Unpaid Internships

There has been a lot of interesting discussion on ARLIS-L lately about internships, many of which are unpaid. We’d like to hear from you! Are you currently or have you previously worked an internship, paid or unpaid? What are your thoughts on this system? How did you choose which internship would be best for your career goals? And how can ARLIS/NA support you through this time of transition from student to professional?

By Filosofias filosoficas (File:Filos tercer logo.JPG) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Filosofias filosoficas (File:Filos tercer logo.JPG) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

We would love to hear your ideas on this important topic! Let us know what you think in the comments below.


4 Comments on “Unpaid Internships”

  1. Personally, I have refused to work unpaid since I completed my bachelors’ degree. As a current MSLIS student that means I’ve had to pass up a lot of wonderful opportunities to learn and gain experience because positions didn’t offer any financial compensation. However, even though I’ve been choosy, I’ve gotten a tremendous amount of experience and have worked internships and assistantships the entire time I’ve been in school and in areas of interest to me. I can’t afford to work unpaid and it has also been my experience that people treat you with more respect and give you more meaningful work when they’re paying you. I’ve avoided a lot of busywork and errand running that too often was a part of unpaid internships in the past.

    What’s troubling to me is how much the art library community relies on unpaid employees. I think the reliance on unpaid interns reflects a deep flaw in the in the system. Because unpaid internships have been largely adopted as normal, it’s been my experience that employers are asking that interns bring more experience to an unpaid job. I’ve heard stories among classmates about an art museum library that denied a student an unpaid summer internship because she didn’t already have cataloging experience. Though they acknowledge that unpaid internships are typically for helping the inexperienced, this museum library felt confident that they could find an experienced person who was willing to work unpaid in order to have a prestigious library on their resume.

    I know it’s unreasonable to ask everyone to stop applying for and working unpaid internships. But I think by doing so you’d not only be helping yourself but also the entire community of students and recent grads in the long run.


  2. allanaaa says:

    We discussed this a bit at the annual meeting, and I wanted to throw my two cents in.

    My background is as something of a chronic volunteer. I’ve always thought working a weekend for a free festival/conference pass was a great deal, and have worked in arts and culture organizations on an ongoing volunteer basis for about a decade. It’s a question of the time it asks for and the amount of labour you do, versus the payoff (skills and experience, networking, class credit…).

    We all seemed to agree, at the meeting, that an unpaid internship in menial labour (page, reference, tour guide) often isn’t worth applying for, but a project-based internship (with clear goals and the potential for valuable deliverables) is a great use of one’s time. It’s a question not just of what you think your time is worth in dollars, but where you are in your career and skill-set.

    My only “art library” experience came from a one-day-a-week internship that was done without school credit. My supervisor couldn’t get the position registered as a practicum, because the nature of the organization was pretty unpredictable, but the work I took on was invaluable for precisely that reason. (I handed in my library-cataloguing work as a taxonomy assignment the following year, so it wasn’t entirely without school payoff.) Perhaps if I had really pushed them, they could’ve found it in their hearts to pay me, but I’m happy with the whole experience just the same. And one day a week really wasn’t too much to ask.
    I know it’s not a reality for many people to work without pay (and at this point in my life, it’s definitely not a reality for me), but there is lots of volunteer and internship work that can take up a few hours a week, or be done on weekends and evenings, that would still pad your resume and give you a chance to make a name for yourself.

    We also have to take into account that sometimes the only way to get a foot in the door of a larger institution is to start out small and try to work your way up. I’ve had volunteer work turn into paid work, so I know it’s not impossible. But if you don’t go into it with the mindset of ambition and involvement, you WILL end up working for free without much to show at the end.

    As to whether some institutions take advantage of the internship system in order to exploit people for free labour, well ….
    We could write up some semi-activist guidelines on how to avoid a menial-labour internship that seems to be exploitative. Obviously a boycott on a per-job basis would be impossible, and publicly shaming institutions will backfire and be way too contentious.
    Maybe, as individuals, we can start writing private emails to the contacts who post unappealing internships and asking: what the extra payoffs are, what the potential for future employment is, and how the internship might encapsulate a great stand-alone project. Engaging in dialogue with these people about why their postings seem untenable is a good first step.

    Any other suggestions as to how to be proactive about eliminating the “bad” unpaid internships while still keeping the good ones around for people who need the experience?


  3. […] to our ongoing discussions about unpaid internships, I thought this opportunity might be of […]