Further News on the Volunteer Postdoc Advertisement

Oct 25 2013 Published by under Academics, Call yer CongressCritter, Careerism

I had previously noted a situation in which an ad for a volunteer (i.e., unpaid) postdoc position requiring 2-3 years of prior experience was posted in the San Diego area.

A bit by David Wagner (@david_r_wagner) on the KPBS site specifies:

Well, it wasn't a joke. But it wasn't exactly straight-forward, either.

The job listing was vague from the get-go. Who exactly was hiring? The only details given were "lab in La Jolla."

Well, there are lots of labs in La Jolla. So I had to do some digging to find out which one posted this, and I found out that the listing was posted by a researcher named Laura Crotty Alexander. She's a physician at the VA San Diego Healthcare System who doubles as a UCSD faculty member. I couldn't reach her for comment.

If Alexander's listing looked like a terrible opportunity, that's by design, according to VA chief of staff Robert Smith.

"Frankly, what she was trying to do was make it look unappealing," Smith said. "Because she was trying to create an advertisement that nobody would apply to."

You see, the VA lab already had someone in mind for the position: a postdoc from Egypt who actually volunteered to work for free.

The reporter further specified:

which in my view is a far from uncommon situation. I've received inquiries about working in my lab under similar circumstances.

This is wrong.

You know how I feel about unpaid internships.
Unpaid internships are a systemic labor exploitation scam- yes, in science labs too.

That was written in the context of undergraduate "interns". Imagine the magnitude of my distaste for exploiting a PhD with 2-3 years of postdoctoral experience. It is wrong.

1) It is wrong because it is labor exploitation. We dealt with that over 100 years ago in the US. Yes, exploitation always continues and is resisted in fits and starts by unions, regulation and competitive pressures. But the arguments remain the same, the benefits of exploiting labor are tempting and the excuses are no better in the scientific context. I don't care that the candidate "volunteers". I don't care that the candidate is getting authorship or keeping her hand in the game of science or whatever excuse you want to advance. This is the case for all postdocs. Should we refuse to pay all of them? Heck no. Just like we stopped letting companies demand their employees worked in the mines for 14 hr shifts, 7 days a week with no breaks. Just like we discouraged and restricted company-store, company-town scams which ended up reducing real wages. Just like we established a minimum wage. Etc. Just like modern jurisprudence is rejecting free intern scams.

2) It is wrong because it is an unfair competitive advantage for those who choose to exploit junior scientists in this way. I am a PI who is competing for precious research grant funds with other PIs. This competition is based in large part on the work product that comes out of our respective laboratories. Data generated and papers published. If some other person gets labor for free and I have to pay for it, then I am disadvantaged. Under our general labor laws, this is an unfair tilt to the table. Everyone should have to play by the same rules.

Please, people. Call your Congress Critter. Draw their attention to this news report. Use your knowledge of their political positions to trip their triggers. Maybe it is the visa-dodging aspect. Maybe it is the "taking the job from American postdocs" aspect. Maybe they are sensitive to labor exploitation arguments. Whichever works, use it.

h/t: @neuromusic


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Addditional:

64 responses so far

  • Yoder says:

    Speaking as a (thankfully still paid!) postdoc: yes! This needs to get nipped in the bud.

    But let's maybe not go the "taking jobs from American postdocs" angle, here. Whoever this intended candidate is, she's being exploited just as much as anyone who'd actually answer the ad for an unpaid postdoctoral position. She's in the US for the benefit of her husband's career, and she's under the same pressure we all are to be "productive" in the meantime—the PI is taking advantage of that. And we only found out about it because of the idiotic advert.

  • drugmonkey says:

    But let's maybe not go the "taking jobs from American postdocs" angle, here.

    why on EARTH not? Using immigrant labor and/or the threats of outsourcing (hi Mu-ming Poo!) to suppress wages of the domestic workers is an old tactic....

  • Yoder says:

    "Taking jobs from Americans" can be (and usually is) read to put the onus on the non-citizens involved, not the employers who hire them. I'm 100% on board with nailing an employer who uses the threat of cheaper, disenfranchised immigrant labor as leverage in the employment market, but arguments that imply it's the immigrants' fault for wanting the jobs really rub me the wrong way.

