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Should You Take an Unpaid Internship?

Aaron Guerrero

Your time as an undergraduate has passed. And like the flocks of other Millennials who have been out of college for a year or more, you find slim pickings when it comes to securing a full-time job related to your career aspirations.

Rather than whittle away at home or work 40 hours at a dead-end job, you contemplate an unpaid internship.

"Increasingly, it's become common practice for recent college graduates to take on internships, paid and unpaid. It's a reflection of a tight job market," says Ross Perlin, author of "Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy."

But before accepting any offers to labor away for free, here's what you should ask.

[See: The 25 Best Jobs of 2013.]

What are the expectations? On paper, the internship seems like a real get, even if it's unpaid. Still, it's wise to have a solid grasp of what you'll do and the amount of work. "It's important to know exactly what you're going to be graded on," says Rich DeMatteo, founder of the career blog Corn on the Job, adding, "If you go into it and you're not sure what's going on, then you could be given a ton more than you signed on for."

DeMatteo suggests researching the company, reaching out to its previous or current interns through sites like LinkedIn, and asking pointed questions about the position during the interview process.

Will you be overextended? Whether you're unemployed or have a part-time job, it's important not to let your unpaid internship consume all your time. "Set limits and within those limits, perform as capably as you can," Perlin recommends.

Balance your time with other employment pursuits by setting a cap on your weekly availability, detailing what tasks you're willing to perform, and restricting weekends. "You can't forget the fact that you're not getting paid. Nobody should be losing sight of that," he adds.

Does the internship have more promise than previous ones? This isn't your first go at the intern rodeo. Rather, it may be your fourth or fifth.

Perlin refers to this as the "internship trap," where one low- or no-paying position after another fails to produce permanent employment.

If the latest variation doesn't bare employment fruit or add skills that increase the likelihood of landing a job at the organization or elsewhere, it may not be worth it. "A certain kind of burnout can set in under those circumstances," Perlin says.

Could it settle a career path? Maybe you have a series of internships under your belt, but none left you clamoring to enter a particular field. Going through with another may give you some clarity. "If you're not sure if a career is right for you, completing an internship is one of the best ways to find out," writes Yair Riemer in an email. Riemer is the vice president of global marketing at CareerArc Group, the parent company of Internships.com.

[Read: Don't Make These 10 Internship Mistakes.]

Is it financially doable? Prior to becoming a full-fledged adult, you had bills that were nonexistent or sent to your parents to pay. But now, a car payment, rent (either to your parents or a landlord) and student loans are monthly obligations.

While an unpaid internship may boost your resume and help you gain work experience, it may not be compatible with your expenses. "I think graduation from college needs to be a transition into a different financial mode, and internships may be untenable within that," Perlin says.

Will your skill set sharpen or widen? An extended stay in the ranks of the unemployed may leave your skills, both hard and soft, rusty. Along with undergraduate and graduate students, the unemployed, Riemer writes, can "get trained in the skills required to make a successful transition to the permanent labor force."

Can you leverage your degree? While the internship doesn't pay, your status as a college graduate could be a useful bargaining chip for collecting compensation a few months in. "You have a qualification under your belt. I think employers, for the most part, still do understand that people can't be permanently working in internship situations after graduating from college," Perlin says.

While some employers will be closed off to any form of payment, Perlin notes: "If you're doing a good job, there is that chance, but only if you initiate the conversation."

[Read: 4 Degrees That Guarantee a Job Offer.]

Does the company have a track record of hiring interns? To get a better sense of what employment doors will open as a result of the internship, ask about how previous interns fared in getting hired. "During the interview and offer process, interested interns could ask about the potential full-time employment at the end of an internship program, as well as the structure of the program and recent historical or anecdotal company data about past interns," Riemer suggests.

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