How to find an internship / volunteering experience?

find an internship

It can be incredibly difficult and frustrating to find a summer internship or a volunteering position. We have been there and we definitely feel your pain. However, we want to give you some of our personal tips, strategies that have worked for us over the years.

Internships and volunteering are for the most part unpaid highly competitive positions. We will not debate the paid/unpaid nature of internships in this post, since it is a heavy subject. We will dedicate an entire post to this matter.

1- Sign up to the MARMAM email list : Click here

This is probably one of the best-kept secrets in the world of marine mammal science. Everybody who’s already in the field knows of MARMAM, but newcomers usually do not. Here is what their website says about it: the “list was established on August 6th, 1993, through the University of Victoria. It is a public email list meant to serve researchers and managers working with marine mammals. As of January 2010 there are approximately 8500 subscribers to the list.“

Most internships (or PhD, postdoc, new publication, etc.) get posted on MARMAM. You can choose to get the digest emails and get one email a day with every post from this day. Every now and then, people post cool internship positions. We advise you to be really reactive. As mentioned above, 8500 people have subscribed to the list; and although not all of them are interested in an internship, you still have to send your emails quickly if you want a spot. Other lists focus on Arctic research for example, where some opportunities on marine mammals could show up. Do your research, depending on the field that interests you the most.

2- Join facebook groups or follow facebook pages

This is a good way to find an internship. You can follow multiple non-governmental organizations or research institutes and get notifications when they post volunteer positions or internships availability. Groups like the Marine Biologist network and job postings can be super helpful. Now, there are three problems with major groups like this. The first problem is the number of members. The one we just cited has more than 30 000+ members. You will potentially be competing with a lot of people. The second problem is that this group is too general. Marine mammalogy ≠ marine biology. So we recommend finding more specialized groups. The third problem is the number of people asking for advice and asking for internship positions on these groups. There is nothing wrong with asking for help but your message could be drowned in a sea of similar messages. Now, since you know what to avoid, you can try to find cool groups on Facebook (like the European Cetacean Society, or the Society for Marine Mammalogy), although we still, for the most part, recommend MARMAM.

3- Personally email the researcher you want to work with

This tip is mainly addressed to students wanting to get research experience above field experience. We are not saying you cannot do both, but you will probably be involved in lab work or data treatment mainly if you focus on research. When you get interested in a topic, we recommend that you start reading scientific publications and get familiar with it. Plus, reading publications early will really help you get familiar with the academic writing style, which will be very important in the future if you want to pursue research. When you find a good publication, look for the authors, then google them, read about them. Learn about their career, where they work, who they work with… What is their current research focusing on? How about their co-authors? Are they from the same country? Once you have done your research about them, jump to your next publication, and repeat the process. After a few publications, you will get an idea of who works where and on what, in the field that interests you the most (let’s say humpback whale genetics for example). Now, “all” you need to do is to send a personalized email to each scientist of interest, and offer to come and learn by their side for a few months as volunteers, or help a graduate student with their project. It will not work every-time but trust us, we have made it work in the past.

4- Email your local aquarium/rescue center and ask if they need volunteers

Rescue centers usually can use an extra pair of motivated hands to deal with marine mammals in distress. Some centers/aquaria might not have a stable position to offer but can keep your contact information in case they need you because of an emergency (stranding, etc.). You would need to be close by to be able to show up as soon as they call you. It is limiting but can be worth it. Additionally, if your university has a veterinary school where they do some marine mammal research, you can also go talk to the vet in charge and ask to assist with necropsies (marine mammal autopsy). Most of the dead marine mammals go to veterinary facilities for necropsy (especially smaller marine mammals like porpoises, seals, and dolphins). While you might not be able to assist with the necropsy right away, you will probably be able to watch the vets perform the necropsy (true story). If you have the stomach for it, it is a great experience. You can learn so much from a necropsy. 

5- Think about it early

Sometimes, internship positions get posted way ahead of time (6 months or more in advance). It is already hard enough to find an internship, but if you are a last-minute type of person, you will almost automatically fail your internship search. There are some last-minute positions, but they are rare and may involve going abroad. You do not want to plan everything last minute. Plan it early and prepare a sample cover letter for different positions: fieldwork, lab work, etc. Then you just have to modify your pre-written letter to fit the position you are applying for: it will save you time. Remember to personalize your cover letter to the position/organization you are applying for. Otherwise, you will not be taken seriously. Since a lot of internships work on a first-come, first-served basis, you will want to send your application as soon as possible to secure a position. One thing you should also secure in advance is a reference letter from one (or sometimes two) of your professors. Some applications require reference letters or reference contacts. Make sure to talk to your favorite professor about it. Some professors will probably be very busy. A little tip would be to write a draft of your reference letter and hand it to them so they can modify it quickly and then send it back to you (as long as you both agreed with it beforehand). Having a good relationship with some of your professors can be very important since they could be the ones to root for you at some point and help you secure a cool internship position. 

6- Be flexible

Unfortunately, due to the competitiveness of our field, you will have to adapt to the position you want. If the offer states you must be available to work for 2 full months, it will be very difficult to negotiate to work for 3 weeks, for example. If you cannot work 2 full months, they will just find somebody who will, before the next day. It is rough, but you have to be prepared for it. However, do not worry, once you are subscribed to MARMAM and all the Facebook groups, you will find that there are actually quite a lot of positions available literally everywhere in the world. So if one position’s schedule does not match yours, maybe the next offer will.

7- Avoid “scams”

This is an uneasy topic we would like to discuss. What we call scams are “internships” that make you work for free and ask you to pay a ridiculous amount per week/month in order to work for them (freely). We will discuss this whole topic in depth in another article soon. But be aware that there will always be a way to find an internship without having to spend your entire life savings. You can even sometimes find a paid internship (the graal) or find unpaid internships with accommodation or food provided. If you really want to pay thousands for a few weeks of free labor, the choice is yours, but just know that there are some alternatives that are less “scammy”. 

8- Do not give up

You will get there. It might be frustrating at times but you will find your internship! Also, you can check our page “Whale Scientists Stories” were scientists explain how they found their internship and give tips on how to succeed.

find an internship

Anaïs is the founder of Whale Scientists. She is a PhD student at McGill University working on killer whale ecology and pollution. You can read more about her here.

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