So, you want to do an internship. Maybe because it’s required by your school curriculum, which tells you that you should use and develop your skills out there in the world without giving you much guidance on how to ensure that your learning goals are met under fair conditions. Or maybe you think that an internship is the only way you’re going to find work in the field, and your self-worth and survival depends on that. Or that that’s what people do; that it’s just something that you have to go through. It’s only for two or six or 12 months. If you’re passionate enough about the field, you shouldn’t be thinking too much about getting paid. You could rely on your family’s wealth, student debt, or extra work in another field where one is more likely to get adequately paid.
Offering unpaid or low-paid skilled work does not constitute an educational experience, and it’s unlikely to get you anywhere. Being exploited is a good way to start a working life that is misaligned with your personal interests and laced with alienation and burnout. Offering skilled artistic (or cultural or design or architectural) labor for free or little pay means that you are contributing to its devaluation. Even you will start to perceive your own skills as underserving of proper compensation, skills that you put so much time and work into growing. The commonplace work ethic demands your full commitment and disappears at the question of how to sustain a livelihood.
You need to take a position, better sooner than later. Here are three things you could do that can help: Come up with a set of rules or code of ethics for when to go for and when to run away from an “internship opportunity.” Here is a place to start. If you go for an internship after all, sharing your experience helps others know what they’re getting into. If you decided you will not do an internship because you didn’t find one that matches your values or you didn’t find one at all, then you have a chance to do a self-initiated project or explore alternative ways of working against and outside the framework of wage labor, alternatives that center your well-being and values and that provide safety in social connections rather than professional networks. You don’t have to go at it alone or in competition with others.