Unpaid Internships in India: Does the Learning Outcome and Experience Equate to a Stipend?

Team IIBP General Psychology


Internships in India are now gaining more momentum than ever. Often prioritizing them over academics and grades, students today are in competition to obtain internships and make their resumes and profiles more attractive. Due to this, the number of internships on offer is rising, many of them being of an unpaid nature where interns receive no stipend for the work they do. There has been much debate surrounding the unfairness of such internships, and studies have found that unpaid internships are less satisfactory compared to paid ones, in terms of learning outcome and experience. However, there is a dearth of such research in India, and this study sought to fill in that research gap. We interviewed 9 students across India who have done unpaid internships in the past 2 years and asked them about their internship experience as well as their expectations prior to joining an internship. The findings reveal that the unpaid nature of internships makes students more expectant of a constructive practical experience; however, the companies seldom manage to deliver it. Participants also touched upon the quality of unpaid internships, the lack of motivation they provide, and the unfairness surrounding this culture of working without pay.

Internships in India are now gaining more momentum than ever. Often prioritizing them over academics and grades, students today are in competition to obtain internships and make their resumes and profiles more attractive. Due to this, the number of internships on offer is rising, many of them being of an unpaid nature where interns receive no stipend for the work they do. There has been much debate surrounding the unfairness of such internships, and studies have found that unpaid internships are less satisfactory compared to paid ones, in terms of learning outcome and experience. However, there is a dearth of such research in India, and this study sought to fill in that research gap. We interviewed 9 students across India who have done unpaid internships in the past 2 years and asked them about their internship experience as well as their expectations prior to joining an internship. The findings reveal that the unpaid nature of internships makes students more expectant of a constructive practical experience; however, the companies seldom manage to deliver it. Participants also touched upon the quality of unpaid internships, the lack of motivation they provide, and the unfairness surrounding this culture of working without pay.

Keywords: unpaid internship, internship experience.

Unpaid Internships in India: Does the Learning Outcome and Experience Equate to a Stipend?

Although the practice of internships has always been around, it has gained a lot of momentum in the past few years. Internships are seen as a way to transition from the classroom to a job and are perceived to complement a student’s academic work by providing practical experience (Farinelli & Mann, 1994). They deliver out-of-the-classroom learning opportunities, such that are not gained through textbooks and lectures, and are a way for students to grow in their respective fields. Internship programs can reinforce technical competencies, improve analytical skills, and foster an awareness of the need to constantly adapt and be creative in the changing world (Coco, 2000). The right internship is often the key to a good job, as it gives students an upper hand compared to other candidates who have not had a chance to engage in any practical experience by working with professionals in the field. Coco (2002) has even referred to internships as being a “try before you buy arrangement.” Internships are very attractive additions to resumes as well. They show employers that you are more experienced compared to other candidates, and jobs are increasingly putting a value on hands-on experience rather than more academic-oriented achievements such as a high CGPA. Having a good degree is no longer enough to secure a graduate job offer in today’s world — relevant work experience is now just as valuable as your degree and exam results when it comes to building a successful career. Many universities these days even require students to do internships as part of their graduation requirements, while most others have affiliations with different organizations to provide internships to their students. Internships can help students demonstrate their abilities and diligence to employers, and also allow them to highlight skills that

are relevant and transferable to the job they are applying to. Many companies offer full-time job offers to interns based on their performance.

Given the benefits internships provide in terms of experience and competitive edge, it is no surprise that most students, if not all, are now striving to complete one internship after the other. Vacations from school and university, which were previously the time for students to take a break from academics and relax, are now spent searching for and completing internships. This is true for India as well: The Indian Skills Report 2020 showed that around 85% of students were seeking internship opportunities with organizations in the previous year (Wheebox, 2020). With various online platforms in India – such as Internshala – providing opportunities in abundance, more and more students are getting the chance to intern at different places.

