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Op-ed: We can’t afford to be unpaid interns

Uncompensated graduate placements from the perspective of a pharmacy student
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CELENE CZARNOTA/THE VARSITY
CELENE CZARNOTA/THE VARSITY

Internships are an essential part of graduate education. They provide first-hand experience in the fields of work that students hope to enter. However, now more than ever, unpaid graduate placements hurt these students more than they help them.

As a fourth-year student in the Doctor of Pharmacy program at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, I know that students must perform 160 hours of unpaid placements at the end of both their first and second years. In their fourth year, students must perform 10 weeks of direct patient care in retail pharmacies — such as Shoppers Drug Mart or Rexall — 10 weeks of direct patient care in institutional settings like hospitals, and five weeks of direct patient care in any approved setting the student wishes. 

Additionally, the fourth year includes 10 weeks of “elective rotations,” which can either be involved in direct patient care or non-direct patient care. Unlike first to third year, the fourth year starts in May and is 12 months long and students are entitled to a 15 week study period.

Similar to other professional graduate school programs at the University of Toronto, these placements are unpaid and have been the source of discussion and controversy, particularly as annual tuition fees hover around $18,060 for domestic students plus an additional $1,416.36 in ancillary fees.

This does not include the costs of rent and transportation for students who need to live in downtown Toronto, where the average rent of a one-bedroom apartment is $1,922 per month. In addition to rent, grocery costs can vary from $40–$100 per week, or about $300 a month, and transportation costs can be around $128 for a monthly TTC metropass. 

While unpaid placements no doubt are helpful and immensely useful in providing a professional real world experience that cannot be replicated inside a classroom — which has been linked to positive labour market outcomes and job prospects — I cannot fathom the rationale of making it unpaid.

Firstly, while considering the aforementioned tuition and ancillary fees, as well as the loss of jobs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, student debt is a concern. For example, in the National Graduates Survey released by Statistic Canada on August 25, many graduates from a professional degree — such as medicine, pharmacy, or dentistry — have student debt. The large proportion of student debt in these professional programs is attributed to the high cost of these programs.

Making the placements paid would provide some financial relief to these students. In the National Graduates Survey, results indicated that having a higher employment income, whether from regular jobs or paid internships, is associated with faster repayment of the debt. 

Not only can providing paid internships give students valuable opportunities to learn and apply the concepts they learn in their programs in the real world, but it also allows the student to have income that can be used to repay some debt. Having less debt means less delays in important life milestones, such as starting a family or home ownership.

Secondly, evidence from studies has shown that paid placements lead to better outcomes than unpaid placements. An International Labour Organization report on internships examined the effectiveness of internships’ ability to integrate people into the workplace, and it found that there is a positive relationship between paid internships or placements and number of hours worked. There is also a positive relationship between the number of hours worked and the seriousness of the placements.

Encouraging social media discussion could be one step forward in arguing for paid placements and their benefits. Think of it as another capital investment; it is crucial that the university expands to meet the growing demands from students, just as it would by building more buildings to house more students and providing them a space to socialize or study, it should provide financial support through paid placements. 

We may be in different professions and may conflict with each other, but in the end, we are all here to care for the patient or client.

 

William Nguyen is a fourth-year pharmacy student at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy. He is also a member of the 2020–2021 Academic Board of the Governing Council.