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Tackling Unpaid UX Internships

Is an unpaid internship to undertake necessary when establishing your UX career?

In industries which are in massive demand such as UX, fortune favours only a small group of senior UX employees, those of which who always seem to be in demand. With such strong demand for the upper echelon, there comes a huge lack of opportunity for juniors trying to get a foothold in the job market, cultivating an environment where it is easy for businesses to exploit the young and hungry, receiving free work under the guise of unpaid internships.


We spoke with REA Group UX Researcher and Founder of UX Gatherings Rohan Irvine on his thoughts on the increasing number of unpaid internships in the industry – Are they fair? Do you actually need to undergo one to get a paid position?

According to Fairwork, an unpaid internship can exist in the circumstance where the intern’s role is mainly observational and where the intern is getting the main benefit from the arrangement, that is learning from the workplace. If the intern is found to be working to the company’s advantage (profit), that is considered an employment relationship.

In this article, we are referring to internships not including university programs for current students who need to undergo a placement as part of their coursework.


As a steward of the Melbourne UX community, how did you come from a background of IT and customer service to swapping over to UX? Have you yourself undergone a UX internship along your career journey?

When I was working full time in IT, I was introduced to another company at a conference who at the time were looking for researchers, they needed a bit of testing done for a project. I thought this would be a great opportunity to get my foot into UX and do some work, albeit free work, under the impression made by the company that it would turn into a permanent role. I actually took time off my full time job to conduct research, create a report and actually presented to the company – who in turn gave me zero feedback and no job opportunity.

It was a huge loss of confidence for me. I had no idea how I did, if they saw value in my work… just nothing. It set me back a few months in my endeavour to get into UX. I finally had to come to the realisation that I was going to get nothing from the company and instead look within and ask, “What did I learn from this process?” Don’t work for free! Be aware that people will take advantage of you if it suits them. That’s the biggest lesson I learned very early on, the same way a lot of juniors do.


We’ve seen massive salary packages for UX-ers, and everyone wants a piece of the pie. How commonplace are unpaid UX internships and how likely is it that these interns will get a paid permanent position in the business?

UX internships – there’s a lot of them. Also smaller businesses (startups and the like) tend to be the types to offer unpaid internships which normally last for 2-3 weeks because they need some free UX work done.

I think that’s straight up wrong for many reasons. One of which is that if you’re getting someone to do work for you, you need to pay them for it, even if it’s at a lesser rate than those more experienced.

Businesses who value their products invest in their products and the people who create them.

Unfortunately it’s easy for businesses to get away with exploiting eager juniors. A real internship should be about the person learning. If you want an intern, they should come in and observe and learn from you, not just do free work for your business to make money.


Totally agree. An intern should be able to learn from your company and the experience should help them make the decisions that they went there seeking help for.

In any industry you’ll have fresh grads trying to break in who really need the experience and businesses are taking advantage of that. It happens so much in graphic design, and people who can undertake long periods of unpaid work are normally bankrolled or having to work second jobs—how sustainable can that be? It creates a perpetual cycle, everyone then feels they need to do it in order to ‘earn their stripes’.

We’ve come across a lot of material which suggests offering free work to a company that you want to work for. Is this true? Do you really need to work for free in order to get a job in UX?

I don’t think anyone has to pay their ‘dues’. There should be opportunities to do project work and get paid early on. For the UX industry in particular, businesses just want seniors but they have to be realistic. If businesses want to keep up the calibre of work, you have to integrate juniors into the industry. Train and nurture those who lack experience and invest back into the UX community.


What do you think should be the standard rate of pay for an internship? If an intern isn’t being paid a wage, they should at least be covered for food and travel expenses, right? 

I wouldn’t know of an exact rate of pay for interns, but you wouldn’t have to pay for expenses if you give them a wage. I believe that whatever the standard minimum wage is (around $18/hour) should be a good guide as the very least that interns should be getting paid if they are doing profitable work for the company.

If you can’t pay for your interns, stop hiring interns.


Is there a certain point during an internship where you should ask for a permanent position? Are there certain milestones you should have reached?

It depends – what do you need? Have you gained what you were looking for? Then ask yourself if moving into that company is what you want to do.

If you’re interested in a full-time position make it known at the start of your internship, tell them you’re interested, agree upon a time to revisit the conversation. Don’t wait in silence hoping for the chance to be picked.

If you’re not looking for a full-time position get a letter of recommendation, or introduction to someone in their network.

You need to set your own goals and if you find you’re not reaching them or you’re unhappy, move on.


What do you think are crucial skills that any UX professional should work on to make themselves desirable in the market?

I think being able to listen and really hear what companies are looking for in their people is really important, at any level. Do your due diligence and research the company you want to work for – how they’re structured, how they’re making their money, and if they’re any good at being a business!

Improve your social skills—pay attention to conversations where you cut someone off, talked about yourself too much, or didn’t ask insightful questions. Talking to people is a big part of UX. Self reflecting on why a conversation may have ended terribly helps you to understand and empathise with others.

Overcome your personal blocks. Be self reflective if you find your work has been taken advantage of. Understand what was your part, and which was the businesses; take it on board, learn from it and forgive yourself.


You know the Melbourne UX community well, how do you think juniors can find a job in the industry?

Start by growing your network. Go out and meet people.

There’s more jobs than the ones posted on job boards. Referrals are a big part of the UX Industry so building relationships is important for support and opportunities.

Kristin Mark did extensive user research UXing Breaking Into UX for her talk at UX Gatherings.

Informal mentor-mentee relationships are transformative. Try and organise a coffee with someone you look up to in the industry. Some people are keen to meet, others don’t get back to you. This is not the worst thing in the world and is certainly not a reflection on you.


How can we show juniors that we support them, and they aren’t there to be taken advantage of?

For seniors and leaders in the industry, it’s important that we create avenues for people to learn. We need to advocate for more junior positions in our teams. If you want an intern, you have the responsibility to teach them skills they can use.

At REA Group, there is a UX Design Graduate Program where Grads work closely with UX Designers, Product Managers and Developers across all parts of the business.

It’s important we demonstrate good working environments for juniors, and show the variety of work we do.

No-one got their big break in UX on their own—show the same support and kindness you received to the up and comers in the industry.


Rohan Irvine is a UX Researcher at REA Group and Founder of UX Gatherings.


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