[MARMAM] Internship survey results

Phil Clapham phillip.clapham at gmail.com
Wed Dec 9 12:05:20 PST 2020

Awhile back, I posted a request for people to take a survey on internship
(or similar entry-level) positions in their organization, whether paid or
unpaid.  I thank the 21 people (from a wide variety of projects and study
areas) who took the time to respond to this.  A summary of the results is
given below.

Phil Clapham


∙ Number of surveys returned: 21
∙ Geographic areas represented: US/Canada, UK/Europe, Russia, Arctic,
Brazil, Uruguay, Africa, New Zealand
∙ Size of projects annual budgets: everything from $2,000 to $4 million;
the really big budgets were from state institutions (federal or state
∙ Sources of funding: direct government support (4), grants (18),
donations/memberships (11), ecotourism/public outreach (8), merchandising
∙ Is the PI paid as part of the project budget: 100% (6), no but paid as
permanent employee of an institution (5), <50% salary (4), 0% salary (6)
∙ Species studied: cetaceans (20 projects), pinnipeds (1), sirenians (1),
other (5)
∙ Projects involving endangered or threatened species: 14
∙ Projects taking on interns or similar positions: all 21
∙ Number of interns taken per year: anywhere from 1 to 20 (average 6.5)
∙ Interns receive: accommodation and/or food (19 projects); pay always (3),
pay for some (7), interns are self-supporting (6), interns pay a fee to be
part of the project (6); some combination of the above (16)
∙ Value of interns to the organization: essential to the work (12),
important (6), unimportant (3)
∙ Time spent training interns: anywhere from 10% to 80% (this question was
interpreted in different ways so the numbers don't mean much - basically
all interns require some investment of effort to train)
∙ What percentage of interns turn out to be worth the effort of training
(i.e. they come to represent a useful addition to the project): 10% to 100%
(average 68.7%)
∙ What do interns gain from the work: experience with research (all 21
projects), field work (20/21), college credit (13 projects, though not
necessarily for all interns), management experience with an NGO or other
organization (2), data for the intern's use in graduate or other study (8),
mentoring for graduate or other work (4), experience with public outreach
(3), combinations of some/all of the above (all 21 projects)
∙ Sex ratio of applicants: heavily biased towards women.  One project
reported a 50/50 female/male ratio, but all the others were 70-90% female
∙ Ethnicity breakdown: one project (in Africa) reported 50/50 white/black,
another (in Mexico) had 80% hispanic interns; but other than that most
project interns were predominantly white (60-100%, average for all projects
∙ Positions advertized on: MARMAM (14 projects); Society for Marine
Mammalogy (3); other, such as a website, university, social media, other
listservs etc (11)
∙ Impact of a ban on unpaid ads on the institution's work would be: little
or none (5 projects), significant (5), critical (4), unknown or no answer
(7).  Eleven respondents felt that the impact on individual opportunities
would be significant or high, but the question was probably too vaguely
worded to put too much stock into these answers.
∙ Principal Investigators who started their careers in an unpaid, volunteer
position: 20 of 21
∙ Value of that experience to the person's career: pivotal (17 of 20),
important (1), unimportant (1)
∙ What is the bare minimum that should be offered to interns (other than
research experience): bed and board (10), pay for all (2), pay for some
(2), pay and benefits for all (1)

*Some observations*

1. Those respondents who believed that all interns should be paid all
worked for state institutions with large budgets (i.e. in at least some
cases they presumably don't have to spend a lot of time raising money for
their projects).

2. Not surprisingly, the ability to pay interns - and their importance to
the project's work - was a function of the budget; small NGOs where the PI
and other staff were not paid, and for whom funding went into project
operations, were consistently unable to offer support to interns, who were
also usually deemed important or essential to the work.  Many of these
projects, however, provided at least accommodation and food when in the
field (though of the 19 that did this, six charged people a fee to
participate, so it's really only 13). Some institutions provided ongoing
support for interns after their time was finished, either through graduate
study help or (in a few cases) hiring good interns back later on as members
of the research team.

3. Most of the less well-funded institutions said variations of the same
thing: that they wished they could afford to pay interns, but the budgets
wouldn't support that.  It is interesting that most project PIs felt that
accommodation and food should be a minimum requirement, at least when on
field work.  However, some also made the point that they didn't see why
they should be spending scarce resources to pay someone inexperienced and
untested; while acknowledging that there was obviously a bias towards
interns who could afford to volunteer, many felt that the exchange of labor
for the chance to participate in research and "try out" a career was a fair
trade (some had very strong views on this!)

4. It is certainly significant that almost all the Principal Investigators
involved began their careers with a volunteer position, and that the
majority of those said the experience was pivotal to their careers.

5. This is not news, but marine mammal research continues to attract far
more women than men, at least at the level discussed here.

6. Again, not news... but obviously marine mammal research continues to be
predominantly a white field.  The only deviations from this trend among
respondents were projects in non-white countries which prioritized local
involvement in research.

7. One PI in a developing country made the interesting point that using
western volunteers tends to limit buy-in from local people to research and
conservation efforts.

Again, thanks to those who responded.
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