The number of internships being offered now is more than ever before, and there has been much conversation surrounding the nature of these internships: primarily, whether they are paid or unpaid. Internships are great learning opportunities, but interns are also required to put in effort and help the organization in its day-to-day functioning. Although the level of work does not usually amount to that being put in by regular employees, interns still dedicate a large amount of time and effort to their internships. In this case, it seems natural that they are given a stipend in return, but that is usually not the case: unpaid internships which seek to provide students with experience, exposure, and a certificate of appreciation, but no stipend, are very much common in India as well as around the world. Many people have had contentions with unpaid internships, deeming them to be unfair and even exploitative (Burke & Carton, 2013). In India, neither the Industrial Employment Act 1946 nor the Minimum Wages Act 1948 cover internships, and it remains an unregulated sector where interns are not legally entitled to minimum wages or modes of legal redressal, which otherwise apply to employees. This lack of legal framework often puts students in a vulnerable position, wherein they sometimes carry out as much work as a permanent employee without getting the monetary remuneration. Many of the duties formerly performed by paid workers are now being taken over by unpaid interns. Since simple tasks must be completed, some organizations take in a significant number of unpaid interns who are cycled through on a regular basis (Shade & Jacobson, 2015).

Review of Literature

Various studies have been conducted over the years to see how interns perceive the unpaid nature of internships. In India, a study conducted by Sardesai et al. (2020) on undergraduate students in Delhi-NCR found that compensation was an important factor for interns: paid interns were overall more satisfied by their internships experience than unpaid interns, and compensation acted as a source of motivation for them. A qualitative study conducted in Canada revealed that despite considering unpaid internships to be unjust, many women believed that they were gaining more out of the internships than the company was (Shade & Jacobson, 2015). The quality of unpaid internships has also been a topic of conjecture. On one hand, unpaid internships often provide excellent opportunities to learn and network, especially in industries such as entertainment, public relations, and publishing, where paid internships are scarce. Small start-up businesses, too, offer ideal learning opportunities, but they lack the financial capital to pay interns (Keleher, 2013). In such scenarios, unpaid internships are providing benefits other than monetary compensation, such as learning outcomes and experience. However, on the other hand, the National Association of Colleges and Employers found paid internships lead to a job 60 percent of the time, while unpaid interns fared no better than graduates without an internship (Keheler, 2013). This raises ethical questions for firms that take on interns with the promise of a valuable learning experience in place of a stipend but fail to deliver it.

Aim of the Study and Development of the interview Guide

In this paper, I seek to fill in the research gap that exists on the perception of unpaid internships in India. Barring Sardesai et al. (2020), no research has been done to understand the experience of unpaid student interns in India, and even their paper did not exclusively focus on unpaid internships. To get an understanding of students’ experience with unpaid internships, I interviewed high-school and university students who have undertaken such internships in the last two years. An unpaid internship was defined as an internship undertaken for at least one month where no stipend was provided to the intern. The research aimed to study whether the experience and learning outcome of unpaid internships equate to a stipend and used a qualitative method to do so. A thematic analysis was carried out to investigate the same.

An interview guide (refer to Appendix B) was developed to explore the research question. The guide focused on understanding the kind of learning outcome interns had experienced in their internships, and how satisfied they were with the outcome. They were asked questions relating to the amount of effort they had put into their work, and whether the non-monetary returns (such as certificate, experience, etc.) they got from the company were adequate compensation for that effort. Basic data were collected from the participants about their internship, such as which field it was in and what kind of work they had to do. Demographic information, such as age, major field of study, year in school/university, and name of school/university was collected as well.

However, care was taken by the researcher to assure the respondents that no personally identifiable information would be published in any subsequent report.



A sample of 9 students took part in this study. They were recruited using purposive and snowball sampling methods. The researcher had posted on LinkedIn looking for people to take part in the study, with two criteria requiring to be met – they had to be a school or university student, who had done an unpaid internship in any field in the last two years. Each respondent was asked to recommend to the researcher another student who might want to share their experience of doing an unpaid internship. The final sample consisted of the researcher’s known acquaintances, people who had reached out seeing the LinkedIn post, and others referred to by these participants. It was felt that 9 respondents would be able to supply varied and detailed accounts for the purposes of this study.

