Unpaid internships: A foot in the door or a step backward?

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woman sowing coinsA recent [email protected] post by Matthew Exline prompted a lively discussion of the challenges of getting a foot in the door as a new public history professional.  One topic that appeared several times in the many comments was the unpaid internship, and the opinions on it were divergent enough that we thought it was worth following up on them.   So we asked a number of practicing public historians from various areas of the field to share their thoughts on pursuing unpaid internships or volunteer opportunities as part of public historians’ professional training.

There’s no clear consensus, as you’ll see, but we hope this roundtable post will further clarify some of the issues and questions. For the record, the National Council on Public History’s “best practices” document on internships states the following: “Recognizing the value of public history work and the skills possessed by students, every effort should be made to see that interns receive compensation for their work commensurate with the qualifications required for a position.” And those interested in a pressing issue that appears all around the professional world, not just in public history, can find plenty of recent writing on the subject. For example, on the “pro-internship” side, there’s Lauren Berger’s All Work, No Pay: Finding an Internship, Building Your Resume, Making Connections, and Gaining Job Experience, while on the more critical side is Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, both published in 2012. (A New York Times article by Perlin earlier this summer notes the recent spate of lawsuits by interns against companies that allegedly didn’t deliver on the promised educational opportunities.)

Jane Becker, History Department, University of Massachusetts Boston:  While the job market for public history is especially tough now, the truth is that it has never been robust, and multiple generations of aspiring “public historians” have faced the familiar dilemma—to work for free as an investment in your professional future, or not work at all. In addition, historically, gender politics in public history fields and venues has played an important role in the development of the professions and we cannot ignore the connections of this history to persistent inequalities.

Nevertheless, pursuing unpaid internships and volunteer positions may be a promising means of gaining crucial experience that can advance graduate students and emerging professionals into the public history fields. My remarks here refer to internships outside of those required by most public history graduate programs. In general, I am against the practice of indentured servitude, but creating unpaid positions that serve individual goals and needs can be an effective and even necessary step in gaining professional experience and credentials necessary to gain a paying job.

There can be a very thin line between working for free, and working almost for free. While a very modest payment for services can seem to eliminate the danger of exploiting the worker who has a primary goal of gaining experience, we need to acknowledge that sometimes the wage or honorarium is really so meager that the exploitation is very real.

In either situation—working for free or working for pennies—it is important for you to create an opportunity that meets your own professional goals. For internships, this means that it offers you training as well as supervised practice and experience. Before investing your time as a intern, make sure that you will have regular access to and supervision by a professional who can offer you training and feedback, which requires a significant commitment from your mentor.  Volunteer work that is not tied to training should still provide you with opportunities to fulfill your own goals. Projects that help you build your portfolio of skills or contribute to scholarship can indeed be an investment, and provide you with valuable additions to your resume as well as visibility among colleagues.

Deborah Morse-Kahn, Regional Research Associates, LLC:  The phrase ‘ Catch-22’ comes up constantly in discussions on whether an unpaid internship during or after professional education is worth the time and effort.

From my own experience the answer is yes…and no.

I did both my graduate internships during the course of my masters program in American Studies: one in museology, the second in archives. These were carefully chosen: the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, and the Minnesota Historical Society, both offering first-class mentors and skilled colleagues to oversee my work to proper standards.

I had a student loan in my pocket for support and knew that, without experience in Public History–which subsumes history, historiography, sociology, geography, archaeology, museology, and archives–I would not have a chance in the very tough hiring times of the early 1990s. Understanding this helps to see that, while the agency offering the internship got unpaid labor, I got solid experience and became known to the CRM community.
The internship in archives continued into a paid half-time position. The job was to be my stepping stone to full-time work at MHS but fate intervened with the first round of federal funding retrenchments. But because of the breadth of my exposure to museum life, display development, artifact management, archival management, and historical research methodologies, I persuaded a first-class local historical society to hire me as their first paid historian-archivist…and I have never looked back. That was 20 years ago.

So my advice is yes–invest in yourself with an unpaid internship–two unalike is better–until you have the skills in hand to expect fair compensation for your work.
And no–don’t wait until after you are out of your professional program: you will be competing against many well-trained folks with the same degree who have already done their unpaid stints.

Patrick O’Bannon, Gray & Pape, Inc.:  From my perspective, unpaid interns are merely volunteers in fancy dress.  Many institutions and organizations have a legitimate need for volunteers, and volunteering offers young historians valuable experience, but to camouflage volunteerism under the fancy rubric of an internship does, in my view, a disservice to the institution, the individual, and the profession.

