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Could taking an unpaid internship harm your career prospects?

Most graduates would probably consider an unpaid internship an excellent route into their chosen career

An internship is seen as a great way to learn more about the company and how it works, with a high chance of being offered a well-paid job at the end of the internship period; however, a new study has uncovered some startling facts about the impact of internships on future job prospects and makes uncomfortable reading.

Far from projecting your career into the stratosphere, it would seem that an internship could be detrimental to a graduate’s future earning power.

The findings are the result of study by the University of Essex’s Institute for Social and Economic Research, which followed the career trajectories of graduates from universities across England and Wales for a six-year period from 2005.

Each graduate in the study was followed for three years to see what advantages, if any, an unpaid internship had on future earnings. The study looked at graduates who went into unpaid internships, went straight into paid employment or chose some other venture, such as travelling, after leaving university.

The graduates were then followed up three years later to see what effect, if any, an internship had on their salary and overall job satisfaction.

Surprisingly, the study revealed that the former students who had opted for an unpaid internship were earning around £3.5k less three years after graduating than their peers who went straight into paid employment following graduation.

Meanwhile, the students who opted to continue with further study were earning around £1.5k more than the former interns.

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds were left even worse off at the three-year follow-up, earning around £4k less than students going straight into paid employment. The study’s author, Dr Angus Holford, believes that students from more privileged backgrounds find it easier to access internships related to their chosen career paths whilst being protected from the negative effects of unpaid work.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the study discovered that the graduates who had taken on unpaid internships found it difficult to secure permanent positions. They also failed to achieve the levels of job satisfaction experienced by their peers who continued with further study before seeking employment.

Dr Holford points out that internships aimed at graduates are very often offered by companies in such competitive market sectors that there is no necessity to lure in candidates with the prospect of a high salary; for example, internships with charities, or in the arts, are popular with graduates who are keen to work in these sectors, yet these are not highly paid careers – at least at the lower levels.

This could explain why graduates who chose this sort of internship end up on lower wages than their peers.

The study sheds new light on the value of internships on a graduate’s future earnings and could certainly deter students from automatically assuming that an unpaid internship could lead to significant career advantages later on.

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