[Editor’s note: Field Finds is a regular feature of Field Educator. These concise literature reviews provide information and guidance to field educators and field instructors. Each review concludes with three discussion questions as inspiration for further thought on the subject matter.]

This edition of Field Finds explores the issue of paid internships. The format for this article differs from that of a traditional literature review, in that it includes a combination of peer-reviewed research and grey literature and information. This novel approach was required because of the limited peer-reviewed research on this subject.

In July, the lead author sent out a query on the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) field directors’ listserv, asking for field directors to contact her to discuss best practices in paid internships. The following review includes the perspectives of and examples from three field directors from across the United States. Critical questions and case studies provide a blueprint for other social work faculty who are interested in generating new ways of engaging in the discussion and implementing paid internships. 


Field education has been named the signature pedagogy by scholars and the Council on Social Work Education since 2008 (Bogo, 2010; Boitel & Fromm, 2014), and is the centerpiece of student learning in social work education. Field education denotes a learning experience that is robust and includes varied and challenging assignments based on social work competencies (CSWE, 2022). In a review of the literature, Slaymaker (2014) examined the question of whether students’ rights are being violated by being required to complete unpaid internships. The author applied the six-point criteria found in the Fair Labor Standards Act (United States Department of Labor, n.d.) to scrutinize social work field practicum experiences. The review determined that within the context of this Act, students’ rights are not being violated because of the robust requirement for student learning in social work field education and the required field seminar class (Dill & Bowers, 2020). 

The background of unpaid internships extends to the beginning of the social work profession. The history of social work is rooted in volunteerism, where predominantly female workers were viewed as well-intentioned volunteers who would “soon be married,” thereby making up for lost wages in their employment (Austin, 1983; Beck Aguilera, et al., 2022). Building on this historical perspective, social work practicums have long been viewed as learning opportunities that do not require financial compensation (Waxman, 2018). Funded internships were rare until the advent of COVID-19, when members of the social work profession began to reflect on its educational and professional structures and obligations. During the pandemic, social work students began to change the dialogue about compensation and fair practices in social work education, including the field practicum. 

Social work students have long struggled with balancing study for their social work degree, unpaid internships, and paid employment. COVID-19 became the tipping point in a discussion that had been bubbling under the surface for many years (Gair & Baglow, 2018). Beck Aguilera et al. (2022) and Cohen (2023) have explored how social work students became increasingly frustrated with the traditional mantra that social work internships have never been compensated and that there was no reason for that to change.

Current Literature

The existing literature on paid internships is limited. Research in the nonprofit sector explores how human services organizations have sometimes used unpaid labor to fill jobs typically taken by paid services as a cost-cutting measure. Canadian researchers have found that some human services organizations use unpaid labor (e.g., volunteers, student interns) in positions that were previously filled by paid employees (Baines et al., 2017). The research showcases the complexity of the debate—organizations are required to cut costs, while at the same time caring for society’s most vulnerable. The use of volunteers or interns to perform regular job duties can enhance the organization’s ability to provide care, but the debate continues about the ethics of using unpaid labor in such a manner (Baines et al., 2017). 

Australian researchers have explored whether extensive field education experiences have a detrimental financial impact on social work students (Johnstone et al., 2016). This study used a sample of 214 BSW and MSW students, and found that balancing paid work and internships had the following effects: Students 1) incurred a deficit in their budget; 2) had to make painstaking budgeting decisions; 3) had to prioritize expenses (e.g., books vs. food); 4) incurred debt; 5) had to work longer hours in paid employment; and 6) had to seek financial support from friends, family, government assistance, and university grants. Another group of Australian researchers conducted an extensive literature review to explore the impact of field education on the emotional and financial well-being of students (Hemy et al, 2016); however, the authors made only scant reference to the idea of paid internships. The combination of financial hardship with the rigor of completing a social work degree and internship, plus working full- or part-time, can lead to emotional burnout and mental health challenges for some students (Bullock et al., 2017; Dill & Murphy, 2022). 

The Evolving Conversation

The power of podcasting and the influence of the student’s voice have converged to create a new dialogue about the use and importance of paid internships. In January 2023, Shimon Cohen interviewed student guests Matt Dargay and Arie Davey on his Doin’ the Work podcast (Cohen, 2023). Dargay and Davey had started an activism program called “Payment for Placements” (https://www.payment4placements.org), and the discussion focused on paid internships as part of larger structural elements related to antiracism, diversity, equity, and inclusion. In the podcast, Cohen and his guests speak to the exponential debt that students of color acquire when obtaining a social work degree. Financial hardship brought on by completing internships is detrimental to students, particularly students of color. Social work education requires that students use their time to complete an unpaid practicum internship, which prevents them from engaging in paid work. The necessity of prioritizing unpaid over paid labor can be a large deterrent for students considering a social work degree program. In the podcast, Dargay and Davey suggest that some academic institutions are overlooking and even denying the reality that paid internships require greater consideration from an educational and research perspective.

