Why we offer unpaid internship?

7 min readDec 25, 2016


From the dawn of civilization to the present day, people have been transferring skills from one generation to another in some form of apprenticeship. The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi dating back to about 1754 BC provided that artisans teach their crafts to the young. Without this process, the art and culture of the Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilizations would never have flourished for thousands of years. The practice of indenture and the master-apprentice relationship has evolved since the Industrial Revolution. As our society progressed, apprenticeship evolved as well into traineeship and internship. Here before Masters became managers and mentors.

The focus of our article is internship and whether it should be paid or unpaid.

“Paid vs Unpaid” internship, continues to be a hotly debated issue in the US, UK, and European countries. Whether an intern must be paid depends on the exact nature of the work he or she is doing. According to the legal guidelines of U.S Department of Labor; one must adhere to roughly six criteria for an unpaid internship:

1. The internship experience must be for the benefit of the intern.

2. Interns must not displace existing employees, but work under the close supervision of existing staff.

3. The internship is similar to training that would be given in an educational environment.

4. Interns are not necessarily entitled to a job at the internship’s end.

5. Both employer and intern understand that the intern won’t be paid.

6. The employer must derive no immediate advantage from the intern’s activities, and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers conducted a survey that questioned the correlation between - full time employment upon graduation, and internships carried out during graduation. The findings were astonishing in terms of future prospects of securing full time employment and better pay scale (i.e. starting salary). A paid internship showed a clear advantage over an unpaid one.

However, we maintain that doing an unpaid internship is more often in one’s best interests. We respect a professional’s right to maintain their set of career principles and do what’s right by them. But one should at least consider the possibility. Unpaid internships can be easier to find and can have a lot to offer. The following are some opportunities that one should look out for when considering an unpaid internship:

1. Love your work: It’s simple. If you love the work then would you trade it for a stipend? If your answer is yes: then you do not love it. Being true to oneself is super critical. In the past, I did unpaid internships at Max-Planck Institute and Forschungszentrum Juelich (Juelich Research Center) and am better for it. Even now I would gladly take up an unpaid internship in the field of computational sciences or data sciences, over a lucrative opportunity falling outside of my interests. 100% commitment to your field of interest is how you get to be the best at it… eventually. And then resources will manage to find their way to you.

2. Birds of a feather…: A lot of academic work lands this way. And no matter what you do, having a strong network always provides someone with a better and broader range of opportunities. I have worked with a number of research groups in Europe and have realized that the knowledge and experience gained, therein, was invaluable. And you never know who will end up doing what but if you pick the best, you will be exposed to the best. And will, inevitably, be the best. The next revolutionary thinker, brilliant innovator or long-term collaborator may be sitting right next to you, in the cafeteria. I still fondly recall my mentor, the Head of Modeling and Simulation at Juelich (FZJ), and our walks before lunch. On these walks, he often asked me whether I would continue with my internship, inspite of it being unpaid. A candid conversation would pursue. “Pay me with your knowledge and let me in on challenging problems,” I would say by the end of it. That would always crack him up.

3. Skills and training don’t come cheap or easy: When learning your craft, you often get the best out of your mentors and environment when there is no money involved. It allows for a more easy-going and rewarding relationship. It helps foster belonging and team-spirit. One of our dearest friends, Arun Samrah, wanted to learn drawing. It was a passion that he simply had to pursue and make into a career. Hailing from Golaghat, Assam, a somewhat remote city in Northeast India; he hadn’t the access to the right resources, exposure or guidance- necessary to pursue his dreams. Not that something like that would ever daunt him. He came down to New Delhi and joined an animation studio, as an unpaid intern for close to a year before they offered him a job. Presently, he is the cofounder of Brainpan Studio, an animation studio. Visit his portfolio and see for yourself what one can make of a good opportunity.

Portfolio from Arun Samrah

4. For those brave individuals who crave a sense of adventure: That coding job just not doing it for you? Want to see if you really are as a good at sales as you think you are? Most of us would like to explore new possibilities but are often too scared to make that move because of the fear of failure and looking stupid. Here an unpaid internship is a god-sent opportunity with low expectations and high returns. No one really thinks anything of you except as someone eager to learn. It gives you a fresh start. And since it is unpaid there is no pressure on you to be good or up to the task. If you are good, great. If you decide it isn’t for you, great. Nothing lost, and you are wiser for it. So many engineering students in India tend to pursue business development. With no prior marketing or sales experience an unpaid internship is an effective way for them to discover their niche, and link their unique offerings to their desired field or domain.

5. Where’s the humanity?: Be it the industry, academics, or the NGO space, if you believe that the tasks you will perform during internship will eventually help humanity then don’t even second-guess the chance to make a real difference. No effort towards improving our world is ever a wasted effort.

Moving forward, there is another facet to this question. It is from the employer’s end and an important question for startups, in particular. Should fledgling startups offer paid or unpaid internships? We believe that some of the insights from our own experience can help answer the question.

In the beginning we had selected a number of paid interns from top Indian and European universities. Unfortunately the promise of potentials would never manifest and we found two key ingredient missing - Passion and Purpose. To get past the interview stages candidates never failed to feign interest and passion. And we didn’t think to question it. Why else would they be interning? We will admit that was naïve of us. Another issue arises when one considers that most candidates applying for internships are in their 2nd or 3rd year of graduation, so there often is not much to go by as far as gauging the interest or dedication of the candidate goes. As first-time entrepreneurs, we had to learn some of ‘The Art, Science and Labour of Recruiting’ the hard way (We would like to thank our favorite VC Mr. Vinod Khosla for writing the paper ‘The Art, Science and Labor of Recruiting’).

Learning from these insights we have changed our strategy for intern-placement, offering only ‘unpaid internships’. We must admit the talent pool has definitely gone down. But it has become stronger (i.e. in passion and in purpose) — smaller but better. This also gives us time to properly assess each candidate through a more rigorous and piercing interview process. Fewer candidates means less time wasted and more quality time spent on each. The satisfaction is mutual. We get the best out of the intern and the intern gets the best out of us. As a fledgling startup, this strategy has helped us save every cent for our startup marathon. Most of all, you connect with not just interns but with genuine people who are driven not by money but by their thirst for knowledge, love for humanity and desire for change. The connections now formed are not just for three/six months but are relationships build for life.

And for any company, especially startups, attracting this kind of crowd and fostering such relationships should be the foremost priority. People make all the difference.

We would like to thank Aditya Choudary for helping us out with this article.