Your time and your skills have value. Employers ask for free labor simply because they can get it, not because they have accurately assessed its worth. Agreeing to work for free devalues your skills, creates a bad precedent for others with those same skills, encourages employers to exploit their workers, and makes professional advancement more difficult for people who don’t have the option of working for free.
- Would you be working for an organization whose goals are so important to you that you would be willing to volunteer there under other circumstances?
- Is your learning curve going to be so steep that the employer is likely to lose more labor (from the people teaching and supervising you) than they gain by having you on the team?
- Is an opportunity to prove your worth to this particular organization more important to you than being paid?
- Some career paths (publishing, museum work, creative media, social service) tend to involve periods of unpaid apprenticeship — that is, it’s hard to get a paid position until you’ve served some time in an unpaid position. If that’s the situation, is the opportunity before you the best way to get that unpaid experience? Sometimes volunteering for a different organization, getting involved in an extracurricular organization, or developing your own creative project can give you similar opportunities.
- Is it a gig that will give you some non-academic work samples for your portfolio?
- Does the position have some added value (prestige, filling a gap in your resume, networking opportunities) that you can get no other way?
If you DO have a good reason to work for free, then own it. Identify that reason, and decide how you will know when you have gotten what you want from the experience. Be confident that this particular opportunity is the best use of your free labor at this moment.
Be strategic: if you’re going to work for free, it might as well be for an organization that matters to you or that will teach you particular skills you want. Consider reaching out to an organization you would like to work for and creating the internship or service project you would like to do.
Finally, have an endpoint. Set a goal or time limit after which you will stop or insist on payment.