  • bsci says:

    I'm speculating here, but this could be a case where the husband, but not the wife got a visa to work in the US. Assuming the decision to move to the US with her husband was already made, that would mean the wife's choice is to give up on her career for a year or two, find some way to work in the US as a scientist while getting paid elsewhere, or volunteer somewhere to keep active in her field. If someone came to you in this situation & asked to volunteer, would you turn them away outright?

    This isn't to discount the moral issues with unpaid internships or the widely recognized inefficiencies in US immigration/work laws, but IF the two collided in this case, I'm not sure the ethical response is clear.

  • Grumble says:

    "If some other person gets labor for free and I have to pay for it, then I am disadvantaged."

    Doh, what about fellowships? That's "labor for free" in the sense that YOU, Professor, don't have to pay the fellow's stipend. Some fellowships are awarded entirely without faculty input (e.g., NSF predoctoral fellowships). Are you at a competitive disadvantage compared to faculty who have fellows like that in their labs? Yes, you are - why aren't you complaining about it?

    In general I agree with your views on exploitation - but to support that point of view I don't think you need to resort to arguments based on "competitive disadvantage."

  • The Other Dave says:

    Wow. OK, so a skilled scientist comes to the U.S. and wants to keep doing research, pro bono. Instead of giving her that opportunity, we should tell her to fuck off? Let her research career die?

    I am going to tell all the undergrads who want research experience to fuck off too.

    And every grad student on a fellowship or teaching assistantship.

    And if I see someone picking up litter off the street, I am going to be like "Hey that's not your job!"

    I hope you're getting paid to blog, DM. Because if you're not then you are being exploited and I'm afraid that I'm going to have to stop reading this blog.

    I hope your guest bloggers are getting paid too.

    Hey, wait... do these comment threads add value to this blog? I'm not being paid. Stop exploiting me!

  • eeke says:

    " If someone came to you in this situation & asked to volunteer, would you turn them away outright?"

    If I do not have the funds to pay them, then yes, I do turn them away. My university forbids "volunteers" unless it is for academic credit. I know some people violate this policy. There are security barriers here, though, where ID cards are necessary for building access. Illegal volunteers cannot get ID cards or keys. Even though there are still ways to get around this, it does create headaches for those who insist on sneaking around and exploiting workers.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I'm not sure the ethical response is clear.

    Of COURSE it is clear. what you mean is that sometimes the ethical thing to do leaves you feeling really badly. toughen up buttercup.

    Are you at a competitive disadvantage compared to faculty who have fellows like that in their labs?

    No. Perfectly able to use the same ethical systems. The point here is the use of unethical or possibly illegal things to advantage oneself. I am trying to highlight the issue touched on by the above comment. It is easy to act all benevolent like you are just trying to help out some poor person stuck in the door of visa/immigration controls. not so easy to remember the benefit you are obtaining for your own lab and career by doing so.

  • AnotherPostDoc says:

    I agree completely that allowing postdocs to volunteer is very bad news for scientists as a whole, and it can only make things worse for postdocs if it ever became common.

    But let's be very clear: there are plenty of circumstances where it is completely rational for an individual postdoc to volunteer to work for free. Just because this kind of thing is prone to abuse does not mean that it is always exploitation. Even a relatively short break in research productivity in the pre-faculty years can doom any chance of ever getting a tenure-track job, and so for individuals who still hold out some hope (perhaps realistic, perhaps not) of going down that path, it is much better for them to work for free in academia than to do paid work outside academia. I wish we lived in a world where someone could take a year or two off to work outside of academia and still hold out some hope of returning, but sadly that is not the world we live in. More than anything else it is the one-way nature of exiting academia that opens postdocs up for exploitation.

  • drugmonkey says:

    one-way nature of exiting academia that opens postdocs up for exploitation.

    right. so it is still exploitation.

    Exploitation does not require that the exploited party receive no benefit. Nor does it require that preventing the situation result in a net gain for them.

    To the extent that right winger claims are true and establishing a minimum wage eliminates a job (and this must surely be true in some cases albeit nowhere near the overall net loss that wingnuts predict) then some person is disadvantaged.

    This in no way questions the validity of having a minimum wage.

  • Dave says:

    Some of the responses here are disgusting. This is so obviously wrong that it shouldn't even need to be discussed. There is no circumstance that I can think of where anyone should volunteer for a post-doc. End of story.

    If this person is volunteering and is foreign - which seems to be true here - it could (and should) create a lot of trouble for both the individual and the institution. Volunteering on an H4, for example, is fine as long as the position would not otherwise be a paid position that a US resident would normally occupy. That is clearly the case here and this is a very murky area that, as an immigrant myself, I am very uncomfortable with.

