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More on the Internship Scam


Tim Noah is making sense:

Unfortunately, Pauley’s decision didn’t address the biggest moral objection to unpaid internships: they’re starkly inegalitarian. Wealthier kids are in a much better position to work free of charge than non-wealthy kids, especially when you take into account the burden of college debt


Another moral offense largely unaddressed in Judge Pauley’s decision is the way colleges and universities use unpaid internships to line their pockets at students’ expense. To the halfhearted extent bosses previously enforced Walling for interns at all, they did so by persuading institutions of higher learning to grant college credit for unpaid internships.


The unpaid-intern model has run its ignoble course. If Judge Pauley has dealt it a fatal blow, good riddance. And if he hasn’t—if other judges fail to follow suit, or if he’s reversed on appeal—then that’s a pity. Interns are workers, and workers are supposed to get paid.


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  • TribalistMeathead

    Not suggesting this is worse or anything, but isn’t elimination of the unpaid internship just going to lead to more paid internships? Fundamentally the same issues as unpaid internships (good luck living on $10K/year in DC, non-rich kids!), only you can’t argue that the kids are being exploited for free, just that they’re being exploited for very little money.

    • Scott Lemieux

      I think people being paid is better than people being unpaid, yes.

      • That $10,000 is going to open up internships to a lot more people, even if not everyone.

        • TribalistMeathead

          I don’t think it’s going to open the floodgates. The same parents who can’t fully finance an internship can’t finance a mildly subsidized internship.

          • I disagree. For one thing, even a minimum wage internship in DC is going to pay $1,320 a month for full time, or keep the hours under control. Now, that’s not very much money, but it’s just about doable for a summer if you have a roommate.

            However, there’s a hell of a lot of families who can’t afford to shell out $2,000 a month who could shell out a couple hundred bucks to help their kids stretch out their paychecks. Opening up prestigious, formerly unpaid internships to middle and low-middle class kids is a huge step forward even if not 100% of kids can afford to do it.

            • TribalistMeathead

              Paid internships frequently pay less than minimum wage.

          • Also, paying anything at all changes the expectations. It might be easier to convince companies to offer a living wage versus a minimum wage (to attract the best talent, etc.) than it is to convince them to offer a wage at all.

          • BarrY

            Obviously wrong – kicking in a few hundred/month is something that far more families can do than can kick in a thosuand/month.

    • Johnny Sack

      Yeah but it’s still better than the alternative. You might still need to apply for a grant/subsidy for the summer and work nights/weekends, but being paid will make it that much easier to make ends meet.

      Yes, it still doesn’t solve the problem for many people. But it’s better than the status quo. And look, I know you acknowledged this. But I still don’t get it. Sure, maybe now you won’t be able to complain you’re being exploited for free. And? Your point is not self-evident. A complaint about being exploited for free and $1.90 will get you a coffee from Starbucks. Being paid is unambiguously better than being unpaid but being able to righteously complain about being unpaid.

    • Tyro

      (good luck living on $10K/year in DC, non-rich kids!)

      When you’re young, you put up with a lot of crap. Though at minimum wage it would be 15k/yr. Then you might get a weekend job tending bar. Yeah, you’ll live in a crappy apartment and maybe share a room with someone while your wealthier intern colleague has her own apartment and a car given to her by her parents, but neither of those things is strictly necessary.

    • Tristan

      Counterpoint: I would literally kill a baby for a 10k/year job right now.

  • rea

    Unfortunately, Pauley’s decision didn’t address the biggest moral objection to unpaid internships

    Or, rather fortunately. It would be a serious abuse of the judicial power if the judge started discussing “moral objections” in his opinion, when the issue was whether the law allowed the practice (which it doesn’t). Goddess preserve us from judges who want to enforce their own notions of morality rather than the law.

    • Another Anonymous

      Word. That was a remarkably stupid thing for Noah to write.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Yes, I assume Noah was using that as a jumping off point rather than actually wanting Pauley to write about it, but you’re right of course.

