Unpaid internships help to enforce classist separation in conservation and academia

Unpaid internships have been in the news this week, after an intern for the UN; David Hyde, revealed that to volunteer for a position with them he had to camp in a nearby park as he couldn’t afford a roof over his head. This was most likely a publicity stunt, but one that took place to raise awareness of an important issue. After a bit of discussion on twitter with a colleague (the fantastic James Borrell, check him out if you haven’t already) about their views on it, I decided to write this.

Unpaid internships are undoubtedly highly valuable to people trying to break into many fields: from journalism to finance to international relations, via a whole spectrum of careers I know very little about all the way until we reach my subject areas: science and conservation. Both fields are massively oversubscribed with enthusiastic young people, often fresh out of university and keen to get started on their chosen career path. This often leads to hundreds of applications to many job openings, with most candidates almost indistinguishable from one another due to having studied similar subjects, gained similar grades, gone to similar sounding universities…

What a successful applicant needs then is to stand out, and having experience in their subject area being the best way to do so. Without a doubt internships are a fantastic way to get this valuable experience and can make a huge difference to your chances of getting your desired job. The issue is all of the baggage that comes with these positions.

By being unpaid, internships massively reduce their pool of potential applicants to people who have a financial support system behind them.

These positions are usually for a period of months, and more often than not will require relocating, in the UK where I am based this often means to London for office positions. Others, if they are field based, require the applicant to ‘disappear’ into the middle of nowhere. For some, moving to a new city and surviving there without a wage (though if you’re lucky you’ll get your commute and lunch paid for, yay!) isn’t a problem: either they have enough money in the bank to cover it, or someone in their life will pay for them to do so.

Fieldworkers likely still need to pay rent on their accommodation they are not staying at for the period of the internship, and although some can still do that with no income, most can’t.

This of course massively disadvantages working-class people, as they usually simply can’t afford to take these positions. Gaining ‘experience’ is fantastic in the long run, but it doesn’t exactly deal with the immediate issue most of us have with ‘paying the bills’ and ‘getting food from the supermarket without being chased by security’. It seems mad to me that there’s any debate over if simply giving an intern ‘experience’ is enough without also contributing to their ability to live. This is essentially the same issue as when artists are told that they cannot be paid but are offered ‘exposure’ instead. As this satirical article put it “A change in the law will allow photographers to pay rent on their homes & studios with ‘exposure’ instead of money. They will also be able to buy coffee, shampoo and other essentials, by mentioning to the checkout assistant that they did a big job last week for nothing, and are hoping it will bring them some paying clients.”


It can be difficult to know how angry to be about people’s reluctance to pay interns for work; very often genuinely small conservation charities are operating on tiny budgets and so do rely on well-meaning volunteer work to help them exist. But more often than not its simply known that if an unpaid position is advertised, it will get applicants, so why bother going to the effort of trying to give the applicant a wage when it’ll just unnecessarily increase your costs?

The sad truth is that the organisations that advertise these positions act as gatekeepers to future career success, and most of them know it. A quick check of most environmental job pages shows a multitude of adverts for what should by all rights be considered jobs: ‘admin officer’, ‘field technician’, ‘finance officer’… I recall seeing a position advertised for a 40 hour per week secretarial position in London for 6-12 months, which in other sectors would certainly have been a paid job. This one however simply stated, “though this position is not paid, it offers the intern many advantages, such as … being in the office when new paid positions are announced”. Very well: work unpaid whilst subsisting in a city with a huge cost of living, and after 6-12 months your overlords may be kind enough to give you the luxury of a wage. Sounds great.

Many don’t see this situation as a problem, however. It can be viewed as ‘paying your dues’: everyone has to make some sort of sacrifices to get into such competitive fields, so stop your whining.

The fact that you have gone through hardship to get that extra line on your CV merely makes its presence more impressive. This however ignores the fact that these are sacrifices that most people simply cannot make, and so it is not someone’s willingness to accept hardship for their craft that is in question, merely their financial ability to do so. As a quality-control method for detecting someone’s dedication to their cause, or their suitability for a job, it’s utterly broken. Seeing an unpaid internship on someone’s CV just tells you that they had the luxury of being able to do one.

After this financial hazing, it is sometimes assumed that those who’ve made it through all of these dilemmas are moderately well off. This isn’t meant in a cruel way, its can just be merely expected that someone successfully situated in a conservation or academic position has some money in the bank. For example having confided that my PhD stipend may not be enough to maintain me for the duration of my course; I was told with a shrug “just live off of your savings then, or get your parents to support you”. It was sadly not the right time to explain that for someone from a modest background to have made it to a PhD in tropical biology there certainly won’t be savings. Instead I have maxxed-out overdrafts and credit cards. And sadly I certainly don’t have anyone who can donate enough to support me for more than a few weeks: most of us really do need to get paid to live…

It is true that it is still possible for the poor to make it through these issues in some circumstances though. As is often mentioned, it’s possible to mitigate against the fact that you’re unpaid: if your internship is an office position then you can work evenings or weekends so that you can still afford to live. If your internship requires fieldwork, then there will likely be some downtime in between field-seasons in which you can take a paid job. However these options likely rely on insecure work, are often in jobs which are difficult to gain due to the applicant being highly unqualified, and probably require our intern to live in near-poverty. Unsurprisingly, this puts a lot of people off.

