My Take on Unpaid Internships

This is a topic that has been beat to death on this website, but I realized I never shared my perspective on it. For context, this post is geared entirely toward students trying to break into IB / S&T / PE / high barrier to entry areas of finance etc. (especially if you're a non-target)

Background: generic middle class kid who attended a school most of you haven't heard on, with essentially zero presence on the street (this is relevant later). Worked multiple jobs growing up, working more or less minimum wage jobs through jobs that "paid well" for my age (none over $20 per hour). To ensure I dont miss my mark on this point, in other words, I had experience and opportunities to work relatively low paying jobs even as a freshman at uni.

When I hear people talk about unpaid internships, 99% of the time the sentiment on this site is that they are not worth it. The rationale always comes out as "oh, you are telling your employer you have no value for your own time".

Well let me opine on why these people are so out of touch with reality? Did you grow up with a massive trust fund, or were you never 18 years old? Did you all attend the most elite school in this country, or do you just have an inability to think from someone else's perspective? Let me make this very simple, at 18-19 years old as a college student with zero skills in the field you seek to enter, YOU ARE WORSE THAN WORTHLESS.

You have yet to work a day in the field, and having the mentality of "im going to do everything in my power to break in" is a completely pragmatic approach. It does not, however, mean you dont value your time. It is indicative of the fact that you are willing to make a short-term sacrifice for a long-term gain. If you were to explain it to any employer, they would likely see your POV. You are essentially acknowledging that you have no skill set in a field of interest, but are hard working, and enough of a hustler to get ANY experience.

An attempt at getting experience by any means necessary is a move most people respect. This initial foot in the door can be the catalyst for getting jobs down the road, even YEARS later. Especially as a non-target with a mediocre / less than ideal GPA, this can make you more competitive than your bettered positioned counterparts.
My first internship led to multiple more and I wouldn't be where I am today without it.

I actually lost a good amount of that summer. I spent a week of my life putting together a full pitch deck and got an internship, and became one of three interns. The one was a JD / MBA candidate and the other had two summers in VC ALREADY. I spent hundreds on gass that summer driving far out of my way. Hours commuting every single day (multiple hours of traffic). But I was grateful to be there. I messed up and learned how to properly check my work in a low risk environment. I gained knowledge about the basics of working in a professional setting where I was the youngest person there. I started to learn the basic skills of my field of interest. I learned from really bright folks that went out of their way to teach me.

In the end, the experience and having something strong out of my resume got me so many more looks moving forward. It led to a internship that I got a few years later, which was one of the sole reasons I got my latest role.

I'm obviously not stating I think internships should be unpaid, or that if choosing between a paid and unpaid internship in IB the unpaid one should be considered, but that if you are desperate for experience, take what you can get.

Lastly, Im not shitting on interns in general, when I say you are not valuable. What I mean is that based on my own experience, and my friends (most who were much smarter than I was) that all of us were more trouble than we were worth. We would take a long time to do deliverables, and they would mostly need to be redone. Further, when in banking, we were essentially slowing down every analyst we worked for. They would send us a task, explain it, send us a template, wait for us to do it 3x slower then they would, and then they would have to edit it. We were doubling, if not tripling the amount of work it took to do anything. I worked for a company that told me the worst intern they ever had was a kid from Standford, so even the highest performers are kinda brutal workers at 18-19. Don't walk in with a sense of entitlement that you are there to add value at 18/19, odds are you have taken under 4 finance classes and still cant build out a DCF without a youtube video pulled up on your second monitor. And if you are niave enough to think that the company is "lucky to have you", I wish you the best and look forward to seeing "IB is for people who couldnt get into tech" posts on this website too. Unless of course your Dad's an MD, in which case, yeah the future is bright.

TLDR: Unpaid internships are worth it for anyone struggling to get initial experience (i.e., fresh / soph year internships) in a high barrier to entry area of finance, especially if they come from a no-name school / have a mediocre GPA.

Comments (29)

  • Intern in IB - Cov
11d

Especially now that you can do internships remotely, negating the travel expense. 

11d
Gucci Loafers, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Agree. I have no idea why so many out there feel entitled to anything. What value do you bring?

Take a moment to examine your life. Chances are you are in your 20s. What have you done, I mean really done, in your life so far that warrants you deserving anything? You went to college? Big shit – going to college nowadays is a meaningless rite of passage that has been diluted to the point of rendering it nearly useless. You worked a year in investment banking? Well, let's give you a standing ovation for slapping together a pitch-book, pasting nonsense in PowerPoint, and putting together a cookie cutter DCF model, none of which truly added value to anyone, anywhere – yet you probably gave yourself a big round of applause.

