Should You Ever Work For Free? The Tough Questions of Unpaid Positions


“It’ll be great exposure.”

“It’ll really give you a leg up down the line.”

“The skills you’ll learn will be invaluable.”

These are just a few of the phrases that often follow “we can’t pay you but…” during the hiring process for internships or part-time work. And while all the refrains above may be true, hearing these words can be dispiriting. You didn’t go to school, or craft your resumé, or chase your passion so someone could tell you there’s zero money in it right now.

But unpaid work is a reality when starting out in so many industries: writing, marketing, design, film, fashion, publishing and countless more. When deciding whether to take this kind of work, you have to ask yourself some tough questions. Am I devaluing myself? What other options are available to me? Should I turn down a position that seems appealing just because it’s not paid? If I work for free and it helps me accomplish my longterm goals down the road, will it have been worth it?

After all, you can’t go out into the workforce and just demand the best jobs in competitive fields. Sometimes unpaid work is the only visible way of climbing the ladder. And at the same time, you never want to let your work ethic be outright exploited.

Here are a few important questions to consider when asking yourself that tricky question, “Should I work for free?”

What is ‘exposure’ worth to you?

If we’re talking about writing, or photography, or audio/video production, or anything in the realm of making content for an audience, figure out what exposure actually means to you. If the choice is between you showing your hard work to your 100 friends on Facebook or an organization with infrastructure shooting it out to 50,000 followers, taking advantage of the platform could be the right call.

But other questions arise from there. Is the organization’s audience interacting with your work in a meaningful way? Are you benefiting as much from the audience seeing your talents as the company is from your free work?

Consider where you’re at in your professional journey too. If this is your first break in a field, maybe you take it. If you’ve been scrapping and hustling for a few years, be choosier.

Ever heard of apprenticeships? 

What does the word “apprentice” recall for you? Maybe Renaissance painters, or an Old West blacksmith, or Jedi Knights and their Padawans? In the pre-industrial age, if you were pursuing a certain trade, you committed your teenage years to studying under a master of those skills. Think butcher, or baker, or — and I’m just spitballing here — candlestick maker.

These were jobs you couldn’t learn unless someone taught you directly, and these trades still exist today with slightly different looks. Think audio technician, or book designer or chef. Specialized classes and online research are great, but nothing gets you up to speed like one-on-one interactions with a talented teacher. Modern-day apprenticeships still exist in the form of internships, but it’s not a perfect comparison. Apprenticeships were wholly based on direct contact between master and pupil. Make sure an internship guarantees you some meaningful interaction with the professionals you admire. From the start, be clear you’re hoping for a whole lot more than fetching coffee and making copies.

What are the perks? 

If an organization can’t offer you compensation for your work, chances are its leaders will be anxious to give you what they can. How well will they promote your work? What doors can they open for you? Are there work conferences they will pay for?

And just because there’s no money in a temporary job right now doesn’t mean there won’t be later. Take the opportunity in your interview to ask if the employer — if they’re blown away by your work — might fund the position down the line. Or, ask how often internships turn into jobs at the company. Let them know you have the future in mind.

And remember to consider, or even ask directly if it feels appropriate, why an organization can’t pay. If it’s a non-profit or a startup just barely scraping by, well there’s your answer. They’re working toward bigger things just like you. But if you’re on the bottom level of a multi-national company that’s profiting off unpaid labor, maybe think twice about doing that free work.

Am I looking out for myself?

This is a tough one, but don’t work for free if you’re not in a place to do so. Unpaid work is often a luxury for people who can support themselves other ways. If you’re worried about how you’re going to pay your rent or grocery bills, put your well-being first. Be protective of your time.

Ask your internship supervisor if you can do the unpaid hours on a part-time basis while you prioritize work that pays. Good employers should be understanding of your need to keep a roof over your head. Honesty about your situation may even make them realize your talents are worth paying for: now or in the near future.

What relationships can I build? 

The old adage goes: It’s not what you know but who you know. The great thing about an apprentice-style internship is that you’re going to form a bond with your mentor as they show you the ropes day in and day out. Constantly pick their brain. Ask them to introduce you to people you want to meet. Evaluate, re-evaluate and be clear about what you want from the professional relationship. Ask a million questions. This person could become your best reference when you apply for jobs for the next decade. Essentially, keep the lines of communication wide open. The last thing you want to do in an unpaid position is get lost in the shuffle.

Remember, unless you’re volunteering for a non-profit you care deeply about, all unpaid work is a temporary stop on your professional journey. If you choose to do it, use the time to ask questions, be eager to impress and make some honest mistakes when you have the cushion to do so. If you play your cards right, you’ll probably look back on that time fondly and be thankful you started somewhere.

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