How "pay to volunteer" wildlife internships create a bubble of privileged scientists

If you are a student studying wildlife, you may notice that some of your classmates are spending the summers studying sea turtles in Costa Rica, tracking lions in South Africa, and diving with manta rays in Bali. For students who do not come from a privileged background, it may seem like you’ll never get ahead unless you fork over $5,000 for the privilege of working for free for an international non-profit.

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Paid internships in wildlife are difficult to come by, and there’s often tight competition for only a few spots per company. As such, those with the means and money can choose to pay for wildlife experience. There are endless companies who are ready to capitalize on this demand and create “voluntourism” packages where you can build your resume and also travel the world. The problem with this trend is that it isolates students who cannot afford these experiences, who therefore have no experience on their resume. When you’re working your way through school working nights in a non-wildlife job, supporting your family, or watching your debt numbers rise, there is no way you can pay for these voluntourism trips.

I have many non-traditional, first generation, disadvantaged, and/or caretaker students reach out to me worrying that they’ll never “make it” in wildlife biology because their only experience was volunteering at their local park on the weekend. When I look at unpaid internships as a distrustful scientist, it seems that many of these companies take advantage of the competitive nature of this industry and purposely price gouge rich wildlife students for profit. Additionally, many “internships” can be unethical and involve direct contact with animals unnecessarily in the name of “science”.

Many unpaid internships involve unnecessary contact with animals, often to the detriment of that animal. (Flickr / mattmangum)

Many unpaid internships involve unnecessary contact with animals, often to the detriment of that animal. (Flickr / mattmangum)

Diversity is scientifically proven to be a benefit to companies and projects – and you will not receive a diverse group of interns if your workers have to pay, both in monetary terms and in opportunity cost, to work for you.

To students:

Here’s the secret – you do not need this experience on your resume to become a wildlife biologist. As a hiring manager, I take exotic, 2-week internships with a grain of salt. I’d rather see a longer-term, local internship with a local government agency or non-profit over a Costa Rica voluntourism trip. Reach out to local government agencies, parks departments, wildlife sanctuaries, non-profits, and universities to inquire about internship opportunities located near you. Many organizations can work around a student’s schedule and some can offer the same or more pay you would make working a minimum wage job. Even a few hours of volunteer work with an organization that you genuinely enjoy and believe in can add value to your resume. Volunteer days, such as beach cleanups on the weekend, can be added to your resume to help land the paid internships in university. We need diverse voices like yours in science.  

To researchers:

In reality, many graduate students and PI’s who hire unpaid interns don’t have the budget and funding to pay interns long hours to work on their research. Which is understandable – and there are many students willing to work for free, so why pay them if you don’t have to? However, even covering their housing and food should be considered in your research budget to avoid exploiting free student labour. By only offering internship opportunities to those who can afford to take time off school and work and not make any money, you will get an extremely limited segment of aspiring scientists working for you. Diversity is scientifically proven to be a benefit to companies and projects – and you will not receive a diverse group of interns if your workers have to pay, both in monetary terms and in opportunity cost, to work for you. When hiring, consider what barriers you may be causing for prospective interns and consider expanding your job description to promote more non-white, indigenous, female and diverse voices in science.