Unpaid Psychology Positions – A Graduate’s Perspective

For a present-day psychology graduate it can sometimes seem like one has entered the profession at the wrong time. Last year shone a glaring spotlight on fraud and misconduct in scientific research, the Reproducibility Project and Psych File Drawer began to prise open a lack of replication in psychological literature, and there was criticism and concern over an increasing number of unpaid research assistant/assistant psychologist jobs in the U.K. However this self-reflection and criticism should be seen as an opportunity for correction, and ultimately, a gradual change within the profession.

As psychology students and graduates, the issue of unpaid internships within the profession is of particular relevance. For the purposes of this article, the terms ‘honorary position’ and ‘unpaid internship’ refer solely to a voluntary or unpaid full-time work commitment over a period of several months. This is in contrast to the flexible and temporary voluntary work that can be carried out alongside other commitments. Volunteers do not possess the statutory rights and written contract of employees and workers. Nevertheless, the line between what is considered voluntary and employed work is often blurred, due in part to the lack of a legal definition for the term ‘voluntary worker’. This has led to a number of advertised unpaid, voluntary, psychology positions which have been deemed exploitative toward graduates.

Are psychology students being exploited?

Claims of exploitation are difficult to argue if the graduate voluntarily consents to an unpaid position in which both ’employer’ and graduate mutually benefit. Presumably the employer benefits by gaining a worker to carry out necessary tasks for free, when otherwise this could potentially cost up to £25,000 per year in salary expenses. In return, the graduate can benefit by gaining invaluable experience which will further their career aspirations in Psychology. For example, assistant psychologist and research assistant positions can be a stepping stone to gaining a place in competitive doctoral clinical training programmes. It would seem that this is a mutually advantageous transaction, yet much controversy exists surrounding these agreements. On what grounds may one seek to prohibit these unpaid internships if both parties make gains relative to the non-cooperation baseline?

In cases where there is a feasible alternative to unpaid internships (such as offering paid contractual employment), it seems that these institutions are exploiting a growing graduate job market. The International Benchmarking Review of Psychology, conducted by Wakeling (2010), reports sustained growth in the number of U.K undergraduate and postgraduate psychology students over recent years. Therefore, there is an increased demand for skilled jobs in this area, and it appears that employers do not mind using this to their advantage. However, in favouring applicants who can make greater time commitments in their honorary positions, employers risk neglecting honorary workers’ need to earn a living. In some instances, this may be deemed as exploitative towards the worker.

A pertinent issue that arises from the growing number of honorary positions and unpaid internships, is the claim that honorary positions discriminate against less affluent applicants, and those from ethnic minority groups. If the ability to further one’s career in psychology rests on gaining experience from full-time unpaid/honorary positions, this may pose challenges for those who cannot afford to pay their living expenses while undertaking such a voluntary commitment. In the U.K., the Department for Work and Pensions (2012) report that people from minority ethnic groups are twice as likely to live in low-income households compared with those of White ethnic groups. Survey results from the National Union of Students/YouGov indicate that people from richer backgrounds are three times more likely to have undertaken unpaid internships compared with those from poorer backgrounds. Although this does not indicate a linear relationship between minority groups and low income, it does suggest a disadvantage for people in this situation.

Despite an apparent advantage for those coming from wealthy backgrounds, it must also be recognised that extremely dedicated and hardworking graduates can make it through the system. Anecdotally, the struggling psychology graduate who sacrifices their lunch money for the bus fare to a voluntary internship, is unfortunately all too familiar. This raises ethical questions in a profession which aspires to such high standards.

Diversity in psychological research and practice

If financial wealth is a variable which mediates one’s ability to pursue a successful career in psychology, then this could affect diversity in psychological research and practice.

Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan (2010) noted an over-sampling of WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic) participants to explain human behaviour in psychological research. However, if the psychological researchers themselves are WEIRD, this may also affect the scope of psychological research. The most recent demographics of American Psychological Association members show that Asian, Hispanic, Black, and multi-ethnic groups each account for less than 2.5% of its total members. In comparison, those of White race make up 61.8% of total psychologists in the APA. These include psychologists working in research, and health service providers. Similarly, in the U.K, figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency and Wakeling (2010) suggest that approximately 90% of staff in Psychology and Behavioural Sciences are of White British ethnicity. At professorial level, Wakeling (2010) reports fewer than 3% of staff from ethnic minority groups. The small percentage of psychologists from ethnic minority groups may stem from the high number of White psychology research students, a group which consist of 90% of total doctoral psychology research students in the U.K. (Wakeling, 2010).

