How Much Should You Pay a Museum Intern?

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

October 18, 2023

Do you know how much you should pay a museum intern? If you are not familiar with market research and ethical compensation models—that is completely understandable! 

We are museum professionals, after all, not compensation experts. However, it is critically important we know how to value professional labor so that we can advocate for appropriate compensation. It is also important to note that calculating appropriate compensation rates is an activity that needs to occur annually so that it accounts for the current job market, minimum wage, and living wage rates. This post builds off the previous two posts on why paid internships are important  and how to create a meaningful internship experience.

Disclaimer: I am not an HR, legal, nor tax specialist. Laws specific to your state as well as policies specific to your organization should be sought out and referenced when building your own paid internship program.

Doing the Math for Appropriate Compensation

In order to “do the math” for potential internships we need data to inform our calculation. There are several sources to consult and gather the numbers for an hourly rate. These sources help to take into account the market rate, minimum wage, and living wage. For a full list of resources to consult, please see the Resource section at the end of this post.

Perform a wage analysis using the following sources:

  • MIT Living Wage Calculator
  • Consumer Price Index
  • Firms with federal contracts
  • Government pay schedules
  • Job boards, Bureau of Labor Statistics, salary surveys
  • Your organization’s current pay scales

Internship Compensation Examples

The following are two examples that demonstrate how compensation takes into account hourly rates, knowledge-level, and experience. It is not an exact science—unless you are a municipal entity with dictated rates—but you can see from the examples how to take knowledge and experience into account, alongside an hourly rate.

Example 1: Boise, Idaho

  • Minimum wage: $7.25
  • Calculated living wage: $16.57
  • Completed Master’s degree and 1 year of experience
  • Project requires technical expertise and independent work

Total hourly wage: $21.50

Example 2: Seattle, Washington

  • Minimum wage: $18.69
  • Calculated living wage: $21.48
  • 1st year graduate student with minimal experience
  • Project requires extensive oversight and mentorship

Total hourly wage: $23.00

Other Benefit Considerations

Though the need for internships to be paid has been a long battle in the field, it may be that our advocacy attempts at the museum-level take a while to come to fruition. In the meantime, there are still things we can do to invest in the intern as a new professional—in the form of Professional Development.

Professional Development:

  • Include the intern on committee meetings and in program discussions
  • Facilitate networking opportunities
  • Support professional presentation opportunities
  • Support their work to create a report, poster, or paper on their internship project 

Each of these items can be immensely beneficial for a new professional and incorporating one or more of these items into the project scope will help ensure the intern comes away with several benefits from the experience. 

Cost Mitigation

In addition to offering other benefits, another effective way to support interns is to help keep the cost of an internship as low to neutral as possible. The following is a list of potential costs an intern incurs during the period of their internship experience: cost of living (rent, mortgage, utilities, etc.), transportation, parking, meals, and tuition. 

Cost Mitigation Ideas:

  • Offer a cost-of-living stipend, housing, or room and board
  • Offer transportation reimbursement or provisions
  • Offer memberships, discounts, and other perks from the museum and its network
  • Provide meals during the course of the internship 

Bonus: If you partner with a local graduate program consider requesting that any internship done for credit at your museum is at a tuition discount (or better—comped!) to the intern. Given that the school has virtually no overhead when students seek internships outside the school for credit, this technically doesn’t cost the graduate program anything and is a creative option to explore. Each of these cost mitigation ideas help to neutralize costs incurred by the intern over the course of the internship and it will make your museum more attractive to future quality interns.

Goal: Keep the Cost of the Internship Low to Neutral

The goal is that the intern should NOT incur debt in order to access the internship as this restricts diverse candidacy and is economically exploitive. This means no “school credit in lieu of pay”, no unpaid or underpaid work, and no expectation for interns to relocate (or cover room and board if they do) for the duration of the internship. Tip: This is where remote options for internships may be an avenue to explore.


You now have all the information you need to “do the math” on appropriate internship compensation, ideas for additional non-monetary benefits, and cost mitigation strategies to use to help interns offset the cost of their internship. Each of these areas will help support your interns and foster a healthy ecosystem for everyone at the museum. Remember: What we pay our interns is reflective of how we value the work. If we don’t value their work, how can we make the case to value our own?

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

To learn more, please join us for How to Build a Museum Paid Internship Program, presented by Rachael Woody on Wednesday, October 25, 2023 at 11 a.m. Pacific, 2 p.m. Eastern. (Can’t make it? Register anyway and we will send you a link to the recording and slides afterwards). Register now or call 604-278-6717.

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