Digging her hand into a bucket of crickets and worms helped Shannon Burke learn something this summer: She's not interested in working at a zoo when she graduates from college in two years.
Burke said her unpaid internship at the National Aquarium in Baltimore the past few months was a lesson well worth the temporary move to Baltimore from Houston and a part-time job at a home-improvement store.
"I thought I might want to do it," she said of a career in zoology, "but after talking to the people who do it full time, I knew it's not what I want do."
Unpaid internships often offer a foot in the door to an industry or company, experts said, and more colleges include them as part of their degree programs. But some critics worry that it's an unfair practice that benefits only students who can afford to forgo summer wages. Others believe sacrificing a little now can be a smart investment in the future. "It gives people the ability to take risks," said Peter Handal, president and chief executive of Dale Carnegie Training, a workplace consulting firm based in New York. "It's a good risk to take if you don't know if you are truly interested in a job or not."
Research by the Vault, a career information company, found that 55 percent of internships are unpaid and that at least 80 percent of college students completed an internship.
Lisa Smith, 21, a political science and psychology major, is going into her senior year at McGill University in Canada this fall and wanted to have some work experience before applying to graduate schools.
She was able to land a research position in her hometown this summer with the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs.
"It's less pressure because you're not a paid intern and it's not like your job is at stake," Smith said. "I like that it's a nonprofit and it's located at the World Trade Center downtown, which is a cool place to be for the summer."
Unpaid internships are standard in many industries such as nonprofits because of their limited budgets, said Samer Hamedah, chief executive of the Vault. Other industries such as film and other media don't have to pay students because there is so much interest in the field, he said.
"The thing that's working for all of these companies is that it's so critical to have experience on your resume," Hamedah said. "You can't graduate without experience."
WBAL-TV, the NBC affiliate in Baltimore, takes eight students each summer for its unpaid internship program - the station received more than 100 applications. Students earn three academic credits.
"Our interns, they don't do work that people are paid for, they learn," said Wanda Draper, the station's director of programming.
Other professions, such as engineering and financial services, offer paid internships because they consider it a recruitment expense that helps bring potential full-time workers into the pipeline.
Paid or not, students should look for a position that is going to give them the exposure, skills or knowledge they need in their field of interest, experts said.
"Most companies are short-staffed; they need you to do real work," Hamedah said. "If it's an industry you care about, then [students] are happy to do real work."
Some companies, like eCoastStudios, a Web design firm in Baltimore, use internships as way to screen new talent without having to add them to the payroll.
"I need someone who can work on their own," said Michael Roth, the company's creative director. "Our office is so small, we can't pay someone to train them. If they are excellent, we will hire them off the bat."
Some schools encourage unpaid internships because it helps students focus on the experience instead of the money they are earning, said Carol Vellucci, career center director at Towson University.
"[A paid internship] blurs the boundaries between an internship and a part-time job," Vellucci said. "Some faculty feel that having a nonpaid internship makes the intent of an internship more clear."
But financial considerations do come into play, especially during the summer, said Glenda Henkel, who coordinates internships at Towson.
About 60 percent to 70 percent of Towson students who intern are unpaid, she said. But the majority of them take those positions during the fall or spring when they don't have to pay extra for the tuition or housing.
Still, some students like Burke would rather create an experience from an unpaid internship.
Her position at the National Aquarium requires 120 hours of work to qualify for college credit. Burke, who is a biology major at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, could have completed the provision in three weeks, but chose to stretch it out.
"I've never lived on the East Coast, so I wanted to stay a little bit longer," said Burke, who now wants to pursue a career in law enforcement forensics.
She works part-time at a hardware store to make extra cash and is staying with a family friend in Catonsville.
"It is hard, it is partially unfair, but there are so many kids who are resourceful and make it work," Hamedah said.
Colleges and universities could make the process easier by not charging students tuition for internship credits or offering grants for housing and other needs, said Bill Coplin, a public affairs professor at Syracuse University. He added that schools should do more to ensure that students participate in quality internship programs.
"It's a double whammy," he said. "You don't get paid and you have to pay for the credits."
Unpaid internships can put some students at a disadvantage if they cannot afford to work for free and pay tuition, Coplin said.
Smith, who interns at the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs, pays tuition for the academic credit she is receiving. She lives at home and works part time at the Hard Rock Cafe in the Inner Harbor to save money.
"I definitely think it's a privilege to have the opportunity to do it," Smith said. "I did apply to another internship that was full time, unpaid, and I would have had to commute. I think it would have been very difficult to make the money I need for my school expenses."
Amelia Luchey of Bel Air is a student at the University of Delaware who also worked at the aquarium as a public relations intern.
She took advantage of the fact that she could live at home, commute into Baltimore with her mother and work part time as a veterinarian's assistant.
Tips for surviving an unpaid internship
Ask supervisors to give you challenging assignments.
Ask lots of questions about the field and full-time workers' experiences.
Attend staff meetings and have lunch with managers to learn about the employer.
Find out if your school offers grants for unpaid internships and apply for them.
Research grants, scholarships or fellowships in your field from organizations outside your university.
Request extra financial aid or an additional loan to cover expenses.
Save money before the internship period.
Try to work part time in a paying job. Communicate with your internship supervisor about your other job.
SOURCE: MonsterTRAK and interviews with experts