Unpaid Labor Is a Problem for Conservation

Failing to offer adequate pay to student and early-career biologists excludes many from the field, reducing diversity and creativity in science.
Illustration of a person looking through binoculars in a forest surrounded by internet browser windows open to unpaid job offers.
Illustration: Dola Sun

In 2011, two years after graduating college as a biology major, I switched my focus from plants to birds. After a summer spent working with Atlantic Puffins, I landed a dream job: a three-month gig in the Galápagos Islands studying another seabird, the Nazca Booby. I was thrilled, except there was one catch. While my flight, food, sturdy boots, and housing (a tent) would be covered, I wouldn’t earn a penny for three months. The remote location also meant no internet access. I couldn’t apply for the next field job until I left the island.

My experience was common, and it points to a serious problem with the traditional career path for field scientists. Ecology, conservation, and wildlife job boards burst each year with listings seeking seasonal researchers to measure trees, track bears, band birds, and perform a range of tasks that involve collecting scientific data. Descriptions of stunning locations (Live in Hawai’i!) or charismatic megafauna (Survey sea turtles!) attract the eyes of hopeful applicants. Often highly competitive, these openings promise training in techniques, such as banding songbirds, identifying plants, or surveying marine mammals, that are critical for jump-starting careers.

But many seasonal and intern positions have long offered little to no pay. In 2015, Auriel Fournier, now director of the Forbes Biological Station, led a study that found about a third of positions posted on two popular job boards were either unpaid entirely or offered stipends of less than $300 a month. What’s more, these patterns also continue well past an early training period, says biologist Kristina McOmber, who spent 11 years striving to make ends meet while doing seasonal fieldwork. Moving up the ranks often requires a succession of volunteer gigs, low-paid positions, and temporary roles with no career security for years. 

In recent years, momentum has grown to improve upon this status quo, both Fournier and McOmber say. But change is slow. In January 2022, I perused one of the same job boards in Fournier’s study and came across postings like this:

“Unpaid—compensation is the field experience and networking”

“Internship stipend is $225/week”

“$75 weekly food stipend is provided”

“Unpaid, but housing provided”

Such language didn’t surprise me. I often saw it as I applied for roughly 185 field jobs and internships during my five years as a seasonal field biologist after college. So when I received the job offer in the Galápagos, I eagerly accepted. I saw the opportunity as my best shot at entering the bird world. I knew I could forgo income for a few extra months if necessary, and I had enough savings to cover my monthly student loan payments; at my mother’s insistence, I purchased catastrophic health insurance. I was also aware then—and even more so now—that I had a safety net not everyone has: If plans went awry, I could borrow money from my parents. My efforts paid off. Three years later, that stint led to a Ph.D. position in that same lab group.

All of this, say experts, is exactly the problem.

“It is a luxury to take an unpaid position and still support yourself,” says University of Colorado Boulder environmental social scientist Karen Bailey. That luxury, Bailey believes, has profound effects on who ends up in a career in conservation and how we solve today’s environmental challenges.

More than 100 people applied for the Galápagos Islands job I accepted, a profusion of applicants not uncommon for coveted jobs—paid or unpaid—that involve working with charismatic animals such as birds. And yet, says Bailey, that abundance may obscure those who are often missing from the pool: biologists who lack savings and safety nets. Free or subsidized housing doesn’t help someone who can’t, for example, crash with parents or friends between jobs. It also won’t help pay the bills.

Veronica, who majored in ecology at the City University of New York, couldn’t consider a below-minimum-wage field job during college. “I just never had the ability to accept unpaid positions because I needed to spend my time doing paid work to make money to pay my necessary bills,” says Veronica (Audubon is omitting her last name to prevent retaliation from current or prospective employers). Some hands-on training opportunities in classes like botany also disappeared when the pandemic forced learning online.

“It just makes me feel like I kind of wasted my years getting my degree.”