Participants were either in grade 12 (n=1) or pursuing their undergraduate (n=6) or postgraduate (n=2) in different universities in India. Their age was between 17-24, with the mean age being 20.6 (SD = 1.94). There were 3 males and 6 females (Refer to table A1). All of them had done at least one unpaid internship within the last two years, either on an online or offline platform. The fields they had interned in were in the field of psychology, finance, education, and marketing.

Data collection procedure

The date and time for the interview were set up with the participants, and prior to the meeting, the researcher sent them a Zoom link. All the interviews were conducted over Zoom. Participants were given the option of keeping their camera on or off as per convenience, but to maintain consistency, the non-verbal cues of those with their cameras on were not taken into account. They were first asked to read an informed consent form which was sent to them on the Zoom chatbox. It was a google form which mentioned the aim of the study, the researcher’s contact details as well as organizational affiliation. The participants consented by submitting the form. After their submission was acknowledged, the Zoom recording was started with their permission. They were again briefed about the study, promised confidentiality, and then we proceeded with the interview. After all the questions were answered, the participants were thanked for their participation, asked to refer more participants if possible, and the meeting ended. The recordings were later transcribed into computer files, and the tapes were deleted.

Data Analysis Methods

All of the interview transcripts were read by the researcher and coded in the style of a thematic analysis approach. According to Braun and Clarke (2006), there are various ways to analyze data within a thematic analysis approach, which were followed in this study. The analysis was theoretically oriented, which entails coding for a specific research question, contrary to an inductive approach where the research question evolves through the coding process. The data was read semantically – themes were identified within the explicit or surface meaning of the data, not focusing on the participants’ underlying ideas and assumptions. Lastly, an essentialist approach was undertaken while examining the data, assuming a unidirectional relationship between language and meaning, without delving into the participants’ sociocultural context to theorize their individual accounts.

The thematic analysis involves the search for and identification of common threads that extend across an entire interview or set of interviews (DeSantis & Noel Ugarriza, 2000). Following this, 4 category headings were generated from the transcribed interview, and under these, all of the data were accounted for. The coding process involved the researcher familiarizing themselves with the data, identifying common patterns, and coding them under larger themes that represented the overall dataset. An inductive approach was taken in reporting the data, wherein the coded categories were derived directly from the text data without referring to previous studies on this phenomenon (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005). Due to the lack of research on this topic, this was considered to be the appropriate method. Findings from the study are reported below.


Analysis of the interview transcripts revealed four main themes related to participants’ views on and experience with unpaid internships: 1) expecting a two-way relationship in terms of investing and learning 2) quality of unpaid internships, 3) the unfairness associated with working without a stipend, and 4) stipend as a motivating factor to work harder. All of these are discussed in turn below.

Two-way relationship in terms of investing and learning

The interviews revealed that while undertaking unpaid internships, all participants expected a two-way relationship in terms of investing their knowledge and getting something in return.
“While joining the internship I knew they would not give me a stipend, but I still went for it because I wanted to learn something. At that point I thought, stipend isn’t important, learning is.” “I wanted an internship that doesn’t just make me work but also teaches something to me. There should be an opportunity for growth whether the work is paid or unpaid.”

Participants shared that their main reason behind opting for an unpaid internship had been to gain practical experience in the field. Many also mentioned that they wished to understand what working in the field would be like, to help them make a better decision about their career. Regardless of which field they had done their internship in, all respondents noted that they wanted to overcome the gap that exists between theoretical knowledge received at school/university and practical knowledge that an internship provides.

