“Online Self-Paid Internships”: a Springboard Or a Trap?

Once again, it’s time for Heng Xu, a Chinese international student studying at the Australian National University, to remind her internship supervisor to send her feedback about the work she submitted three days ago.


Once again, it’s time for Heng Xu, a Chinese international student studying at the Australian National University, to remind her internship supervisor to send her feedback about the work she submitted three days ago.

“I reminded my leader yesterday. She promised me that she would send me the feedback yesterday evening, but she hasn’t sent it so far. I can’t remember how many times I waited anxiously for my leader’s reply and needed to urge her many times,” says Xu. “It feels like I’m not qualified to take the position and now I’m begging her to take the internship.”

“I know this could happen for online self-paid internships, but in order to make her more competitive when seeking a job, I paid for it anyway,” says Xu’s mother.

“Online Self-Paid Internships” in China

As the number of graduates in China increases year by year, the competition for jobs is increasingly fierce. Such an environment brings about many agencies that assist students in finding jobs, and one of their main services is the “online self-paid internship”.

In these programs, students pay money to do internships online for top companies in China to appear more competitive when seeking jobs. Students are assigned work by their internship supervisors, and receive feedback on WeChat afterwards.

Although many leading companies in China claim that they don’t allow any of their employees to engage in these online self-paid internships, they are becoming increasingly popular amongst Chinese students.

Compared to their domestic peers, it is more difficult for Chinese students studying overseas in other countries to get an internship at a Chinese company, since they are not able to work in-person.

As a result, overseas Chinese students are the main targets for online internship providers, and agencies are now trying to use different ways to engage overseas Chinese students as clients.

Alan Xiong, the marketing director of one such agency in China, Intern Student, said that the most common way they approach students is by publicising themselves in WeChat groups composed of new students. They also sometimes send their employees to university campuses to directly advertise their services to students.

“For Australian universities including The University of Melbourne and Monash University, we already have a very detailed plan for advertising our services [including the “online self-paid internship”] to Chinese international students,” says Xiong.

Many Chinese students in need of an internship experience to be more competitive in the job market find it difficult to decide whether they should do these online self-paid internships or not. For some, the internship has been of great use in landing future jobs in major Chinese companies. However, for others, it seemed to be merely a trap that wasted their time and money.

The Springboard to a Career in Major Companies

“If you want to get into a top company but couldn’t obtain relevant internship experience, the online self-paid internship is no doubt the best choice—you don’t need to worry about not being able to get the internship offer,” says Bella Zheng, a staff member from another of these agencies.

“I have a student [client] who graduated from a lower-ranked university but got into a top internet company, since she did several online self-paid internships with us in such major companies. [This] made her more competitive when applying for the position.”

Lydia Cao, a staff member from another agency, also commented on the practical aspect of online self-paid internships. According to Cao, these internships are not merely certificates that prove that the student has relevant internship experience; more importantly, they equip the student with real industry knowledge.

“With the knowledge acquired in the internship, students are much more competitive than others who have no idea about the roles and responsibilities of the position they want to apply for,” says Cao.

One of Cao’s clients, Xiang Li, said that throughout the three-month online self-paid internship in a fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) company, she developed an understanding of what specifically she had to do in a marketing position in the industry. Her internship experience eventually helped her get an employment offer from another FMCG company. 

A Trap that Brings Nothing but Trouble

Although some students and agency staff spoke highly of the online self-paid internship, others criticised the program as a waste of time and money. An Zhou, an undergraduate student at the Renmin University of China, said that the online self-paid internship he did for 10 months in a securities company turned out to be completely fake.

“It turned out that my internship supervisor—who claimed to be an in-house security analyst—was actually a postgraduate student intern there,” says Zhou. “I am now feeling that I was quite stupid. Throughout my 10-month internship, I completed millions of words of research reports, and even worked overtime on the night of New Year’s Day.”

Unlike An Zhou, Lin Zhou, an undergraduate student from Beijing, said that she was assigned an actual manager in the company as her internship supervisor. However, the work she was given was not the real work in-house employees would do.

“During the internship, my daughter was just given some repetitive work to do. For instance, she was asked to translate and edit some given articles. However, we did not see any of the translated articles being posted on their news account,” says Zhou’s mother.

Other than being given irrelevant tasks, some students criticised their internship supervisors as irresponsible.

“After I submitted the third task my leader gave me, [he] didn’t reply anymore, and I think he just forgot about me. I asked human resources about what happened—she told me that the leader was super busy and never gave me any response after. At the end of the internship, she just said that the internship was over and dismissed the WeChat group,” says Sihan Wang, a Chinese international student in Canada.

A Springboard, a Trap or a Gamble?

“In the one-month internship, I only did three tasks and didn’t really learn anything useful. I think it was quite a waste of money.”

There is still one week to go until the end of Heng Xu’s internship, but she is already feeling an exhaustion she has never experienced in her life.

“I have no choice. I wanted to stop my online self-paid internship a long time ago. But in that case, I can neither get the internship certificate, nor my money back.”

In truth, whether these online self-paid internships are such powerful weapons just as the agencies described; or indeed, are they simply scams that are not worth students’ time and money? Perhaps only those who’ve purchased would know.

“I think maybe I practised translating between English and Chinese and I learned how to use a Chinese new media editing software, but these are not what I want,” says Xu. 

“The staff from the agency to whom I pay for the internship told me that I would do the real work in-house employees in the company are doing, but I know that the work I’m doing is actually made up by my internship supervisor.”

“There is no doubt that the internship is not worth the price.”

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