It's unfortunate, really, that our parents' generation has instilled in so many people that everyone is a winner, that everyone deserves something. Everyone is entitled to their cup of coffee. This simply isn't the case. You aren't entitled to shit. I for one am sick and god damn tired of seeing people walk around like the world owes them something. Because they went to college, they deserve a great job or millions of dollars. You spent a year on Wall Street, so you are entitled to a job in PE. What kind of fucked up thinking is this? You know who actually deserves stuff? The person that gets shit done, the guy that closes, the guy that adds value.

I had a conversation the other day with one of my brother's friends. The kid just graduated from a state school, is 22 years old, got a job in Big 4 audit and is making 50k a year. He was bitching about how he was getting screwed. How he was getting screwed. The kid hasn't done anything in life yet except prove that he is capable of passing meaningless tests in college, yet here he is, thinking he is entitled to more than 50k for a starting salary at 22. And let's not bullshit around here guys, a ton of you do it as well. What makes you think you are even worth bottom of the barrel pay for those iBanking jobs so many of you hold so near and dear? You haven't done anything in life yet. You haven't even shown that you are capable of doing anything in life yet.

That's a passage of one of my favourite topics so far in WSO (https://www.wallstreetoasis.com/forum/off-topic/coffee-is-for-closers)

  • Analyst 1 in IB-M&A
10d

If you can't pay an intern no serious candidate will want to work at your loser boutique, sorry.

Most Helpful
10d
FinancepH, what's your opinion? Comment below:
Associate 1 in CorpDev

I spent hundreds on gass that summer driving far out of my way. Hours commuting every single day (multiple hours of traffic). But I was grateful to be there.

Well, I think this is part of the problem that you are not addressing. If you do not 1) live close enough to commute, 2) have a car/mode of transportation, and 3) can bear the opportunity cost of not earning a wage, then you can reasonably work an unpaid internship during a summer to get your foot in the door. The problem is that for most people these three conditions (usually the third) cannot be satisfied. If you are middle-income (in a true 50th percentile of US and not the made up middle class that people here think they are apart of) or lower, then the opportunity cost of working an unpaid internship is usually too great and you cannot afford to not earn a wage. Additionally, there are many other costs of work you are not accounting for such as food, a full work wardrobe, and a good enough set of work equipment that many people also do not have. In all, painting this as simply an issue of time does not capture the full cost of working an unpaid internship. And, people can save their Alan Greenberg P.S.D. spiel for another time.

Or we can frame this another way. How shitty is your business that you cannot afford to pay a few 19-year old college students minimum wage? If your business model is predicated on an abundance of free labor, you should really evaluate your own moral compass.  

  • Associate 1 in CorpDev
10d

I dont disagree with you whatsoever, and I do realize that it is unfair as many people simply cannot make it work economically. Additionally, I agree that it is unfair not to pay anyone who works for you. However, I think that for those who can sacrifice the opportunity of a summer's salary should consider it. 

I feel very fortunate to have been able to have taken on an unpaid internship, but with that said, I also had student loans and worked during the school year. While my parents sacrificed a great deal for me to be able to get the needed work experience, I dont want to make it sound as though I had it easy or lived a cushy lifestyle during my college years. I rarely had sufficient funds to get more than a $10 lunch

9d
FinancepH, what's your opinion? Comment below:

In that regard (that those who are able to, should), I totally agree. I think unpaid internships are a great way for some people to demonstrate their interest and get ahead in recruiting. I know a lot of people who are from good backgrounds but lack the connections or upbringing that would have prepared them for recruitment (unlike some of their peers they are going against) who could leverage summers at search funds/LMM PE shops/random boutique IB gigs. I think its hard convincing people of the value proposition of these because many might feel it is beneath them. 

10d
weqwewqedqw, what's your opinion? Comment below:

What strikes me as funny about this post is that unpaid internships are almost exclusively for more affluent kids who couldn't get a paid internship (and this is coming from someone who did multiple of them). Kids from lower socioeconomic backgrounds can't afford to take unpaid internships because they are have bills and tuition to pay. Only kids who are getting cash from their parents can afford to kickback and do unpaid work for the "experience".

Don't believe me? Look up any bank that offers unpaid internships in NYC and count how many international students you see.