  • Green Caboose

    I’m totally supportive of ending these exploitative unpaid internships that favor the rich over the poor. Especially in Congress, where this results in only the rich perspective being heard even amoungst the lowest paid people in the building.

    However, I have to say I’m surprised that the interns actually do useful things with results. The interns we’ve had in software development were, at the very best, break-even propositions. The little they contributed was more than counter-balanced by the time it took to train them, review their work, etc. I think these kind of internships are important in that they are beneficial to society, but there was not profit from the company’s standpoint. The problem was that the difference between creating a cool program or app for a term project and developing actually profitable commercial software is like the difference between flying a Cessna on a simulator and flying an A800 for real.

    • Johnny Sack

      That’s been similar to my experience with interns. I think we just need more understanding that this is a cost of doing business. It’s a cost that businesses who want interns and society in general is going to have to bear if it wants to have: class mobility, low youth unemployment, and just generally getting experience and developing skills/contacts for good jobs not being an upper middle class luxury (see above).

      We might only break even on interns at my small company. But we just look at it as a summer long audition process. No different from other hiring costs. And you know what? I haven’t crunched the numbers, but if I did it’d probably turn out that vetting kids at $18/hr over the summer is less expensive in the long run than hiring someone full time, firing them, looking for someone else, etc. Replacing incompetent/otherwise unsuited employees costs money.

      • firefall

        You’re not meant to just break even on them, though. They’re interns, they’re meant to be there to learn things to their benefit, not to contribute to your firms’ bottom line, which is presumed to be doing this in expectation of being more attractive as an employer when the intern is looking for work*, or out of noblesse oblige I suppose. Breaking even means you’re using their labour for your benefit, which is exactly what breaking the FLSA is about.

        *it is to laugh at the thought, of course – everywhere I’ve ever worked, interning there would definitely be a deterrent to ever returning.

    • bk

      If your company didn’t get any benefit it might be a legal internship program.

      I think a lot of people overstate how hard it is to have interns. Even if you have to review their work how is that different from a paid entry level employee? Do you expect a person to come into a company (for free or low pay) and provide high quality work from day one?

  • FMguru

    The Baffler had this figured outback in the 1990s with their all-labor issue titled “Interns Built The Pyramids”. Nice of Tim Noah to catch up.

  • At least in science and medicine, you’re hurting the interns not the labs by the elimination of unpaid interns. Undergraduates are much much worse than useless to us, but we let them come in if they want for a summer out of an obligation to train the next generation of scientists. But we’re certainly not going to pay somebody to suck up our time and provide nothing of value.

    • Warren Terra

      At my current institution, here in Biology, undergraduate summer students are funded (typically by our campus, for about 70-80% of them; by a well-known biotech that has a program to fund about 10% of them; or by their own campus, country, or other funding organization). Our lab triples in size over the summer.

      On the other hand, we have some local high school students working in lab over the summer and some evenings during the year, and I think they’re totally volunteers.

      But there is a critical difference: our undergrads and high-school students aren’t doing scutwork (washing dishes, making stock solutions for the whole lab, pouring Petri plates, etcetera) – they’re doing actual research. They (and especially the undergrads) have experiments that are wholly their own. They are genuinely receiving training and accruing useful experience (well, useful in the field) and are genuinely accomplishing something for their own aggrandizement; yes, any publication will be authored by their supervising grad student or postdoc and by the lab’s Principal Investigator, but they will be authors as well, in proportion with their contribution (ie an undergrad’s contribution rarely, but not all that rarely, amounts to First Authorship).

      This is rather different from fetching and carrying for a middle-manager, or even from doing the communal scutwork for the lab – and the latter consistently is a paid position in labs I’ve known, even when it’s done by an undergrad, and is considered wholly separate from Undergraduate Research.

      • It takes two to three months to get IRB approval to do a new project in our hospital, so it is simply not practical for an intern to have their own. It does happen with funded med students we get, but then they submit a proposal and we know they’re coming well in advance. The interns we get just email and ask if they can work in the lab for the summer with no project in mind. If they were exceptionally motivated it’s possible, but I have yet to see it.

