Update on the Society’s Virtual Conversation on Unpaid Internships

Aloha Everyone-

Just wanted to post a short update to let you know that the planning is still going on for the our digital meeting to continue the conversation on unpaid internships.  My original hope was to have it happen in August but we have passed that deadline. We have pulled together most of the panel who will cover several perspectives and now just finalizing details and timing.  The Board and our various committees have also been very busy reviewing and identifying updates for several of our policies.  We will be sharing those updates very soon.

I thank all of you that continue to discuss this and other challenging topics and our SMM board and committees who are approaching this so thoughtfully.


As always feel free to comment below or reach out to me with questions and comments.

Be safe, be well.



Twitter: @himonkseal

One comment on Update on the Society’s Virtual Conversation on Unpaid Internships

  • William Oestreich

    Seeing as this discussion has not yet been resolved by the Society, we are writing to affirm our continued support of the petition by Jacobson, Malinka, and Siple (19 July 2020) asking the SMM “to take a leadership role in eliminating the reliance on unpaid work in marine mammal science.” We implore the Society to not partake in the promotion of unpaid internship opportunities and use its considerable standing in this field of study to help dismantle a discriminatory practice in our field.

    Unpaid internships represent a spectrum of opportunities. Fournier and Bond (Wildlife Society Bulletin, 2015) aptly describe this spectrum:

    “When we talk about unpaid internships and technician positions, we are not talking about volunteering for a weekend or the critical role that citizen scientists play in many projects (Silvertown 2009). We are talking about weeks or months of full-time unpaid work, often for so many hours or in such a remote area that taking on a concurrent paying job is impossible. The question of when unpaid work becomes exploitative is not clear-cut and we recognize the immense role that nonexploitative volunteering has on conservation (e.g., citizen scientists). Students frequently take on field or lab work for credit as part of a degree program which, providing it fulfills the academic goals of the placement and is confined to a reasonable period of time (e.g., equivalent to n classes), is not an exploitative volunteer position, but rather is a degree component.”

    Volunteering one’s free time can be a valuable personal experience and contribution to the field. However, pay-to-work and unpaid long-term, remote field internships preclude any other work opportunities. Many positions advertised on the SMM website, MARMAM, and elsewhere quite clearly fall into either the unpaid long-term or pay-to-work categories. This practice is exclusionary along lines of race and class.

    By acknowledging the exclusionary nature of these positions, we hope the Society will channel its considerable creativity toward finding solutions that will both reduce barriers to entry and allow nonprofit organizations to fulfill their missions. For example, following recognition of the discrimination enforced by unpaid labor, some non-profit organizations are pursuing relationships with universities to provide internships that are funded either by the university or through federally funded programs like the NSF’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs). While this approach will not work in all cases for all organizations, we highlight it as an example of potential solutions that are only possible once organizations have acknowledged the problem and dedicate their creative energy to finding alternatives to unpaid labor. This has the additional benefit of finding novel sources of funding that increases the size of the “pie” for everybody, rather than redistributing the slices.

    In closing, we should respond more directly to the argument often made in support of unpaid internships: personal and/or anecdotal stories of how such unpaid positions have benefitted careers of those currently in the field. This is precisely the type of exclusion that we are arguing against: why is it that many of those most successful in our field can point to an unpaid opportunity that allowed them to start building a career? What other brilliant careers might be touted today if unpaid internships, accessible only to those with a significant “safety net,” were not the status quo for decades?

    The previous comments made by rising minds in our field who have faced unjust barriers to career and scientific advancement should carry far more weight in this decision than those in our field who have benefitted from an exclusionary system. In order to make one of many necessary steps toward equity in marine mammal science, the Society should make a clear stand against the clearly exclusionary practice of unpaid labor.

    Will Oestreich, PhD Candidate, Stanford University
    Shirel Kahane-Rapport, PhD Candidate, Stanford University
    James Fahlbusch, PhD Candidate, Stanford University
    Max Czapanskiy, PhD Candidate, Stanford University
    Will Gough, PhD Candidate, Stanford University

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