Student Interns Should Get Credit or Paid, Full Stop

Sep 28 2009 Published by under Conduct of Science, Education, Ethics

Undergraduate students approach professors with research labs all the time about getting "experience" they think they need for something or other. Typically for med school application in the biological science areas. I think it is bogus to let them in without either 1) academic credit through enrollment in the appropriate course descriptor or 2) being paid an hourly wage, preferably minimum wage or above.
Making them Allowing them to work for nothing other than a recommendation letter, even if they are willing to do so, is exploitation pure and simple.
That's how I see it anyway.
I was reading these interesting comments at The First Excited State blog recently. The author was responding to some idiocy from a Mark Cuban who of course would not possibly be where he is today be exploiting other people's labor, would he? The First Excited State blogger sums it up succinctly:

So, let's recap Cuban's argument in favor of unpaid interns:
* Isn't it great that so many talented people are unemployed? Maybe I can use this for my gain!
* Perhaps they will work for free in the name of gaining experience.
* They can also do the dirty work that would normally be done by "The Assistant to the Secretary's Secretary."
* They don't complain, so it must be okay. Oppressed people always speak up, right? Or maybe they know we'll blacklist them...

Cuban's logic is basically that of the pre-worker-protection robber baron. If you can find someone desperate enough to work long hours, under unsafe and dehumanizing conditions for minimal compensation then you should be allowed to exploit them right? No? Than why is it okay to exploit the relatively well-off middle class college kid / recent grad who can afford to intern for free so that you can avoid paying a worker for the work you are receiving?
Don't be a Cuban.

43 responses so far

  • Devin says:

    And if you've got a nice supervisor, you can get both credit and pay!

  • lost academic says:

    DM, it's also bad for the PI, or at least, those I've worked with and around have always thought so. When you have an organization with a tradition of and formalized structure for volunteering, it's one thing, but that's not now nor likely will ever be the case for lab sciences. There is a two-way reciprocity - I will do these things for you, you will compensate me. That way, expectations and usually some idea of timelines are more clear, and there is an ability on both sides to fairly end the relationship. If someone's doing something 'for free', then they don't have the same kind of additionally and generally necessary obligating to do things in a reasonable amount of time, and if you actually NEEDED that done, you are in trouble, not them.

  • I'm in general agreement with this, but I do recall some moments in my undergraduate education where hands-on experience meant more to me than either course credit or money. (I had ample opportunities to scam bagels and peanut butter in those moments, if memory serves.)
    One lab that was willing to take me on and give me the hands-on experience I was looking for (which, after all, involved diverting an experienced member of the research team to train me) didn't have funds sitting around to pay me anything. Since it wasn't a lab at my college, it's not clear how they could have given me course credit, either. I did manage to win a small grant to bring in my own support for the summer I worked full time in that lab, but for the six month stretch I was giving them 16-20 hours a week, it was officially "volunteer" work.
    Would it have been better for me not to gain this research experience at all, given that none of the labs in the area seemed willing or able to pay undergrad interns? Is there a way to shift PIs away from exploiting free undergrad labor without having a few rounds of undergrads "take one for the team" by opting out of unpaid internships (and thus, potentially, of research experiences of this sort) altogether?

  • Dude, unpaid interns who work for sports teams or other celebushit outfits are, in essence, receiving "course credit" for their efforts, as intern shit like that on the resume--and access to celebushit assholes like Cuban--is frequently a prerequisite to further ascent up the celebushit ladder. In fact, you could say that celbushit interns are lucky that they don't even have to pay tuition.
    Now back to academia: I agree that it is appropriate to provide either course credit or wages to undergrads working in research labs. The policy at most institutions that I am aware of is that it is forbidden to receive both for the same effort. However, if a student has already received as much Independent Study credit as they can apply to their major/degree requirements, and there are no funds available to pay them, what is wrong with them continuing to work in the lab with the goal of succeeding at their research and achieving authorship on published papers.
    One of the highly cited papers on my CV is one that I first-authored as an undergrad. While I recevied some course credit over the two years I worked in the lab, and I did receive some wages--mostly over the summers--there were certainly semesters during which I received neither course credit nor wages. I see no problem with this.
    And yes, it is completely wrong to use undergrads as free labor to clean rat shit off of cages, although I did do plenty of that as an undergrad.

