Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Public Historians on Unpaid Internships

The Messiah College History Department requires students to fulfill an "experiential learning" requirement.  One of the ways to meet this requirement is by doing a public history internship.  Many of our students intern at local and regional historical societies in the Carlisle-Gettysburg-Harrisburg-Hershey area.  Most of these internships are unpaid. In fact, since many of our students do their internships for credit, they end up having to pay Messiah College for the experience.

But what about internships or volunteer opportunities that are not done for academic credit ? Should aspiring public historians seek out these opportunities in order to build their resumes, get their foot in the door, and gain valuable experience?

Here is Jane Beckler of the University of Massachusetts-Boston:

...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.

Here is Deborah Morse-Kahn of Regional Research Associates:

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.

Here is Patrick O'Bannon of Gray & Pape Inc.:

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.

Read the rest of this discussion at History@Work.

Of course the ideal internship is one that is paid and I encourage my students to pursue them.  But many of my students (which I might add are middle or upper-middle class) are willing to pursue voluntary experiences because they want to build their profile.  If I have a student who lives in the Washington D.C. area and can afford to work for free at the Smithsonian for the summer, who am I discourage them from doing so.

I know that a lot of students read The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Let's hear from you.  What kinds of unpaid internships, if any, would you consider?