I'm currently doing an unpaid "software engineering" internship in the UK and I'm extremely disappointed. I went in with the expectation that I would be working in a team, have regular code reviews, and work on something that mattered even remotely to the company.

Turns out none of those things happened. I'm the sole software engineer working on coding up an image recognition app and wiring up REST apis and doing all the testing.

As fun as the project is, I don't feel like I'm making any growth. I've done this kind of stuff before and so I was really looking forward to having my skills bettered by someone more experienced. So it was a bit of a surprise when I found out my supervisor barely knew anything about ML, short of the superficial hype. To boot, the motivation behind doing the project is...unsatisfying: if the project was at all important, why am I, a lowly unpaid intern, the only one working on it?

Granted, this is an unpaid internship, so my initial expectations might have been a little too much but...how do I deal with this anyway?

EDIT: I'm a rising second-year student. The internship lasts for about 1.5 months and I'm halfway through. As for the ideal outcome, I'd like to have my initial expectations met. After all, the main reason why I did go unpaid was so I could improve on my skills while working on an interesting project -- not serve as free labor, with no technical guidance, no mentorship, nothing whatsoever to indicate that I was anything more than a mole rat working all alone.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Jane S
    Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 5:12

8 Answers 8


You are being used, get out.

Development companies have enough money to pay for interns that are just studying. You are actually working for free.

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    +1 Not to mention OP is the /sole/ person developing things. That alone should be a red flag! Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 14:27
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    I completely agree this is what would be the right choice but in reality its not always an option. Places want experience if you want a job and sometimes the only way to get that experience is to work for free. Its not a good practice but its the way it is. Its a crappy situation to be in but since its only ~6 week internship and being 3 weeks in he might as well stick it out in my opinion. Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 14:31
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    @maxathousand I again would say yes. Rather than working at home doing your own project, you are showing that you are able to work on a job (thats maybe not 100% in your interests/skills) and being successful. It also will provide him with a possible reference. Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 14:44
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    The purpose of an internship is to teach the intern, not to get free labour. The intern should be the one who benefits, not the company. If you are not learning anything, move on.
    – B540Glenn
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 15:21
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    @imdannyboy909 in software I can assure you that working for free is not necessary or normal - there are many, many places that will pay you fairly for your internship and teach you useful things to boot.
    – walrus
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 15:30

I can understand how you feel, since I was in the same situation myself a while ago. I'll give you my two cents hoping you'll find them useful.

The productive way to deal with this is trying to patch up the project decently, so you'll acquire some skills to use later on and have something to add to your CV/resume.

One month and half of internship is already very short time, and if you're not in a team, it's unlikely you'll ever be introduced to one halfway through.

Try to speak with your supervisor to understand what are his expectations about the project, if they match with yours, and what will happen if you eventually won't be able to meet them (being the only one working on the software).

I was really looking forward to having my skills bettered by someone more experienced

From your description of the workplace, this isn't probably going to happen. It seems that the only senior you have available is your mentor, so, even if he's not knowledgeable on ML, you could try to learn from him in other aspects of his work.

And if you keep losing motivation and making no progress, just go.

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    If you can't learn from your "mentor," you can spend your time at the office learning about ML or whatever topics you were hoping to learn about. Find some excuse to incorporate them into the project. It will slow the project down, but what do they want for free?
    – stannius
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 16:10

An internship is supposed to be a two-way street, where everyone involved benefits.

The employer benefits, obviously, by getting a certain amount of work done for free (or below market cost), with the understanding that the quality of work may be less than what an experienced and trained professional would provide. A side benefit is that you might like the company so much that you decide to stay on as a FTE, reducing their recruiting expenses. However, they are expected to provide guidance and mentoring. This is their number one responsibility.

The intern benefits by gaining real-world experience, which is generally quite different than what you learn in school. You get something to put on your CV. And in addition to the subject matter, you are also learning to navigate the business world, and might make some contacts that will be beneficial in the future (networking). And you have the same side benefit: you might decide to stay on.

But it sounds like the employer is not keeping their end of the bargain. If you're not learning anything, and you're not getting paid, there's not much in it for you. Thank them for the opportunity, and find another place to work (hopefully one that provides a paycheck).


Is this a work placement as a part of your schooling or degree, or is it just something you're doing by your own choice during the summer vacation?

  • If it's a part of your course, you should talk to whoever arranges the internships in your university department, and to your line manager in the company. Explain to them that the internship isn't meeting the educational goals that it's supposed to.

  • If it's just something you're doing by your own choice, then the arrangement looks illegal to me, though I'm not a lawyer and I don't even play one on TV. The UK government has guidance on employment rights and pay for interns. You almost certainly qualify as a "worker" and possibly even an "employee". As such, you are entitled to the minimum wage, and that is more than zero.


Ask for a paid internship, a freelance or half / full time position (possibly just for the project or a certain time frame)
Lay out your concerns and what has been said here as arguments for being remunerated.

If they don't want to pay you, thank them for the opportunity, emphasize that you unfortunately can't work for free and leave.


I'd say it somewhat matters what kind of internship.

Is this organized through any level of education ? If so, talk to whoever your mentor is on that side, to ask them whether your current treatment is normal. In this situation, you might have something to lose, which could be study credit.

If not, you have nothing to lose, and I'd tell them to either provide guidance as befits an intern or salary as befits an employee. There's no reason to work for nothing, and as software engineers are currently in high demand, they don't really have a choice anyway. If they aren't willing to treat you decently, it's not hard to find another company that will.

Do read your contract about it, though, if you signed anything. If you didn't sign anything, just tell them your intentions and have them pick an option. If your name isn't on a piece of paper, you can just walk away without them having any options. It's not the nice thing to do, but it's better than getting walked over.


Sight unseen I was about to answer "Yes you're being screwed over." Unpaid internships in software engineering are almost never a good idea. Tech companies will and should pay you (and in most cases this is required by law).

However, since you're half way though a short project I recommend you stay and maximize the amount you learn from the experience: You can learn valuable things by wrapping the project up.

  • How to operate in an office environment
  • How to interact with management and peers
  • How to communicate your progress
  • How to document your work
  • How to work with ticketing systems

Finish the project, document it, hand it off and next time get a paid role. The successful completion WILL put you ahead of your peers. The way I see it leaving now wastes the 3 weeks you've put in. Seeing it through allows you to chalk up a successful finished project.

  • this + if you got the internship through your University report the company to whoever found the position. Make sure they give you a good reference also. Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 9:42

If you feel screwed over, it does not even matter what the "truth" is - there might be thoughtlessness on the side of the company leaders, assuming it is ok because you do not seriously complain, or there might be malice, or there might be company internal politics involved (eg somebody is given a budget for equipment but none for personnel).

The thing is, YOU are unsatisfied and feel screwed over, otherwise you wouldn't be asking. Time to go for a "nothing to lose" mindset - ask for change, if none happens, leave.

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