Interns! Know your rights!

Source: OWS

Source: OWS


A few weeks ago I met with other fellows and our mentors at the BLSCI to talk over the semester so far.  Before the meeting began, we celebrated the awesome achievements of two of my cohort, one a Marketing Ph.D and the other an Accounting Ph.D, who have been snapped up by top universities for tenure track positions.  This is the kind of news I like to hear—it’s the antithesis of what’s happening right now in the Humanities, if we believe the hype and the headlines.  Contrary to this doom and gloom, my two newly-minted Ph.D colleagues said that, in their fields, hiring was strong and opportunities pretty plentiful.  This discovery—job prospects do exist for some at the end of the Ph.D!—has coincided with me writing a short op-ed for Museum 2.0 on the issues surrounding unpaid (and, in my view, unethical) internships in the arts.*  For, unlike those in Accounting and Marketing fields, students of art history and in other non-profit areas have rather grim job prospects.  What does that mean for those of us advising them, and writing their letters of recommendation?

Is it ethical to recommend our (humanities) students undertake unpaid internships? In my field, art history, the road to career success is paved on free labor.  This means that to gain experience students are often asked to undertake hundreds of hours of unpaid work experience at museums and nonprofits in order to stand a chance of securing even the most meager entry-level position upon graduation from either undergraduate or graduate programs.**  (Yes.  You read that correctly.  Ph.D students with a TON of experience are still solicited for unpaid internships.  It makes me very angry that these types of job descriptions still get posted and forwarded.)  One of the most poignant signs I saw during the Occupy Wall Street movement was a young woman holding a placard that read “F**k your free internships.”  Quite.

As an emerging teacher, I am now often asked for recommendation letters by students who are applying for unpaid internships or, worse in my eyes, internships that “give” college credit (you cannot “give” something to someone that they have already paid for themselves, but hey…).  This particularly cruel invention was one I discovered only when I came to America.  The thought that someone would pay tuition fees to their academic institution for the privilege of working unpaid and often full time at another institution or corporation in order to gain college credit is positively medieval.  Given we’re a city college with students who often have two or three jobs outside school and family commitments, we have a duty to agitate to change this system.  Instead, we are actively complicit, playing our students into it and hoping they make it.   (I keep feeling I’m missing some vital piece of background on the “for credit college internship” – I just can’t see how it is an equitable solution for students!)  I’m from Glasgow and at least when I was a student, union organization and labor rights groups would have had a field day if the suggestion had been made that someone would have to pay their university in order to work somewhere else for free in order to complete their degree.  There are a few rather choice Glaswegian “responses” to that kind of suggestion, none of which I can share with you in print here.

So what is our ethical duty as (humanities) teachers when we’re asked for a recommendation letter, or to “circulate widely” an unpaid internship?  Do we write the recommendation letter and tell the students to look for alternative paid opportunities if possible?  Do we refuse to support the culture of unpaid internships and refuse the recommendation letter?  Should we be refusing to circulate unpaid internships?  I’m genuinely interested in how others think about this issue, and how they approach it with solutions.

I have taken to hitting the reply button and telling the sender that it is my policy not to circulate unpaid internships.  Am I doing my students a disservice?  It is possible to ask a larger body like the AAM (American Association of Museums) to institute a policy that demands at least a modest stipend for all internships?  If one’s internship wage is $0, then the entry-level wage in the first and second jobs don’t have to be much higher to supersede the previous salary of $0.  Agitating for a basic compensation foundation would therefore benefit all (what’s the reverse of “trickle-down economics,” because that’s what I’m describing here. Does it work?)

It’s a complex issue, but one thing is very, very clear: it is an issue.  As teachers, we’re not just offering academic knowledge, but professional advice.  We also have greater possibility to shape our fields that we did when we were unpaid interns.  What can we do?  What is already being done?

 *For full disclosure on my past involvement with arts internships, please see my Museum 2.0 post. 

** FYI, an entry level museum salary is c. $32,000 – 40,000, and an adjunct lecturer is probably hovering around the same if they’re one of the lucky ones who get paid decently. 


  1. I think we do write the recommendation letter–however, we don’t circulate such opportunities. With the advent of Kickstarter, I would encourage students to be entrepreneurial and fund their own projects, rather than take an unpaid position. In establishing a project, I would ask them to find a mentor (in addition to their college advisor) with whom they could meet weekly for 15 minutes to help guide them in their project. We need more non-profit entrepreneurs, rather than perpetuating a status-quo. When it comes time for them to enter the job market, they’ll have an amazing experience that would interest any employer, for- or non-profit.

  2. Randall says:

    [Full disclosure, I supervise (unpaid) interns at times — although those interns have received paid positions in-part as a result of said internships].

    While I wholly agree with the sentiments of being against unpaid internships (can’t we at least find a stipend for the often valuable work that interns do), my issue is with adjunct/ tenured positions. Adjuncts essentially replicate the work of interns within academia, maybe we should think of adjuncts as interns in this respect. And, like most interns, those who adjunct (especially in the humanities) have little chance of getting a tenured position. Sure, those in marketing and accounting (where there are robust private fields that can absorb PhDs) might get jobs, but what of the humanities?

    Finally, what adjuncts actually get paid 40K/ year for a legitimate 40 hours of week/ work — and how many get any benefits at all?

    All of these issues are, perhaps, pointing toward the problem with wealth inequality in our society, and how those who have something to hold onto fear losing it (whether it be prestige in the academy, a job, health care, etc. etc. etc.)


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