Internships, The Paid and The Unpaid

I recently got around to reading the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) special report on internships in arts fields.

There is a lot of interesting findings in the 23 page report, including the (to me) dismaying news that 87% of those who did at least one arts administration internship were unpaid. That is the highest rate of unpaid internships in any of the categories.

What I was most interested in learning was the reality of the claim that the ability to participate in an internship was dependent on receiving support from families. Sure enough, even though there was negligible difference in the amount of debt accrued by students who did an internship and those who did not, those who could depend on support from families more frequently participated in an internship.

Sixty-seven percent of recent alumni who did not intern while enrolled in school indicated that parents or family helped pay for their education; the figure is 8% higher (75%) among alumni who did intern.

The gap in family support is similar between recent alumni who had unpaid internships and those who did not; 75% of former unpaid interns indicated they received such support, compared to only 67% for alumni who did not undertake an unpaid internship.

Gender, race and socioeconomic status also were factors in choosing to do an internship and whether it was paid or unpaid.

Women were more likely than men to have undertaken an internship during their undergraduate education (56% compared to 51%). While women and men were equally likely to ever have done paid internships, women were much more likely to have been unpaid interns (57% compared to 46% for men).

Black and Hispanic/Latino alumni were less likely to have done internships than their White and Asian counterparts. Black and Hispanic/Latino graduates were also slightly less likely to have done paid internships and more likely than White alumni to have done unpaid internships.

First-generation college graduates were less likely than non-first-generation college graduates to have been interns while enrolled in school (51% compared to 56%) as well as before or after graduation (paid or unpaid)…

SNAAP data are consistent with many commentators’ concerns about the intern economy in that women, Black, Hispanic/Latino, and first-generation college graduate arts alumni all appear to have held a disproportionate number of unpaid internships—which, as will be considered below, are tied to significantly weaker career payoffs than paid internships. However, one possible explanation for this over representation might be that these demographic groups tend to cluster in majors in which unpaid internships are more common than paid ones. For this reason, to further investigate the findings above, our study considered the subsample of recent design alumni

The report authors note that in the design sub-sample, the demographic trends are even more pronounced than within the general sample. (Page 9 if you want more detail.)

Most interestingly was their finding that paid internships were more valuable than unpaid internships when it came to finding jobs. Those who did an internship were more successful at finding a job than those who did not (66% vs 57% four months after graduation, 86% vs 77% one year after graduation.)

However, the authors,

“…find that paid internships are even more closely related to finding a job than unpaid internships.


Figure 6 shows that having an unpaid internship does not appear to be related to finding a job more quickly after graduation. Conversely, having a paid internship has consistently been related to finding a job more quickly after graduation. Recent graduates (2009–2013) who have done paid internships, during school or outside of school, have fared especially well compared to alumni who have never been paid interns, with 89% of the former finding work within one year of graduation compared to 77% for the latter.

Simply securing a paid internship doesn’t necessarily guarantee a job. The authors note that ambitious, talented internship seekers who secure a paid position may apply those same traits to a job search.

They may also be securing the paid internships thanks to family connections and a familiarity and ability to navigate social interactions and systems that first generation students and other demographic groups don’t possess or are comfortable with.

There is a lot of interesting data in the report. If nothing else, you can get a sense of what percentage of undergraduates in your discipline intern and what the paid versus unpaid numbers look like.

With the current conversation about inequity and exploitation related to internships, it can be easy to overlook the finding that those who participate in internships report a higher satisfaction with their training and education experience than those who don’t participate.

Which is not to say they wouldn’t be that much more satisfied if they were paid and treated a little better.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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