Since graduating, Veronica has struggled to advance a career in her chosen field. She did eventually find a local, low-paid fieldwork position she could do while juggling two other jobs. While it led to her feeling overworked and miserable, it accomplished what she hoped—opening the door to better-paid, temporary roles. So far, however, it’s been impossible for her to obtain a position that offers sufficient stability and pay for her to give up her permanent, $19-per-hour role in visitor experience at a museum.

“I got a later start than those in my field who had multiple unpaid or low-pay jobs during college, and I am still struggling to land long-term jobs in my field that have a pay rate possible of supporting myself on,” Veronica says. At some point, she worries burnout will force her to give up and settle for simply paying the bills. “It just makes me feel like I kind of wasted my years getting my degree, because I’m probably not even going to be able to use it.”

As an undergraduate biology major, Nicole Lussier had a similar experience. She juggled classes while working 20 hours per week to pay tuition, room, and board, and allow her to take unpaid positions. “I’ve always had the mindset of trying to hustle and get as much money as possible to do the cool things in the field that I want to do,” she says. One summer, Lussier took an unpaid internship at a wildlife rehabilitation center, feasible because her college offered a stipend for such roles. Still, she filled free time with paid shifts elsewhere to make extra money to pay for tuition. Her strategy of trying to do it all came at a cost: Her grades dipped during the school year. “Because my grades were tanking, sometimes professors would tell me, ‘Maybe you’re not cut out for this field,’” Lussier says. “Which was difficult.”

She eventually managed to support a field position in Ecuador through school grants and the help of a supportive professor, and is now in a graduate program at the University of Tennessee. But the deep-rooted practice of unpaid or minimally paid labor pushes many others to different careers. What’s more problematic, says Fournier, is that “we maybe don’t even realize it because we don’t know who we’re missing.”

Those missing faces, according to the scarce data that exist, are the very people many universities and research organizations purportedly strive to attract to conservation and ecological sciences. A survey of more than 1,200 early-career biologists found that, for those from marginalized groups, both a lack of income and conflicts with other life responsibilities could rupture the career pipeline. Often having less accumulated wealth and savings to fall back on, individuals from racial and ethnic minority groups required almost 25 percent higher pay (approximately $370 more per month) than white students to consider accepting a job, the study found. A rate of $20 per hour was sufficient to retain 95 percent of students who pursue a career in the field, the researchers concluded, but less than 3 percent of jobs offered this pay.

Overall, the results underscore the problem with not enough paying for labor: The practice keeps people from historically excluded communities out of biology and conservation work—a detriment to the field and an injustice to individuals. “If you can’t afford to work for free, you can’t participate,” says Sara Bombaci, a conservation biologist at Colorado State University who helped lead the study. “We need to shift that frame of mind.”

Increasingly, more people are thinking about the pay problem in our field. Fournier was motivated to conduct her 2015 job board survey in part by her own college experience working 30 to 40 hours per week during semesters and summers to make ends meet. Since then, she’s become a vocal advocate for paying biologists to make the field more inclusive, and her advocacy has inspired other research. Social media has become a forum for calling out exploitive jobs and spreading awareness. When Bombaci shared her research on Twitter in 2021, more than 1,000 people engaged with her post. “It’s surprising how much this resonated with people,” she says.

The response speaks to the problem’s ubiquity, but it also reflects a growing movement in wildlife and conservation sciences to change the long-held status quo. In 2020, more than 700 members of the international Society for Marine Mammalogy petitioned to remove unpaid internships from the job board. Now, the society’s code of ethics includes providing fair compensation to those involved with any research effort.

Incremental shifts are just the start of a wave of change needed.

Transparency about pay, or lack thereof, in job listings is also slowly improving. The Pacific Seabird Group, for example, created guidelines for standardizing how entry-level job postings, whether volunteer roles, unpaid technicians, stipend-based jobs, or paid positions, are labeled on its job board. With encouragement from its community, the Wilson Ornithological Society now allows research grants to support stipends for technicians, as opposed to paying only for travel and equipment. These incremental shifts are just the start of a wave of change needed. “But it is happening,” Fournier says.