Students who accept unpaid internships learn that their work has little value. The institution and organizations that “hire” unpaid interns learn that they can get historical services for free. The  profession learns that the value of our skills and experience can always be undercut, and so develops a tendency to under estimate our market value. I routinely encounter other professionals–biologists, hydrologists, ecologists, and others–who are shocked, and a bit amused, at the bargain basement rates charged by historians.

If you’re an organization that needs free help, ask for volunteers. If you need professional services, even those of a newly minted professional, expect to pay a reasonable price for those services.

Trevor Owens, George Mason University and the U.S. Library of Congress:  Everybody needs a portfolio of work to be able to land a job. In this respect, it is a good idea to think about how you are going to go about building that portfolio of work. Ideally, you can do this in a mixture of coursework, in small hourly pay jobs for cultural heritage organizations, or paid internships and fellowships. If you can’t make that happen, it’s worth considering working on some unpaid projects for the kinds of organizations you want to work for. I would stress that what you want here is not hours of experience but clear work products for your portfolio of work. So you want things that you can include on your personal website and that you can bring with you as examples of exactly the kind of work you want to be doing.

One creative option that I would love to see folks trying to break into public history taking is approaching an organization with an idea for a project and then using a platform like Kickstarter to fund your own fellowship. For example, take a look at the various ways students from the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU or at Pratt have basically written their own ticket to fund projects they designed. This would be a way to simultaneously work on a compelling project, get paid and show any future employer that you know how to generate funds to support a project or initiative.


  1. Greetings to all subscribers and to my fellow commentators: Trevor’s suggestions are the first I have ever read of this kind, and brings us all right into 2013. It would never have been an available option in my time–the early 1990s–but it certainly is now. Go to it! Also, Jane’s reminder that we broaden our skills base by casting a wider net outside of our assigned curriculum, and especially that we can create our own internships by bringing our unique ideas to a suitable collection or agency, is critical. I did both, and emerged very competitive at an early stage in my PH career. Thank you to Jane, Patric and Trevor for writing so well to the passion of your convictions. Those of us in PH really REALLY love our work…when we can secure it. 😉

  2. It is really the return of indentured servitude, isn’t it? To break into a (low) paying public history job, first you have to provide hundreds of hours of volunteer labor. IT is worse than unpaid internships, many new public history graduates with MA degrees find themselves volunteering for months or years trying to get a foot in the door.

    What we are really doing is reinforcing the already existing race and class barriers to public history employment. Many first-generation students cannot afford an unpaid internship, they need to work 30 hours a week at Starbucks to be in school at all. Students whose families are able to support them can do internships. And so we get a profession with very little diversity, and public history remains the hobby of a certain class.

    (I wish I had an answer to all of this…)

  3. Matthew Exline says:

    Delighted to see that the conversation on this topic is continuing! I find it instructive how some PH employers and institutions struggle to find a meaningful distinction between uncompensated labor/indentured servitude and unpaid history internships.

  4. Angie Sirna says:

    I’m glad the editors at [email protected] have taken up this issue, and I appreciate the panelists’ thoughtful remarks. However, I would have liked to have heard from an emerging professional who recently finished an unpaid internship or series of positions. I feel that perspective is most critical to this conversation. Also, I feel the more pressing issue is not just the financial burden of doing an unpaid stint (which is substantial), but what happens after. I think people are willing to suck it up and do an internship or two if it leads somewhere. There should be a return on your investment. But there aren’t any guarantees that an internship will keep you in the public history field, which I think public history faculty and professionals largely keep silent about. I am more concerned of the gap of entry-level positions between internships and mid-career professional positions. An internship will get your foot in the door, but I’m afraid that it’s often a revolving door that will circulate a pool of eager students looking for experience. I think it is okay for institutions to offer internships, but I’d like to see better mentorship and better direction for life after the internship. (“Life after the Internship?” Follow up article?)

    Trevor’s idea about using Kickstarter to fund public history projects is really interesting. I admit that this a new concept for me, but I recently ran across a blog via Twitter from an archaeologist who questions this approach. http://www.anonymousswisscollector.com/2013/08/dont-try-crowd-funding-phd-or-your.html.
    While I was searching for this article, Google showed me a number of public archaeology projects on Kickstarter. Just additional food for thought.

  5. In the 19th century, public history was hobby for the spouses of wealthy industrialists. In the 20th, it became a professional career. In the 21st, it is again becoming a hobby of the rich?

