Working for free – and running out of cash, fast? You’re not alone. In a graduate job market as tough as today’s, thousands of graduates are finding themselves working for free indefinitely – hoping their boss will offer to pay them one day… Some day…

Although unpaid interns are often characterised as ‘rich kids’ with endless funds from The Bank of Mum and Dad, Graduate Fog knows this is rarely the case. More often, unpaid interns are working two jobs, sleeping on a friend’s floor and paying for everything by credit card. They’re skint – and knackered.

“How do I turn my unpaid internship into a paid job?” is one of the most common questions graduates ask (alongside “Are unpaid internships legal?” – which they’re not, usually). We say: you have more power than you think you do. So STOP THE MADNESS. Take charge. The bad news is that this means taking action – and being a teensy bit braver than you actually feel (we know working for free can squish your confidence – that’s normal).

The good news? If you can push through that discomfort,  you’ll discover that doing something is far more likely to result in a paid job than staying put and simply crossing your fingers.

The other good news is that you’ll start to feel more in control again. By following these steps, you’ll find the facts you need and create a plan that works for you this time. After all, if your current employer doesn’t value you enough to pay you a wage, you need to know that – even if it hurts. Why? So you can stop wasting your time and find another employer who does value your contribution. Remember: they may be too cheap to reward you financially for your work – but other employers will have more sense (and more money). So go and find them.

Tanya de Grunwald, founder of Graduate Fog and author of How to Get a Graduate Job Now, shows you how to turn your unpaid internship into a paid job…

1) Pick your internship wisely. “Not all internships are equal. Make sure there is a prospect of a job at the end of the internship. Employers that run a ‘revolving door’ internship system are less likely to hire you at the end. Ditto if you’re one of many. Look for placements where you’re the only intern as you’ll have a chance to make more of an impact. Always ask when they last took on an intern in a paid capacity at the end of their placement.”

2) Impress. “Working for a crummy wage sucks, but if you’re going to gain anything from your internships you have to behave as if you’re being paid. Learn to anticipate what needs to be done, and suggest doing it before they ask (but don’t do it before they ask, as that can make managers jumpy). You want them to think ‘Wow, she’s really good. I’d miss her if she wasn’t there.’ Once that happens, you’re in a stronger position to negotiate.”

3) Line up other options. “Eggs and baskets, people. Of course, you want this to turn into a paid position, but hope can be a dangerous thing for interns – as it leaves you vulnerable. Always assume you’ll be leaving, so line up something else to go to, even if it’s another unpaid internship. This will give you some bargaining power if your current employer wants to keep you on, especially if your next internship is with their main competitor. They really hate that.”

4) Stick to the time limit. “Never agree to do an internship indefinitely or ‘see how it goes’. Having a clear end date keeps the relationship professional. When it’s approaching, arrange a meeting with your supervisor. Say that you’ve had a great time and learned loads, but you need to move on as you need to find some paid work. Ask them for a reference and to keep you in mind if any paid positions come up.”

5) Negotiate — or walk away. “If they ask you to stay, you’ve made an impact and you’re in a strong position to negotiate a better deal. If you’ve been working unpaid, ask for the living wage (so you can settle on the minimum wage if they won’t stretch to that — but request a review in two months’ time and ask for the living wage again then). If they claim to have ‘no budget’, say that’s a shame but you’ll have to move on. If they really want to keep you, they’ll try and find the money. If they don’t, walk away. Give them a chance to miss you. If they want you back, they’ll call.”

…AND ONE LAST THING! Done an unpaid internship that led nowhere? You can claim back pay for the time you worked there (around £800 per month if you worked full-time). To find out how, contact our friends at the campaign group Intern Aware, who will guide you through the process, free of charge (seriously – they just love doing it!). Can’t afford to intern unpaid but want to help get the practice stamped out? You can help by reporting adverts for dodgy-sounding internships you see advertised. Again, contact Intern Aware for details.

Or are you struggling to do that at the moment? Share your experiences – good and bad – below…


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