That said, some lone academic voices are speaking up about this issue. Professor Christine Morley from Australia, a country at the leading edge of this debate, has recently articulated how social work or other professional internships can lead to financial hardship, poverty, and mental health issues (ABC News, 2023).

Critical Questions to Consider

The argument against paid internships continues to focus on the role of the social work student as a learner versus a paid employee. The historical perspective is that the social work internship should focus exclusively on learning—and offering payment for this learning experience may result in a blurred perspective between that of a student learner and that of a paid employee. Warren Graham, director of practicum education at Stony Brook University in New York, asks the following compelling critical questions about the feasibility of paid internships, and suggests addressing these questions further in future peer-reviewed research and broader discussions in social work education and practice (W. Graham, personal communication, July 31, 2023): 

  • How might the cost of paid internships be passed down to clients who are already marginalized and disempowered, and how does that “fit” with the NASW Code of Ethics
  • Agencies are struggling to hire qualified, licensed staff. If funds are available, how can they justify paying interns instead of increasing the wages of existing social workers?
  • If agencies are responsible for this funding, how might the standards of practicum education and expectations shift for the student? 
  • If a student receives funding, will the expectations of being a learner in the field be compromised, as units of service are prioritized to compensate for the cost of intern development?

Graham goes on to share that the Office of Practicum Education at his facility is investigating how faculty can partner with agencies to apply for community development grants, which could include stipends for student learners. He offers the following ideas and resources:

  • Investigate grants from state agencies (e.g., Human Resources & Services Administration grants, [https://www.hrsa.gov/grants]). 
  • Look into more local opportunities (e.g., the New York State Office of Mental Health Dean’s Project Consortium has been instrumental in leveraging state initiatives to support agencies and create stipend opportunities, [https://omh.ny.gov/omhweb/adults/swebp]). 

Case Examples

As research catches up with the changing landscape of this discussion, the following two case studies may help field directors find ways they can enhance the idea of paid internships in practice education. 

Case Study 1

The University of Texas at Austin | Steve Hicks School of Social Work, Texas. 

Contact: Tanya Voss, Assistant Dean for Field Education, [email protected] 

Background and Funding

  • Since the 2019-20 academic year, the school has secured field-related funding exceeding $1 million, increasing to more than $1.2 million for 2022-23. This translates to each field student receiving an average of $5,860. With added academic scholarships, 78% of BSW and MSSW interns each received an average of $7,500.

Factors Contributing to Funding Success

  • Funding expectations were established in the placement development model.
  • The university invested in clinical and tenured/tenure-track collaborations for grant-funded training programs.
  • Student voices were empowered.
  • The university adapted to shifting economic environments.

Development of Placement Partners

  • The Community Partnership Development Committee plays a key role in developing new placement partners.
  • This committee, comprising volunteer field instructors, school faculty, and staff, conducts site visits to applicant agencies.
  • Since 2009, the committee has annually developed around 40 new partnerships, ensuring diversity and relevance in the pool of internships.
  • The committee began encouraging internship sites to provide stipends to interns in 2011, leading to an increased prevalence of stipends in the field.

Stipends and Grant-Funded Training Opportunities

  • The committee began encouraging internship sites to provide stipends to interns in 2011, which greatly contributed to increased agency-provided funding, e.g., 37% of placements provided stipends averaging $3,600 each.
  • Grant-funded training opportunities are made possible through collaborations between clinical field faculty and tenured/tenure-track faculty, resulting in funding for 23% of internships averaging $8600 each from federal, foundation, and local grants. 
  • Programs include Title IV-E child welfare education, integrated behavioral health, gerontology, Spanish-speaking services, and AmeriCorps-funded domestic violence prevention, among others. 

Efforts to Promote Paid Internships

  • Beginning in 2018, the school actively encouraged students to inquire about stipends during program field fairs and internship interviews.
  • Faculty provided coaching on stipend negotiations during placement orientations and advising.
  • The pay-for-placement movement gained momentum during the COVID-19 pandemic, amplifying student voices in advocating for funded internships.


  • Rising costs of living and higher education, alongside declining funding for public education, emphasize the need for funded internships.


  • Field education plays a vital role in tracking field-related funding, implementing mechanisms to encourage paid internships, and empowering student voices.

