Merits of Volunteer/Internships

For those lacking the serendipity of finding work immediately after graduating volunteer positions or internships can provide valuable work experience to bolster your CV.  Although most of these positions do not provide remuneration they are well worth it if you can afford too.  Many employers are hesitant to hire someone that they don’t already know.  So, whether you lack experience, have a limited professional network, or have just moved, volunteering is a way to get your foot in the door and let them know how great you are.

After graduating from Dalhousie in 2011 with a BSc(Hons) majoring in Marine Biology I applied to nearly 400 jobs with very limited success (4 interviews).  When I followed up to find out the qualifications of the successful candidates I was surprised to find that those getting entry level positions held masters degrees.  After talking to graduate students (masters and Ph.D), post-docs, associate professors, PIs, as well as folks from industry I decided that a volunteer experience would be a good way to gain experience and expand my network.

I just started a 3 month position with the NGO Centro Ecologico Akumal (CEA) to gain some scientific diving experience.  I am working in the Marine ecosystems program which consists of 4 areas: reef monitoring and Research, Bay monitoring and Patrol, Management and maintenance, Diffusion and Environmental Education.

I offer my two cents’ on the matter of these sorts of opportunities.  An opportunity to travel, meet new people and learn a new language is a very valuable life experience in itself; volunteering while doing it is a big asset on your resume.  It shows employers that you have initiative, you’re self-sufficient, and they know if you’ve worked in that environment you’re probably more resourceful for having done it.  It’s a great talking point in an interview.

Make sure you have spent time researching the organization and talking to past volunteers.  It should be a legitimate program, not ecotourism.  There are many great well-respected research stations (Smithsonian tropical institute, Bamfield Marine Science Center, Oceans Research, etc.) and others that are not so great.  Many programs are aimed at ‘gap year’ students and not for someone with experience looking to break into a specific field.  Make sure the organization makes good use of its volunteers, not that they just want to get your money and put up with you for x months to get it otherwise you will be learning a lot of new card games. To put it bluntly sometimes this is just a cheap way for people with no funding to get slaves.

Know what your career goals are and what experience and skills the opportunity will provide.  The people you meet and their network of professional friends may be an introduction into an employment opportunity.  Be sure to consider all your options.  Would volunteering at a lab to get a publication, or writing a chapter for a textbook be a better opportunity?  I worked a menial job for a year to put food on the table while volunteering at a lab to publish a paper which considerably raises the chances of receiving graduate scholarships (NSERC in Canada) before volunteering with CEA.  Another good way to gain experience is to find a PhD student that needs an assistant, you might find the experience more scientifically rewarding (and cheaper).  Texas A&M job board often has some interesting opportunities.  Sign up to various list-serves to hear about similar opportunities.

If you can afford to do some philanthropic labor, then I would say by all means do it – if anything, you may make some contacts that can lead you to a job. Networking is everything in this field, and the farther you stretch your fingers, the better.

I will posting updates and musing on my experiences over the next 3 months, so stay tuned.

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