At least they don't seal the fire exits Or why unpaid internships are BS

FYI This post lead to the publication of a paper in 2015 with Alex Bond. Fournier, A.M.V., Bond, A.L. Volunteer field staff are bad for wildlife ecology The Wildlife Society Bulletin 39: 819-821 doi:10.1002/wsb.603 pdf link

beware, this is something I feel VERY passionately about


I’m flipping through a job board, scanning for post docs, dreamily reading field technician posts and there they are

Unpaid internship in Amazing Place A Unpaid technician working with Cool Species B

Some are obvious, and put their unpaid status it in the title, others you have to dig through the fine print, before you are hit you over the head with what a ‘unique oppurtunity this internship is’ how rare the animal or system, and how you should smile and love that you are not going to get paid, and might even have to pay them for the pleasure of working for them.

Every time I see one of these posts my skin crawls, my heart races, my eyes narrow. These jobs anger me, at my core, and I think we as a scientific community need to stop doing this to ourselves and our young scientists.

We get up and talk about how we need diversity in our field (whatever field it is, for me its wildlife ecology) how we need people from all backgrounds, cultures, creeds and races. Then we create positions that only those who come from means, and continue to have them can take. We are shooting ourselves in the foot by excluding people from getting into science. How is someone who has student loans (most students do), someone who has no financial support, someone with a child, or a sick parent, no family to buy a plane ticket for them, or any other kind of life situation supposed to take these positions? How?

Getting paid for work is NOT a form of entitlement. Indeed, most people who supervise unpaid interns, are paid, and probably feel that they like that (I know I enjoy being paid to work on my PhD). We need to treat our technicians like the scientists they are, sure, they are scientists in training in many cases, but that is no need to treat them like they aren’t valuable people.

I am really sick of hearing everyone’s excuses for continuing this cycle.

  • I DO NOT CARE if you volunteered for eight years while living on beans and dirt and slept under a piece of rusty tin. Times have changed, we don't just need well off white guys anymore, and that is what that system gave us.
  • I DO NOT CARE if you think it builds character. Hard work builds character, new experiences build character, not being treated like you're not a real person.
  • I DO NOT CARE if you don't have room in your budget. I don't doubt you, budgets are tight, I get it. But just like the folks who tell me that there isn't money to correctly collect the data, or ethically handle the animals, if you can't do something right, you don't do it. Its as simple as that. If you can't pay those interns, then you DONT GET INTERNS.
  • I DO NOT CARE if you think it could be worse. I've never heard of a natural resources position charging for references for instance, but there are jobs where the TECHNICIAN pays for the 'privilege' of working. This, angers me even more. That is now how jobs work! If I work with you and you suggest we do this, we are not friends anymore, FYI.

The audacity that comes from asking someone to give up months of their life and giving them nothing in return, astounds me, and makes me mad. Experience is not payment enough, we all receive experience on every job we do, and we all deserve to be paid while doing the work to get that experience.

Some will say ‘there is no money to pay the interns’.

Do you ask your mass spec to run the samples ‘for the experience?’ Do you tell your equipment supplier that they should be honored to be part of this project? Do you tell your trucks low fuel light that it just has to grin and bear it for a few years and then they will get a fill up?

No, I doubt you do. Then why do we do this to our young scientists? Are they not our greatest resource? Why do we create positions that are awesome, fun, challenging, educational, great experiences and places of growth and then make it so that only part of the population can even consider applying?


It sounds harsh, but figure out a way to pay them or do the work yourself. To me at least, it is as simple as that.

Now I'm not speaking about volunteering on occasion, for a weekend, or one afternoon a week for a semester. I'm talking about weeks or months on end of full time (or more then full time) unpaid work. I'm talking about not paying someone to work for you for an extended period where they are going to have to figure out another way to make ends meet.

I don’t know what the solution is, beyond just stopping. Like many issues in our field it probably doesn’t have any easy solution, but it needs to be thought about and discussed and we need more scientists to make a commitment to stop this cycle.

When we create unpaid full-time positions, we exclude people. These people are great young scientists who can’t afford to not be paid, who don’t have large savings accounts or generous friends and family. I don’t have data to back up this statement, but I’m willing to say that we exclude more minorities then we include when we don’t pay our technicians and interns.

This is bad for science, it is bad for our natural resources, it is bad for society.

In a field that desperately needs greater diversity, of gender, race, sexual orientation, economic status, and every other group, we cannot afford to not pay our interns, not if we want things to change.

I invite your thoughts, opinions, comments and solutions in the comments or on twitter (@RallidaeRule) and special thanks to Eric Lawton for helping me name this post

Those of you who know me personally know that I and members of my family have taken unpaid and ‘pay-to-work’ technician jobs. Some will probably say I’m a hypocrite as a result, and I can’t say that they are wrong. But I am committed to changing this cycle and never allowing any project I am a part of to have these kind of positions. So fire away.

Written on January 15, 2015