[Coral-List] Merits of Volunteer Experience

Matthew Oldach mt880883 at dal.ca
Fri Sep 28 23:39:51 EDT 2012

Merits of Volunteer

Hello Coral-List members,

(Sorry for the cross posting)

On August 8 I asked Ecolog-list members for their advice and opinions on the
merit of volunteer/internships without remuneration.  Several people asked
me to share the feedback  I received and I thought it would be helpful to
put it all in one place on the list as well.  Sorry about the LONG post! 

Most of these opportunities are with not-for-profit or NGOs.  The fee you
pay is part of the revenue used to keep organization afloat as well as for
your room (shared dormitories) and food; the cost can range from a little to
a lot.  

After talking with graduate students (masters and Ph.D), post-docs,
associate professors, PIs, and people from industry as well as receiving
feedback from listserv members I made my decision.  I would volunteer before
going to graduate school.  I thought it would be good to do it now rather
than later because many people have told me that once you start your career
it's difficult, almost impossible, to take a break (publish or perish). 

Myself, I'm volunteering with the NGO Centro Ecologico Akumal in Mexico.
They have two major programs: turtle conservation program and the marine
ecosystems program.  I am involved in the latter project (their 2nd most
popular one) which consists of 4 areas: reef monitoring and Research, Bay
monitoring and Patrol, Management and maintenance, Diffusion and
Environmental Education.  Most of the money the NGO receives is from
ecotourist guided turtle tours and the rest is from yours truly and other
volunteers.   The NGO hands data collected by volunteers  over to the
Mexican government in order to make informed policy decisions.

A little background on me: I graduated from Dalhousie BSc(Hons) majoring in
Marine biology and after a brief stint as a fisheries observer (really not
for me) volunteered at the University of Alberta (8 months, part-time)  to
write up my first paper for publication which will raise the chances of
getting a NSERC graduate scholarship.  I started a 3 month internship with
Centro Ecologico Akumal September 27 and will be posting updates of my
experience on my blog http://matthewoldach.scienceblog.com/ My plans are to
attend graduate school in 2013.

Here is my coles-notes of  the feedback I received:

..         Do your research on the opportunity; talk to past interns if

..         Know what your career goals are and what skills/experience the
opportunity provides 

..         It's a great networking experience

..         The fact you're willing to work for free will show employers that
you're dedicated and is therefore well respected.

..         Would volunteering at a lab to get a publication, or writing a
chapter for a textbook be a better opportunity?  This will CONSIDERABLY
raise the chances of you receiving graduate scholarships (NSERC in Canada).

..         DO IT!!!!! If nothing else it's a cheap and fun trip!




Hi there,

I rarely respond to these posts but I feel I have personal experience with
this situation.

Many people can't afford to volunteer; if you can, you should use it to your
best future advantage.

You might consider choosing a person you'd like to work with for a grad
program, and contact him or her about volunteering in their lab.  You could
say that you are doing this to get an idea of what the work is like, so you
can decide about applying to go to grad school there.  But of course you
would at the same time be showing them what a great worker you are and what
a positive presence you would be in their lab.  

I personally benefitted greatly from volunteering after I finished my
bachelors (back in 1981).  I couldn't seem to get a job related to what I
hoped would be my career.  So I walked into a US Forest Service Research Lab
here in Alaska and told them I had two months free before I was going to go
to work at a fish cannery, and could I volunteer for the two months?  They
said sure, they would find something for me to do, but they couldn't hire

I then worked extremely diligently for them, willing to do anything,
anytime, show up with a smile on my face at any ungodly hour for field work.
After two months, they offered me a contract (not a job) as a way to keep me
there for the rest of the summer. I gladly accepted. I didn't get a salary
but at the end of the summer I got a check for something like $700.  The
fellow I volunteered for in later years supervised my Ph.D. thesis and
helped me get a permanent position with the Forest Service.  I have now
worked for the FS for 25 years, and it has been a really great career.

I'm sure part of my success was luck, and being in the right place at the
right time.  But I also know that people are very hesitant to hire (or take
on as a student) someone that they don't already know.  Volunteering is a
way to get your foot in the door and let them know how great you are.

Good Luck,

Trish Wurtz


Hi Matthew, 

I think any opportunity to travel and volunteer is very valuable.  I spent
some time volunteering in the Philippines after finishing school and it was
a big asset on my 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, I know when I hire people, travelling and
volunteering on their resume is always a big plus.  More than resume
building, it was just an amazing opportunity to meet new people, learn a
language, and visit a place that very few outsiders ever get to see.


