The Doctor's (not) in (yet): Should I volunteer? The Pitfalls of Internships & Co.


Writing about volunteering and internships in the field has been on my agenda for quite some time already.

Many NGOs or research institutions offer insights into their work, so you get an idea what it’s like to be a researcher or another part of the system. For many it is a way to get involved in the field and frankly, these positions are highly popular – potentially because of the misconceptions they provide. Throughout my career I have done seven of those. I wanted to get hands-on experience, extending my skills and to become more competitive for the job market. Seems legit, right? I did volunteering positions that are also known as voluntourism, where you pay a certain amount of money (and often it’s quite a big one), to support field research, and I’ve done the classic internships for several months. By classic I mean the you-cover-for-personal-expenses-and-work-for-free opportunities.

If I would give my younger self advice, I’d probably tell her that internships are highly overrated.

Yep, that are my two cents.

Don’t get me wrong. I went to places and I met some wonderful people, but that’s basically the only benefit I gained from it. My best internships were the compulsory ones which I had to complete in order to get my degrees. I became a volunteer for one of them because I liked the community and wanted to become a part of it. So I didn’t really mind working for free. In terms of getting me a better chance for jobs or a good amount of new skills? Negative! From my point of view, organisations should pay their interns. Always. Non-negotioable. Or at least providing accommodation and public transport. Only one organisation provided the latter for me. I’m aware that small organisations and institutions often do not have the funds to do this but when people provide work and time, this should be worth recognition. What I don’t like is, that it is often taken for granted. And why is that? Because positions,as I said, are highly popular and there are always people who don’t mind working for free. Because they can or because it is required to get a degree. A vicious circle. Again, with small institutions it’s a different story but when it comes to the big ones, I’d no longer provide my time and effort for them when I’m not getting paid. Period. In fact, it also contributes to the policy that full-time positions are not established because there’s always a poor soul that’ll work for free. Pretty sneaky, huh?

Another type of positions you should be aware of are those that are poorly supervised. You’ll get any kinds of promises, e.g. that you’ll be out on a boat, where in fact you’ll sit on the base all day and if it comes to worse, without any proper task to do. It’s also worthwhile to check how many other interns will work during the time you’ll be there. Is it two or more in a small research team, chances are good you’ll be as useless as a fork for eating soup! It is the task of the intern coordinator to take care of you.

Don’t get fooled by sentences like: ‘The research team is full already, but you can join anyways’. It sounds great at first, but you’ll then realise that they don’t have capacity for you which will lead to frustration and eventually, in the termination of the internship, followed by lots of money going down the drain.

When I was a Master student I wanted to work as a research assistant for PhD students who were involved in whale watching. I applied to two different positions. My request and application got ignored - by both of them. After I’ve sent a follow up Email seeing the position still wasn’t filled, the first one never got back to me claiming the computer crashed and all of my details got lost. The second PhD student agreed on a Skype interview with me but never showed up and ‘ghosted’ me. Unfortunately, doctoral students working unprofessionally is a bigger issue than you might think. If you experience difficulties in the first place during the recruiting process, it’s a warning sign. Today I am glad I haven’t sacrificed my time…I doubt it would have been any worthwhile working with these people.

The third and worst type is, where you get exploited and bullied. If you find yourself in this situation, speak out and let other people know about this experience so this organisation won’t be able to continue with this practice. Power games are unfortunately not uncommon in the field due to competition, ego-driven and mentally unstable people who are unable to work in teams. If you feel something isn’t right, leave as soon as you can. I had to make these decisions and they were not easy but the right ones. Just because you are working for free doesn’t mean you should let anyone treating you as a doormat! No prospective boat trip to see the whales is worth this! But that’s the thing: Free stuff is seldom valued.

Hm, the post turned out more negative than I wanted it to be. Again, this is my personal experience. Others may have gained lots of benefits from volunteering in the field. In the end it is your own decision if you want to spend money and time on a project. If you don’t expect any outcome for your personal career, then it might work. What has helped me in my career? My degrees and probably my persistence. Failure didn’t impress me on the long run. Life goes on. Even after crappy internships! ;)