    So what are some constructive steps we can take to try and stem the tide of redefining public history as a volunteer opportunity for those who can afford it? I have a couple of fairly weak ideas, would love to hear more:

    1. Seek funding for your interns. Just because you can get free labor does not mean that you should. Include a line to pay an intern in your next grant budget, make a request to one of your donors, tell your board that you cannot do that new project with all-volunteer labor.

    2. See about setting up work-study opportunities with your local university. Many students, particularly from the kinds of working-class backgrounds that are underrepresented in public history, qualify for federal work study aid. The feds will pay 75% of their wage, the employing institution will pay he rest. Maybe someone here knows more about how to set up such a program?

    3. Look to partner with community organizations to create paid internships for low income students. There are anti-poverty and educational non-profits in every city, many dedicated to putting low-income people on a path to employment. Is there a way to work with one?

    I think we need to spend less time figuring out how to justify unpaid labor and more time figuring out how to put an end to it. Easier said than done, but the first step is to realize that the system is broken.

    1. Mary Rizzo says:

      Thank you for bringing up the 700 pound gorilla in the room: how unpaid internships reinforce the race and class homogeneity of our profession. To your 3rd point, I’ve begun researching an extraordinary theater project that was based in public history in the late 1970s that was able to receive federal employment training money to get unemployed people to work in the theater and community, obviously inspired by the New Deal’s interest in the arts. Course, this all dried up with Reagan’s budget cuts, but still, what good thinking! However, one of the keys to making this happen was that the organization’s director was a go-getter who knew the political players and enacted a long-term strategy to get that funding. While it didn’t last forever–and I’m not sure there’s much will for this kind of thing in 2013–it’s a good reminder that public history leaders need to be deeply tied to their local communities, including and especially politically.

      Finally, one last comment. As someone who has supervised interns, I’m always amazed at how directors, board members, etc… think that interns are “free labor.” The fact is, someone’s paid time must be spent in managing interns (and volunteers) which is an added cost to the whole scenario.

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  7. Anonymous grad student says:

    “I am more concerned of the gap of entry-level positions between internships and mid-career professional positions.”

    Yes, this. I’ve done my share of internships. I went to grad school in part because after my two undergrad summer internships and four post-grad ones (subsidized by a university fellowship, so they were volunteer positions that I was able to tailor to my goals), I could only find part-time, irregular, minimum wage visitor service positions in the field, with less responsibility than most interns get. Nobody seemed to advance without either a grad degree, or a stroke of luck after a few years of very precarious employment. I’m concerned, as I’m starting to job search again, that most of the posted positions I see are either the exact same things, or directors of departments or entire institutions. Where are the jobs these internships supposedly prepare you for?

    I know that this is an issue of budget management, where you need people to direct operations but institutions increasingly rely on volunteers and part-time workers; still, working part time without benefits until you accumulate the years of experience required to get to one of those managerial positions is something that also prices out many people who don’t already have wealth or a well-employed spouse. It’s a bigger problem than internships.

  8. Annonymous Grad Student#2 says:

    Internships are the bane of our profession! Several years ago, when i first moved close to a major Northeast city, i looked at the Public Radio/TV website. Lo & Behold:: JOBS 🙂 Fortunately, i landed a position at another site, but i tucked this organization into my memory bank for future use.

    Now, several years later (with over 15 years of experience under my belt), i find myself ready to get my MA in Public History. But the jobs at this well-known (& loved) non-profit are now ALL Internships.

    I HATE the idea of Internships, particularly for those students who return to a program with a record of employment in the field (or in a closely aligned field). Rather than sending us to unpaid internships, often at historic houses, museum, or other non-profits who can’t afford to hire us even if they wished to, i STRENUOUSLY petition peers to advocate for paying positions across the field … and the board. (there are several puns here …)

    Internships DO offer those w/o requisite experience an opportunity to gain some. However:: as has been noted in other posts:: our Professors, Program Directors, and Peers need to leverage what we bring to those learning opportunities. Making “internships” Work-Study is an excellent idea … as is funding through other streams, as noted by Larry. (great ideas, Larry!!)

    In all honesty, i feel as though we are only “interning” ourselves, our peers, and our profession out of REAL jobs … ones that actually PAY (which could well be the next Blog topic!!).

    It seems to me that a core component of any Grad program would be to assist graduates with obtaining employment. Perhaps rather than running Internship Programs, departments could hire a Human Resource advocate (and please know that this comment in no way diminishes the hard work Internship Coordinators do. We recognize that. We appreciate what you DO do. It’s just that–after the internship ends–where do students go/grow next? We can’t stay “volunteers” forever.)