  • MRW says:

    I basically agree with you, but I wonder about Cuban's claim that internships for credit are also illegal if the company benefits in any way.

  • bobh says:

    My daughter, who is a senior, is interning at a major research university lab. Its a great opportunity. She is supporting a post-doc but the professor in charge has arranged for her to get credit (2). Unfortunately she (I) still have to pay for those (out of state) credits.

  • jc says:

    The unpaid bullshit really hits minorities and students from lower class families hard. I've had undergrad students turn down super cool but no-pay summer internships because they didn't have a rich mommy and daddy who could give them a car for the summer, cover their housing/food/health insurance, and pay for the credit and fees during the next school year. I had the same problem doing unpaid internships (no course credit, 100 whopping bucks a month in "pay"). I had to work 2 other jobs (waitressing on weekends, cashier weeknights) to survive and be able to save enough for books in the fall. I basically walked away from each internship with a letter so I could apply for another no/crap-pay internship the next summer.
    The REU programs pay a decent salary and they cover housing, so encourage your students to apply for them. There's also http://www.studentjobs.gov/ and http://www.training.nih.gov/student/

  • TeaHag says:

    The credit/payment issue also provides accountability which serves as a protection for the PI and his/her research. Not all student volunteer is a prefect match, and these formalities make performance expectations clear for everyone.

  • Alex says:

    I completely agree about pay and/or credit. Whenever I can pay, I do pay. And I always offer the option of credit.
    I'm still fairly new to this, but I've heard that funding agencies are sometimes reluctant to support student labor unless the undergraduate has a clearly defined project and scientific question. In principle I like this, but in practice it can take a while to figure out what a student is good at, and during that time the student might as well learn how to use the equipment. My experience was like this:
    I went to the director of a large center and asked for a job. He gave me a job. Sometimes I was washing vacuum components. Sometimes I was doing CAD work. Sometimes I was learning to solder stuff, or fix something. Sometimes I got to use simulation software and help solve some design problems. Sometimes I even got to analyze some data.
    It was a large team project, so I didn't really have a single defined project of my own that I could take ownership of. I couldn't present a poster saying "Here was the research question that I as an individual took responsibility for answering." I was just part of the team, I did what I could to help the team solve problems, and I learned a ton in the process. Yes, washing bottles and wiring up certain things was boring, but the work had to get done, and along the way I learned other stuff that was fun, and I learned how research labs work. To me, it was incredibly valuable, but I'm told that some funding programs frown on paying for this type of student work. They'd rather have the student have ownership of a project.
    In my own group at an undergraduate institution, I've given students questions to answer rather than "grunt" work, but I've found that a lot of them just need time to climb the learning curve, so the first few months are spent on "grunt" work anyway, learning how to perform the basic tasks. The questions and projects are motivators, but fundamentally these students function more as techs than independent researchers in the first few months. No doubt this would shock some people who spew high-minded rhetoric about the "right" way to do undergraduate research, but the bottom line is that you have to climb the learning curve.

  • My undergrad sidetracked the pay/credit issue for us summer undergrad research students (SURS). In the summertime you got paid a stipend (~$3000) for 10 weeks worth of work. And in the fall and spring you registered for research or tutorial and got credit for what you did too. The credit was also based on you writing up what you worked on, which you probably did at the end of summer and an additional little bit of lab work. Needless to say, we slaved away in the lab during the school year too. But we got to have our cake and eat it too. Otherwise if we got research credit in the summer it would have cost us some tuition money that we wouldn't have had to pay if we were a full time student during the school year.

  • antipodean says:

    Unpaid internships are a very efficient way to exclude all the poor kids.
    When you exclude all the poor kids and you miss half the talent. Possibly more than half since the rich kids know Daddy will bail them out when they fuck it all up. The poor kids on the other hand will work their arses off because they have no safety net.

