Internships and research positions – valuable voluntary experience or cynical exploitation?

I am signed up to several mailing lists, related to different spheres of my professional life. Each usually contains announcements about events in the sector, discussions on relevant issues, and ‘job’ adverts. I put ‘job’ in inverted commas because plenty of those adverts are not seeking an employee, but instead a volunteer, an intern, ‘someone who wishes to gain experience’. Basically someone to do work, but not get paid.

However, there is a stark contrast between the different mailing lists. In science communication there appears to have been a marked trend away from the ‘volunteer internship’ position (at least, there has been a marked trend away from advertising these positions too widely). If such adverts do get posted on mailing lists, such as Psci-Com, debate rages, tempers fray and the moderator usually has to step in. The point from those who object is that this is exploitation clothed in the guise of assisting job prospects. If you have a job that needs doing, then you should pay someone a respectable wage to do it.

And who can really argue with this point? Someone is doing work for you. They should be paid. Internships are a really valuable way of gaining experience, but if you are getting the labour then why should it come free? It is good to see that there are plenty of organisations in science communication and policy that now offer paid internships. I am well aware that this solution is still not perfect (often wages are low and there are many people who cannot take advantage of short-term placements), but it seems that most in sector are taking the issue seriously.

And that’s where the contrast comes in. The other group of mailing lists that I am signed up to – those related to my research – are awash with adverts asking for volunteer research assistants. And the demands of these placements are sometimes astounding. Chester Zoo, for example, has a voluntary scheme aimed at recent graduates that runs for 10-12 months. That’s right, they want someone to forgo payment for an entire year to do admin in their science office.

A quick browse of the Primate Info Net jobs page reveals a host of field work positions, most of them research assistant placements in field sites around the world. (I am not going to single out a project, because most are posted by individual early-career researchers who don’t deserve someone ranting at them on the internet). Many of these placements ask volunteers to pay their own way – to foot the cost of the plane fare, transport in country, and food and living expenses – for the privilege of collecting data for someone else’s project.

Why does all of this matter? Volunteering provides a great service to many organisations and gives a great deal back to the people who choose to volunteer their time and skills. Valuable research projects, examining the ecology and behaviour of threatened species across the world would probably be completely financially untenable if they all had to pay the full costs of labour. These projects are often run on shoe-string budgets by incredibly dedicated people, working hard to conserve species and ecosystems. But are those acceptable arguments?

I am not entirely sure that they are. Experience of field work or research is often a prerequisite for those who want to go onto further study in the field. Conservation and education jobs are highly competitive; that extra experience on your CV could be the deciding factor. If there is blind acceptance that this free labour is fine, what does that mean for those people who can’t afford to pay for flights to another continent to go and collect data? Do they just have to find another area where experience is cheaper to gain?

I certainly don’t have the answer and I am not going to rush to judgement of the dedicated people trying to get their research or conservation projects done in tough circumstances. But I really hope that researchers and funders will start to question whether this is really the only model that they can use, whether they feel entirely happy with the situation, whether they are satisfied no one is exploited or discriminated against. I suspect some don’t care, but my hunch is that for many “oh that’s the way it has always worked” doesn’t sit quite right with them. I certainly hope it doesn’t.

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