A box of Krispy Kreme donuts and a yard sale taught me the basic exchange of money for labor. After conquering our block, my sister and I branched into an under-the-table venture to take care of neighborhood pets during the summer. We netted around $400 apiece, which to an 11-year-old and an 8-year-old translated to innumerable ice creams at Family Mart. Almost a decade later, I discovered I’d have to pay money to acquire work experience through unpaid internships in order to graduate college. Something about the work-equals-money system suddenly seemed broken.

Early on in my college career I did a few short unpaid internships. During these internships I could live at home or with relatives in order to negate living costs. The summer before my senior year I received the opportunity to intern for one of the biggest names in news. In order to accept the position I would have to find housing in Atlanta, pay for gas, groceries and other living expenses and forgo seeing a single penny go back into my back account.

I didn’t even hesitate and immediately accepted. I figured the money I put in newsweek-internships-01would yield a high ROI from networking opportunities and having a “brand name” media outlet on my resume. Fortunately for me a New York Times article in April of 2010 scared a few employers into paying interns. I ended up getting paid minimum wage while working 40 hour weeks. Many of my peers weren’t so lucky, even after college.

After graduation, countless millennials take unpaid internships in the vain hopes of finding a “real job,” but 3 months, 6 months, a year later they still pay to work for someone else. We do it for the almighty networking opportunities. Networking isn’t to be undervalued, all of my paying jobs have been a direct result of networking. But even with networking advantages, at what point do we stop working for free?

If anyone truly knows, I’d love to hear the answer. Until someone comes up with a definitive conclusion about when to stop working for free, try answering these questions:

  1. Are you still learning and being challenged?
  2. Is this situation financially viable or are you just incurring debt?
  3. Is there real potential to move up in the organization or begin getting paid for your work?
  4. Who is your competition and how many spots may open?
  5. Do you want to be here in 5, 10 or 15 years?
  6. If you owned this company would you be paying someone to do your work?
  7. Are you consistently doing your best work?
  8. Have you “asked for the order”?

My mother always used to tell me to “ask for the order” if I complained about an injustice in my life. You’d be surprised how far you can get if you directly ask for the promotion you’ve earned or to be fairly compensated for your work. Of course you should do this tactfully and only if your performance truly merits a promotion or raise.

It isn’t just internships that require free labor. The creative community depends on the kindness of strangers. Blog posts wouldn’t be written, web serieswouldn’t be created, plays wouldn’t be staged if it weren’t for people willing to put in unpaid hours. But even when it’s your friends, co-workers or heavy-hitters in your industry asking for your time, consider how long you are willing to work for free.

Some of the best professional advice I’ve ever received went something like this: “When you graduate take a job, any job, but know exactly how long you are going to stay there.” Even if you’re happy with your job, always be planning your next move and figuring out how to get there.

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