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When To "Lean In" To An Unpaid Internship—And When Not To

The brouhaha over Sheryl Sandberg's nonprofit advertising for an unpaid internship raises an important question: Do unpaid internships ever really pay?

LeanIn.org, a nonprofit founded in concert with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's inspirational business best-seller for women, posted seeking an unpaid intern in New York.

The irony is rich: Sandberg is a billionaire who sold off $91 million worth of Facebook stock just this week and has a nonprofit that is dedicated to, according to its website, "offering women the ongoing inspiration and support to help them achieve their goals." The book, as well as the network of Lean In support circles Sandberg encouraged women across the country to create, is reportedly inspiring women to ask for more money at work. So, to recruit an unpaid intern may seem a little off-brand.

Indeed, LeanIn.org has since backpedaled. In a Facebook post yesterday, Rachel Thomas, president of the nonprofit, clarified, "We’ve had four students ask to volunteer with us...
As a startup, we haven’t had a formal internship program. Moving forward we plan to, and it will be paid."

But optics aside, here's the real question facing ambitious women and men: When is taking an unpaid internship actually good for your career? Are you willingly letting yourself be exploited when you lend your talents to a high-profile nonprofit like LeanIn.org, or is that a plum opportunity? What Would Sheryl Sandberg Do?

The answer depends on the industry, the organization, and your goals. Apply this multipart test to answer the question:

1) Is your desired field engineering, health care, mining, construction, skilled trades, manufacturing, agriculture, retail, transportation, law, finance, hospitality, food service, or education?

NO, don't work for free. Ironically, fields that don't require a college degree, are more likely to offer paid internships. Likewise, fields that are fast-growing or require special skills, like computer programming, finance, and petroleum engineering, tend to have internships that pay quite well. In fact, if there are paid internships available in a field, there are probably good job opportunities—and the converse is true as well.

2) Is your desired field related to media, entertainment, or the nonprofit sector? Could this be someone's dream job (the White House, Vogue)?

YES, you're probably working for free. As a last resort, look for a job with a big media company like Condé Nast or Hearst, a celebrity like Norma Kamali or Charlie Rose, or a major movie production studio like Fox Searchlight. That way, you can join a class action suit and try to get paid that way.

3) Do you want a quality, educational work experience and a chance at a real job later?

NO, don't work for free. Not surprisingly, paid interns have higher rates of satisfaction. And according to one study of nearly 700 employers, paid internships score higher on all measures of quality.

4) Do you want to be like Sheryl Sandberg?

NO, don't work for free. In Lean In she mentions being a "lowly summer intern" at consulting firm McKinsey & Co. McKinsey summer interns currently earn between $4,900-$10,000 a month.

[Image: Flickr user TechCrunch]