        They don’t get scutwork with us either though, because that’s not what they’re volunteering for. Besides it being unethical and illegal from our standpoint… why would these “privileged” kids stay if they’re not being paid for it? To get a recommendation? To avoid being blackballed? I admit it is possible, but I don’t think it is particularly likely or common… I’d think that it would take some pretty specific and unusual circumstances to occur.

        Labs do pay for research assistants… who come in as college graduates but are generally just as useless as intern initially… precisely because having somebody stay for 1-2 years after you train them is valuable. Plus, since you are paying them you can make them do the stuff nobody else wants to do.

    • Philip

      Drug Monkey had a good post about this recently. The comments are also pretty good.

      • I commented on that post and would say it’s actually fairly ignorant and ill informed.

        • Warren Terra

          It certainly conflates undergraduate research with drudgework in a way that would not be tolerated in any lab I’ve known well.

          • If your research can be done by high school students I would contend you are not actually doing research.

            • Warren Terra

              Oh, that’s just tremendously silly. I can teach someone to do assays, and they can do them, and I can walk them through the interpretation and discuss with them what the next series of assays will be. I can help them put together a talk presenting their results and providing some context, though there is a limit to how far they can go answering questions of more than a methodological nature. I can do this with any intelligent, interested, curious person. They don’t need an undergraduate degree for all that – though they would need significant experience and study before they should be making a lot of those decisions themselves.

              • Well, we study humans not bacteria, so probably the rules are little different. In the days you’d be teaching an assay our intern would still be watching videos about HIPAA and research ethics.

    • tt

      As someone who benefited from a few unpaid internships in the sciences, and now mentors unpaid interns, I have to agree with this. I suspect internships in some fields (perhaps including the ones Lemieux and Noah are most familiar with) are scams. But the absolutist position here really doesn’t make sense. Training/experience for work is sometimes a good deal.

      • MPAVictoria

        It is unethical to expect someone to work for free. You and Mr. Hamner are deplorable.

        • tt

          So, you think if an undergrad asks to work in our lab for training/experience, because she correctly believes it will help her pursue a career in the sciences or medicine (and we have no funds to pay her), we should say no? Because that’s the typical situation. We don’t seek people out–training an undergrad is a big cost, there is no mechanism for it to advance one’s career.

          • DocAmazing

            My own experience: as an undergraduate I worked many long hours in a physiology lab doing quite necessary scut work. I learned little or nothing useful for my degree or my subsequent studies, and the letter of recommendation for med school that I had been pursuing with all of this work never was written.

            tl;dr: the hours wasted in that lab did nothing to help me pursue my career in medicine. They were shitwork; I was cheated.

            • You were not cheated. You learned you had no interest in research.

              • DocAmazing

                I didn’t need to spend any time at all in the lab to learn that.

                • MDs get insane preferential treatment in grants, so I feel like it’s a fair test. Also, NIH still wants you back. Have you called?

              • MPAVictoria

                Well only the chosen few are worthy right J.W?

            • tt

              You were cheated. I don’t think the system is perfect, and the letter of recommendation is particularly susceptible to exploitative behavior by the actor with all the power in the relationship (I myself have suffered from this).

          • MPAVictoria

            I am saying that by exploiting this person’s desperation you are supporting a corrupt system that devalues people by devaluing their labour. Universities seem to have plenty of money to pay football coaches million dollar salaries. They can spring for a small stipend for interns.

            • They can spring for a small stipend for interns.

              They can: They won’t.

              My point is that my lab won’t suffer if unpaid internships are outlawed. The people who suffer are those who want to explore the idea of a career in science.

              • MPAVictoria

                Then your lab well eventually have to deal with the problem of finding qualified people. It takes time to train workers. Employers used to realize that.

                Also on a more personal note you are coming off like an arrogant jackass. You might want to work on that.

