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Paid Interns Only.

7 August 2014

I don’t accept unpaid interns. MECMC is a teaching hospital, and it is affiliated with VFU, a major university with a prominent medical college. Just down the way there is UHR, another fine school with a well-respected school of medicine, and school of nursing. Vast swarms of undergrads at both institutions are, like just about everywhere, “pre-med” majors. As a quality and safety researcher, there is no shortage of engineering students who would love to work for me without remuneration, who intend to move on in healthcare, or medicine, or simply get real-world experience on their resumés.

I like working with students. I’ve mentored more than a dozen through internships, school projects, and my own research projects. I like teaching how to do systems engineering at the professional level. I like teaching engineers how to communicate with physicians. I’m a fan of the student engineer in the healthcare setting, and I’ve even published about it.

I don’t take on unpaid interns. In order to work with me, a student must receive either money or scholastic credit worth a commensurate amount to the work they put in. I try to pay at least $15/hour for undergraduate labor. I can usually not arrange benefits, because I haven’t had enough money for actual hiring, just stipends. But if I can’t pay enough to make the internship a legitimate source of income for the work done, a real value, I don’t accept the student. And authorship on a paper is not a fiduciary instrument. That alone is not sufficient value. Value must be quantifiable, and real rather than imputed.

The reason is that I believe that unpaid internships reinforce class structures that exist to the detriment of science, productivity, education, and society. Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds often do not have the option of doing unpaid work: they must earn a living while studying. This often means accepting whatever paid work they can find, which is usually not something that will further their career and help them make professional connections. Conversely, students who can afford to work without pay, for experience alone, generally already have significant privileges (or scholarships).

I do not, however, means-test my interns. When I have funds to provide student interns with stipends, I hire according to the resumés I receive. I try to do the best I can at finding the best students without regard to their personal status. Like all humans, I have biases and preconceptions, but I work hard to limit them. And I have mentored students from just about every race and gender and socioeconomic category there is among undergraduates at private R1 universities in the USA.

I believe in trying to set a flat field to compete on. I know I’m not perfect at it, and I’m not sure a perfect solution exists. But I think it starts with the basic justice of reasonable pay for reasonable work, and not selecting against fine students who simply can’t afford to work for free.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 7 August 2014 18:15

    There is also an advantage to being treated as, and expected to perform as a professional. If I am not paying a wage to someone doing work for my team, I in general find them to be less engaged and less motivated. I also plan to never have anyone work in my group just because they can afford to work for free.

  2. rhwoodman permalink
    7 August 2014 20:19


  3. 9 August 2014 11:29

    Kudos to you. I know this decision must narrow your options, so it is not without consequences to you. Thanks for doing your part.

  4. Syd permalink
    14 August 2014 00:16

    I never had success with unpaid interns. If anyone worked with me, they were paid. Student interns and volunteers who wanted to work for free eventually faded away. Not a satisfactory solution for me. That being said, I did volunteer when I was in high school to work at the local marine laboratory. I worked the entire summer doing menial labor–emptying jars of specimens and washing the jars. I was not paid a dime. But I stuck it out and got hired the next summer with pay. Maybe that’s why I like to pay people for the job they do.

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