  • The discussion above seems to assume that undergraduates are always making a valuable contribution to the lab. For mindless but valuable work (grunt work), students should be paid money. For valuable intellectual work they should receive academic credit. But sometimes the value flows in the other direction, especially if the lab's research doesn't provide much opportunity for grunt work.
    Training and supervising inexperienced students can suck up a lot of time, time that the experienced lab members could have spent on their research. ("A good summer student is one that only sets the lab's research back by a month.") So the lab may be making a big contribution to the student's education, but not getting any useful research in return.
    Even academic credit isn't free, as the institution usually requires an explicit training and evaluation plan for each student, and fulfilling these requirements takes time away from other goals.

  • qetzal says:

    One thing I always advise biology undergrads who are considering grad school is: above all else, find a way to do some extended research in a real lab. Ideally, that would be for credit, via an independent research project. But if the only option is to volunteer for free, I still advise them to do it if they possibly can.
    I agree it's unfair in lots of ways. But an undergrad who has no experience in a "real" lab setting has no idea what research will be like. I knew people like that in grad school. Some did fine, but others were miserable and dropped out after wasting several years finding out that they hated 'real' research (even though they loved science).
    IMO, if you're an undergrad considering a PhD in biology, however unfair it may be to work in a lab that gives you no pay and no credit, it's still worth it to learn if research is really for you.

  • Eugenie says:

    What about the internships that require you to pay for the experience? This is common in both the sciences and non-sciences (I've seen advertisements for both and I've had a few friends participate in them- one even got promoted to a higher, but unpaid position!)
    (And the cost was not credit-related)

  • another young prof says:

    The one place this equation can break down is during the summer.
    I'm perfectly happy to give students course credit for their work. The problem comes during the summer - where students are not already registered full-time, so they have to pay for any course credit. Most students would rather work for free than pay for the privilege, since they have more than enough credits for graduation by the time they reach that point.
    I've avoided the problem so far by scraping up enough money to pay my undergrads who stay through the summer but cannot win any of the available fellowships. I also refuse to take anyone during the summer who has not already worked in my lab enough to prove their value.
    But I have a lot of students asking if I will take them on during the summer for no pay that I have turned down.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Sorry, not buying the whole "I put more in than I get back" argument. As a prof and/or a leader of a public-funded research lab this is your gig. one way or another you are either expected to do this and/or you get credit for doing it. For which you draw a salary.
    so the noobs don't know what they are doing and have to be trained, so what? You aren't paying them TurboTech money so get over it.

  • Odyssey says:

    Hell yeah they should be paid or get credit. And yes, they can be a lot of work, but it's part of our jobs as academics.

  • Well, DM, I disagree with you. You speak in generalizations:
    Allowing them to work for nothing other than a recommendation letter, even if they are willing to do so, is exploitation pure and simple.
    How about in a lab like mine where the policy is that undergrads cannot be paid (except during summer)? Not all of these students necessarily have the need/desire/credit room to take research for credit. So what's the harm in letting them work for nothing?
    Instead of worrying about "exploitation" inflicted due to lack of a salary or course credit, I think we should be worrying about the real exploitation that happens when the PIs/postdocs/grad students in charge are assholes. Not every supervisor is an asshole, and as such, not every unpaid student is getting exploited and/or screwed.

  • niewiap says:

    If the undergrad wants to volunteer, should I just decline? Assuming I don't have the money to pay them salary, should I just say no? If that were the case, probably about 80-90% of current undergraduate lab workers would not get any research experience in college simply due to lack of funds of their prospective PIs, which would result in fewer experienced graduate students and so on and so forth. As an undergrad, I was happy to do unpaid volunteer work in the lab for the experience it gave me and just for the fun of it.
    A completely different question altogether is the motivation of undergrad lab volunteers. If they just want to have a bullet point in their CV because the med school requires them to have "research experience" that's the wrong motivation stemming from a ridiculously low acceptance rates at top medical schools. You are not going to fix anything by shouting "pay or credit" - the issue goes much deeper than the ethical question of pay for work received.
    Last issue: is authorship on a paper credit? I think it is - sometimes even much more valuable than purely academic credit, especially for prospective graduate students.
    Bottom line is - if you want to employ volunteers and you genuinely cannot afford to pay them - do so, but make sure they are co-authors on papers, get useful experience, and have fun in the lab.

