TL;DR: As an under-qualified software engineer in Australia that came from overseas, should I offer to work for free or should I keep working on my skills before applying for a paid job after PhD?

Goal: To get a full time job in Machine Learning / Data Science and graduate from PhD asap.

Background: I've attained my Bachelor's from software engineering, worked as a software engineer for about a year (6 years ago), finished a master's degree in Computer Science (all of them overseas), had about a year of gap before starting my PhD in Australia (now 1.5+ years in). My PhD is also in Computer Science, funded by a scholarship from an Australian university.

My PhD is in a very similar/same field with the job that I would like to get into (Deep Learning / Machine Learning). I live in a small-ish city where I have recently found a startup with 5 employees which I would like to work for (they were hiring for a full time, now the ad for the position has been removed).

I feel quite underqualified for the job, as I lack both experience and knowledge to do so. I am also not a citizen but I do have work permit from my student visa, and my English is great. Options:

  1. Offer to work for free for the startup: Since startups usually lack funds and manpower, I think they would be inclined to accept. I can work for 2 days (20 hours) and work for PhD for 4 days (40 hours) and survive with the money from PhD. Graduate. Then look for a job for after graduation with "1 year of experience in the field" + reference maybe.
  2. Offer to work for free for the first 3 months: This is to "get my foot into the door", gain experience, hopefully do OK. Then I could ask for something like a minimum wage. Showing payslips is great for visa.
  3. Self-educate from online courses: I could spend some money and take some online courses, certifications and build up a portfolio with projects. Graduate from PhD and then apply for a job.
  4. Apply for internships? Could be an option, but it could be tough since I'm entering into my final year of PhD.

Thanks in advance.


2 Answers 2


There is a weird disconnect in your post. You are nearly finished with a PhD in Machine Learning and you feel you lack knowledge in this field? You must have worked on some (academic) projects and gathered knowledge and experience. Don't sell yourself short.

Online courses are well and good if you want to self-educate, but don't think that will overly impress potential employers. Working for free seems like a bad idea for all involved. And I would deem you overqualified for an internship.

So, I recommend one of two paths:

  • Work part-time (payed!) for that startup (or some other company). This will give you work experience and a payslip. It may also boost your self-confidence. If there is not sufficient demand for your skills in your area, you may find a position that lets you work remotely.
  • Work on a cool pet-project. There are so many things you can do with Deep Learning - just find one project that inspires you and preferably will yield cool pictures or videos. This will wow future employers and will also improve your knowledge and experience.
  • Thanks for the reply. For clarification: why do you think working for free is a bad idea? I was thinking it would lower the barrier of entry and give me future job prospects at the same time. Employers seem to appraise relevant job experience more than personal projects. No? Mar 7, 2019 at 8:27
  • @JohnObfuscated if you work for free for a company you have little incentive to power through difficult times. This makes it very risky for the company as you could decide to leave the project at any time without any apparent downside to you. In addition, your contribution may not be valued enough as people tend to undervalue what they get for free.
    – Eigentime
    Mar 7, 2019 at 8:49
  • @JohnObfuscated It is true that relevant job experience is more highly valued than personal projects. However, when you are fresh out of university a lack of job experience is expected and not a red flag. A good (finished!) personal project can then go a long way to show that your knowledge is not purely academic and you are able to solve problems in the real world.
    – Eigentime
    Mar 7, 2019 at 8:52
  • That hit the spot. It has the double benefit of developing my skills as well. Thanks Mar 7, 2019 at 10:16

Are you a charity?

If you go into a bakery, will you get bread for free because of your free work ?

Do we live in communism?


  • you're doing a disservice to yourself and your future salary negotiations (offering your work for free screams desperation and low self esteem / disregard for ones' own worth, it also lowers the bar for future salaries if the potential employer knows you're willing to work for much less)

  • you perpetuate the wage race to the bottom

  • you steal work from others that are actually sane minded and ask for compensation for their contribution to the company (usually a not for free but profit oriented enterprise)

  • you won't have any payments into pension and healthcare funds during your "work" (unless paid out of your pocket)

  • you won't have the understanding and satisfaction to have literally EARNED money building up your self worth and confidence

  • you're a slave

If you feel you still lack knowledge to get a junior position(though all your degrees / education and prior work experience say otherwise) get an INTERNSHIP position.

I'm not convinced these should be for free either but sadly most are.

At least you'll learn how the "real world" in your field ticks.

If it's a decent company they won't just use you as a free coffee delivery service or assistant but mentor you and let you witness the day to day operations, get acquainted with their tools and procedures.

Since you want to work on your PhD seek part time positions.

  • 2
    Communists don't work for free. Albeit, historic compensation rates might make it look like they do. Mar 7, 2019 at 9:27
  • @P.Hopkinson there is no money in communism. I admit however, technically they work for the betterment of society and themselves, so one could argue not for free. Clearly I ment monetary compensation. There was no actual communist country yet in existence, only socialist systems. In china there were "test runs" in villages / towns though. Mar 7, 2019 at 9:41
  • I understand your societal concerns and it's horrible for personal finance, I agree. My intuition was simply to get competitive in the job market & gain experience short term. This would "cover up" my lack of skill / confidence but it simply seems better to be better skilled than lowering the fees for the company. Thanks for the reply. Mar 7, 2019 at 10:24

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