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?