  • Ann Sterzinger says:

    It's cool enough that the media have become progressively dumber and more focused on hairpiece models who live in Mars bubbles, since intern scabs who don't need to get paid -- who have always lived in less visible but equally bubbly parentally-funded bubbles themselves -- have been shoving out the budding hard journalists for half a generation. Now you say the same thing is happening to hard science? Oh, dude, that's awesome! Next time I get a tumor I'll ask Molly Ringwald to dig it out.

  • Another biomedical researcher says:

    Summer? Absolutely they should be paid.
    Academic year? Credit if they want it (I always grant it when requested). But they very often don't want credit, since getting credits costs them (or their parents) money, very significant money, and doesn't actually help their career (since it is the experience and their ability to describe it that matters for their career). Not to mention that going by credit only during the academic year allows more students to join my lab, and the students who are really committed to science sort themselves out (and get summer offers). (Successful seniors also get paid in the academic year; most students start as sophomores.) If I paid all undergrads right from the start, there would be far fewer in my group, so the overall science training would be less, and I would be less likely to take a chance on a borderline undergrad.
    And, yes, I have multiple first-author papers from undergrads from my youngish lab at an R1 university.

  • cookingwithsolvents says:

    In an academic setting having \( or course credit riding on showing up and at least trying to get something done can be an effective motivator (sadly). I have NO problem paying a pre-med to make ligand or whatever for a summer, even if they have no intent to be a chemist, if they show up and do their job. Not everyone loves what I do like I do and I'm ok with that.
    Loving your job is rare and a privilege, in my experience.
    Now, once a student has established some credibility and circumstances dictate that volunteer would be better for the student (e.g. no \)
    allowed during the fall and spring semesters and research credit would push the student over the credit limit into "overload" and require more $$ out of the student's pocket) then I see no problem with that person going volunteer for a semester.

  • drdrA says:

    Absolutely. Credit or Pay, no 'volunteering'. In my institution we can't let them 'volunteer'- they are not covered by workers comp... and what the heck do you do if, heaven forbid, they have an accident?!

  • Arlenna says:

    Workstudy, workstudy workstudy!
    As a new PI with relatively little free money laying around, I set up a couple of workstudy positions to pay undergrads a decent wage without it crippling my budget (the workstudy program subsidizes about 70-80% of their pay).
    After those positions were filled, I give students the option of doing research for credit if they want to work in the lab--but then they do RESEARCH and not support work (other than having minor lab responsibilities like all other lab members do).
    So if your institution offers federal work study financial aid, find out how to create positions!

  • qaz says:

    The discussion here is not as simple as much of the discussion is laying it out. Once students are paid, it opens up several complexities. At my university, if a student is working an hourly wage, then they must be paid for all hours anywhere. If a student is doing an open-ended project, then they can work as many hours as they want. (Does reading background papers in the library count as work time? Does writing and rewriting the paper count as work time? How do I know that the student actually spent three hours writing when they only came up with a half a page of text for that evening?) I had a very negative experience with this where I was told after the fact that I owed a student (who I thought was volunteering research time beyond paid technician time) several thousand dollars unexpected overtime pay for work done on an open-ended project. [Story is that student worked as a technician doing technician work. Student wanted to get some science experience for grad school. I said ok, but that’s too open ended, we’ll make it volunteer and I’ll write you a rec letter. We even had a written agreement. University HR did not agree. Needless to say, I don’t do that anymore.]
    While my university does allow students to volunteer for labs, my university does not allow students to both work some and volunteer some. I had a case where a student was unable to volunteer in my lab to finish her project (which she had started for credit) because she worked as a secretary (to pay her bills) in another department. If she spent any time in my lab, I would have had to pay her overtime, again, for an open-ended project.
    There needs to be a process by which a student gets something out of a project that is not based on hourly wages, but is based on project success. A strong recommendation letter for graduate school and the experience of learning science from my lab is (in my opinion) a fair trade for a project. Co-authorship on a paper is fair trade for a successful project. Our graduate admissions committee won’t even look at an undergraduate that has not had some research experience. So why do you say that giving an undergraduate said research experience is exploitation?
    PS. As CPP says, of course it is completely wrong to use free labor to clean rat shit off cages. But let's assume that we're decent people and we’re talking about undergraduates volunteering to do a science project, not undergraduates working as free technicians.
    PPS. “And if you've got a nice supervisor, you can get both credit and pay!” At my university, this is explicitly illegal. When students sign up for credit, they have to sign a form saying they won’t get paid for the hours they get credit for.

