I have with unpaid internships, especially in the humanities, is that their rise in commonality means that they’re perceived to be less valuable — a disposable resource of desperate students looking for work. And it shouldn’t be that way.  A college education is a college education, and attending this school, no matter what major is being pursued, should be deemed valuable by prospective employers in all fields of work. The least any company can do is pay their interns — maybe it’ll be a step in the right direction toward no longer having to hear any more jabs directed at political science majors.


Contact Joshua at [email protected].