You may have noticed that, despite the abundance of sections already created on this site, there is no section that includes unpaid internships. This is not because there aren’t any out there for those aiming to get into science communication. Not including them on this site was a deliberate decision.
There are lots of opinions about unpaid internships, but it’s clear that, in one way or another, they are not fair.
They’re not fair to the people who can’t afford to do them. If you can’t afford hundreds or thousands of pounds in rent or don’t have a convenient, free place to stay near your internship, you’re out of luck. The lack of diversity in prestigious and highly competitive fields is conserved and entry-level jobs gradually become out of reach.
They’re not fair to the people who can afford to do them, however they manage to do it. Their work deserves compensation. If they’re not relying on parents or savings, they shouldn’t be expected to work a part-time job at the same time as their internship just to be able to afford to work. Unpaid internships may not even enhance your CV that much.
Unpaid internships benefit the organisations that use them in a financial sense, but at the cost of diversity and being seen as an organisation that values its employees. On a wider level, they perpetuate social inequality and make entry-level jobs ever more unattainable.
There are almost certainly people who disagree with these points, but it seems the evidence points in the favour of making unpaid internships illegal or at least highly regulated.
You might wonder: if unpaid internships won’t be featured here, why are there listings for volunteering opportunities and opportunities to write for free? First of all, volunteering as opposed to “voluntary internships” is not intended as a replacement for paid work. Depending on what you choose to do, you can choose to do it once a year or have a regular weekly commitment. It’s something you can do locally rather than having to fork out for rent in a major city. While volunteering is valuable, it’s not seen on the same level as paid work, so while it may be advantageous, it’s not a replacement for paid work. Volunteering is also a lot more accessible, in that most organisations will welcome any help they can get. Of course, you still have to have enough free time to do it, but it’s not the same as doing an unpaid internship.
On the subject of writing for free, things are a bit less clear-cut than they are for unpaid internships. The writing industry has changed a great deal in the past few years. You can no longer start writing for a newspaper immediately and be trained on the job – you need some kind of portfolio, which is likely to include writing you’ve done without getting paid,. You have to use your discretion and recognise when you’ve written something good enough to pitch, but also recognise that this will take practice. This practice may be done through your own blog, your university’s media or something independent. You do have to be careful, particularly with the latter as there may be issues of copyright or other people profiting off you, but writing for free doesn’t necessarily mean exploitation. Again, you need free time to do it, but it’s not the same sort of time commitment as an unpaid internship.
It would be interesting to hear opinions on this, particularly if you’ve done an unpaid internship yourself. Has it helped or hindered? Are you an employer who hires unpaid interns? Are you working to put a stop to unpaid internships for good? Feel free to comment below.