Case Study 2

St. Edward’s University, Texas. 

Contact: Natalie Beck Aguilera, Field Director, [email protected]

  • St. Edward’s University runs a small BSW social work program and has taken steps to address unpaid internships.
  • The program has established a fund to provide microgrants to students for internship-related expenses, funded through T-shirt and sweatshirt sales and continuing education workshops.
  • The program works with the Student Financial Services Department to extend federal work-study benefits to qualifying students during their internships.
  • Seventeen students were paid more than $75,000 for their work during the 2022-23 academic year, the first year the program has successfully organized work-study funding. These efforts are continuing this school year with more students receiving pay through federal work-study programs.
  • The program has secured a grant to fund substance-use–related internships through the CSWE’s Substance Use Disorders Education and Leadership Scholars Program. This grant will provide stipends for four BSW students and their field instructors.
  • The program collaborates with the Texas Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers to advocate for statewide funding for social work internships through the Texas legislature, although the bill championed by NASW did not pass this legislative session.
  • All field agencies are asked if they provide payment/stipends as part of the onboarding process. There are currently eight field sites that provide stipends from the agency to the program’s interns and two that pay an hourly wage. At one field site, interns can be paid through AmeriCorps.
  • Continued efforts are needed on a programmatic and governmental level. 


The student voice is powering our understanding of paid internships. The tradition of the profession has been to view the field education experience as unpaid, but we have more recently (particularly since COVID-19) begun to view the idea of an unpaid practicum as both financially and emotionally detrimental to our students, possibly resulting in racial injustice. More peer-reviewed research is required on this subject, and student voices and activism should be considered and supported. Playing the Doin’ the Work podcast in a social work classroom may lead to greater understanding and acceptance of the need for change and to considering new models of compensating our social work students. Our colleagues cited in this review are leading by example. 

Discussion Questions

  1. How can unpaid internships in social work education impact the financial well-being and mental health of students, particularly in terms of racial disparities? What strategies can social work educators consider to mitigate these concerns? 
  2. What are the ethical implications of paid internships in social work field education? 
  3. What lessons can be learned from institutions that have secured funding for internships?


ABC News (Australia) (Director). (2023, May 27). Calls for university students to be paid for placements.

Austin, D. M. (1983). The Flexner myth and the history of social work. Social Service Review, 57(3), 357–377.

Beck Aguilera, N., Medley, W., Gage, C., & Hutchison, A. (2022). Addressing class in field: Economic justice and unpaid social work practicums. In J. Drolet, M. Bogo, G. Charles, & S. McConnell (Eds.), Transforming social work field education: New insights from practice research and scholarship. University of Calgary Press.

Baines, D., Cunningham, I., & Shields, J. (2017). Filling the gaps: Unpaid (and precarious) work in nonprofit social services. Critical Social Policy, 37(4), 625–645.

Bogo, M. (2010). Achieving competence in social work through field education. University of Toronto Press.

Boitel, C. R., & Fromm, L. R. (2014). Defining signature pedagogy in social work education: Learning theory and the learning contract. Journal of Social Work Education, 50(4), 608–622.

Bullock, G., Kraft, L., Amsden, K., Gore, W., Wimsatt, J., Prengle, R., Ledbetter, L., Covington, K., & Goode, A. (2017). The prevalence and effect of burnout on graduate healthcare students. Canadian Medical Education Journal, 8(3), e90–108.

Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). (2022). Educational policy and accreditation standards for baccalaureate and master’s social work programs.

Cohen, S. P. (Host) (2023, January). Paid social work internships, Part 1: Payment 4 Placements [Audio podcast].

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Dill, K., & Murphy, E. (2022). The impact of mental health challenges on social work field education. Field Educator, 12(2).

Gair, S., & Baglow, L. (2018). “We barely survived”: Social work students’ mental health vulnerabilities and implications for educators, universities and the workforce. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 30(1), 32–44.

Hemy, M., Boddy, J., Chee, P., & Sauvage, D. (2016). Social work students “juggling” field placement. Social Work Education, 35(2), 215–228.

Johnstone, E., Brough, M., Crane, P., Marston, G., & Correa-Velez, I. (2016). Field placement and the impact of financial stress on social work and human service students. Australian Social Work, 69(4), 481–494.

Slaymaker, R. (2014). Are students’ rights violated in field practicums?: A review of the Fair Labor Standards Act in social work field education. Field Educator, 4(2).

Waxman, O. (2018, July 25). Intern history: How internships replaced the entry-level job. Time.

United States Department of Labor. (n.d.). The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).