    We want our profession to grow, to be vibrant and appreciated. But if we can’t appreciate what our students and peers offer, can we honestly expect employers, funders, partners, or non-profits to appreciate what we offer as Interns … or as Employees? In my not-so-humble opinion, the entire structure of what we do and how we do it needs to change. There needs to be much more flexibility in access to funding to support public history programming to those who practice (or wish to practice) within the field. Why can’t our Departments assist us:: could we explore ways in which grad students can “run” a program(s) through our department AND make some money with it/them? With due respect to those who have been “in the field” for a few years, we “ready-to-graduate” students are facing deplorable futures, with hundreds of graduates competing for the same limited jobs, often at pay rates that rival McDonald’s. We MUST think outside the box … or our profession will–ultimately–fail to attract the incredibly talented pool of students who currently make up our ranks.

    Our professors expect more in the classroom; perhaps it’s time to advocate for more once we are ready to move beyond the hallowed halls! Thanks for “listening.”

    1. anonymous new pubhist prof says:

      These are some good ideas, but they require an even larger overhaul than you imagine. Public history programs of most stripes are housed within history departments. ALL of the things that your profs do that you mentioned outside of the classroom (including helping find internships) are classed as “service” by most departments. All of your suggestions would be as well.

      In order to keep our jobs and advance at them, we are supposed to focus firstly on research (and, despite recommendations from ncph/oah/aha this still mostly means publishing a set number of articles and/or a monograph), then on teaching (which is where most of our public history research ends up getting credited), and then lastly on service.

      Essentially, what many of these suggestions ask is for professors to tack on the equivalent of these internships (hours of unpaid/unrewarded work) to their already over full-time jobs (many of which are also at lowish pay, depending on their contracts). I am not AT ALL saying this is how it should be! I did want to point out that these changes, which seem as if they could be easily done and would be quite helpful, require even larger changes to the system.

      This is a big part of why departments don’t already do these things. Larry’s ideas offer something for both programs and organizations to strive for, and I like that. We all need to be advocating for more paid positions in the field. period.

  9. Shirley Wajda says:

    The trouble with internships is that such programs should benefit the intern (furthering his/her education and training) and not the host institution. That is to say, if a student is paying tuition for course credit or satisfying requirements through an unpaid internship at a nonprofit institution, said student should be mentored, and not simply given a project and sent to it. That system merely benefits the institution, with the unpaid labor of the student.

    As a former professor and internship director, I found it easy to place students. It was much more difficult, however, to have host institutions take up the duties of training and teaching the student. It appears that we’ve lost the original meaning and intent of internships–more like apprenticeships, and not volunteering.

    And I’ve worried about the changing employment landscape and its impact on internships. I don’t think universities, museums, historical societies, etc., have been consistently or completely responsible when it comes to the issues of internships. Professors/ internship directors who do not meet with host institution contacts, host institution personnel who decide they’re too busy halfway through a semester to “deal” with interns, the fitness of a student for an internship, the mismatch of student and institution: public history programs’ relationships with institutions are based on trust, but sometimes trust isn’t enough. What procedures are in place for such issues?

    Then there’s the issue of applying paid labor to course credit. Some universities have a problem with this.

    More importantly, perhaps, is the larger and evolving issue of internships in a changing economy. Several recent court cases about internships in the for-profit world, in which the courts found for the interns who sued, and that has and will continue to change the definition of “internship.” Public history programs and their partners would do well to re-examine their internship agreements–if they have any at all.

    The Fair Labor Standards Act, as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court, offers a basic definition of an internship in the “for profit” private sector. Nevertheless, these guidelines have some applicability to public history programs and internship hosts and serve as a baseline with which to discuss a whole host of issues. The guidelines are available here: http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs71.htm.

    The last sentence to the exception to these guidelines should be noted:

    “The FLSA makes a special exception under certain circumstances for individuals who volunteer to perform services for a state or local government agency and for individuals who volunteer for humanitarian purposes for private non-profit food banks. WHD also recognizes an exception for individuals who volunteer their time, freely and without anticipation of compensation for religious, charitable, civic, or humanitarian purposes to non-profit organizations. Unpaid internships in the public sector and for non-profit charitable organizations, where the intern volunteers without expectation of compensation, are generally permissible. WHD is reviewing the need for additional guidance on internships in the public and non-profit sectors.”

    So the US Department of Labor may be issuing some guidelines that will affect public history internships.

    Other legal issues may apply to non-profit organizations which host interns. If the organization pays a stipend to an intern, the IRS may consider it employment, triggering the possibility of paying back wages and the minimum wage. Different states also have different laws governing this type of employment, including issues of safety and insurance.

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