How to Survive an Unpaid Internship


If, like me, you have read many recent articles about the dismal fate of graduates finishing University with little hope of a university level job, you may also be considering an unpaid internship. Unattractive at first, it fares a little better next to the prospect of working in a low paid, uninspiring job after four years of study, and weighty student loan we will not mention.


Internships offer great experience and a chance to get real life exposure in an industry before deciding if it is suited to you. I travelled to London in summer of 2015, to embark on an internship in the client management department of an advertising agency. It was by no means an easy task to get up at 7am and fight with London rush hour, to work all day for no pay! That said, I had the time of my life and loved every minute of it, and while doing so gained invaluable work experience and personal development. I would encourage anyone else to undertake some form of internship before finishing University so you have an idea of what to expect in your chosen industry. So, I have put together a few tips to help others make the most of the experience.

1) Do not moan!

Yep, you’re not getting paid. It’s not great and it should not be allowed, but it is – accept this from the start and move on. This is the current situation us graduates find ourselves in, and we can only do our best in it. Moaning about the situation will not change the job market. By not moaning about it you will bring a positive attitude with you to your internship, and most likely have a better time. There is nothing worse than being surrounded by someone who moans constantly, so suck it, put a smile on and off you go.

2) Stay motivated

There will be mornings, when after a few drinks the night before, it may seem frustrating to pull yourself out of bed to head in for another day for no wage. On these mornings, make sure you go armed with lots of coffee. It is so important that you complete the whole of your placement – otherwise the time you already put in will be completely wasted. Also, this will be your ‘first hurdle’ if you like, in the ‘real world’ don’t fall at it. It will become difficult when you log onto Facebook on your sweaty hot 8.30am tube ride to work to see your friends chilling out on a beach somewhere beautiful. Keep the bigger picture in mind, and the experience you are gaining that you will be able to talk about in interviews after University – employers aren’t interested in that great beach trip in Summer 15’.

Work Hard

3) Get the dress code right

Yes, ‘smart casual’ is one of the most difficult dress codes to nail. Speak to other people in the industry beforehand and try and understand what the expected dress code is. It does not make a good first impression to turn up either too casual or too smart, but if in doubt always err on the side of caution and go a little too smart rather than a little too casual. Wear something ‘safe’ for the first day and then work it out from there.

4) Make the most of your environment.

As I mentioned, my internship was in London, one of the most exciting and fast paced cities in the world. This allowed me to spend most of my placement, from 5.30 onwards, touring London and seeing as much as I can in a short space of time. Even if you do not find yourself in such an exciting city, make the most of your evenings so you don’t mind spending your days cooped up in the office.


Do your research and see if there are any special events on while you’re there, such as concerts or music performances, you will be able to get cheap last minute tickets for loads of thing. Ask others for exciting things to do in the area and follow up on them. Not only will it give you a point of discussion in the office, you will probably be amazed by the places you see.


5) Make friends

To get the most out of your internship, it is crucial to make friends with people in the office. Making friends with others will probably result in you getting given more work tasks because they know and like you, and probably make your day far more enjoyable. As cliché as it is, don’t be scared to ask if anyone wants a cup of tea! People will love you for making them tea, and if like me you drink a lot of tea or coffee anyway, it really just feels like being polite. Making friends with your colleagues in the office will result in a higher chance of staying in contact with the firm after also.

6) Get involved (in everything!)

Be proactive; don’t be shy to ask people if they need a hand or if you can help them out in any way. Most people don’t mean it but they usually just don’t think of allocating work to the intern because they are too busy. So usually they will welcome a prompt to give you some of their work-load and will think of you as a proactive person. Get involved in anything you can that is going on around the office, often others won’t mind you sitting in on meetings and observing and you will learn loads from this. Speak up during brainstorming sessions if you have any creative ideas, your effort will be really appreciated and you will probably bring fresh new ideas.

Win Vip Exp

7) Ask for references

Towards the end of your internship, the last couple of days or so, send a nice friendly email to those you have worked closely with asking if they could spare a few minutes to write you a reference. More recently, old fashioned recommendations have gone out of fashion and everyone asks for an online comment via their LinkedIn. So make sure you have a LinkedIn profile by the end of your placement, as it is more than likely that this will be people’s chosen method for endorsing you. This is a good method, as then the recommendation becomes public for any potential employer to see without having to go to the effort of requesting references.

So there you have it, my top tips on how to survive an unpaid internship. You will be poor, but the experience you’re storing up for later is worth every penny-pinching second.