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Bullet bioscience · Apr 14, 2021

Field Experiences Shape Students' Careers, But They Need to Offer Better Pay, Flexibility, and Inclusion

Sara Bombaci and Alex Jensen

This piece is one in a series of blog entries from recent BioScience authors called "BioScience Bytes." In them, our authors provide commentary on their articles, enlivening the sciences and making the peer-reviewed literature approachable for all readers.

In our recent study published in BioScience, students’ statements about undertaking field experiences shared a similar sentiment—one of frustration:

“I have to work to feed myself and barely make rent with full student loans taken out. I can’t spend more hours being paid less or unpaid.”

“Summer internships are often unpaid, and during the summer I work full time to save up money for expenses during the school year, so an unpaid position is impossible for me to accept.”

“I have a family to feed and roof to keep over their head. An internship does not and would not work in my situation.”

“Literally a livable wage is the only thing I care about. PAY YOUR INTERNS!!”

“How am I supposed to do an internship if I financially can’t do it? And If I graduate with no internships on my resume, I am almost guaranteed to struggle harder with post-degree employment. It’s a cycle that punishes adults who no longer live at home and who don’t rack up loan debt.”

Our study investigated strategies to attract diverse students to field experiences in the environmental and natural resource professions. Field experiences (i.e., field internships and technician positions) are work experiences for students or recent graduates that offer training in their field of study. These experiences have numerous positive impacts on students, including improved GPAs, self-efficacy, retention, and graduation rates. Field experiences also provide important links between college and career through applied learning, networking, and career advancement opportunities.

Introducing community college students to the wonderful biodiversity and ecology of the front range montane ecosystem in Colorado. Copyright: Sara Petrita Bombaci

Introducing community college students to the wonderful biodiversity and ecology of the front range montane ecosystem in Colorado. Copyright: Sara Petrita Bombaci

Yet it has been suggested that field experiences are not accessible to everyone because of their low pay, long or non-standard work hours that conflict with family care commitments, a lack of accommodation for students with disabilities, and in some cases, discrimination, harassment, and unwelcoming work environments. Thus, it is perhaps unsurprising that many field experiences fall short of attracting and retaining diverse students.

Although some barriers to access have been identified, we still know surprisingly little about what students across diverse backgrounds value or how much they need to be paid to participate in field experiences. To address this knowledge gap and provide information to employers seeking to diversify their workforce, we surveyed undergraduate students in environmental and natural resource fields across the United States to understand what students prioritize when seeking field positions. Students across all demographic groups overwhelmingly indicated that they needed better pay to participate in field experiences. On average, respondents required at least $8.68/hour to accept a field position, which is above current federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour. Pay was especially important for racial and ethnic minority students, who required 24% higher pay ($10.80/hour) than white students ($8.21 /hour).

We also collected data to assess the current pay for field experiences posted to environmental job boards (e.g., Texas A&M, ECOLOG, Conservation Job Board) between 18 March and 18 April 2019. Despite pay being a priority for students, only 65% of positions posted to job boards paid the average wage required by our student respondents, and only 3% of positions paid the wage needed to attract at least 90% of our respondents. Less than 25% of our overall respondents and far fewer non-White or low-income respondents would even consider jobs that pay below minimum wage. Even at minimum wage, only 35% of non-White students were retained in the applicant pool.

Students identified other important opportunities to increase the accessibility of field experiences, including flexible timing to address conflicts with family care, cultural, religious, work, or coursework responsibilities, providing transportation to the field, housing and transportation while on the job, providing supportive work environments (especially for students with mental or physical health disabilities), and providing inclusive and safe workspaces. Some examples include:

“I’m concerned about time away from my daughter/daycare cost.”

“Accessibility (as a person with a physical disability my ability to do many, many jobs is limited by my physical limitations as well as my medical needs).”

“Transportation (it is difficult to get to an internship if you don’t have a car).”

“I worry about my safety when working with men sometimes.”

“I participate in cultural activities during the summer including gathering all the customary and traditional foods I need for the year… and most internships do not allow time off or I cannot afford travel expenses to and from the internship location and home.”

“I drill once a month with the Army National Guard and 2 weeks out of the year I am gone for Army training, which limits my ability to participate.”

Our study suggests that attracting most students, especially students of color, will require pay above minimum wage, flexibility in timing and study locations, and intentional actions to cultivate inclusive and supportive work environments. We recognize that employers will not be able to meet all student needs, but we suggest that our findings can be used to identify targets to better support the needs of diverse students. If creating a diverse and inclusive work force is a priority, the environmental and natural resource profession will need to cultivate field experiences that meet the needs of a diversity of students.

To learn more about Field Experiences Shape Students' Careers, But They Need to Offer Better Pay, Flexibility, and Inclusion, please see the full article online in BioScience magazine.