Unpaid internships have been called a necessary evil. PIs and companies claim they can’t afford to pay someone to do work and that free student labor is the only solution to that problem. They pull students in with claims of ‘invaluable experience’ and better job prospects. However, these unpaid internships disproportionately help already advantaged white males get jobs after graduating, meanwhile leaving women and minorities out of the mix.
The vast majority of unpaid internships are filled by women and this is largely because humanities dominate the unpaid internship world. Most articles examining the unfair circumstances that are unpaid internships, therefore, inevitably focus on humanities and have found that they don’t even provide a real boost in terms of job placement (I’ll let you make the final connection yourself).
STEM majors probably have a different story to tell since these internships can eventually lead to conference papers or posters, publications, or other notable lines on your CV. Things that really can make or break your chances when going against other similarly qualified ABD’s on the job market. But that doesn’t change the rest of the story.
Technically, organizations can only have unpaid interns if they are receiving college credit for their work – but who pays for the fees and student loan interest (and processing fees) on those credits? Surely not the employer. Assuming you don’t have a savings account with three months of living expenses to draw from, you are actually paying someone else to do work for them (employer pays an average tuition cost of $200-300 per credit over a summer vs tens of thousands of dollars in student loan interest to cover living expenses and healthcare). It’s also important to note that, as an unpaid worker, you do not have typical protections against sexual, racial, and disability harassment like paid workers do. We essentially have a system that is built to cater to wealthy, able, white men – the dominating demographic in STEM jobs (especially upper level positions) already.
We have the evidence: unpaid internships, in general, do not provide a boost for most people seeking employment. They do not provide legal protection if you experience any kind of harassment while working. Unless you come from a wealthy background, likely you’ll be paying for this internship for many years to come. So it’s clear that unpaid internships are not only discriminatory towards women and minorities, but are also not necessary for you to succeed.
If your degree does not require that you do an unpaid internship, just don’t do it. It’s not worth your time, energy, or money. You are much better off seeking a temp job which are plentiful (and super fun). According to the data, you’d actually be just as well off not taking any internship and working as a server or mini-golf attendant for the summer.
The following links are places I have used to find STEM (mostly natural resources) jobs. And don’t forget to check your society’s job board! So as the semester comes to a close, maybe start to rethink your summer plans.