Unpaid Internships: Are They Ethical?

This is a quick post, but a worthy one nonetheless.

Last week, I read a great post on Nina Simon’s blog Museum 2.0, by guest writer Michelle Fisher. The post, titled A Shared Ethic for Museum Internships, focused on the ethics of unpaid internships in the museum field, and what effect this phenomenon is having on the field.

My personal feelings* on the issue, just to get them out there, are this: unpaid internships are unethical and devalue the work of the intern, and thus devalue the intern themselves. When you look at the amount of work an unpaid intern must do, for no pay, and sometimes as a requirement for graduation (meaning you just paid upwards of $2000 to work for no money at all…which makes NO sense), it seems borderline illegal. On the flip side of that, sometimes looking at just how little work an unpaid intern is asked to do (I once applied for an unpaid internship where the majority of my 8-10 hour workweek consisted of database entry, photocopying, and occasionally working with the collections manager…um, what?) begs the question of how much the intern will actually take away from the experience, and will it help them in the field? It’s upsetting and discouraging to see that so many interns are being asked to take on a wide range of work for nothing in return, except the possibility of a recommendation letter which may be boiler-plate and your supervisor might not even remember you in the end.

Anyway, this week, Michelle wrote a fantastic follow-up post on CacOphony, the communications blog of Baruch College City University of New York. In it, she asks if it is ethical for professors and other educators to write recommendations for unpaid internships, or to circulate information about them at all. Michelle comes from Glasgow, where it is illegal for internships to be required for credit towards graduation, especially when the internships are unpaid, so her shock at the proliferation of the unpaid internship in return for college credit (when, again, you just paid upwards of $2000 to not be paid) is quite understandable. But it’s also shocking and discouraging to those who were born and raised in the US.

The point of this post is to encourage more dialogue on the subject. Read Michelle’s two articles, which I’ve linked in the post above. Michelle, myself, Nina Simon…all of us out there who question the ethics of the unpaid internship all want to know what you think. Have you ever worked as an unpaid intern? Do you have an internship requirement as part of your graduate or undergraduate program? Share your thoughts with us!


*Disclaimer: I accepted a paid internship at the Peabody Essex Museum back in the summer of 2009. It was a full-time, Monday through Friday internship, that was funded by a grant that I believe has since expired. This internship had a full workload and I was splitting time between two departments, and it led to a year of volunteering within the same department after the internship had been completed. I have yet to work as an unpaid intern, although I have applied for many unpaid internships, and I am required to complete a 200 hour internship in order to graduate from my MA program.

Unpaid Internships: Are They Ethical?