Pay Your Grad Students: Problems with Unpaid Internships

For many students, the semester is either winding down or already over, which means students are seeking meaningful ways to spend their summer. Internships and practicums are coming through listservs or being posted on popular job sites, and in a profession that prefers hiring individuals with previous library experience, these internships are appealing. There is one common trait between all of them that is less appealing: they are unpaid.

Unpaid internships are not a new phenomenon and are not exclusive to libraries. Interns have been around since as early as the 11th century, and currently, undergrads and graduate students alike work without pay in hopes of gaining valuable experience in their field of study. As a library student, I have heard from multiple people in the profession how important it is to gain library experience before graduating with an MLIS degree. Internships provide all of that, but the issue is that many students obtaining MLIS degrees do not receive substantial scholarship money or stipends. Students must pay for tuition and standard cost-of-living expenses such as food, housing, and transportation on their own through student loans and full or part-time positions. With needs that limit a student’s freedom in choosing work, it’s difficult to justify taking an unpaid position over one that covers living expenses. Students or individuals who may be interested in entering libraries cannot always afford to take an unpaid internship.

Of course, there are some students who are financially stable enough to take an unpaid internship in order to gain experience. Students who are able to afford to work without pay are able to gain experience over those who cannot work without pay. Unpaid internships favor the privileged, and it’s worth considering who’s kept out of the profession as a result.

In a profession criticized for its lack of diversity, unpaid internships only exacerbate the problem. Individuals in working class or low socioeconomic groups face a barrier to entering librarianship when the only work offered is unpaid. If fewer people from diverse backgrounds are able to enter the profession, then there will be fewer people who personally understand the complex issues that those groups face. Many LIS programs require students to complete an unpaid internship or practicum in order to graduate. In essence, students pay to work. Library schools should consider the implications of requiring unpaid experience to graduate; solid, potential candidates for Library and Information Science programs may never apply if their background or socioeconomic status hinders them from completing unpaid work. Offering paid work and removing cumbersome graduation requirements is one step towards removing glass ceilings in librarianship.

I understand that there are many libraries and organizations that cannot afford to pay grad students. Funding is complicated depending on the institution, and many professionals working in libraries earn low wages; however, it is not only underfunded institutions that are guilty of exclusively offering unpaid internships. Well-funded academic libraries, large public systems, and other establishments with with solid budgets are posting positions without pay. Since an employer cannot legally derive advantage from an intern’s work, it is questionable as to why these institutions offer unpaid internships in the first place. If an intern is contributing useful work to an organization, then they legally should be paid for that work. If there is no value in an intern’s work, then the organization should consider if the position should be offered in the first place.

Offering unpaid internships in lieu of paid work also deprofessionalizes library work. Tight budgets make it appealing for libraries to offer unpaid positions, especially to students who are preparing to enter the workforce, but offering an unpaid position instead of a paid one implies that the position and the work are worthless. By not paying graduate students for skills and experiences that are fundamental to library work, the value of those skills are also diminished for library professionals who are entering the field with a Master’s degree. Graduate students can offer value to an organization if offered paid avenues to use and grow their skills, but unpaid positions set lower standards for the profession. For Master’s-level work, librarians are worth more than the $0 price tag placed on the library experience and skills gained during an internship.

The burden of moving away from unpaid internships to more paid offerings should not be placed upon library students. Grad students are not the current decision makers (though they will be, one day) and can only speak about current practices. Library professionals and hiring managers have the opportunity to shape their library’s graduate programs in ways that are beneficial to both the student and library. I think there are solutions that consider diverse backgrounds, do not exploit graduate students, and work for libraries, but it’s up to those in the profession to implement them.

What have your experiences been like with unpaid internships? How have internships and practicums influenced your career path?

Previous post on unpaid internships: Get A Job, Or: The Ethics of Library Internships

Cover photo: “Money” by khrawlings. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0


Melissa DeWitt is an MLIS student at the University of Denver. You can find her on Twitter

3 replies

  1. Completely agree. Another factor is what amounts to supply and demand. Lots of people with the degree; very few good opportunities. This then translates to people taking whatever job pops up, regardless of pay. And that tends to devalue the profession and depress wages. If someone can post a position at $25K a year and get several dozen highly qualified applicants, why bother paying more? Likewise for interns — if you can pay nothing, yet have a line of people out the door, why offer any pay?

    At a certain point, people can change that equation by simply walking away from the profession. If you are a supporter of the $15 an hour minimum wage legislation, but would be willing to “work” at an unpaid internship or take a $25K job, you really ought to be thinking about your career choice.

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  2. I think most internships are unpaid these days, which really bites.
    I’ll be taking an unpaid internship this summer. I’m glad I can afford it, but it does suck to not get paid…

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  3. As an individual about to take on an unpaid internship for the Summer this article really resonates with me. In order to make up for changes in our institutions course requirements I have opted to work my unpaid internship for credit in order to graduate on time. Our University does not acknowledge that this independent study utilizes none of their resources and charges me the same as if I were taking a class taught at the University by their professors. In essence I am paying to do my unpaid internship twice and, yes, as Melissa pointed out, I am paying for it with student loans.

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