The Slightly Disgruntled Scientist

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The Pants Theory of Unpaid Internships

Having read a few articles describing the climate of unpaid internships, I am starting to feel frustrated with how people are framing the problem, and with the solutions they are proposing. It’s that special kind of frustration, where you see people kind of arguing in the right direction, but consistently missing the point. Everyone seems to be interpreting the problem as: businesses who want free labour luring the unemployed with some ephemeral promise of eventual work.

I think it’s considerably more complicated than that.

This article is going to come off like a defence of unpaid internships, but it’s not. I am against them. If you really can’t see anything wrong with very vulnerable people being manipulated into working for free, then we probably have no common ground upon which to base a discussion. Off you go then.

The point here is that without understanding the real allure of unpaid internships, no-one has a hope of putting an end to the practice.

A reason to set the alarm

The common reason given (or assumed) for undertaking an unpaid internship is that it may lead to paid work, possibly with the company offering the internship. That may or may not be true, but it’s irrelevant. I’m going to conjecture that this is almost always a reverse rationalisation for what I’m about to describe.

You see, after you’ve been unemployed for even a few weeks, you start to feel.



And this is not even considering whether you have enough savings to pay the bills, someone to support you, etc. Even living in reasonable comfort, if you have spent your days confined to the house, sending out dozens of applications and getting silence back, you will start to feel like crap. You will feel — and I mean genuinely believe — that you will never escape the situation.

You feel cheated and humiliated for getting an apparently-useless education.

You feel paranoid and stupid, like there is some secret (but at the same time, obvious to all but you) system that everyone else knows about.

If you started out in a stable relationship, you will possibly even question whether your feelings are real, or if it is just dependency that keeps you together.

These are not exaggerations. Unemployment is devastating to most peoples mental health. It is a poison. It is awful.

The mere act of getting dressed in smart-casual clothes, getting on public transport with hundreds of other people, and setting foot in a separate building can be an unimaginable reprive. The helplessness and feelings of futility that comes from having your letters ignored are swept away as you indulge in having other people notice that you exist and are able to do useful things.

Not only that, but you are now able to tell your friends and family that you are doing… something! Anything! You have actual news instead of… well, shame and awkward silence.

I cannot stress this enough. Just having a reason to set an alarm for the next morning has a profound effect on someone who’s been slamming their head in the car door of the job market.

Hence, trying to neutralise the claim of “it’ll lead to something paid” with well researched statistics is not going to work, no matter what the numbers say. That’s not the real reason. The hook is not the vague promise of future work. It’s the work itself, paid or not, and the change in psychological state that comes with it.

The Social Network

When I am looking for work, I will devote more than half my time and energy to tapping my contacts in various industries for information. Old professors, current colleagues, friends, relatives — all are familiar with my traditional job hunting cry of “find attached my current CV and quail in fear, mortals!”.

To put it another way, without a network of industry contacts, I would be less than half as effective at finding employment. And I seriously doubt that this applies only to me.

Think about it: does your industry have some sort of local drinks night that are only advertised by word of mouth? Does it have regular conventions that cost a lot of money to attend? Most importantly: do you ever see jobs get filled by referral before they have a chance to be advertised?

No-one wants to be that random outsider who tags along at «industry» drinks. I mean, maybe it’s okay, but when you’ve been unemployed for months, well, read the previous section again. Social anxiety mounts up and you just can’t summon the courage to be an interloper. And then it’s back to the blanket fort.


Seriously, if you have ever used the word “retraining,” what the hell do you think it means other than “pay to work for free?”

One of the more bizarre arguments concerning internships is that it’s okay for internships to be unpaid if they are part of an educational course. Since there is absolutely no free tertiary education available anywhere in Australia, this reduces to the statement that working for free becomes acceptable if you can pay for the privilege. It also makes featuring outrage about paying for placements alongside that very argument utterly baffling.

(Note again, my argument here is not that this contradiction makes unpaid internships okay, but that the acceptance of unpaid labour at all invariably creates this kind of loophole.)

A major temptation of unpaid internships is simply that you can learn something new. When a person goes for their next interview, they may have a few more skills to sell. Now read the first section again. Remember that part about sweeping away feelings of helplessness?

Being able to add a paragraph to your CV after months of sending out the same document over and over and over and over is like the most wonderful drug you can imagine.

It’s not about the promise

This is what is important to realise. The unpaid internship is not about the promise of possible, future work. It is not about the economy of unpaid labour. It is absolutely, utterly, completely about the mental state of the person undertaking the work.

That is where any policy developments on this need to start, otherwise they’re doomed.


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