The Economics and Ethics of Internships at the Center of Public History Education



Because internships are an integral part of every undergraduate and graduate public history program, the economics and actual benefit of internships must be considered critically. Most public history students intern with non-profit organizations and government agencies which are not required to pay them. For decades, these institutions, many of which face shrinking budgets, have benefited from unpaid labor while effectively shifting the economic burden for these positions to interns themselves.

Although rarely discussed, this practice raises serious concerns about the high cost of public history degrees, the future of the profession, and the expectations the job market imposes on students. Students of modest means who cannot rely on family support and must pay their own way may, for example, be “priced out” of prestigious internships at institutions far from their homes. Does this practice threaten to make public history an increasingly elitist profession? And what are the effects of internships on new public history professionals? Does the ready availability of unpaid labor drive down their earnings or even reduce their job opportunities? Do internships also impose a burden on practitioners who are forced to assume teaching duties that may be beyond the scope of their jobs?

This working group will bring together public history educators and representatives of institutions large and small to weigh the costs and benefits of internship programs as they currently exist while also raising questions as to whether internships help or hinder the creation of a diverse workforce.


  1. Jennifer Dickey says:

    Reading everyone’s case statements has been both a comforting and harrowing experience. While I take comfort in knowing that many of us are wrestling with the same internship issues–no money, uneven professional supervision, students who are unable to complete assigned projects–I find it frustrating that this hole into which our profession has fallen just seems to get deeper and deeper. Across campus, I watch students in our business program obtain paid summer internships which they later parlay into entry-level jobs in their chosen field.

    It still seems wildly unfair to make history students pay for the privilege of working for free. I am continuing my quest for fee waivers for students enrolled in internships, as well as the effort to obtain funding for internship stipends. I am also wrestling with the issue raised by Scot French of allowing students to receive credit for internships that are not clearly identified with History. Incidentally, these are internships in which the students are getting paid. And they are certainly applying skills that they have learned in their history classes. But I have to be creative in terms of their academic assignments to link their work to something that could be considered to have a history component. I am very interested in hearing how others have dealt with this situation.

    The gap between the knowledge and skills of an undergraduate versus a graduate student also comes into play. Our public history program at Kennesaw State University is an undergraduate program, so I am supervising undergraduate students only. Many of them simply are not ready to work in the field with little supervision. They require a great deal of time and attention that many site supervisors cannot afford to provide. I feel fortunate that at least some of my students do on-campus internships at our archives or one of our two museums. At least they don’t have far to drive, and I know exactly what kind of supervision they are receiving. And their supervisors are used to dealing with undergraduate students and have reasonable expectations for what those students can accomplish.

    I look forward to a robust discussion when we gather in Indianapolis.

    1. Steve Burg says:

      Jennifer Dickey: Comforting and harrowing, indeed! In reading your comment, I was struck by the phrase “this whole into which our profession has fallen.” It certainly made me wonder about the history of internships, and how precisely we reached this point when our colleagues in other disciplines have developed significantly different expectations regarding the compensation for interns. There is a history here that someone should explore and document.

      Alexandra Lords’ post also highlighted the fact that the internship process is not necessarily positive for interns or the institutions that supervise them.

      I know that in past discussions of internships there has been consideration of replacing internships with something more structured, such as a practicum where students would undertake internship-like experiences in an environment more directly controlled by faculty. How could such a change occur? How do we develop the skills in new professionals in a way other than internships? How do we change employers’ expectations about what constitutes suitable training for new hires? Should we (or could we) as a profession take a stand against unpaid internships, and if so, what would be the consequences?

      1. Kim Campbell says:

        Steve: Your question about whether or not we can shift the paradigm, so that employers do not expect a candidate for an “entry-level” position to already have experience in the field is one I have thought about a great deal lately in the current political climate. With funding for public history and the humanities in general on the chopping block in so many places, we as practitioners are constantly being asked to do more work with less resources to remain “relevant.” Just as some institutions are unequipped to train and supervise interns, they are just as much at a loss to train new staff who do not already have the necessary skills and experience, almost always gained through internships. The question then becomes, do we take a stand as a profession to move away from internships and risk being seen as “irrelevant” by our communities, funders, and politicians? Or, do we continue in our present system, knowing that to remain “relevant,” we are constantly raising the standard of entry into the profession?