“I really wanted to get an experience. I just wanted to have an insight into the corporate world because my UG was psychology and I’ve learned the clinical side of it and I’ve never seen the HR and organizational side of it. My main idea was to get an insight into the corporate world and how the structures work.”
“I hoped to understand a little more about the way the different organizations work, and what kind of skills are required for the organizations, and what the work entails.” “Law school does not really teach you the practical workings of the law, so interning with lawyers and judges teaches you how a court works in the day-to-day life, what are the exact procedures, how do you apply some law, so that was my main concern when I thought about doing these internships.”

A mentor was considered by many to be an important aspect of unpaid internships. Additionally, many wanted to use the internship as a trial period of sorts, where they gain an insight into the practicalities of the work and decide if this is something they would like to pursue in the future. For one respondent, doing the internship was part of their graduation requirement.

Participants had varied experiences with whether or not they had received from the internship as much as they had invested, in terms of time and effort. Three out of nine said that the learning outcome had, indeed, been what they had expected and hoped for. They were confident that the skills they had acquired through the internship would be helpful for them in the future.
“Overall good learning experience and the mentors were good. All the basic ideas we needed to have, the skills we needed to develop at that point of time, we learnt.”

“Apart from the knowledge that I have to gain for the subject, I have also gained the real picture of what is out there, so it will also help me be careful the next time I’m choosing or job or internship.”
“I am confident that the internship will help me in the future, because my mentor taught me a lot of new things and ideas that I can explore in the future.”

However, this was only the case where the interns were working in the same field that they wanted to have a career in, as it helped them understand what the on-ground work was like. In other cases, interns admitted that they had expected more out of the internship that they got out of it.

Learning opportunities in unpaid internships were deemed to be scarce, mostly because interns were only made to do very basic tasks such as writing reports or maintaining social media. In one case, the participant shared that even though her internship required her to learn new skills for the job, she had to acquire them on her own through YouTube videos and other platforms without help from her supervisors.

“They asked me to do certain work that I wasn’t well equipped to do, and my seniors weren’t available all the time because they had other work. So I’d take help from YouTube videos and stuff. Main challenge was that they expected a lot more out of me than I could have offered.”

For some people, a mentor or supervisor also seemed to play a large role in the knowledge gained during the internship. One respondent shared that they had not learned anything new from the work they had been assigned but had gained practical knowledge of the field by conversing with their supervisors. Another noted that the only reason their Finance internship had been rewarding was that they had had the opportunity to work under a professional in the field. Others, however, were disappointed with the lack of communication and mentorship from seniors, which made them feel like an unimportant part of the company.

Networking was also considered to be an important aspect of internships; however, very few internships provided the scope to expand the interns’ network, especially those that were online. Interns were mostly required to work on their own, on tasks that had been assigned to them. There was little communication with the other interns and employees, which made many participants feel deprived of the opportunity to make new connections in the field.

“They gave us our work and we had to finish within the assigned time. There was no interaction with the other employees or even interns. It’s like, we were given tasks just for the sake of it.”

“There was no feedback from my seniors on the work that I did, so I didn’t feel like I was actually learning anything new.”

“I had gone into the internship with the aim of making connections but that didn’t really happen. There was barely any communication with others. So in that aspect I wasn’t very satisfied.”


The quality of unpaid internships was brought up by almost all participants. They believed that due to the unpaid nature of the work, companies were most of the time not serious about the interns, and not concerned about whether the interns were learning anything from the job.

The work assigned to them was mostly monotonous and did not offer any challenge, thus making them lose interest quickly. Five of the participants considered themselves to be more qualified than the work they were being made to do and felt that the company had only hired unpaid interns to make them carry out the tedious, routine-based tasks which permanent employees would not do. Doing the same thing every day meant that there was no scope for growth, and participants admitted to expecting and wanting more challenges when they take up internships, whether paid or unpaid.

“One (internship) I was not satisfied with that much. Because, I don’t know, it was again and again one thing going on, repeating, monotonous. I came in this field because I want to explore different people’s mindset. But that didn’t happen.”

