Breaking research

Unpaid internships failing to boost job chances in the creative sector, experts find

Student wearing graduation cap

Carrying out unpaid work to achieve a career in the media or creative sector could be a thing of the past according to new peer-reviewed research.


Published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, findings – based on data from more than 600 creative and communications graduates – show unpaid internships are not improving job prospects or leading to higher pay in the media, advertising and public relations.


The results, in fact, show those who work for free to get on the career ladder are more likely to earn £4,000 less in salary than non-interns.


However, those who do paid work experience are likely to get over £2,000 more than those who do not do internships – and be employed in top jobs in the creative sector.


The authors say the message to policymakers is that unpaid internships are not a stepping stone to professional success and don’t improve employability. In addition, they warn that ‘serial’ unpaid internships may even harm job prospects long-term.


The study reinforces concerns that the labour market is not meritocratic because middle-class graduates are more able ‘play the game’, and package themselves to be attractive to employers.

“While paid internships do improve employability, unpaid internships do not convey the same benefits,” says lead author Dr Wil Hunt, an Organisational Behaviour expert from the Digital Futures at Work Research Centre, at the University of Sussex Business School, who specializes on how new digital technologies and AI are changing the world of work.

“Paid internships help graduates get better jobs, but we find no evidence that unpaid internships do.


“The findings challenge the view of unpaid internships as a stepping stone to successful careers, and provide further evidence of the differences between paid and unpaid internships.


“Unpaid internships …may have negative consequences as longer-term career markers especially in the case of serial unpaid internships.


“Internships can be seen as an extension of the same mechanisms that reproduce patterns of advantage and disadvantage that are evident in the education system.”


Policies are often based on an assumption that paid/unpaid internships improve employability, and attempts to outlaw unpaid internships have not succeeded.


The aim of the study was to establish if interns secured ‘better’ jobs and if unpaid internships reinforce social inequality. The authors were careful to distinguish between paid/unpaid internships and voluntary work and placements while studying/after graduation.


Data was based on an online survey of 616 people who graduated from 12 UK colleges and universities in disciplines linked to creative arts and design (CAD) and mass communications and documentation (MCD).


The survey was carried out over autumn and winter 2014 among UK and EU graduates who had left higher education between two to six years before.


Participants provided course details, current/previous employment history, their perceptions about internships and other relevant information. The number of jobs worked and total employment hours were also analysed.


Self-reported data on income was collected using pay band categories from £5,000 to £50,000 and above. Age at graduation, gender, ethnicity, class of degree and other factors were factored in.


Results showed that paid interns were more likely to have a graduate-level or creative job than non-interns. Male graduates, those with higher grades and those living in London also increased these odds.


A university work placement and having parents who attended college/university increased the chance of a graduate-level job, but not in the creative industries.


Unpaid interns typically earned less at work than non-interns with their overall income lower on average by £3,963 a year. Paid interns earned more than non-interns – their participation in these schemes was associated with an increase in income of £2,258.


Age at graduation, living in London and class of degree were among factors also associated with a higher income band.


The authors of the research put forward several possible explanations for the negative impact on unpaid interns. These include their bargaining position being weaker when accepting their first paid job and being ‘positioned’ below those with relevant paid experience.