  • PM in HF - Other
10d

Alot of international students these days are auctually the affluent ones. And not just the Chinese.

But they won't do unpaid internships in the state, they go back to their home country where their parents place them at BBs and just spent a chill summer there. Probably push some papers and that's it. 

And they won't have to worry about anything like greencards because the US sells those greencards via investment immigration program anyway.

9d
weqwewqedqw, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Yeah, that my point lol. Rich international kids who go to school in the city (NYU, Fordham, etc.) are the ones that predominately work at the unpaid internships during the school year, since they can't go back to their home country during the semester. 

8d
bddjfj1345, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Agreed for summers. But in no ways the case for during the semester. I did a Spring unpaid for IB while taking a full course load and being a student-athlete. Coming from a non-target and having no family connections, this internship allowed me to get my foot in the door. It started a snowball effect where now I have 3 IB internships on my resume and see myself as a viable candidate. 

  • Prospect in RE - Comm
10d

This may stray from the original premise of the post, but to everyone who has pursued an unpaid freshman year IB internship, what were your responses like while networking? I understand unpaid interns are a net-drain on resources, but you're still offering to show up for free. Also, am I too late for networking for summer 2023 IB internships at no-name boutiques as a freshman? Considering IB internship offers are given out at MM and BB firms up to 1.5 years in advance, would it be fine if I started networking for these roles 4-6 months in advance? Also, what skills would one recommend for an unpaid IB internship? Again, I apologize, as I understand this strays from the original premise of the post, but I feel this will be helpful for students at a similar stage in college.

8d
bddjfj1345, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Not at all. Where are you located? I know of a number of smaller firms in Boston that still recruited for interns from Jan-Mar. The issue is you are a freshman and most likely do not have relevant experience. Try to reach out to any small bank in your area and potentially others that could take you on remotely for this spring.

10d
Dr. Rahma Dikhinmahas, what's your opinion? Comment below:

I could understand hating on unpaid internships if regular internships paid well.  But they don't.

"You're telling your employer that your time is worthless."  OK then Mr. Paid Intern, you're telling your employer that your time isn't worth very much.  

10d
faster.than.you, what's your opinion? Comment below:

This is not well thought out. I agree that a pragmatic mindset will help you break in. Having the "take anything I can get" attitude is great. However, you're not accounting for kids that actually pay their own way. It's simply not feasible to grit your way through living expenses and tuition contributions while working for nothing, especially if the internship wants you to work lots of hours. Interns should be paid. It's very easy for people who haven't really had to pay their own way to argue otherwise.

10d
faster.than.you, what's your opinion? Comment below:

If you work 9-5 (or longer) at your internship, what job will allow you to pay rent, food, & other expenses? To that end, what minimum wage job? I can only imagine something more flexible like tutoring or coaching etc. could pay the bills. Bottom line: firms eliminate an entire subset of qualified youth when make the internship unpaid. If the firm can delegate just a tiny fraction of resources to compensate interns, the field of candidates they can pick from and help is simply larger. It's also a boon for the firm to be forward looking and develop a talent pipeline.

  • Analyst 2 in IB-M&A
9d

I personally did an unpaid internship in IB and it opened all the doors for me. Drove 45 minutes each way to get the experience. Reason I did it was because I was way too late to the actual recruiting / SA train and I also went to a complete non-target.

Now to address the above where people said you need to be able to afford it, etc. I say you just have to be smart about it. I paid all my own tuition, living expenses, gas, food. Since it was unpaid, I just offered the firm that I would come in 3x per week, for 6.5 hours each day. The rest of my free time was used to work another paid job so I could afford everything else. Did it suck? Of course, eating ramen, spending all your money on gas and work for nothing does suck. But it was for 3 months and it opened the door to a career where I now make more than I could have ever imagined. I'm a big advocate for unpaid internships from an intern perspective (I.e. you just call local boutiques and ask if you can intern and you'll do it for free). However, obviously not a big fan when firms hire unpaid interns on purpose to slave them 80 hours a week.

  • Incoming Analyst in IB-M&A
9d

Signed a FT offer with a MM M&A group a couple months ago and would not have gotten here without an unpaid internship I did in the spring. Gave me something relevant to talk about on my resume and also helped me build an understanding of the role. 100% worth it.

8d
PerplexedInvestor, what's your opinion? Comment below:

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8d
Fast and Fiduciary, what's your opinion? Comment below:

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