Unpaid internships are hot-button topic. In my province, they’re flat-out illegal, a point made excessively clear to hometown-startup Hootsuite. I do a lot of science mentoring, and I’m getting asked if I’d recommend taking an unpaid internship for the experience. In a nutshell: No.
Science doesn’t do unpaid internships. We don’t even do unfunded graduate programs.If you aren’t offered funding, you should think long and hard about how unvalued you are by your potential mentor, and run far, far away.
Unpaid internships are volunteering. Paid internships are work experience.
Volunteering has great value. Most of my “learning experiences” mistakes that taught me how to manage complex logistics came from running student societies, and a good chunk of my extemporaneous speaking skill comes from totally tripping up during public talks around my community. By learning these skills through volunteering, I got to skip making a fool of myself when starting out as a field geophysicist (logistics), public speaker (speaking), or university instructor (speaking AND logistics), instead making a fool of myself learning entirely different skills. Even when not directly skill-building, volunteering can be a way to network with like-minded professionals, or to support a cause that you value. I make an annual field trip to the far side of another country to talk about science careers to high school students, and donate my abilities to progress disaster mitigation projects that will never be prioritized in funding queues. Volunteering absolutely has a role, and I highly encourage making it a part of your life.
But: I don’t volunteer on for-profit projects where all my colleagues are getting paid for their work and I am not. If I volunteered in those circumstances, I would be declaring that my effort, my contribution, my skills, and my time were worthless compared to theirs. And if my effort is worthless, then it’s a waste of my time. And that’s exactly what an unpaid internship is.
In geoscience, we hire summer students to do core logging, to haul geophysical equipment, to do the dull, hard tasks that are a vital part of this industry. Summer students get muddy, sore, soggy, and learn what it’s really like to do fieldwork instead of the tidy classroom-geology. In physics, we hire summer students to do the nit-picky lab work, mind-numbing data entry, or fiddle with statistical analysis. Once again, it’s the boring, even frustrating aspects of the career, probably with enough wait-time and repetitions to really contemplate the difference between classroom theory and workplace reality. My former classmates tell me it’s the same basic story in astronomy, biology, and chemistry: interns get paid, get real experience, and get supervised.
Interns don’t earn astonishingly good wages, but they don’t have enough experience to be astonishingly great employees yet. The pay is a token of respect, a symbol that transforms an internship into a professional interaction. If a corporation seriously can’t afford the meagre wage of an intern, especially with all the government pay-matching programs for apprenticeships and training periods, then that corporation’s finances are so pitiful they probably bounce paycheques and the imaginary “prestige” of volunteering for them will evaporate as they declare bankruptcy in the near future.
The internship deal is simple and mutually rewarding:
In return for enough pay to cover their textbooks, interns get enough experience to evaluate if this is really the career path they want to take.
In return for training and supervising, we filter out those unwilling to do the hard work before we waste time by hiring them.
In return for paying our interns, we ensure that our future-employee pool gains enough experience to not be disaster on their first junior-level jobs.
If you’re a proto-scientist and managed to get offered an unpaid internship, look elsewhere. Your would-be non-employer clearly doesn’t value you, your work, or their own responsibility to the scientific community. If you can’t get paid, volunteer for a research lab, or a national park, or an organization whose cause you support. And you know what? Most of those opportunities will pay you.