  • MattXIV says:

    When I worked in labs, I'd much rather have taken money than credits, and in most cases rather nothing than credits. The university didn't do paid positions through the normal channels unless you qualfied for work study financial aid, which I didn't, so I pretty much worked for nothing. Credits were useless or worse since I didn't need them for meeting my degree requirements and if I went over 18 a sememester, it was over $1000 per additional credit. I actually took less credits than I could have for the lab work I did because it would have started costing me more money otherwise.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    While my university does allow students to volunteer for labs, my university does not allow students to both work some and volunteer some.
    Many of you could stand to think a little harder about just why this is the case.
    let's assume that we're decent people and we’re talking about undergraduates volunteering to do a science project, not undergraduates working as free technicians
    "decent" people do all kinds of crappy things because "that's the way things are" and what not. see all the comments above.
    where do you draw the line between working as a free technician and not? Because I'm not seeing a lot of clarity on that topic in this thread. And for me this is the issue.
    Yes, I appreciate that students should have choices and that not every time a student steps into a lab it constitutes something akin to an internship. Not the point.
    The question is whether or not the laboratory is receiving work value that they would otherwise have to pay a tech or other employee to do. Cleaning rat turds and glass washing might just count. So might entering data, screening subjects or any of a million other mundane tasks.
    Again I will refer you to prior eras of less worker protection in terms of hours per week, safety equipment, working conditions, age of employee, etc, etc. All of the same arguments being advanced here were advanced by employers in prior job sectors. We now think of these as ridiculous arguments.
    Why is so-called white collar employment any different? Is the potential payoff of a job in middle or upper management (/ PIdom) any different than telling a farm, manufacturing or mine worker that if they shut up about crappy conditions and work hard they can make foreman in a decade or two?

  • Dylan says:

    Ultimately you are helping some people while denying some people an important opportunity. I agree the trade off is justifiable sometimes but I think that has to be argued rather than crying exploitation.

  • Funky Fresh says:

    Dude! Why are you harshing on our free labor buzz?

  • nobody says:

    Quetzal writes:

    One thing I always advise biology undergrads who are considering grad school is: above all else, find a way to do some extended research in a real lab.
    ...
    IMO, if you're an undergrad considering a PhD in biology, however unfair it may be to work in a lab that gives you no pay and no credit, it's still worth it to learn if research is really for you.

    Simply reaffirming that lab experience is good experience doesn't make the problem go away. Unpaid internships are barriers to entry into fields that necessarily discriminate against the economically disadvantaged. Your statement presumes that people can afford to volunteer but don't want to because they think it's unfair. It doesn't look like you've bothered come up with a piece of advice for students who want to go to graduate school but who can't afford to volunteer as undergrads.

  • JohnV says:

    Seeing a few comments which are similar to mine thoughts, it seems like a system that forbids volunteering in a lab that also includes overload tuition charges (was anything over 16 for me) is an argument from privilege. If you're to poor to afford overload credit you get to be some second class student who misses out on the research experience.
    2 of the 3 semesters I worked in a lab as an undergrad were volunteer for this reason.
    Everyone has given good reasons why making use of free undergrads can be exploitation, so perhaps the resolution is that undergrad research credit hours shouldn't count against your overload total, so that you get none of the exploitation without discriminating against poor and lower-middle class students?