Unpaid internships also did not put an emphasis on teaching their interns. One respondent mentioned that such internships are not very concerned about the interns because there is no monetary aspect involved. If they were giving money, the companies would have been more serious about the interns, both in terms of teaching and in terms of challenging their intellectual capacity.

“In paid (internships), it makes it a bit serious, if they are involved in the money thing, then even they get a bit serious.”

Some of them who have previously done paid internships also spoke about the difference in quality between the two types, with the paid ones providing more avenues for growth. One participant particularly elaborated on the differences she had noted between her paid and unpaid internships, with the former taking their interns more seriously and giving them tasks that required proactiveness and intellectual thinking. The latter, however, seemed more concerned with getting the work done than with the interns.
“Because I have been involved in so many internships already, I have seen that those who are recruiting us are least bothered in unpaid ones. The work is of low quality and further they are not interested in teaching us but taking everything from us that we have learnt so far. So the quality gets a bit low in the teaching as well as learning thing.”


Regardless of what learning outcome they had gained out of the internships, respondents deemed their unpaid nature to be unfair. There was agreement on the fact that there should be minimum compensation from the companies, especially in cases where the interns were putting considerable effort into their work.

“I think stipend is necessary for travel purposes or at least any kind of convenience, I think a basic amount is definitely necessary otherwise I think it’s really exploitation.”

“For me, an ideal internship is one that offers me as much money as I expect it to in terms of the effort that I put in. Otherwise, there’s nothing in it for me.”

Six out of nine interns actually had to pay out of their own pocket during the duration of the internships – either for commute or for phone call charges in sales internships. In one case, the intern had to stay in a different city for the duration of the internship, incurring costs including but not limited to accommodation, food, and travel. In most cases, the expenditure incurred by the participants was quite high, and they shared that if not stipend, the company should at least pay for any cost undertaken by the intern for the work. Participants were also asked how much they should have received for the amount of work they did had this been a paid internship, and the average amount mentioned was Rs 5000. For many, Rs 5000 would only cover the expense they had incurred over the course of the internship.

“I think the minimum would at least be Rs. 5000 because my travel was only more than that. I used my knowledge and skills, and I did everything I can in every space there was work needed, so basic is at least Rs. 5000.”

“Both (internships) should have offered me around Rs. 8k. I say this because the work was pretty difficult, because when I did these two internships, I was in my first year (of undergrad). I did not have a lot of knowledge, but I still put in a lot of effort. So just a compensation for the effort if not the final end result.”

“I will give you a general idea of how much lawyers in the Supreme Court pay their interns. Senior advocates in the Supreme Court generally pay you something around Rs. 5000 a month, or some very rich lawyers give you Rs. 10,000 or 15,000 even for one month’s work. I would, in my internships, I think, apart from the first one, I think I did enough to get at least a Rs. 5000 stipend for one month’s work.

All participants who had done online internships had flexibility in terms of their working hours, which they noted was helpful and one good aspect of the internship. However, in cases where the intern had to report at the company’s office, all (barring one) had to adhere to a specific reporting and leaving time. One participant particularly mentioned having very rigid working hours with little scope for adjustment, again referring to the almost lax behavior shown when there is no money involved from the side of the employers.

“So the first day I walked in they changed my timings and like I said, I have to travel really far. The very first day they changed the timings and they’re like you’re supposed to come at this time, you’re supposed to leave at this time. So I was like no, I didn’t sign up for this. They were like no, but we changed the policy. I was like you should have informed me that because I didn’t sign up for this but and finally they told me, they gave me a little adjustment but I think there was not much flexibility. There was still a little backward in that area.”

Lastly, one respondent noted that unpaid internships gave an unfair advantage to those who came from a privileged background since the less privileged students would rather opt for paid internships which are more difficult to find and get selected in. This, in turn, would leave them with fewer internships on their CV and make their profile less attractive to companies in the future.
“I also think basic compensation is important because not everyone can afford to work without pay. This puts people in unfair situations where others, like me, can have more internships on their CV because like, we are okay with putting in time and effort for nothing in return. Not everyone is privileged like that.”