I looked at the website, and it looks like a legitimate program, it doesn't
look like tourism.  If you look at some other websites for this type of
travel, they ask for up to $4000 for a two week program, those are aimed at
'gap year' students and not for someone with your experience (in my
opinion).  That being said, I would try to talk to others who have worked
with the organization that you're volunteering with.  Although I'm really
happy with the volunteering I did in the Philippines, there were a lot of
problems.  I don't think the organization made very good use of us
volunteers.  It felt a lot like they just wanted to get our money, and they
would put up with us for 3 months to get it.  There were some very talented
volunteers with me, and we spent far too much time waiting for permission
from head office to get things done, which often did not come.  Let's just
say I learned a lot of new card games.  If I was going to do some
travelling/volunteering again, I would probably spend more time researching
the organization.  There are some great, well-respected research stations,
there's the Smithsonian tropical institute, Bamfield Marine Science Center,
and another one in Argentina that I can't remember right now.  If you can
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.


Anyway, my advice would be to definitely do it, but make sure to research it
thoroughly and consider all options.

Erica Jenkins



Volunteering offers two and only two benefits. I've done a great deal of
volunteering over a forty year work life span.

1) It gives you an internal "can do", that is you know for yourself that you
can do the tasking, if you might have wondered.  If it was a hired job, you
would get the same, (more or less) training.

2) The people you meet, and their network of professional friend may be an
introduction into an employment.

Aside from philanthropic labor, volunteering for your own career advancement
is only these two things.

If you can learn the tasking as a volunteer, you can learn it as an
employee, so seek hard for that paying job.



Hi Matthew,


I just graduated with a degree in Marine Biology and honors as well.  I have
done volunteer research and worked in the biology department on campus over
the entire course of my studies.  I have found that those experiences can
only help you.  Because of them, I was able to do undergraduate coral reef
research and co-publish with my advisor.  In my opinion, the fact that you
volunteer when job opportunities are not available shows that you are
dedicated and passionate about what you do.  And additional experience can
never hurt.  You never know what jobs may come up that require those skills
you learned as a volunteer.  I am discovering this as I search for jobs in
my new city and am very glad that I thought to do it. 





Hi Matthew,


I'm probably not the best person to give advice on this, but I can't help
putting in my 2 cents. In my personal opinion, any experience is good
experience. And the more diverse, the better. With the economy and funding
situation as it is right now, it's unlikely that you'll be able to climb out
of that 'underemployment' status anytime soon. For example, I just finished
my masters in behavioral ecology, and I accepted a position with Americorps
next year (barely minimum wage) in order to have a job at all. If you can
afford to take a volunteer position, 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. 


Good luck!


Hi Matt, 


I am not a marine biologist nor do I know anything about the program you are
looking to volunteer at. I am a wildlife biologist in BC who is under 30, so
can fondly reflect on what the few years post graduation were like for me
and what my friends/collegues are still facing in todays job market (many of
them with graduate degrees).  


>From my personal experience, volunteer experience is always good, especially
when it will connect you with people who share similar interests and where
you can gain experience with new techniques and travel. As long as this
volunteer experience meet your personal criteria and give you a few things
to add to your resume. Think about the kinds of jobs that you want and what
you will need to have on your resume to get those jobs, will this
opportunity help? Is it a stepping stone? I find having global or national
experiences working/volunteering/studying is well respected when looking for
jobs. Networking is also key, you never know where you might hear of your
next job, the community tends to be small so if you make a good impression
you might be thought of for potential work the next time a position opens. 


My first year after graduating was painfully slow, with only a few months of
contract work before I got a lower paid field assistant position at a
university that really opened some doors for me. 


It sounds like you are on the right track with trying to keep busy in your
desired field and by applying to graduate school next year. I hope someone
who is more marine focused will be able to give you there thoughts on the
program. On the westcoast Bamfield is a really well respected field
station/school. http://www.bms.bc.ca/ 


Good Luck!




1. will it open up job opportunities

2. will it open up graduate student opps?

3. will they pay you

4. are you responsible or are you a tech taking orders?

5. do you have anything better you could do?


Thats a few things to think about.

Interns are sometimes great experiences that open up doors all over.

Other times they are just a cheap way for people with no funding to get


Malcolm McCallum

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