Work-Study vs. Internship vs. Part-Time Job: Which is Best for You?
Working students should pick a job as carefully as choosing a major.
You don’t want to sell yourself short by taking just any gig with a paycheck, especially if it won’t offer valuable experience. You’ll also want an employment opportunity that works with your schedule and won’t affect your studies.
Whether you’re considering work-study vs. internships or part-time jobs, here’s how to make your best choice possible.
Review the pros and cons of:
Work-study pros and cons
Let’s start the work-study vs. internship debate with federal and school-sourced work-study programs. They’re a win-win: Students gain part-time work experience that helps to pay for school, and employers receive low-cost help in the workplace.
To qualify for the federal work-study program, you must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Your level of financial aid dictates whether you’ll be awarded a work-study spot (as well as other forms of financial aid, such as grants and student loans).
Pro: Positions are usually on-campus
Even if your financial aid award letter doesn’t include a federal work-study grant, less formal work-study positions can be found right on campus through your school’s career services center. Some may be based off-campus as well.
Here’s an important factor to consider when weighing work-study vs. an internship: A work-study job can save you money on gas, travel expenses or commute time, since you’ll likely be on-campus or nearby, whereas an internship could require a car.
With work-study, you can save time and use it wisely by attending class, earning academic credits and otherwise focusing on your studies.
Pro: Tuition assistance (and sometimes pay)
Unlike an outside part-time job, a work-study position is a school-sponsored position. It’s a form of financial aid that doesn’t need to be repaid and may even reimburse some of your tuition costs.
Work-study positions may also offer a small hourly rate you can earn. As an example, during my time as an undergrad journalism major, the work-study position I held was writing and editing for a local arts newsletter. The position provided tuition assistance and part-time pay at the same time.
Pro: They provide some career experience
You don’t necessarily have to choose between work-study vs. internship — some positions fall into both categories at once, and can lead to valuable experience. I was lucky to find one that dovetailed with my major, gave me relevant experience and paid modestly.
Find a work-study gig that complements what you’re studying in school, and it becomes more than a job — it enhances your curriculum.
Did you know?
There are 40-plus cities nationally where student wages cover education costs, according to our 2018 study on working through college.
Con: Positions may be competitive or scarce
Unlike part-time job opportunities, which are numerous, there may be a shortage of options in the work-study program you’re interested in.
If you’re attending a smaller college, there may be less work-study opportunities overall. On a larger campus, competition from other students may mean the position you want gets filled and won’t be available until the next academic term.
The Department of Education recommends that you complete your FAFSA as early as possible to access the federal work-study program’s limited funds.
Con: Compensation may be low
Work-study isn’t like a job where you can request a desired wage or salary. Depending on the award, your financial aid assistance (or pay) is set by the school. If the pay is low, your work-study program may feel like volunteering at times.
Federal work-study only guarantees that you’ll make the federal minimum wage, which was $7.25 as of July 2020. If you study and work in a state with a higher minimum wage, however, you’d enjoy that local bump in pay.
You may not be able work overtime either, as the federal work-study program generally limits students to 20 hours of work per week.
Internship pros and cons
Unlike work-study programs, internships don’t consider your level of financial need as determined by the FAFSA. You can find them via your career services department, attending job fairs and networking with alumni — just some of the ways to make the most of your college experience.
Pro: Internships give you vital career exposure
An internship in your chosen career field can give you the hands-on experience and exposure you need to land your first job post-graduation.
Internships also allow students to learn more about the workings of their would-be job industry, meet future colleagues and build skills. An internship on your resume and a positive reference from your supervisor are key assets to getting hired in the future.
Pro: You might get hired
Here’s a major point in the column of internships vs. work-study: Make a positive impression, and the company or organization you intern with off-campus might just end up becoming your first full-time job after graduation. Many internships segue into part-time or full-time positions.
Meanwhile, employers participating in work-study programs might be less likely to offer a permanent position; they can always hire the next college kid waiting in line.
Your foot is already in the door with an internship, giving you a competitive edge over other job applicants who don’t have previous internship experience with the organization. It could keep you from being unemployed right out of college.
Con: Many internships aren’t paid
The price many students pay for an internship slot is no pay at all. Internships are often unpaid, with career experience serving as the sole compensation.
If you have expenses and student loans to pay, you may find yourself struggling to cover bills, attend classes and fulfill your internship. That’s one of many reasons to be wary of unpaid internships.
Con: You may not like it
Your internship may teach you that you don’t actually like working in the career path you’ve picked. Or worse, you’ve been delegated to menial job duties that nobody else will take.
While an internship can be a great opportunity for you to discover your strengths and weaknesses, it can also mean that you might need to change majors or reassess your educational or career goals.
Part-time job pros and cons
Lining up a part-time college job might seem trickier, but there could be more opportunities, particularly if you’re willing to work off-campus. That’s one of the pros to consider for this employment type.
Pro: Greater variety of opportunities
An off-campus job isn’t tied to a school in any way, so you’re free to look for any type of work you like, wherever you choose, online and off.
Additionally, you’re not limited in a number of hours you seek or how much money you can potentially earn. Unlike work-study, which is restricted to financial aid and school budget requirements, you may hit upon an off-campus job that pays far higher than you’d expect.
Start by considering college jobs that pay above minimum wage.
Pro: It places you in a real-world environment
Finding a part-time position off-campus may open the door to social and professional networking opportunities with people outside of the college community.
If you’re seeking a more professional position, it also gives the chance to hone your resume, cover letter and interviewing skills. A part-time job will offer you real-world, career dynamics that could serve you well after graduation when you hit the job market.
Con: Wage and work inflexibility
Unless your part-time job is under the table, your pay is taxable income. The amount you earn with your job could affect the amount you receive in financial aid — your Expected Family Contribution could increase, for example — whereas a work-study job is financial aid and won’t penalize you.
Although a work-study position on campus may establish specific hours for you to work, a part-time job places your employment at the discretion of your employer. They’re free to increase or decrease your pay or hours as they wish, which may interfere with your class schedule.
Outside employment is also at-will in most states, so your job can be terminated at any time.
Con: Commuting costs
Gas, bus or train fare to commute off-campus to a part-time job can cut into the wages you earn. If you’re only able to work a few hours a week, these expenses can drastically minimize what you may earn.
One workaround is to work from anywhere: Seek out remote jobs for college students that only require a laptop and internet access.
Work-study vs. internship or part-time job: Aim for a mixture of experiences
Your class schedule permitting, look for a mixture of opportunities that imparts the experience and income you need while in school, particularly if you’re paying for college without parental help.
Instead of solely comparing work-study vs. internships, for example, think outside the box. You could divide your efforts between a part-time, unpaid internship and a part-time, paid position. This could be a good compromise that will earn you some money and give you resume-building skills.
If you’re limited to a work-study job, check with your school about the size of the paycheck. If the work-study program is only one semester long, you can search for a paid internship or part-time job for the following semester. This will let you move from one opportunity to the next.
Most of all, assess your own personal and educational preferences. Everyone’s situation — academic, financial and otherwise — is different.
Pursuing paid employment of any kind as a student puts you on the road to making sure that college pays off, and is paid off in the long-run.