  • Lora says:

    DM: THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!
    *sends DM and CPP a virtual bottle of 2004 Marina Cvetic Montepulciano d'Abruzzo*
    If undergrad research experience and free labor is so important and significant to your program, figure out how to re-organize the elective credits so that seniors have time in their schedules to do research for credit. My undergrad school, bless their provincial little souls, managed to do it on a shoestring budget. They also used a once-every-other-week one hour class to do oral 5-minute progress updates and teach presentation skills. Lousy students who did poorly, did not pull their weight, did not graduate from the program and the school collected an extra year's tuition. Professors got about two students' worth of free help per year.
    What Arlenna said about work-study also bears repeating: In work-study, doing simple things like making buffers and running the autoclave, students get basic stuff like dilution calculations, stoichiometry, etc. pounded into their heads. You know, I wonder if anyone has access to data: Does a work-study student retain their first two years' worth of education better/longer than someone who doesn't do work-study?

  • ash says:

    Does anyone know if it is actually illegal to receive neither course credit nor receive any kind of compensation; Particularly if you've already graduated? So basically, a recent graduate is doing an internship for free and not receiving any sort of reimbursement..

  • another young prof says:

    Commenter #34: it is not illegal to volunteer. The legal questions come in terms of liability in the laboratory - my university requires all volunteers to register such that they have a legal standing in case of injury.
    The question DrugMonkey is asking is ethical, as opposed to legal. I happen to oppose his hard-line rule because of specific cases I have encountered (f'rex: a student of mine who chose not to enroll for one term on the way to her Honors Thesis because she did not want to commit a certain number of hours that particular term due to her course load [and because she had more than enough credits already], but wanted to continue making progress towards her thesis in her spare time). However, I agree that any prof who makes a regular practice of staffing their lab with volunteer labor is behaving unethically.

  • Peanut says:

    Big plug for work study programs. I had 3 years of work study, and I was able to get hands on research experience.
    I was one of those lower class, paying for my entire education myself students. Better to be full time student with 20 hours of work study and 20 hours of waiting tables, rather than 40 hours waiting tables and no research experience.
    Also, two other excellent PAID undergraduate research programs to check out:
    1) Howard Hughes Medical Institute Precollege and Undergraduate Science
    2) Ecological Society of America Seeds program
    It is the job of PIs to figure out how to recruit, train, and adequately compensate the next generation of scientists, no matter their background.
    If the proverbial diamond in the rough undergrad walks into the lab, why shouldn't a PI step up to the challenge to provide needed resources?

  • msphd says:

    Maybe somebody said this already, but I always worked for the promise of authorship, even when I was just "volunteering". The labs I worked in as a student generally paid me during the summers, but not during the school year. This seemed okay to me since they were taking the time to train me, and I worked when I felt like it when I was taking classes (full time when I was being paid).
    Now, to be fair, in one case I didn't get authorship or even acknowledgment when I should have, and some of the work I did should have gotten published but never did. But I'm pretty sure the authorship I did get is what got me into grad school.

  • I'm surprised nobody's commented yet on the damage caused to intrinsic motivation by external factors that the student may think have little value in comparison to the experience. Much research has been done showing that externally provided rewards can eventually replace a student's intrinsic motivation. In other words, they end up enjoying research less.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    msphd@37- sure. authorship confers future tangible rewards deriving from volunteer experiences. But ask yourself this-
    does the grad student, postdoc and even the PI receive tangible future benefits of authoring papers? And do these people get paid for the work done to generate those papers?

  • antipodean says:

    Donnie
    By that logic nobody should get paid to do anything ever and that would make us all very happy.
    The problem is that some researchers already have to do 2 full time jobs worth just to stay fed. We'd like this culture of working for free to stop.

  • Peanut says:

    Antipodean (#40): let's not forget that some students already have to do 2 full time jobs worth just to stay fed.

  • antipodean says:

    Peanut don't get me wrong. I'm advocating people getting paid properly for work they do. Students as well.
    We all used to be students at some point- for a decade. So it's not like I don't understand the problems.

  • Anonymous says:

    If you can find someone desperate enough to work long hours, under unsafe and dehumanizing conditions for minimal compensation then you should be allowed to exploit them right?
    Umm...isn't this the definition of a postdoc?

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