Will work for food: How volunteer “opportunities” exploit early-career scientists


This is a guest post by Susan Letcher, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Purchase College in New York.

A recent job posting at Cocha Cashu caught my eye:

What: Co-Instructor for the Third Annual Course in Field Techniques and Tropical Ecology

Where: Cocha Cashu Biological Station, Manu National Park, Peru

When: September 1 (arrive a few days earlier)- November 30, 2015

Oh cool, I thought. A field course based at a premier research station. Sounds great. But as I read further, a sinking horror took over:

How much: $0, but all travel and living expenses are paid ($5,000 value)

Essentially, they are looking for someone to VOLUNTEER three months of time teaching in a remote setting. And they’re looking for someone who’s highly qualified, bilingual, with a record of tropical field experience and skills in experimental design, statistics, and pedagogy. Reading further, I found this gem:

“International volunteers will be responsible for obtaining the appropriate visa, travel inoculations and providing their own health insurance.”

Now, I have more than a decade of experience coordinating student projects in tropical field settings, and I taught undergraduate study-abroad courses for two and half years after finishing my Ph.D. It is specialized, often grueling work that requires a lot of training to do well. In one not-atypical week at Palo Verde Biological Station in Costa Rica, I advised field projects, planned and presented lectures in the field and classroom, sorted out logistical issues, and stayed on top of risk management. I was up all night in a regional hospital translating for a student who had presented possible appendicitis symptoms and then spent the next morning teaching a group of undergraduates how to do a 3-dimensional chi square test. This is not the kind of thing that any self-respecting person should be willing to do for $0 plus a plane ticket.

Who are they targeting with a job like this? Someone like me five years ago, probably; someone with a lot of tropical field experience, fresh out of graduate school, young and idealistic and ready to see the world. But here’s the thing: who, at that stage in a career, can afford to drop everything for an unpaid internship? (Not to mention covering his/her own health insurance and inoculations and visa costs.) Who, at that stage in a career, can afford to spend prime job-hunting season (September – November) in a remote field station with unreliable internet, working 16-hour days? The opportunity cost of this “job” is enormous—it’s not just the three months in the field, it’s all the jobs you can’t apply for until the following year.

The sad thing is, they’ll probably fill this job. They’re probably going through the applications already, looking for the best candidate. There are two demographics who will apply: the desperate and the independently wealthy.

The desperate: people finishing an MS or ABD right now, not certain about the next step, looking for something— anything — to fill the CV. Maybe their publication records or their skill sets are not stellar. Maybe, for reasons of burned bridges or personality issues or lack of competence, they can’t get anything else. The thing is, to try to run a field course with someone who’s not up to the challenge is a major disservice to the students. Especially in a really remote field station, where risk management is key, sending someone who doesn’t have the relevant experience and qualifications is asking for trouble. At best, the students get a sub-par level of training; at worst… well, I spent a lot of time imagining, preparing for, and preventing the worst. I’d rather not let my imagination return to those dark places.

The wealthy: this demographic, ultimately, is why positions like this one are a disservice to our discipline as a whole. Volunteer positions automatically exclude people who can’t afford to volunteer, people with loans to repay and costs to cover. Let’s face it: particularly in the US, there’s a strong relationship between race and socioeconomic status, and the people who are wealthy enough to be able to afford the opportunity costs of a position like this, right out of grad school, are likely to be white. If we’re serious about broadening participation, we need to get serious about leveling the playing field. In the US, a recent increase in the scrutiny given to unpaid internships has gone a good ways towards curbing exploitation, though there’s still a ways to go.

Either way, science loses out. At risk of sounding melodramatic, this is about the future of our discipline. What kind of scientific community do we want to build? What kind of opportunities do we want for ourselves and our students? A position like this is exploitation, pure and simple. We need to call it what it is.

I hesitated before writing this post for two major reasons. First, I generally try to be a positive person and look for the best in people and circumstances. I didn’t want my first foray into guest blogging for Small Pond Science to be an excoriation, because I don’t want people to get the impression that I’m some kind of nagging harridan. This is really not my usual mode of being. Second, I recognize that it’s somewhat politically risky for me, as an untenured early career scientist, to be taking aim at any particular institution. But in this case, I think the necessity of speaking out outweighs the potential hazards. This is not right. As a discipline, as a community, we need to we need to be better than this.

A couple of final questions: Who’s the coordinator of the field course, and how much is he/she getting paid for this “experience”? How much are the people in the main office of the San Diego Zoo, who dreamed up this “job” description, getting paid?

