How To Get Your Dream Job When You Can’t Afford To Take An Unpaid Internship

Many people can’t afford to take unpaid internships, but here’s how it’s possible to get into your dream industry without one.

How To Get Your Dream Job When You Can’t Afford To Take An Unpaid Internship
[Photo: GaudiLab via Shutterstock]

On the path to a dream job, the unpaid or low-paid internship has come to be part of the expected dues-paying process.


But it’s not an option for many people, especially if you are coming to your dream industry later in life, after you have more bills to pay and maybe even children to support. Luckily, there are more resources than ever to boost your chances of getting a job in a new industry, even if you’ve never worked in it.

If unpaid or low-paid internships are out of the question, training in your new industry will have to take place during your off-hours. There are many online resources, from YouTube how-tos to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that let you explore new industries at your own pace. And don’t count out more traditional hands-on trial experience you can get, for free, by volunteering in the evenings and weekends.

Some companies just won’t budge on the years of industry experience they require, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t still get your foot in the door. You might be a fit anyway. If you made it into the interview, the company is considering you, and your lack of industry experience is not a deal breaker. Now you just have to convince the interviewer that you’ve been working hard to get into this new industry, and you won’t stop until you’re in.

“I’d encourage people not to psych themselves out. People do things they haven’t done before all the time. That’s how progress happens. If they’re really passionate and want to find things out, to make a connection, anything is possible,” says Leela Srinivasan, chief marketing officer for hiring tech startup Lever.

Getting The Experience Outside Your Job

Devoting your free time to learning your new industry will convince companies that you are serious about fully transitioning into a new career. MOOCs and online learning courses aren’t just great industry Cliff’s Notes. They’re becoming more recognized as legitimate training modules. For example, MIT recently announced a “Micro Masters” program earned by taking its online courses.

“If I were evaluating a candidate and they’d taken coursework through Coursera and the candidate has a very convincing story about making a switch, at the end of the day, their initiative is always worth considering,” says Srinivasan.

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Srinivasan has increasingly seen online coursework show up on resumes, especially small credentials like Udacity’s Nanodegrees that resemble vocational training of old. Not only is MOOC quality increasing, but they’re being considered more accessible and effective ways to maintain skills as the business world evolves.

“Skill sets that require you to be successful in business today keep shifting. That degree you got 10-15 years ago was fine then, but the skills to be sharp today didn’t exist back then,” says Srinivasan. “Online is a way of augmenting your skills and continuing to learn, a very practical answer: Everyone can take an unpaid path, but not everybody can duck out of the workforce.”

Volunteering, on the other hand, is usually restricted to whenever volunteering organizations need help. But there are companies that will let you volunteer after hours, and some even in your own time. Srinivasan recommends nonprofit organizations, since they can be more accommodating to alternative schedules. Some nonprofits may be so short staffed that help from any level of expertise is still a big help. The flip side of that coin: Helping out a nonprofit will likely require wearing many hats and helping with several of their systems, which is a tough but rewarding opportunity to learn that you may not have gotten within the for-profit sector.

The Case For Nonprofit Organizations

For transitioning into new careers, consider a nonprofit organization as your first step. They’re not looking for the perfectly skilled candidate–they’re looking for the perfect candidate, period. The youth volunteer organization DoSomething expects that most entry-level employees of their 54-person workforce will move on in four to six years, so they hire for quick learning and passion. There are some technical positions that absolutely need a set of hard skills, but most positions at DoSomething don’t require candidates to have skills already, says Katie Radford, HR representative for DoSomething.

“Being a voracious learner is super important. For example, there are certainly members of our staff who don’t have college degrees. We don’t require them. And we have people on our team who came in for one position and really found that something else suited them better,” says Radford.

When evaluating candidates for positions in DoSomething, Radford looks for quick learning and grit. If they have no experience in the not-for-profit sector, she looks for their interest in causes. This includes social media posts about causes, but also how much personal time the candidate devotes to the causes they claim to be invested in.


“A lot of it is what people are really interested in in their spare time, what are they learning outside of their job as it is. I want to see if they’re putting time into learning new skills, if they’re engaging in the conversation on social media, are they posting current events that are happening in that space,” says Radford. “Essentially, how are they inserting themselves into that industry without necessarily being in that industry already.”

Naomi Hirabayashi, chief marketing officer at DoSomething, calls this the “side hustle”: whatever you’re doing in your off time to pursue your passion, she wants to know specifics.

