Should You Work for Free?

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Your time and your skills have value. Employers ask for free labor simply because they can get it, not because your labor is worthless. Agreeing to work for free devalues your skllls, creates a bad precedent for others with those same skills, encourages employers to exploit their workers, and makes professional advancement more difficult for people who don’t have the option of working for free. 

Maybe (if your answer to any of these questions is yes)

Is an organization whose goals are so important to you that you would be willing to volunteer there under other circumstances?

Is your learning curve going to be so steep that the employer is likely to lose more than they gain by employing you? (Keep in mind that ANY new employee needs some time to learn the ropes, and that most businesses factor in those costs when they decide to hire someone.)

Is the hope of working for this particular organization so important to you that you would rather have an opportunity to prove your worth than be paid?

Is there no other way to get this particular kind of experience–a different job, volunteer work for an organization you care about, your extracurricular activities?

Is it a writing gig that will give you some non-academic work samples for your portfolio?

Does the position have some added value (prestige, filling a gap in your resume, networking opportunities) that you can get no other way?

Yes?

If you DO have a good reason to work for free, then own it.

  • Articulate your reasons clearly to yourself, in terms that will make it possible for you to recognize when you have gotten what you want from the experience.
  • Be confident that this particular opportunity is the best use of your free labor at this moment.
  • Don’t limit yourself to the opportunity in front of you: if you’re going to work for free, it might as well be for an organization that matters to you or that will teach you particular skills you want.
  • Have an endpoint: set a goal or time limit after which you will stop or insist on payment.

 

Jobs for Those with People Skills

First Job: Human Resources

Consider the following list of qualifications:hr-jobThis is an entry-level position in human resources, a field for which English and creative writing are always “related majors.”

Human resources is the work of recruiting potential employees, hiring them, getting them started in their jobs, and then resolving problems that arise. If you’ve helped a friend get hired at your work, if you’ve trained a new employee, if you’ve helped someone in trouble keep their job–you’ve already done work in this area.

Alumnus Theo Long, the Associate Director of Talent Management (“a fancy way of saying human resources”) for the U of I Office of Advancemtheodore_longent was in the English department yesterday to talk about his own experience. It was a field he stumbled into, but the point where it became a career path, rather than simply a way to pay the bills, was the point where he realized he could make a difference in the lives of other people. Having seen on-the-job conflicts be mismanaged (“some managers just love to fire people”), he sought out a managerial role where he could help resolve conflicts supportively and constructively.

There are a lot of entry-level roles in HR that do NOT require a graduate degree, particularly recruiting new employees. For those who want to advance in the field without committing to a graduate program, the Society of Human Resource Managers (SHRM) offers a certification program, which involves self-study, an exam, and a fee.

Theo also noted that an entry-level HR job can be a point of entry into an organization or an industry in which you may ultimately pursue other career paths: project management, communications, public relations.

Second Job: Advancement/Development/Fundraising

Higher education, not-for-profit organizations, philanthropy, social justice and political activism…all these kinds of organizations require donations to stay afloat. The work of of obtaining and managing those donations goes by many names.  Theo Long’s HR job falls within the University of Illinois’s Office of Advancement which works with donors. Theo offered insight into the kinds of skills that are key for jobs in this area: not just the ability to ask people for money (though that is important) but also–a strong commitment to the mission of the organization that you’re raising money for, excellent listening skills, and curiosity. He also noted that advancement takes a lot of different forms: there is need for event planners, project managers, and researchers. A background in sales, customer service, organizing events for your RSO, and helping with fundraising in any capacity can make you eligible for an entry level job in this area. Theo also noted that the University of Illinois Foundation regularly seeks student employees to call alumni and seek donations. It’s not work that everyone takes to, but for anyone thinking about a career in the non-profit realm, it’s valuable experience.

Theo is a member of the Alumni Mentoring program, so feel free to contact him using your Alumni Mentoring Directory (and if you haven’t yet signed up for the Alumni Mentoring program, please set up an appointment with Kirstin Wilcox by emailing kwilcox@illinois.edu or calling 333-4346).

