Volunteering, Interning & the PhD

I have been a volunteer or an intern for the entire duration of my PhD, fitting one day of museum work into every week of academic writing, research and admin. As my museum role gradually comes to an end – I’ll be finishing up in the next couple of months –  this seemed an opportune time to reflect on what I have gained from my experiences. I also wanted to put together a list of the benefits and challenges of volunteering or interning while working on your PhD, to help those trying to decide whether this is a move they would like to make. *Spoiler* I’m definitely going to recommend that you consider giving it a try!

My own experiences: The DIY Internship 

When I started my PhD I knew I wanted to get more experience of working in museums, and sent out some enquiry emails about volunteering as soon as my PhD place was confirmed. I was advised that having practical skills and knowledge of the workplace would help me when it came to applying for jobs at the end of the PhD. I was extremely lucky that my very first email found the right person; a museum curator in need of some help with a large but widely overlooked costume collection. We set up a six month volunteer project on the basis that we could extend if it suited all parties. I worked on that and various other projects for about a year and a half. My primary task was finding, documenting and re-packing items of historic dress.


Packing umbrellas for an exhibition. Photo by Vicky Garrington, Museum of Edinburgh 

You may all be aware that SGSAH offer internships with various institutions around Scotland, but they also offer their funded students the chance to set up your own. This must be arranged in collaboration with an institution, and so I was fortunate that this was something the museum was interested in doing. As I had already been a volunteer for 18 months they already knew and trusted me, and I knew that I had both more to learn and more to offer by working there in a slightly different capacity. So I continued working one day a week but now with a larger scale project to complete in a set time period. Rather than taking out one big chunk of time from my PhD, working one day a week suits me perfectly, providing regular but constructive distraction from my thesis.

Changing from volunteer to intern did not mean I was treated any differently by the museum, who treat all voluntary staff with respect and kindness. However I felt that I now had a greater responsibility, and thrived on the idea of having a practical and public facing project to complete. The project has had it’s challenges and to be honest it is running a bit late, but we have used the time well and I have learned a huge amount. As well as all the practical stuff I expected – such as mounting costume and writing labels – I have helped to facilitate group visits to the museum, coordinated with other staff members and spent time exploring the museum stores. I get to listen in on meetings, and have helped to chose, research and mount objects for another big exhibition. A couple of months ago I helped run a workshop for young adults with learning difficulties; I have never taught or run workshops of any kind so I was nervous about this task, but thoroughly enjoyed myself and learned a huge amount.


Introducing college students to the costume collection, Museum of Edinburgh

If you have a particular project in mind I would very much recommend exploring the opportunity of setting up your own – whether as an unpaid volunteer or SGSAH funded intern. For me this meant finding a team I enjoy working with, setting my own goals in coordination with the institution, and getting to work on a project I feel genuinely passionate about, and that plays to my strengths. Also see blogposts from two other DIY SGSAH interns, Fiona Dakin who worked at the House of Illustration and Zanne Domoney-Lyttle who worked at the Glasgow Women’s Library. 

Pre-arranged internships

SGSAH also offer a regular series of pre-arrange funded internships that are open to all arts and humanities PhD students at SGSAH member Scottish HEIs. The placements change regularly and are defintiely worth keeping an eye on! They may not be specific or even related to your research interests, but they offer some opportunities to work for big and small organisations across Scotland and gain skills and experience that could help when it comes to job applications down the line. They may also help you to gain some perspective on a research problem that has been troubling you, expand your network, and get the chance to talk with people outside the academic bubble. Check out blogposts from Nell, who is currently undertaking an internship at the Scottish Parliament, and Diljeet, who interned at the BBC. 

Benefits of volunteering or interning 

  • Something to go on the CV – if you have come straight through academia or want to work outwith academia, getting some extra work experience on your CV is always valuable.
  • Skills and experience – in some industries learning specific skills is very important, museums being just one example of this. I feel that my skills and experience will be incredibly handy when it comes to job applications, as I will be able to confidently sell myself as having practical as well as theoretical knowledge.
  • Research impact: depending on where you work, you may well get the opportunity to disseminate or use your research in a new way, or with a different audience
  • Human interaction – do not underestimate this one. PhD students can go days without properly talking to another human, especially humans that work outside academia.
  • Application practice – applying for an internship or putting together a project proposal is excellent practice for the real deal.
  • Keeping a grip on reality – it is really healthy to think and talk about something other than your PhD research.
  • Working as part of a team – again, something we don’t get much chance to do as part of the PhD process!

Another benefit of my internship, getting to look at amazing objects all day! (French knickers and bloomers in the collection at the Museum of Edinburgh)


  • Extra work – yes, doing an internship or committing to regular volunteering will increase your workload, but in a lot of cases you will not need to take your work home with you, so it makes it easier to compartmentalise
  • The extra work could perhaps be difficult to accomodate into the schedule of un- or part-funded students who are already working part time to fund their PhD, or have a heavy teaching load. These students probably get a lot of the benefits of volunteer work – such as working in a team and having responsibilities / work goals. But some funded internships do come up (including those offered by SGSAH) so it is worth keeping an eye out!
  • Time out of PhD – a lot of internships mean taking a short period off from PhD work, which for some seems daunting, but could also be very refreshing!

If you are interested in a career outside academia, or are just interested in gaining some new experiences or boosting your CV, an internship or volunteer role is a great way to do this. It provides a brilliant opportunity to take a little time away from your thesis, meet new people, expand your network and widen your sphere of knowledge and skills. I have loved almost everything about my own internship, and the aspects I haven’t loved have taught me a huge amount. I would certainly recommend taking a look at opportunities in your area, it has added so much to my PhD experience!

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