        In partial answer to my own questions, I don’t think we should get rid of internships entirely. Aside for the issue raised above, internships are not only a key component to applying the theoretical knowledge learned in the classroom, but also, as Elizabeth Worley Medley pointed out, absolutely essential to some smaller institutions. I hope our discussion in Indy will include strategies to fund internships. Our case statements seem to be pointing us toward adequate compensation as a way to continue to train new professionals and ensure host institutions can continue to perform their missions.

      2. Andrea Burns says:

        Steve: regarding your comments regarding possibly replacing the internship experience with a faculty-supervised classroom practicum–I actually eliminated the course in our program entitled “public history practicum” because I felt that the majority of the grad pub history classes we teach involved practicums of some kind–whether by collaborating with a museum to produce an exhibit, or taking part in writing a national register nomination for a community organization. I know that there is no way I can replicate the actual environment of working within a public history site–so that’s why I feel that internships are essential.

        I am really interested in developing the conversation about the standards of hiring for entry level jobs (requiring xx yrs of experience), and also how faculty can better “supervise” interns when the majority of the interns are working hundreds of miles away. There’s no way I can make site visits if that’s the case, so are regular email check-ins with the student (and occasionally the site supervisor) sufficient?

        Denise Meringolo made an interesting point yesterday during a session–she said that she doesn’t want students to take more than a 3 credit hour internship, especially if these internships are unpaid. Our program requires grad students to complete a 6 credit hour internship. Should we revise our credit hour requirements, knowing that many students will end up with an unpaid (or poorly compensated) internship?

  2. Chanell Lowery says:

    Cridad De La Vega,

    I appreciate you pointing out the lack of ethnic diversity within our field. Being a Latina myself, I have noticed there is a lack of diversity in the field of Public History, particularly for minority groups in America. I think it is important for our public history programs to take an active role in letting students know what is available to them. I did not know about the National Park Service’s Latino Heritage Internship Program until last year. Knowing about paid opportunities, like the Latino Heritage Internship Program, and making them accessible to students is one of the first steps to filling the diversity gap. How is NPS making their program opportunity known to students?

    1. Caridad de la Vega says:


      The internship program for Latino students is a collaboration between the National Park Service and the Hispanic Access Foundation. More information is available at

  3. Caridad de la Vega says:

    One of the themes that captured my attention after reading all of the case statements is that of geographic accessibility and how it limits internship opportunities. Working and living in a large city it never occurred to me that geography is yet another factor to consider when discussing accessibility and equity in internships, and the crucial role that smaller institutions serve in these communities. I look forward to furthering discussing this topic on Saturday.

    As suggested by Kim Campbell, requiring participating institutions to have a certification sounds logical — those undertaking the training of future historians should take this work seriously — however, this would add yet another task for those institutions/programs that are already overburdened. And this will only continue to be the case with the current (federal) budget predictions. The trend will be for federal agencies to accomplish more with less, and in turn, other, smaller institutions. This will invariably affect the ability of institutions to undertake the role of mentoring students through internships. Will certification serve to dissuade some institutions from having active internship programs?
    I look forward to continuing this discussion, including possible solutions.

  4. Julie Holcomb says:

    Having just reread all of the statements in anticipation of our discussion on Saturday, I am struck by several common themes. As has been mentioned by others, place matters. Location, whether rural or urban, limits opportunities and creates challenges for both students and institutions. Additionally, the importance of proper supervision during the internship for all concerned. Here I would include setting out clear expectations for the internship for both the student and the intern. But this could also include providing proper training for both faculty and internship supervisors so both can be better supervisors and mentors for the students. Perhaps this would help address the issue of quality in the students’ final product that several people brought up. I like Steve’s suggestion of a practicum instead of an internship, which would give faculty greater control over the internship experience. Yet, as I consider the implications of such an experience, I worry about teaching load issues for the faculty supervisor. Could such an experience be counted as part of the teaching load, thus ensuring the faculty supervisor would have sufficient time to properly supervise students’ practicum experiences? What really stood out for me as I reread these statements is just how complicated this issue is. There are so many variables involved here. While the economics and ethics of unpaid internships were the primary issue that sparked this discussion, it’s clear from these case statements that there are other issues related to internships that need to be considered as well. I’m looking forward to our discussion on Saturday.

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