                • tt

                  When we train undergrads, we are almost never training people who will eventually work in our lab productively. And finding qualified people isn’t the issue; we can find qualified people, they just aren’t undergrads.

                • MPAVictoria

                  You guys just don’t seem to get it.

                • I’m not trying to be a jerk:

                  How does the fact that we want a postdoc intersect your feelings of labor justice?

              • MPAVictoria

                I assume your lab takes government funding?

    • BarrY

      Please note that unpaid interns are still acceptable (if I read the article correctly); what’s not acceptable is when the ‘internship’ is really a temp job.

  • JustMe

    Undergraduates are much much worse than useless to us, but we let them come in if they want for a summer out of an obligation to train the next generation of scientists.

    But that is in line with the legal ruling– since they’re not performing useful work, then they’re engaging in a “proper” unpaid internship. (really, though, you can’t pay them minimum wage?)

    • It is, but Noah here is advancing (with a Lemieux “Heh, Indeedy”) to end even those unpaid internships that are legal under current law.

      really, though, you can’t pay them minimum wage?

      We can barely pay postdocs, so we’re not spending our scarce grant money on people who act only as a burden.

      Note that we also get interns who aren’t “unpaid” even though we don’t pay them because they get a grant for the summer from somebody. Increasing funding for that kind of thing is an option, though obviously unlikely in the current fiscal climate.

      • Andrew

        In addition to the 6-part test, there’s a large exemption carved out for non-profit organizations. They’re allowed to have volunteers.

        • Again, this is true, but Noah and Lemieux appear to object to unpaid interns per se. See:

          The unpaid-intern model has run its ignoble course. If Judge Pauley has dealt it a fatal blow, good riddance. And if he hasn’t—if other judges fail to follow suit, or if he’s reversed on appeal—then that’s a pity. Interns are workers, and workers are supposed to get paid.

          • Andrew

            I don’t disagree with them on that point, either. For a variety of reasons, labor is fundamentally undervalued in our economy and this has negative consequences for all workers. If entry level workers and trainees go unpaid, then as in your example, even postdocs will be underpaid.

            But they’re also pointing out that existing labor law, if applied, already provides some remedies.

            • Worthless “labor” will still be worthless, you’ll just be preventing mentoring and learning. Good job, I guess?

              • MPAVictoria

                “Worthless labour”
                Fuck you. Maybe the problem is the arrogant jackass doing the training.

                • Do you assume that every human being can perform open heart surgery? In the case of open heart surgery everyone who can’t do so is worthless. Is this hard to understand?

              • MPAVictoria

                Build your straw an a little higher pal. Unless these interns are doing open heart surgery your argument is weak. Everyone needs some training when they start a job but that doesn’t mean they should be asked to work for free. You should be ashamed of yourself.

                • What you don’t understand is that science interns are nearly 100% charity.

                • MPAVictoria

                  Please. Come off it. I started at my job needing training on how to right policy papers and drafting instructions for new legislation. Guess what? They paid me. Science is not this uniquely difficult thing, most jobs have a learning curve.

                • I started at my job needing training on how to right policy papers and drafting instructions for new legislation.

                  In science, an internship is the opposite of a job offer. It says: “I recommend you get more education”

              • I have always found that my best mentoring and learning came from people who thought I was doing work so worthless nobody would pay for it.

                • MPAVictoria

                  I stand in awe Substance.

                • You’ve never volunteered? I guess I’m going to need to see your Progressive Card then.

                • As it happens I’ve volunteered as a shop steward who made sure people got paid, and nobody thought what I was doing was worthless.

                • Next step: shop purser.

              • Andrew

                Ditches don’t dig themselves.

                You’re describing a broken system. Based on what you’ve said about your lab and its staffing, you’re asking that the cost of training your staff be externalized. Someone has to train the would-be interns. Someone has to pay for it. And yet you’re also not able to adequately pay the presumably qualified and pre-trained postdocs.

                If that system stops working, an intern making minimum wage isn’t going to be the root cause.