“Are you going to any meetups this week for a group whose meetup you don’t miss? Have you written about this in an op-ed? If I go to Twitter, am I seeing that you’re obsessively retweeting things about generation Z marketing?” says Hirabayashi. “Anyone in an interview can say that they’re passionate, but I want examples to learn more about how you’re invested in the specific issue.”

Being “active on social media” is vague. In her position as interviewer for high-level positions at DoSomething, Hirabayashi says Twitter is the most important. At the executive level, being active on Twitter is key to making yourself an authority in the space. Facebook is an extension of your existing social network, but Twitter moves beyond that, a place where you can network professionally with companies or articles that you might not be involved in now but are professionally interested in.

Find A Mentor Who Has Done It Before

Trailblazing is well and good, but save yourself time by finding someone who has made the same switch you want to make. You won’t just learn from their successes–you’ll learn what not to do when leaving one part of your life behind and starting another.

“I would encourage people to find friends or even a mentor. Again, this is where your networks come in handy, finding someone in your industry to ask advice and understand what’s most important in the new industry. You’ll also learn what’s realistic about transition tracks and understand how to get your qualifications to make the industry switch happen,” says Srinivasan.


With more fluid job descriptions and employment churn, there are more opportunities for less traditional candidates. Be honest about where you’re coming from and what you want to do, and you might find unexpected opportunities. Cold-contacting executives in the field you want to enter for informational interviews can work, says Hirabayashi.

“I think there’s something really powerful about strength in vulnerability, that you’re willing to learn these skills and tangibly get the word out,” says Hirabayashi. “If someone brings up your name at a big networking event, what do people say about you within your own industry? Do they point out that they want to work with you and you’re a hustler, someone that is smart and honest? That to me transcends all industries.”

Have You Considered Within Your Own Company?

Changing industries is a lot of work. Does your company have positions in other departments that would be close to what you’re looking for? Don’t shortchange the opportunity to move horizontally within your own company: it saves a lot of time getting to know you. If you’re happy with the company, it’s worth looking around and seeing how transitioning into new departments has happened before.

“If you’re willing to do that at your existing company and you’ve shown a track record of successfully contributing, it’s quite a smart way to make a significant shift, you’ve already got credibility there,” says Srinivasan. “At senior levels making that switch, you might have to come down a rung or two. But more forward-thinking companies will understand that their strong employees are looking for lifelong learning opportunities. It’s in their interest to make learning opportunities for their employees.”

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Make sure you’re not a guinea pig as the first one to do it and have an honest conversation with your boss about the pros and cons. You might want the skills, but your boss will want to know whether you’re serious about staying after you get trained in your new position. In many ways, it’s being honest with yourself about whether you’d want to stay in the company. If so, there’s opportunity to negotiate within your company.

“There was someone who had been on my team for over three years who reached a point where she wanted to switch careers. She was super into coding and wanted to learn how to code, was passionate about diversity in tech, and ended up creating her own afternoon in-house learning program, Code With Chloe, to encourage people on staff to become comfortable with coding,” says Hirabayashi. “That inspired us to sponsor her to go into the Flatiron School for an immersive three-month program in coding, after which she came back as a junior engineer. We wouldn’t do that for everyone, but Chloe was very passionate.”


Selling Yourself In The Interview

The interview is when it all comes together. Don’t assume that your years working in your old industry is useless in an interview: Spend prep time thinking about how your old duties would match up with new ones.

Srinivasan believes in this kind of analogous experience. There’s no way to make up for not having work experience in your industry, but creatively comparing your current work experience to the duties you’d be undertaking in the new position is a great way to demonstrate your capability to do the new job.

The interview is where you can unleash all that Internet learning. After MOOCs and research, you’ll pick up the language of your new industry, which is helpful in the interview. It lets the interviewer know you’re interested in the field and understand what the interviewer is talking about. Even if you haven’t personally experienced what the interviewer is talking about, you can explain similar situations from your MOOC classes.

An important note on the “fake it ‘til you make it” adage: Don’t stretch it into faking your experience. Yes, you can talk about relatable experience in your online class, but don’t try to cobble it together and fabricate a previous job out of thin air. A good interviewer will pry into your work experience until your answers get shallow.

Ultimately companies are usually looking for someone to help fix one of their problems. It shouldn’t matter how you came by your skills to fix that problem.

“Any position you’re coming into is to fix some kind of problem. What you need is someone who can show you that in their current position, they have identified an organizational blind spot or paint point,” says Hirabayashi.