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Experience Matters–and is Within Reach

“I am currently reviewing resumes for an associate editor position and it’s depressing how few applicants have any experience outside of just their college classes. I know U of I is rich with opportunities, too! People just need that “push” to actually go for it. It will absolutely help them when it comes time to find a job. Not only does it help hone their writing and editing skills, but it demonstrates their interest in the field and their ability to juggle responsibilities beyond coursework.”

face-66317_1920So writes one of our alumni who works in the editing field (we’re currently updated our Alumni Mentoring Directory)

A Big-10 research university offers no shortage of opportunities to get professional experience–whether your career goal is editing, writing, marketing, PR, the tech field, media, communications… Internships are a great place to start, but they’re not the only option. Consider a part-time job, or any number of volunteer or RSO opportunities on campus that will give you scope to build your skills.

Guest Post: Gaining Valuable Experience in Legal Writing

By Michael Chan (English ’14)

I began my undergraduate career as an Architectural Studies major before making the switch to English about halfway into my sophomore year. It wasn’t an easy decision for me to make, but after extensively consulting with family, friends, and several trusted mentors, I was prepared to commit myself to the new program (and to the condensed course load that came with it). What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was UIUC_Chandeciding upon a definitive career path within the next two years.

Throughout my junior year, I met with several professors, advisors, and grad students to discuss the possibility of grad school and to get a better understanding of what an academic career would entail. I also frequented the Career Center to explore alternative career paths outside of academia. I knew that I thoroughly enjoyed research and writing, but I also didn’t want to limit my options—especially since I had only taken a handful of English courses at the time and wasn’t sure if I wanted to dedicate another 6-8 years in pursuit of a Ph.D.

As senior year approached, I decided to look for a job after graduation so that I could gain some practical work experience; this would allow me to spend some time away from academia and to develop my skills as a working professional. After sending out numerous applications, I finally received an offer to work for an immigration law firm as a legal writer. I didn’t have any experience in legal writing, but I viewed this as an opportunity to expand my writing capability. Therefore, I accepted the offer and began my first day of work on November 11, 2014.

As a legal writer, I was responsible for drafting a variety of legal documents that communicated complex and technical information in plain and accessible language (all of these documents followed a customary form and structure that were taught during the training process). I also had to present that information in a compelling light in order to support the rest of the arguments being made for a client’s case. While I’m unable to provide any further details (due to the confidential nature of my work and also at the firm’s request), it’s clear to see that the type of writing I discussed above combines several key aspects of persuasive and argumentative writing (i.e. making a claim, citing supporting evidence to substantiate that claim and to make it more convincing) with technical writing (i.e. translating complex and technical information into more relatable terms for a more general audience). It’s important to note here that legal writing is just a type of technical writing that incorporates certain elements from both of these writing styles to serve a wide range of legal services/areas—immigration law being one of them.

Being an effective communicator is central to any genre, form, or style of writing; the ability to communicate your thoughts, as well as the thoughts of others, in a clear, concise, and effective manner is critical to your overall success as a writer and it is also one of the many skills you develop as an English major. Learning a new type or style of writing can seem daunting – and it will undoubtedly take some time and practice to achieve any sort of proficiency in it – but having a solid foundation of writing experience to draw from will take you much farther along the process. The countless papers that you wrote as an undergrad, the feedback you received on those papers, what you did to improve your writing based on that feedback, the range of elective courses that you took in Creative Writing, Business and Technical Writing, Rhetoric—these all make up your collective writing experience. These are all experiences that can be taken for granted as a student, but they are all imperative to the development of your writing capability.

Working as a legal writer has added significant value to my own writing experience and it has also added a new dimension of practicality to my writing. For any English majors who are interested in obtaining valuable work experience outside of academia (or for those who just need some time away from the books before reconsidering grad school), legal writing is just one of many options for you to consider and explore.

If you would like to reach out to Michael with any additional questions, you can email him directly at chan.michael.08@gmail.com.