Other than the monetary aspect of a stipend, participants also considered it to be a motivating factor. One participant admitted that a stipend would act as a confidence boost, which would encourage her to work harder.

“I know the difference when I do a paid internship and unpaid internships. In paid, my motivation levels are much high. Even if it’s not adequately paid, the thing is I know that I’m getting something if not nothing for what I’m doing. My motivation levels are soaring high when I get something out of it. It also gives me a confidence boost.”

The general agreement was that a stipend would make them put more effort into their work and drive them to learn more out of the internship. Due to the lack of this motivating factor, most participants confessed to not having worked as hard as they otherwise would have, thus not benefiting from the internship to its full capacity. They acknowledged that regardless of how fulfilling the internship had been (or had not been), a stipend would have made them feel better since they were being given a reward in return for what they were doing for the company. Two participants confessed to finding it challenging to keep working despite getting nothing in return, especially in marketing internships where they were actively bringing profit to the companies. One respondent specifically mentioned how demotivated it made them feel to be bringing tangible profit worth 10 to 20 thousand for the company and getting nothing in return for it.

“I was literally selling their products for 10k, 20k, bringing enormous profits to the company, but I wasn’t offered anything for it. It was a challenge to overcome the thought that I had to sell their profit and bring them profit but not get anything in return. So what’s the point?”


In line with previous findings, the data in this study revealed that overall, students are not as satisfied with unpaid internships as they would be with paid ones. It was revealed that stipends not only provide a monetary benefit but also impact the quality of the internship, as well as the interns’ intrinsic motivation. Moreover, few unpaid internships provide the opportunity to learn and grow, thus defeating the purpose with which students pursue these internships. More than the work itself, interns were found to have learned more from their mentors and supervisors and were dissatisfied by the lack of networking opportunities in these internships.

These findings have important implications for the internship culture of India since many internships here are of an unpaid nature. It is necessary for companies to step back and examine the quality of internships they are providing to students and assess how much they are giving back to their interns compared to how much the interns are investing into the work. Although an internship can provide many benefits, which were mentioned earlier in the paper, working without pay also has considerable implications for the interns, and oftentimes, they don’t have any option other than to apply for these internships regardless of a stipend. Companies that require interns to travel or call clients should especially consider providing basic compensation for the charges the intern incur for their work.

Limitations and future direction

The study has a few limitations that need to be addressed. Firstly, the participants were all from middle to upper-middle-class backgrounds, which may have affected the generalizability of the findings. It is likely that those coming from a lower socio-economic background consider unpaid internships to be more unfair in nature than the participants in this study, due to the privilege factor that was discussed earlier. Further, the study had participants who did both online and offline internships, and while this gives a broader view of the internship culture, it also affects the consistency of the findings since the experience gained in these two types of internships is likely to be very different. Future studies can address these limitations by conducting in-depth research on both offline and online unpaid internships separately and recruiting participants from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. A larger sample size can be used to build on the results of this study and get a better insight into the unpaid internship experience of students.


The study sought to examine whether the learning outcome and experience gained in unpaid internships equate to a stipend. It was found that all participants deemed a stipend to be an important aspect of an internship and considered it to be a basic mandatory compensation despite the skills and knowledge gained during the internship. According to students, a stipend provides more than just a monetary benefit, as it can be a motivating factor for them to work harder. The paid/unpaid nature of an internship also contributes to its overall quality in terms of providing avenues for growth and learning opportunities. Although more research needs to be conducted on this topic, it is our belief that the present study gives a holistic idea of how students perceive unpaid internships in India, and this knowledge can be used to tailor internship programs to make them fairer, pedagogical, and effective.

About the Author: Payal is an undergraduate student, pursuing a major in Psychology. While her aspiration lies in clinical psychology, she is keen on learning about all fields in the domain of mental health. She thrives on books, music, and travelling, and dreams of making it big someday.