              • Tyro

                I find that those in the biological sciences tend to think an awful lot of themselves. If your lab is too poor to pay your glassware washers and media-mixers the minimum wage, your shitty lab doing research no one cares about is too poor to exist, and in any case, a “career” in the biological sciences will likely only lead to a postdoc paying 40k/yr with a worse lifestyle and salary than that of a nurse with a bachelor’s degree.

                Don’t think so much of yourself and don’t prey on the desperation of kids.

                • tt

                  In no lab I’ve ever worked in have interns been relegated to glassware washing and media mixing. If they were, then they should, of course, be paid.

      • Tyro

        Of course, in a biology laboratory, no student who actually needs money should ever consider getting a Ph.D. in biology, anyway. In this case, unpaid internships that serve as a filter to shut out students who can’t afford to take an unpaid internship is probably best for all involved.

        • Warren Terra

          Oh, I dunno. If you’ve got decent grades and a solid resume of undergraduate or postbaccalaureate research, it’s pretty easy to get into a good PhD program in biology, and you pay no tuition and get a stipend that’s easily sufficient for a genteel lifestyle assuming shared housing (housemates, not roommates) and no responsibilities (spouse, kids, major expenses).

          The later career outlook is both uncertain and non-lucrative, but it is at least somewhat manageable for people with essentially no outside resources. In this respect, a biology PhD is certainly more equitable than any humanities PhD as regards the family resources required to seek it.

          Of course, I haven’t figured student debt into this at all. Some of this is generational (I went to an excellent state school when tuition was almost negligible; their funding is less now, and their tuition more than sixfold higher). But surely this figures into everything: I can’t imagine how it must be for so many young people to assume massive student debt and then have the debt constrain their life choices even as things like funded graduate school positions would seem to make choices available to them.

  • marijane

    I don’t think this is quite the end of unpaid internships. A former employer of mine used to get all their interns from Berkeley’s International Diploma Program.

    It’s considered an academic program; the students maintain their enrollment status and they earn credits, but no money. One of the interns who worked on my team left me with the impression that it wasn’t actually legal for the company to pay them. I didn’t pry, so I can only speculate that this is because of their visa status.

    • Andrew

      Unless that was a nonprofit employer, that sounds iillegal from start to finish.

  • Warren Terra

    How about an example that inverts this? At my undergraduate alma mater, there was university funding available for “work-study” jobs, in which the university would greatly subsidize the pay of some undergraduates so that they could afford (or at least support) their own undergraduate education by working on campus. This program was means-tested, as you’d expect.

    At least one research lab I know of had a policy: they wouldn’t take any undergraduate students to work in their lab after the start of their junior year (and they preferred sophomores or younger); the students should expect to do scutwork for about a year (washing bottles and the like); after that year-or-so, th student will have demonstrated their reliability, become familiar with the research in the lab, and gotten to know the grad students and postdocs, and would begin a project at least partly their own, supervised by one of those students or postdocs.

    In effect, this meant that undergraduate research in this lab was limited to people who were low-enough income to qualify for the work study program. The professor wasn’t going to get a year of bottle-washing out of a student without paying them for this scutwork; he wouldn’t have wanted to do that even if the student claimed to be willing. And the professor wasn’t going to pay full price for this work when he could find an eager work-study student who would receive full price and be heavily subsidized by the university; he probably couldn’t have afforded this if he’d wanted to. And while the professor wasn’t massively famous, he was tremendously well respected both as a scientist and lab head and as an educator; his was an excellent lab for any undergraduate able to work there.

    So: this was a lab that offered a path to professional advancement available only to people poorly enough off to qualify for subsidized employment!

    • Tyro

      Well, it’s more that your university and department did not value research and lab experience for its undergraduates. But students with more resources could have easily pursued low paid summer lab experiences at other universities. Or maybe attend a school that had a better science program.

