Why I Offer Unpaid Internship?

By Saurabh Singh, Founder and CEO, Brainpan Innovations

Saurabh Singh, Founder and CEO, Brainpan Innovations

From the dawn of civilization to the present day, people have been transferring skills from one generation to another in some form of apprenticeship. Without this process, the art and culture of the Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilizations would never have flourished for thousands of years. The practice of indenture and the master-apprentice relationship has evolved since the Industrial Revolution. As our society progressed, apprenticeship evolved as well into traineeship and internship. Here before Masters became managers and mentors.

The focus of my article is internship and whether it should be paid or unpaid. “Paid vs Unpaid” internship, continues to be a hotly debated issue in the US, UK, and European countries.

However, I maintain that doing an unpaid internship is more often in one’s best interests. I respect a professional’s right to maintain their set of career principles and do what’s right by them. But one should at least consider the possibility. The following are some opportunities that one should look out for when considering an unpaid internship:

1. Love your work: It’s simple. If you love the work then would you trade it for a stipend? If your answer is yes: then you do not love it. Being true to oneself is super critical. In the past, I did unpaid internships at Max-Planck Institute and Juelich Research Center (FZJ) and am better for it. Even now I would gladly take up an unpaid internship in the field of computational sciences or data sciences, over a lucrative opportunity falling outside of my interests.

2. Birds of a feather…: A lot of academic work lands this way. And no matter what you do, having a strong network always provides someone with a better and broader range of opportunities. I have worked with a number of research groups in Europe and have realized that the knowledge and experience gained, therein, was invaluable. I still fondly recall my mentor, the Head of Modeling and Simulation at Juelich (FZJ), and our walks before lunch. On these walks, he often asked me whether I would continue with my internship, in spite of it being unpaid. A candid conversation would pursue. “Pay me with your knowledge and let me in on challenging problems,” I would say by the end of it and the conversation always ended
with laughter.

3. Skills and training don’t come cheap or easy: When learning your craft, you often get the best out of your mentors and environment when there is no money involved. It allows for a more easy-going and rewarding relationship. It helps foster belonging and team-spirit.

4. For those brave individuals who crave a sense of adventure: That coding job just not doing it for you? Want to see if you really are as a good at sales as you think you are? Most of us would like to explore new possibilities but are often too scared to make that move because of the fear of failure and looking stupid. Here an unpaid internship is a god-sent opportunity with low expectations and high returns. No one really thinks anything of you except as someone eager to learn. It gives you a fresh start.

5. Where’s the humanity?: Be it the industry, academics, or the NGO space, if you believe that the tasks you will perform during internship will eventually help humanity then don’t even second-guess the chance to make a real difference. No effort towards improving our world is ever a wasted effort.

Moving forward, there is another facet to this question. Should fledgling startups offer paid or unpaid internships? I believe that some of the insights from our own experience can help answer the question.

In the beginning we had selected a number of paid interns from top Indian and European universities. Unfortunately the promise of potentials would never manifest and we found two key ingredient missing- Passion and Purpose. To get past the interview stages candidates never failed to feign interest and passion. And we didn’t think to question it. Why else would they be interning?

I will admit that was naïve of us. As a first-time entrepreneur, I had to learn some of ‘The Art, Science and Labour of Recruiting’ the hard way. Learning from these insights we have changed our strategy for intern-placement, offering only ‘unpaid internships’. I must admit the talent pool has definitely gone down. But it has become stronger (i.e. in passion and in purpose) - smaller but better. This also gives us time to properly assess each candidate through a more rigorous and piercing interview process. As a fledgling startup, this strategy has helped us save every cent for our startup marathon. Most of all, you connect with not just interns but with genuine people who are driven not by money but by their thirst for knowledge, love for humanity, and desire for change. The connections now formed are not just for three/six months but are relationships build for life. And for any company, especially startups, attracting this kind of crowd and fostering such relationships should be the foremost priority. People make all the difference.

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