So yes! Yes it’s possible, but it’s also an unreasonable thing to ask for. These issues may not be insurmountable, but the problems they cause only serve to strengthen inequality in the opportunities our societies give us. I’ve heard the phrase ‘death by a thousand cuts’ used in the contexts of racism and feminism and feel it applies here (and lets remember that all the aforementioned issues are simply compounded when being suffered by someone who doesn’t have the ridiculous benefits conferred by pale skin and a Y-chromosome). It’s rarely just one single issue that prevents the poorer amongst us from doing well. In this case somebody from a poor background was likely in a worse learning-environment growing up and suffered a poorer education, giving them poorer school grades. They will then likely be judged negatively based on this and struggle to get into a ‘prestigious’ university. Upon arriving they will probably need to work part-time to survive, whilst their better-off coursemates can spend this time studying and/or volunteering for positions that will help them in the future. During their university holidays whilst coursemates are travelling the world, gaining cv-fodder, they’ll be working full time so that they can survive another year at University. The time their competitors have gained gives them an advantage, they leave university with better grades, and far more experience on their CVs. This still isn’t enough for either the poor or rich student however: now there comes a mandatory period of unpaid labour, which they likely cannot afford. None of these individual issues is the deciding factor in who succeeds and who fails in the long term, but our system of unpaid labour adds yet one more hurdle to the list, which the poor have a disadvantage in overcoming. It all adds up.

There is great reluctance amongst those at the top to change the situation, and it would be easy to put it down to some simplistic notion of class warfare: the middle classes looking after their own, whilst keeping those below them out. I don’t buy into that idea; I think it comes down to the lack of experience of those who are doing the hiring. They feel that this current system works, and how could it not? It worked for them, and it worked for most of the people who surround them. Those in power over this problem have little experience of how much a problem it is.

So what can we do? Clearly this is one component of a much larger issue (there’s a little more to problems of class mobility than just internships after all) but it’s one which we have some control over. To students: mention it to your lecturers, get it on their radar that this is a bigger problem than they may have realised. To those currently seeking work and facing the prospect of unpaid labour: scream, shout, and get your voice heard. Blog about it, go to the media as David Hyde did; after all, that’s what started the dialogue that sparked this. Maybe with enough sparks this issue will be noticed a little more, and a little action will begin to be taken. Maybe, just maybe…

To those of us who’re in the position to be hiring people, whether as staff or interns: ask yourself if they shouldn’t be paid? Is your fancy internship you’re preparing really just a job? If so you should be paying the person you hire for it, not expecting them to live like a hermit as its too much effort to pay them. I GET that it’s hard; I myself may soon be needing to take on my first field-assistant. As they’ll be working in the tropics conventional wisdom states that they will gain ‘valuable experience’ and so shouldn’t require a penny from me. I’m going to try my hardest to get the funds together to pay them a stipend for it. I really hope I succeed.

All of the above contributes to helping keep science and conservation white, male and middle class. We bemoan the lack of diversity in our fields yet merrily continue to perpetuate it. To me this adds up to little less than systematic classism: helping to keep people who aren’t born well off out of a large number of careers. There are many people who desperately wish to change the world, and who have the intellect to do so, but are blocked out because of their financial background. This is an injustice, and one that is to the detriment of all of us. Lets start to tear down those barriers a bit.

(Full disclosure, as I know the second that class is written about people start to question the class of the author: I’m working class. My father worked in a factory when he was alive, my mother works on a supermarket checkout. I definitely would never claim to have been impoverished growing up, but there certainly isn’t oodles of cash rolling around either. I had some tiny savings, which I blew to get the education and fieldwork experience I needed to get me here today, with those savings being heavily supplemented with a series of shop-jobs and a tonne of debt to the bank.

My high school was shite.)


About hammerheadbat

A conservation biology PhD, I spend my days studying tropical deforestation, bats, and wider ecological questions.

Posted on August 15, 2015, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. It is quite normal and sensible for people to finance their own education; they are after all the ones who will reap the benefits in the form of a better career. And unpaid internships are just a form of education, much as apprenticeships are. The hope of the employer is that the small amount of productive work the trainee does will offset the drain on resources she initially is. But as a trainee advances so must their marketability, and hence also terms of employment.
    This type of education has the huge advantage of there being no fees to pay, thus making it accessible to those with limited resources. It is an thus institution to be cherished. To oppose it is to deliberately dash the prospects of the less well-off.

    • Fair points, but I disagree. Unlike in education and apprenticeships, most interns are doing work for their employer and so should be paid as such. To say that we should be thankful that we’re not paying for the opportunity to work seems to me to be entirely against the point-even when they’re free the unpaid nature harms the prospects of the less well-off, as they’re likely unable to take the internship in the first place. Yes, things could be worse, but we can certainly make things a whole lot better than they are now. I’d see paying interns as a simple, easy way to start.

  2. Reblogged this on The Crafty Entomologist and commented:
    So, a colleague (and former excellent field assistant!) of mine has written this, and it’s well worth a read. Unpaid positions are considered a fact of life by many hoping to break into conservation science in particular, and this can kick in at various points in someone’s career – prior to starting an undergrad degree, prior to a PhD, and even post-PhD!

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