The Great Internship Debate

The SAA SNAP listserv has been on fire the past two days. All do to with The Atlantic article Work is Work: Why Free Internships Are Immoral. This little article has touched a deep nerve in students and young professionals alike.

Stories were swapped between members on how different masters programs handled internships. Some programs required an internship experience. Several students spoke up asking if any other programs only allowed non-paid internships for credit. Many students confirmed their program did, but the stipulation was easily waved. Other programs have no such rule and these students searched hard and long for a paid position (yes they do exist).

Many responses pointed out that the author of the article was focusing on business internships in marketing, finance, etc. which is a very different beast when compared to archival and library internships. With budgets cuts endangering programs and jobs, but not lowering user expectations, I find institutions looking for interns (both paid and non-paid) are extremely grateful to have another pair of hands and a quick mind to help with collections, projects, and exhibits. So we are gaining valuable experience for our time which must be seen as a form of compensation since these experiences are now necessary to land that first job after grad school. It shows dedication to the field as well as experience and skill. (Also that one bad patron isn’t going to scare you away.)

From where I sit at the University if Washington iSchool, I really feel as if I have my pick of intern opportunities. Allowing me to tailor my intern experiences to my career objectives. This puts me squarely in the driver’s seat of my internship experience. I am not going to be stuck working somewhere that does not add to my desired skill set. Daily emails on the student jobs listserv advertise opportunities in UW special collections, programming, user experience, social media, metadata creation, academic librarianship and on and on.

These opportunities are on top of the long list of partners the school has made for the Directed Field Work class offered as an elective (yes that’s right not required). Taking advantage of this opportunity is highly recommended, but so is any experience in the field including part time jobs, internships, and volunteering. Take for example my summer plan. I have two part time internships lined up. One is paid and one is not. In both jobs I will be doing similar work (metadata creation and research) and both asked if I would be using the experience for credit. I have chosen not to apply for credit since the tuition would eat up almost all my earnings from the paid position. When I told my academic adviser my reasoning she understood and explained that was the reason why DFWs had continued to be optional in the program. Some students would rather use their tuition money on classes and not on internships they could work for free.

Now I have nothing against my program’s DFW class. It offers a great template for experience including learning objectives, checkpoints, and reflection. The experience is always firmly focused on your education. Personally, I know left to my devices I will concentrate more on being a good employee and putting my best effort into my work than evaluating what I want to learn or get out of the experience. So I still plan to complete a DFW during the school year if only for this different perspective.

Now does this answer the question: Are unpaid internships ethical? Well no because there is so much more to it then just that. The question is deceptively simple. We must also ask is it ethical to require students to work for free then pay tuition for that work in order to graduate? Is it only unethical to interns when we are treated as gophers and gain no marketable skills (Is it ethical when we gain skills and experience as our sole compensation)? Is it ethical to demand 2 years experience for entry level positions in the field? Would demanding all internship be paid strip smaller, budget strapped institutions from offering opportunities? (Is that ethical?)

Many professions have already answered these questions. Look at education programs. College students are expected to work in the classroom for free while earning their degree. In many programs the last semester is spent totally in the classroom, the student is expected to hold no other job (and isn’t paid for teaching), and she still pays tuition. Is this ethical? It has been the norm for decades.

What do I believe? Well the summer before I graduated with my bachelors I had one paid job in retail and two unpaid internships in the archival field. I found those two experiences priceless. It confirmed my career objectives and imbued me with the confidence of finding my calling. Unpaid internships should not disappear. They open too many doors. However, I find being required to work an unpaid internship to graduate unfair. An alternative should be consider such as capstone projects that showcase experience, management, and leadership or stipends for students that can’t shoulder the financial burden.

What is your take on the subject? How has an internship (unpaid or paid) affected your career?

Also if you are interested on reading more on the unpaid internship debate, I tracked down a interview clip from The Colbert Report on February 28, 2012  with Robert Eisenbrey, vice president of Economic Policy Institute, about his views that every intern (including college athletes) should be paid for their work.

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Filed under Archives, Library School, Professional Ethics, Professional musings

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