Job or Internship?: A Guide for College Students

College students are faced with an interesting dilemma when it comes to making money and earning experience. They can either get an entry-level job to help offset the pricey college life, or they can get an internship, which will benefit them after graduation.

While an entry-level job pays the bills, it is not always the best position to move you up your career ladder. On the other hand, an internship can prove to be a valuable experience that can bring on amazing opportunities later down the road. The only problem is that many internships are not paid. So which choice is the best one for your future?

Key Takeaways

  • College students can choose to take entry-level jobs that tie in directly to their degree, such as a teacher’s assistant for a student studying education.
  • Find out whether the internship will provide you will school credit, and how the receiving of that credit is to be handled by your school. This is particularly important if an internship is required for your program of studies.
  • Large companies can offer great internships but don't overlook smaller firms since they can offer more hands-on experience.
  • Internships help students stand out with their professors and future employers, which can lead to better job offers after graduation.

Before You Choose: Think Long-Term

Many individuals make decisions based on their current situation; however, to ensure future success, you have to take the time to think and plan for the future. Where do you want to be in five years, 10 years, and so on? If you have lofty career plans, then a part-time position as a barista is not going to get you there.

Many companies are hiring from their pool of interns. It just makes more sense for an employer to hire someone young that already has been trained by the company. Don’t forget that there are several entry-level jobs that tie directly to your degree.

For example, a student studying education can get a job as a teacher’s assistant or preschool teacher. At the same time, individuals studying computer science or technology might be able to land a position at an IT help desk.

Both entry-level jobs and internships have their pros and cons; you just need to decide what is the best choice for you now and in the future. As long as you choose a position within your desired career field, your future resume will be impressive. 

How to Afford a Non-Paying Internship

While more and more employers are offering paid internships for college students, there are still some companies that don’t pay their interns. If you do come across an amazing internship opportunity, you don’t have to turn it down immediately just because there is no pay.

Company Size

Before taking on a non-paid internship, consider the company and its employees. Is the company a well-known business that future employers would respect? Is this company someone you would want to work for after graduation, and is it a viable possibility that you could land a job with this company?

You may want to avoid lesser-known companies that use internships for free work. If you are going to give up your time for free, then you want to get the experience you need to excel in your career.

However, sometimes large corporations only offer a general internship, which typically involves office work and administrative duties. As a result, you might get more hands-on experience and mentoring with a smaller firm.

Course Credits

It is also a good idea to ensure you are receiving maximum school credit for your internship. While an internship might not pay you, it can save you thousands of dollars on class costs, depending on how much your university charges per unit; however, it's important to make sure that your college or university accepts credits for internships.

Even if an internship is paid, it does not necessarily mean it will come with other typical employee benefits, such as health insurance, sick days, or retirement plans.

Also, ask university officials for the details regarding the requirements that need to be met to fulfill the internship credits. For example, a university might require a certain number of hours to be completed per semester, such as 300 hours. You'll also need to determine if the potential employer is willing to grant you those hours and do the necessary paperwork to coordinate the internship with your school.

Improve Your Finances

If you truly want to make a non-paying internship work with your limited budget, then consider how you can cut your costs. Perhaps you can move back in with your parents temporarily. Although not ideal, you can also use student loans to help you pay for living costs.

It is best to look for a part-time job or cut costs before you turn to student loans. You might regret taking on an internship if it means you are stuck with an extra $10,000 of debt upon graduation.

Having the Best of Both Worlds

Ideally, you would be able to get a paid internship or balance a non-paid internship with a part-time job. Look for flexible internships that allow you to choose your hours or to commit to one or two full days, rather than a few hours each day.

Also, consider part-time jobs that offer odd hours. Fast-food service and delivery jobs might not be the top choices for your job search, but they allow you to work odd hours so that you can still have time for your internship and college classes.

Make the Right Connections

Use every college class, internship, and job to its fullest advantage by making the right connections. Getting the attention of your professor, employer, and fellow employees can help you in your job search after you graduate.

Don’t overlook anything as an opportunity to network. Even a position at your local coffee shop can help you make connections with successful businessmen and women in your community. The right college classes, internships, and jobs will look great on a resume, but the right connections you make with people in these positions are even more important when it comes to landing a future job.

What Is the Difference Between an Internship and Employment?

Internships are usually temporary; lasting from a few months to a year. The primary objective of an internship is to gain experience and exposure to a certain field, assist the full-time employees, and learn. Internships can be paid or unpaid. Employment is a job that is paid either hourly or by a salary. An individual is hired for a specific job based on their skills and is expected to execute the roles and responsibilities of that job once they begin.

How Old Should You Be for an Internship?

The age at which one should be an intern will vary depending on the individual's life circumstances, the country's labor laws, as well as the industry they are interning in. Internships can start at a young age, in high school for example; however, most internships start during college so that an individual can gain experience in the field they are aiming to work in when they graduate. Many individuals who have years of work experience can also intern when they decide to switch industries and want to gain experience in a completely new industry.

Do You Have to Be a Student to Intern?

No, you do not necessarily have to be a student to intern. An internship is at the discretion of the firm or individual making the internship. They will have a set of requirements that candidates will need to meet before being considered for an internship. An investment bank's summer internship program, for example, will most likely require its candidates to be students, whereas a construction company looking for new construction workers may not require an individual to be a student but rather have the ability to carry out the physical demands of the job.

The Bottom Line

Whether you choose to pursue an internship or a job is up to you. Both can be advantageous to your future career, as long as you look for opportunities that line up with your career goals. Every individual's situation is different and making a decision based on your current situation and your future goals can help steer you in the right direction.