Ah, the unpaid, post-graduate internship. You know the one I mean: the one that has no defined time period, expects you to work an undetermined schedule (yet still be able to commit to 30+ hours per week), promises great connections, will probably have you doing nothing but “gopher” work the whole time… and yet, you can’t help but think that despite all the massive drawbacks, there may be some small chance that it will actually be a really good experience for you. Alrighty then. This is where your negotiating skills will come into play.
To turn this sad excuse of an opportunity (seriously – who offers an unpaid position with little wiggle room for the individual to have paid employment???) into something advantageous, the first thing you need is confidence. Know your worth, and be willing to back it up. Take a minute if you’d like, and reflect on everything that you’ve done. Think about your skill set, and know that you can totally do this. Toot that celebratory horn of yours!
The second step is to research the company offering the position. Often times, if they are a small company such as a local studio, they really can’t afford to compensate you financially. But can they give you free mixing time in their rooms? A discounted room rental rate for clients you bring in? If they are a big company, keep your internal alarms at yellow alert.
Third is to create a time limit for the internship. What I usually propose is a 1 or 3 month-long time period (depending on the internship and my financial situation), working no more than 15-20 hours per week, which should be documented in a time log. If by the end of the time period I have not proven myself to be a good fit, then the internship is terminated, and we both go our merry ways. You can tailor this to your needs, of course.
Finally, GET ALL OF THIS IN WRITING. You never, EVER want to leave it up to chance that the person you’re negotiating with will keep their word if they don’t write it down and sign it. Type up all of your requirements, and send it to them (if everything was discussed in person or on the phone, do this in the format of a follow-up email). If they agree, fantastic! (And make sure you hang on to that email, you ever know when you might need it to remind someone of the guidelines they agreed to.) If they don’t, then you don’t want to work for them anyway. They probably suck in real life and have no business taking advantage of us youngins.
The first unpaid internship I ever worked was with a nonprofit radio organization as a digital editor, working with what I thought were good, honest people, and providing an excellent community service. At the beginning of the internship, it was proposed in an email by the company head that I would receive a small stipend of $600 at the end of the summer, which I agreed to (I then foolishly deleted that email, expecting that they would follow through with this). The internship went great, and there were multiple occasions throughout the summer where my boss told me in person (and often in private) that I was providing some of the best work that they had ever received, and that I had a guaranteed paid position starting in the fall. However, once the summer came to a close, I suddenly had no paid position, only $75 for compensation, and a request to continue to work for them without being paid. If only I had saved that email. Thankfully, the lessons I got from that experience only cost me $525; I’ve since heard many stories where the damage was much worse.
So, to recap:
- Know your worth!
- Find alternative compensation for labor, if unable to pay.
- Have clear, set timelines.
- GET EVERYTHING IN WRITING AND SAVE ALL CORRESPONDANCE! ←Can’t emphasize that enough.
Now go forth and get yourself some learning opportunities!
**DISCLAIMER: This is not to say that ALL unpaid opportunities are BS… I have worked several that were extremely rewarding. The only thing is, they made sure I had the support I needed to find paid employment elsewhere.
Willa Snow: Willa is a freelance studio sound engineer and producer, currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area in California. She loves working with artists in the studio to carve out their sound and clarifying their stories.