19 thoughts on “Will work for food: How volunteer “opportunities” exploit early-career scientists

  1. Some folks held a special session on this issue at last year’s ESA (though more directed at post-undergrad unpaid internships): SS 15 Benefit or Burden: The True Cost of Unpaid Internships http://eco.confex.com/eco/2014/webprogram/Session9859.html – though at 8 pm I don’t think it was particularly well attended (I couldn’t make it, sadly). And the advice I continue to hear, esp for finding a job outside of academia is to volunteer or take an unpaid internship. I think this is a critical issue esp for increasing diversity in the sciences, but the economics are tough with limited funds and LOTS of people (though mostly in the categories you outline) willing to be un- or under-paid. Thanks for highlighting and I’m curious if you have any solutions – it would be nice if people didn’t advertise unpaid ‘jobs’ and if people refused to apply for them, but should PIs refuse to let willing students work in their labs for free?

  2. I agree with everything you have written here. I have taken groups of college students to the tropics as part of my teaching assignments at a small UG college. It is tremendous work. Some people imagine I am using the student as field assistants in my research. Untrained, naive students are not that kind of help. I am the one working to keep them safe and getting them to see the science in the forest. It is education not research. The risks are real from social complexities to real health issues or accidents.
    There will be people willing to go to see a new field site or get something interesting on their resume if someone pays their way. But the responsibility and liability of leading a group is very large.

  3. This is essentially (at a much smaller scale) what happens when conferences ask attendees to organize workshops, charge people to attend the workshop, and don’t give any on that money back (not even reduced registration) to the workshop organizers. There is a surprising number of situations where we are supposed to give away our expertise for free because it looks good on an academic record.

  4. Post MS, as a desperate budding scientist I applied to this very job and got a nice(?) rejection letter. At the very least they had the decency to correspond with me through the application process instead of leaving me in the dark regarding whether or not they even received my application…
    “We regret to have to inform you that you have not been selected for the Co-Instructor position at the Cocha Cashu Biological Station. As you can imagine, a number of highly qualified candidates applied for the position. However, we greatly appreciate your interest and willingness to donate your valuable time and expertise to help fulfill our mission of educating the next generation of ecologists and conservation biologists at the Station. This willingness to undertake a volunteer position says a lot about your passion and your character.

    We hope this will not be the last time our paths cross. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you have interests in conducting research at the station. In the meantime, we invite you to follow our activities and be kept informed about any future opportunities through our Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/CochaCashu.

    With all best wishes for success in your future endeavors,”

  5. “This willingness to undertake a volunteer position says a lot about your passion and your character.”-From the rejection letter an earlier commenter posted.

    This line really bothers me in so many ways. As if a lack of passion and character is the only reason someone wouldn’t take a 3 month volunteer job in a remote location. I agree that it’s admirable to choose one’s job on factors other than accumulating wealth. However, the purpose of employment IS to earn a living, unless you have other means of support. Even if this job were paid, no one would get rich doing it. How many people with the qualifications to get this position are in this field because they’re planning to become millionaires?

    In short, I find it very offensive that whoever is in charge of this doesn’t want to/can’t offer pay for this job, and covers themselves by telling applicants that it’s noble of them to work for free. Ick. You’re excluding a LOT of passion and character when you limit your “employee” pool like this.

    Thank you, Professor Letcher, for your post.

  6. Hi Susan, I really appreciate your thoughts here, and wanted to mention a related issue at a different level. You mention potentially being able to take a job such as this one earlier in your career when you had a little more flexibility. When I finished my BS and was looking for field work, there are a lot of positions similar to this one in that they offer a chance to do amazing field work in unique, far-off locations, but most offer no compensation, and some even require you to pay for travel expenses and/or for lodging and food when you arrive! Most of these positions also require a BS. So you’re asking for a person who just acquired (probably) tens of thousands of dollars of student debt to afford expensive plane tickets and accept no pay? I understand that this point in a career is more flexible than the stage you are at, but I think that this phenomenon is pretty widespread through (at least) ecology, and is something I would like to see addressed. Lots of unpaid internships that are local but offer college credit have come under scrutiny because the interns end up paying for the credits and therefore paying to work! Your situation seems quite similar.

  7. In response to Chris: how different is this from taking a term abroad? Students pay tuition (and airfare and living costs) for the experience of going abroad for credit. Having that kind of experience on your resume is supposed to be quite beneficial for medical school, graduate school, job resume. Many terms abroad experiences can include field experiences. My undergraduate students have really benefited (in their graduate school applications) from summers with Operation Wallacea, and other such paid-for opportunities to participate in field work. I would say that it “turned them on” to ecology as well as taught them field techniques and they made connections to research academics that could support their applications to graduate school.

  8. I agree this is problematic for the reasons you lay out. Having said that, I probably would have considered this as a CV builder and means to get essential experience (plus the opportunity to visit a new place). It’s something that would be a major plus on a job application and one might even be able to do some data collection down there, so I actually think it can be a decent barter under some circumstances….you pay my travel to CC and room/board, and I teach and do some research. Honestly, that seems ok…


    …Our job is inherently risky, not just to us personally (could get sick or hurt, including something chronic or even career-ending) but also because one takes on serious liability when responsible for a group of students under field conditions. Not providing health and liability insurance? That should be a deal-breaker for everyone. Full stop.