      • Warren Terra

        My undergraduate alma mater was perhaps the best public research university in the world; certainly the biggest (by funding). The lab i described was an outlier, and I had a tremendous experience doing undergraduate research in another lab, where opportunities weren’t means-tested (and, as it happens, was paid for my time, with course credit, with money, and with authorship). But it’s a true story, and it does serve to illustrate a pitfall of banning unpaid undergraduate research. It’s an extreme example, and I’m not certain it should make the difference – but it is worth considering,

        • Tyro

          I’m not sure I see the connection– the lab you describe was staffed by a moron who is lucky that the rest of the university valued undergraduate research opportunities more than he did. At my university, paid lab work was the norm after 1 semester working in a lab for credit.

          And, as I said, we should be thinning the pipeline into the bench work in the biological sciences, anyway, not expanding it.

  • People who wash glasses and prepare petrie dishes are not displacing Ph.d students so much as they are pushing aside career, working class, lab techs–aren’t they? Do such people still exist? Years ago–50 years ago–lots of wives and secretaries moved into science by first being lab techs. 30 years ago my father had a paid crew of working class women who washed the dishes/bottles so he could save money recycling. Also paid lab techs. 50 years ago my mother, a poet and a painter, worked briefly as a lab tech for my father’s lab partner Jim Watson.

    My 16 year old is about to have a lab internship in a linguistics lab. Its just for six weeks. It is unpaid. She got it through her highschool which has University connections. As far as I can see she will be doing crushingly boring technical work which would otherwise be done by a graduate student. She will be coding videos of children without sound, while someone else will be coding the same videos with sound, to enable the Professor and the Graduate students to compare when in a stream of interactions sound cues occur and when visual cues occur for toddlers learning language. I’m pretty sure it will turn her off the science of linguistics for life. But she falls exactly into this category of priviliged upper class youth since we don’t need her to earn money for those weeks and she does need the experience. What experience does she need?

    Well, the entire system of education is pushing decisionmaking and professionalism down to lower and lower ages. Highschoolers are expected to specialize and to pledge their undying devotion to a single, narrow, interest earlier and earlier and are also expected to build an impressive resume if they want to get into a top school. She has friends who have been running their own experiments–in one case with human subjects–at BU. That friend designed the experiment and ran it under the supervision of the professor (perhaps the IRB was done by the professor and then he couldn’t get a graduate student to do the work?) and yet, ffs, this brilliant African American, child of a single mother, amazing violinist, classical indian dancer, science intern with own research project under her belt was–rejected at Harvard?????

    • Tyro

      this brilliant African American, child of a single mother, amazing violinist, classical indian dancer, science intern with own research project under her belt was–rejected at Harvard?????

      Harvard probably could fill half the class with people who have that profile.

      I’m pretty sure it will turn her off the science of linguistics for life

      As you say, the work would be otherwise done by a graduate student, so if she doesn’t want to keep doing stuff like that, she’d better get out of the field while she still can.

      Science is not all romance and the “joy of discovery”. It’s about slamming your head against a wall trying to solve problems and managing cash flow and grant funding to keep your lab going.

      We play up the romance part for the public so that they keep supporting science funding which allows us to continue doing our bone-crushingly difficult and frustrating work. And not necessarily because it’s their “passion” but simply because it is a means of holding down a job.

    • Warren Terra

      50 years ago my mother, a poet and a painter, worked briefly as a lab tech for my father’s lab partner Jim Watson.

      I’ve heard stories of Watson’s behavior at this time, and on behalf of the biological research community, my apologies to your mother.

  • Loud Liberal

    I did an unpaid internship for college credit in my senior year. I thought it was a worthwhile educational experience. In addition to gaining insight in to the actual day to day activities of the industry I was looking to join after graduation, I also gained some practical professional skills. IMO, that experience was worth more than the dollar value of my work at that time. Accordingly, I hope this opinion doesn’t put an end to all unpaid internships.

    • Andrew

      Sure, but an entry-level, paid employee would get those same benefits and a recommendation along with a paycheck. They’re the basic perks of any role. Judge Pauley made that point.

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