When is Unpaid Work Worth It?

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Unpaid work typically manifests itself as unpaid internships or volunteering. While it doesn’t add anything to your bank account, it can certainly ad plenty to your resume.

It seems to be more and more frequently that students and recent graduates are faced with the option of taking work as “volunteer experience” or “exposure”. How do students even live on unpaid work anyway? Of course, exerting yourself for free is not ideal for broke brand-new professionals, but there are some situations where this can hold enough value to be worth it. The trick is knowing when unpaid work deserves your time.

My own experience with unpaid work

As a writer, it’s no surprise that this is something I often run into. I’m asked to perform unpaid work about least once a day, in some way or another. I dread telling my Uber drivers what I do for a living because I know I’m bound to hear about their novel-in-progress. And then I’m often asked if I have time to take a look, give some edits, and give them tips for how to get published. In other words, I’m expected to take on the rolls of an editor and an agent for free. Both professions are usually pretty well-paid, too.

I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you not to agree to the ill-informed requests of strangers, but we’ve got the other end of the spectrum as well. Getting one of my creative works published in my University’s literary magazine is my most valuable unpaid job to date. Although it’s been a painful process filled with creative exhaustion and endless emails, I’m now publishing something I’m more than proud of. Maybe more importantly, this could be a turning point for my career.

Sometimes it’s not just about the money

I’m set to graduate with a Professional Writing degree, but I hope to apply to have my major in Creative Writing specifically. A student’s acceptance is based on their submitted portfolio, and it’s incredibly competitive. I’ve heard countless stories of students being turned down.

I’m applying to this program in the next couple of months and this publication will really help my chances. Not only this, but the process of publishing has introduced me to a list of faculty members that have been writing and publishing for decades. This type of networking is especially interesting because I’m able to make connections while also soaking up some sweet mentoring.

So what’s the difference between this life-changing experience and my over-eager Uber drivers?

Unfortunately, the decision to take an unpaid job isn’t always an easy one to make. There are a number of factors weighing in, all of which different from situation to situation. A good place to start is asking yourself these questions:

Would you be working for an influential company/system?

Since we’ve gotten rid of the money aspect, the people you’re working for will likely take its place as the most important factor when it comes to accepting jobs. In my publication, working with my university directly was a big part of why it was so worth it. Working alongside people who are bound to reappear in your professional future is always a perk. With the right group, a lot of doors can be opened. Even with one job, you could gain exposure within your specific field. Also, if you’re area of expertise is especially competitive, this could be a great way to distinguishing yourself.

How much energy will it take?

We’re all part of a system that we have little-to-no control over. The bottom line is that you need to feed yourself. The answer to this question is especially important if you’ve got multiple commitments already. I am a full-time student and working, so I usually turn down extra jobs. If you look at your calendar get tense and overwhelmed (like me), than it isn’t likely any unpaid job will be worth it for you.

When I submitted my work to my University, I had actually already written the piece for a class I took in the fall. Although we’ve made changes, it wasn’t a job I had to do from scratch. My professor isn’t going to pay me either (obviously), but the same job helping me in two separate areas lends itself to its worth.

Will this job make another appearance in your future?

There are a lot of ways unpaid work can lead to something else. You could impress people who might go on to hire you for real money. You could make essential connections that help you make a name for yourself. When considering unpaid work it might be worth it to ask yourself how drastic its impact would be in your future. Is it something you’re not likely to even think about a few years down the road? Or will you never hear about it again?

Would you be proud of your work?

I just had to add this question! For reasons unbeknownst to me, the professional world seems almost entirely devoid of the importance of being proud of your work. Not just for artsy kids like me either! Do you have an opportunity to work on a topic that you’re passionate about? To learn new techniques alongside experts? Or maybe to produce in a way you’d be excited about?

To me, this is a factor worth thinking about. If you’ve decided the networking aspect might be worthwhile and you have enough spare energy, then always take the chance to do something interesting. Although we sometimes have to see everything through green-tinted glasses, money shouldn’t be our only motivation. There’s a point in any decision-making process where your gut feeling takes leverage, and that’s worth paying attention to.

Hopefully, you’re able to weigh which aspects are the most important for you personally if you’re considering working for free. When push comes to shove, you should be rewarded for your work, whether that’s with money or not. Be sure not to let people take advantage of you. Unfortunately, there are a lot of slimy people out there! And people brand new to the working world are the easiest to take advantage of. It’s important to carefully consider whether or not taking the job is the best choice for your professional future.


About Author

A professional writing student at York University, Toronto. A newbie in the world of personal finance, but writing with MAG I've got the perfect teacher! Literary nerd, writer, and coffee enthusiast.

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