Lack of diversity (namely ethnicity and socio-economic status) among researchers, can influence the insights gained from psychological research. Undoubtedly, present-day psychology would look very different if it had been founded by a group of women in Eastern Asia during the early nineteenth century. This issue was discussed by Medin and Bang (2008), who recognised the costs of limited perspectives in the field of psychology. One area of concern, is the underestimation of language diversity. Majid and Levinson (2010) suggest that a reliance on English languages has influenced the blueprint on which assumptions about non-WEIRD languages are made, leading to distortions in understanding the interface between language and perception. In the area of morality, Haidt (2008) questioned how increased diversity in political orientation of researchers would affect current understanding of moral concepts. Redding (2001) extended the benefits of political diversity to clinical practice, and Nagayama-Hall (2006) noted the need for greater ethnic diversity in clinical psychology. Regarding problem-solving, Hong and Page (2004) showed that diverse groups seem to outperform groups of high-ability individuals. Therefore, it seems that diverse populations of psychologists can bolster current knowledge by offering alternative perspectives and contrasting value-systems to those of WEIRD researchers.

While unpaid internships may not directly cause a lack of diversity in psychology, they certainly do not seem to be in line with a system which promotes, encourages or values diversity within its workforce. In a profession that is only too well aware of the negative effects of inequality, and which aims for high ethical standards, it seems almost hypocritical that such a problem should arise.

The future for psychology students

From the perspective of European psychology students and graduates, I believe it is important to acknowledge the trend of unpaid internships in the profession. With numbers of graduates steadily rising in times of economic austerity, this is likely to become relevant to our future careers.

In a recent study, Wilkin and Connelly (2012) investigated recruiters’ preferences for job applicants with varying levels of paid versus volunteer experience. Their findings suggest that paid experience relative to voluntary experience, does not affect perceived applicant suitability for job vacancies. A combination of paid and voluntary work, along with demonstrated relevant experience, were favoured by recruiters. While this study was not specific to the field of psychology, it may offer some hope for current undergraduates who have not gained paid employment thus far. It also demonstrates that voluntary work is valued by employers.

In Ireland, many assistant psychologist and research assistant internships are offered through a national internship scheme; Job Bridge. The aim of this scheme is to provide those who are unemployed with the opportunity to gain work experience in 6 – 9 month supervised internships, whilst also receiving social benefit payment. One advantage of such a system, is that it offers regulation by way of a standard agreement outlining the skills and experience to be gained during the internship. This agreement may protect the intern from potential exploitation by employers. Furthermore, it does not restrict those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds gaining relevant psychological experience. However, such a scheme may also be used by organisations to replace ordinarily paid jobs, with intern roles.

Campaigns such as Intern Aware, have gained momentum in the U.K, striving to ban unpaid internships on the basis that they exclude those who cannot work for free. In addition to this, honorary positions in psychology have the potential to risk exploiting voluntary workers, restricting the scope of psychological research, and influencing the ability of clinical service providers through a lack of diversity in its workforce. It is worth considering if banning these positions will benefit our understanding of concepts in psychological research, and if it will improve the services provided in clinical settings. As students and graduates, we can influence the effects that this will have on the future of our profession.


Haidt, J. (2008). Morality. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 65–72. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-6916.2008.00063.x

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33, 61–135. doi: 10.1017/S0140525X0999152X

Hong, L. & Page, S. E. (2004). Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 101, 16385-16389. doi:10.1073/pnas.0403723101

Majid, A., & Levinson, S. C. (2010). WEIRD languages have misled us, too. Behavioral and Brain Sciences33, 103. doi: 10.1017/S0140525X1000018X.

Medin, D. L. & Bang, M. (2008). Perspective taking, diversity and partnerships.  American Psychological Association, 22. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2008/02/medin.aspx

Nagayama-Hall, G. C. (2006). Diversity in clinical psychology. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 13, 258-262. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2850.2006.00034.x

Redding, R. E. (2001). Sociopolitical diversity in psychology: The case for pluralism. American Psychologist, 56, 205-212.

The Department for Work and Pensions. (2012). Households Below Average Income An analysis of the income distribution 1994/95 – 2010/11. Retrieved from: http://research.dwp.gov.uk/asd/hbai/hbai2011/pdf_files/full_hbai12.pdf

Wakeling, P. (2010). International Benchmarking review of psychology. Briefing document: statistical overview and commentary. Retrieved from: http://www.esrc.ac.uk/_images/Psychology%20Statistical%20Overview_tcm8-15434.pdf#page=20

Wilkin, C. L., & Connelly, C. E. (2012). Do I look like someone who cares? Recruiters’ ratings of applicants’ paid and volunteer experience. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 20, 308-318. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2389.2012.00602.x 

Photo credit: Swallow


Laura Rai is a recent Psychology graduate of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. She is currently working as a research assistant, and will commence a PhD in the Department of Psychology at NUI Maynooth in 2013/14. Her research interests lie mainly within behavioural and clinical psychology, including (but not limited to!) childhood adversity, well-being, clinical decision-making, relational frame theory, and acceptance-based behaviour therapy.