Curious to see if pay was improving compared to Fournier’s 2015 job board survey, I decided to do my own small survey. I recorded the salary and locations of positions posted to the popular Texas A&M Natural Resources Job Board during a two-week period in January 2022. Excluding full-time permanent positions and those requiring higher degrees, I found some reason to hope: 81 percent of positions paid seasonal researchers the federal minimum wage (at least $7.25 per hour in January 2022). But less than a third provided what is typically deemed a livable wage for the area—still a far cry from supporting people who can’t afford to work for low pay.

At Colorado State University, Bombaci carefully considers how she can compensate students. She strives to use her own grants, or takes advantage of university funds like work-study programs, to pay them. “I’m not going to say it’s easy, but I think it’s the way we need to go,” Bombaci says.

Further breaking down the pay barrier will require more bottom-up advocacy as well as broader culture change from the top. Calls to eliminate unpaid labor often receive pushback from those who feel such opportunities are positive—usually those who benefited from such positions themselves. Others question how small, mission- and science-driven organizations will stay afloat if they pay their interns. Yet, small societies, government agencies, and multi-million-dollar institutions alike take advantage of free labor. Bombaci and Bailey say the biggest shift still needs to come from funders. Grant-giving organizations, from the National Science Foundation to smaller professional societies, should allocate more money and allow grant awardees to designate funds for paying interns. Funders should also require applicants to include labor costs in their budgets—and that they pay a living wage, Bombaci says.

Of course, not all unpaid efforts in conservation sciences are inherently exploitative. While many long-running research projects depend on volunteer labor—submitting bird observations to eBird, tallying birds for Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, or volunteering at a banding station for a few hours each week—those roles allow volunteers to hold paid jobs concurrently and aren’t critical to advance a trained graduate’s career. But there are gray areas. When organizations rely on volunteers for their critical projects, and they require that their volunteers are smart college graduates with great references from within the discipline, McOmber says leaders should ask themselves: Is it appropriate or are they just exploiting people for their passion?

When salaries are unavoidably low or nonexistent, scientists should consider tough choices, Fournier says, including narrowing project goals: “Budgets are our values at the end of the day, and if we say that we value equity and inclusion in our field, then we need to do that, and that may mean doing less science.” Organizations and labs can also lend support in other ways: Buying gear and equipment can help unpaid and low-paid crews stay safe, while providing worker’s compensation to cover expenses associated with injuries in the field can help further. They also recommend mitigating options, such as offering academic credit or transforming months-long commitments into part-time roles that allow for side gigs.

At minimum, Bailey suggests that organizations improve the internship experience. Her research finds that many unpaid opportunities, in reality, don’t provide the robust career skills—such as data analysis and writing—they purport to provide. “If we are going to continue offering [unpaid jobs], how are we going to make sure that they’re actually providing people with useful and valuable skills for their success, and not just things that we need bodies for?” she asks.

Ornithology, and the broader ecology and wildlife biology fields, can’t sustain the current state of affairs. Expanding the early-career pipeline by offering a fair wage is not only the right thing to do morally—it’s also important for the future of our planet. “If we want to continue to have birds and natural environments in general in the future, we need everyone to care,” Fournier says. “That means we need members of every community to be a part of bird conservation.”

Who ends up working in conservation affects both the questions that are asked and the approaches to answering them. Studies show that more diverse teams arrive at better solutions, indicating that diversity leads to greater innovation in problem solving. For example, determining how to save a declining bird population relies on incorporating data from where birds both breed and winter—success may require the input of scientists and communities who span continents, languages, and cultures.

Change won’t occur overnight but raising awareness and advocating to fairly pay biologists will help turn the tide. Combating climate change, protecting species, and understanding our natural world depend critically on including everyone at the table.

This story originally ran in the Summer 2023 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.