  9. Susan, a great post and it’s really important that we keep talking about this issue. I actually published an opinion essay in Conservation Biology back in 2003 that addressed many of these same concerns (Cons. Biol. 17[1]:330-333; link below for those on ResearchGate). I was actually inspired to write it in part because my Ph.D. supervisor had asked me to take on interns to do my graduate research and I had (very nervously) protested that I had ethical concerns about doing so. He was a good and moral person though, and as soon as I brought this up we discussed it he agreed and I don’t think has ever taken on an intern since. This made me realize that the problem is as much cultural as it is economic – with a little budgeting he had enough funding to pay a reasonable wage, it just hadn’t occurred to him that technicians should be paid more than a basic stipend or that failing to do so was ethically challenged, and in his years of supervising students and running projects I was the first person who had voiced these concerns.

    I still get contacted about that essay from time to time and am really encouraged to see people like yourself raising the same issues. A profound cultural change is required, and many people will resist, but by discussing it openly I think there is a lot of opportunity for improvement and to push the “exploiters” to the margins. I have also heard from people from time to time who have been swayed by the ideas I presented in my essay or were able to use that it to help change a colleague’s thinking, so take heart that many members of our profession are open to change once we talk about the issue openly.


  10. We at Cocha Cashu appreciate this dialogue and understand the difficult situation many early-career scientists find themselves in. However, a little background on the station, this course, and this position might be instructive in this discussion. First, this is really a form of community service combined with adventure tourism for the volunteer. We are not asking someone to devote three months of their life at their home university, but are bringing them to one of the most special places on the planet. Second, they are here to teach 10 Peruvian college students who have never had such an amazing training opportunity. We have a grant that pays all these students’ expenses for the entirety of the course. Our primary instructor is Peruvian, and is paid a locally competitive wage. Moreover, three Peruvian academics /conservationists are offering their services as volunteer instructors. We wanted to also expose these students to an international instructor, providing a great cross-cultural exchange in scientific inquiry. Unfortunately, we cannot afford to pay U.S. salary levels. Third, this is a career-building opportunity that will be an excellent addition to an early-career CV. We hope it is a stepping stone that will bring the successful candidate back to Cashu or assist with their career aspirations. Lastly, we would like to point out that the co-instructor will not bear responsibility/liability for the students’ welfare, only for their own.

    Would we like to pay these volunteers? Absolutely. In fact we have a grant proposal in review that includes a stipend. One has to remember that this field station, like most around the world, is struggling to find a viable financial model and may close due to lack of funds. The San Diego Zoo took this on and has found funding to subsidize about ¾ of the operational costs of the station. Despite these constraints, Cashu is committed to delivering on its mission to train the next generation of conservation scientists in Peru, and supporting scientific researchers from around the world (we will soon post a small grant program for international graduate students). Cashu seeks grants and donations to deliver this service, but falls short of all its needs. The spirit of volunteerism is one tool that we rely on to fulfill our mission.

    • Thank you for providing the details of your program.

  11. This is an interesting development. The site advertising this “job” was modified within the last day. Now there is no mention of a visa, or health insurance, or inoculations. The Zoo doesn’t say that they’ll pay for or help arrange these things, but now the ad just doesn’t even mention the fact that you don’t get health insurance or medical support.

  12. Maybe someone could set up a crowdfunding site to at least provide an honorarium for the successful applicant?
    The more we make biology a worthless endeavour, the more it will be seen as such. Breaking even should be the absolute minimum for any research/teaching activity.
    (except possibly for professors with tenure at universities, go hard at the “volunteering”. Public education may be part of your job description, so budget some hours!)

  13. Sean McCann makes a great point that the better target for a position like this would be tenured professors, who wouldn’t suffer the opportunity cost and are likely to bring valuable experience along with expertise.

    I’ll also mention that the CV implications of this position aren’t all to the good. There may well be the potential for learning valuable teaching skills, cultural exchange, and data collection, but I personally feel sympathetic and a bit embarrassed for one who would accept such a costly, exploitative opportunity.

  14. No self respecting person is right. It’s not just ecology: when current trends continue, every science will revert to its roots as a playground for the eccentric wealthy and their ambitious toadies.

  15. You seem to be playing right into the operant Macchiavelian -divide and conquer- class politics when you note:
    “Volunteer positions automatically exclude people who can’t afford to volunteer… and the people who are wealthy enough to be able to afford the opportunity costs of a position like this, right out of grad school, are likely to be white. ”

    Why does skincolour have to be an issue here? If you recognise social economic background determines ones future opportunities, i.e. that the American dream is unreal indeed, the only valid argument you need seems to me the unfair distribution of wealth -and thus of power.

    Are there not a lot of white kids also, who cannot afford such thing? It’s not more or less unfair on equally poor kids because of the level of skin pigmentation of the kid involved, is it?

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