Early-Career Scientists Face a Wall of Unpaid Positions
A survey of job postings for early-career marine researchers shows that more than half of the positions are unpaid.
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In late 2019, Anna Osiecka was looking for a job. Yet posting after posting for early-career positions in her highly competitive field, studying marine mammals, had the same glaring flaw: they didn’t seem to actually pay anything. Osiecka was between graduate programs and figured it was just her. But while volunteering at a major science conference in Spain, Osiecka spoke with others who’d run into the same thing.
Those conversations led Osiecka and her new collaborators to start gathering data on the prevalence of unpaid work in the marine sciences and conservation. Their research was unfunded, and most of the collaborators were unemployed as they conducted the work, but their findings, published in a recent study, document an industry rife with unpaid labor. Their survey of postings to three popular job forums for positions around the world showed that less than half—only about 45 percent—offered any compensation. Most were unpaid, while some actually required potential job seekers to pay a fee to gain the position, a potentially exploitative practice known as pay-to-play.
The results cover a period before and during the pandemic, and they offer a snapshot of a system that often takes advantage of marine scientists at the beginning of their careers. In their analysis, which only considered English-language full-time positions that required a maximum of seven years of previous experience, Osiecka and her collaborators saw that around half of the unpaid and pay-to-play positions called for at least a year of previous experience and required either a bachelor’s degree or some certification. Digging into the data, the scientists saw a clear trend in which types of organizations most often listed paid jobs—universities and governments—and which had unpaid or pay-to-play positions—nonprofits and private companies.
Many of the unpaid and pay-to-play job listings were in North America and Europe in countries with strict labor laws, raising questions about the legality of such positions, particularly those offered by private companies, says Osiecka, who is now a doctoral fellow at the University of Gdańsk in Poland. “It is extremely important to stress,” the authors write in their paper, “that in many such cases the unpaid work offers may violate local labor laws.”
While Osiecka and her collaborators did not name any specific companies in their report, they noted that “tour operators in private whale watching companies … contributed to one-fourth of all unpaid offers.”
Examples of unpaid or pay-to-play positions with whale watching firms aren’t hard to find.
In Gloucester, Massachusetts, for instance, Cape Ann Whale Watch offers unpaid internships aboard its vessel, the Hurricane II. The for-profit company uses the boat to take an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 tourists per season to spot whales and dolphins around Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Tickets for adults cost US $50 each.
According to former intern and current head naturalist Jamie McWilliams, the company usually hires at least six interns to work five days a week for 12 weeks or more. McWilliams touts the introductory experience that the interns gain “in education, public speaking, collecting field data, finding whales, boat knowledge, and photo identification of whale species and individuals.” However, she empathizes with the financial challenges that her interns face, acknowledging that when she was an intern nearly a decade ago, “it was extremely difficult.” The interns’ presence on the boat is “essential,” says McWilliams.
“I’m just not capable of doing all that they help with by myself,” she says.
United States law defining what constitutes an internship is vague, which creates gray space ripe for exploitation, says Carlos Mark Vera, cofounder of the nonprofit Pay Our Interns, which is pushing US regulators to start tracking unpaid internships and create a federal task force to strengthen and clarify protections for interns.
In Massachusetts, however, the attorney general’s office recently took a stand, though against a different industry. In September, the office issued a $400,000 citation to a Boston recording studio over claims including that the studio didn’t pay its interns. According to a press release from the office: “Most people who work in Massachusetts, including those classified as ‘interns,’ are considered employees and must be paid at least minimum wage for all the time that they work.” The state found the studio’s interns were doing work “largely inconsistent with a bona fide vocational training program,” in part because the interns “rarely participated through an educational institution” and were tasked with duties “ordinarily performed by paid employees.”
Cape Ann Whale Watch did not reply to a request for comment on how its unpaid internship program compares to the one recently cited by the state attorney general’s office. When asked, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards (DLS) deferred to the attorney general’s office, adding that DLS has “not received any complaints regarding interns on whale watching boats,” and that “determinations regarding such programs and relationships are highly specific and would have to be done on a case-by-case basis, looking at the totality of the circumstances and a variety of factors.” When contacted, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office deferred back to DLS.
Osiecka and her collaborators’ findings have obvious implications for issues of diversity and access—for who does, and doesn’t, get to participate in science.
Jasmin Graham, a sawfish scientist and project coordinator at the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Florida who was not involved in the analysis, has experienced this barrier firsthand. As an undergraduate student, Graham had to choose between doing unpaid undergraduate research, which would have been a huge boon to her ambitions of becoming a working scientist, or tutoring part-time to make ends meet. A generous professor tracked down funding to pay for the research and help her overcome that barrier, she says. But that level of support is not available to all.
Today, as president of Minorities in Shark Sciences (MISS), a program she and three other Black shark scientists cofounded last year, Graham is trying to give other women of color that extra push. For example, MISS is partnering with the Bimini Biological Field Station in the Bahamas to offer full support for some of the interns who would otherwise be unpaid and be required to pay for their own room and board at the remote field station. While she emphasizes the importance of the financial barriers facing those early in their scientific careers, the prevalence of unpaid, short-term internships and similar experiences can also exclude a variety of people, such as those who are low income, disabled, chronically ill, or who are also caregivers.
“We can’t be confused when we don’t see those people in science, because you’ve told them that they don’t belong, because they can’t work for free,” says Graham. “They can’t move around and work in remote locations. They can’t uproot their lives every year.”
While Graham was glad to see this latest study adding to these discussions, Osiecka noted how hard it was to even raise the issue of unpaid work in the scientific literature.
Before she and her collaborators could get their study published, their analysis was first rejected by another scientific journal after a reviewer dismissed the problem entirely, essentially saying, if you want to work, you work for free because you’re dedicated, Osiecka recalls. “That [response] was really showing you the exact people … the exact mindset that leads to the issue that we’re facing.”