  • The Other Dave says:

    "It is easy to act all benevolent like you are just trying to help out some poor person stuck in the door of visa/immigration controls. not so easy to remember the benefit you are obtaining for your own lab and career by doing so."

    Sounds like a win-win to me.

    Seriously, DM: Are you just digging in on principle or have you really thought about your position here?

    What about the Peace Corps? Exploitive? Slavery?

    Peer reviewing? Shouldn't those journals pay me?

    Why do I need to pay to publish in for-profit journals? Shouldn't they pay me to contribute their content?

    What about scientists in soft money positions? Expecting them to write proposals (which their grant can't pay them to do) is exploitation, right? What if they are unfunded? Then they should stay at home or their institution is exploiting them, right?

    What about academics on 9-month salary? They should not step in the lab during the summer! That's exploitation! They should not think about their job at all!

  • bsci says:

    Of COURSE it is clear. what you mean is that sometimes the ethical thing to do leaves you feeling really badly. toughen up buttercup.

    Perhaps I just don't have your confidence, but if doing something feels wrong to me, I usually consider that the sign of a complex ethical issues.

    Volunteering without a work visa is complex and I won't claim to know about the legal issues. Still, my kid's school has non-working spouses without working visas (and other parents too) who volunteer. The school could obviously hire more people to help in classrooms/office/lunch/recess, but they don't and they're glad to have the volunteers. Through volunteering, parents can gain skills and connections that benefit future job prospects. Do you think this is also unethical?

    In your worldview, in what scenarios is it ethical for any organization to accept volunteers?

    I get and mostly agree with your strong disapproval of unpaid science jobs, but the idea that a skilled scientist follows a spouse to the US and is told to stare at a wall for a couple of years doesn't sit well with me either.

  • AnotherPostDoc says:

    Exploitation does not require that the exploited party receive no benefit. Nor does it require that preventing the situation result in a net gain for them.

    Yes, we agree. All I'm saying is that something (like working as a postdoc without pay) can be a perfectly rational and beneficial course of action for an individual while still having a significant negative effect on postdocs as a whole. I think it is valuable to keep this in mind, because the reason why this kind of arrangement is unethical is, in my opinion, not because the person working for free is necessarily being taken advantage of (in many cases the arrangement could be mutually beneficial). Rather, it is because of the corrosive effects of allowing free labor on the postdoc population as a whole. Many postdocs are already heavily exploited by the power PIs get over them because of the limited options postdocs face if they want to remain in academia. This is just part of the same picture.

  • Grumble says:

    Let's look at the other side of the coin.

    I've been dreaming lately about winning the lotto. How having a few tens of millions of dollars in my pocket would allow me to approach the university of my choice, where I would create an endowed position to be filled by moi. I wonder if there would be howls of rage about how the Grumble lab has an unfair competitive advantage over everyone else in the field.

    But see, I won the lottery, fair and square, and you didn't, even though you could have. So I have no advantage over you.

  • Dave says:

    Still, my kid's school has non-working spouses without working visas (and other parents too) who volunteer

    This is completely different. I would guess these volunteers are not doing a job that is typically paid. Like, oh I dunno, a teacher? Put it this way: if a natural-born US citizen will not do a it for free, then it is most likely against the law to have a foreigner do it. See here from Vandy University:

    http://www.vanderbilt.edu/isss/wp-content/uploads/VolunteeringInfo.pdf

    For any of you remaining who still have doubts about the legalities of this, that should clear it up. A post-doc is (normally) a paid position, so having a foreigner volunteer to do the job is against the law, no matter how you phrase it. I'm amazed that UCSD and the VA would allow this. A good lawyer could also argue that the "gain" of publications etc is "productive" and represents "compensation" and is, thus, doubly against the law.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    APD- we agree

    Grumble- I have that exact fantasy. Like weekly.

    bsci, Dave- the bigger problem in public education is what had been offloaded on to the generosity and ability of the parents via PTO/PTA fundraising.

  • miko says:

    This is similar to the way soft money positions erode institutional commitment to biomedical research scientists at all institutions.

    Aren't those basically unpaid labor?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Nope, they are paid. Job security is not the same thing. At all. Nor do the job requirements come in to play- is a sales douche that works on commission being paid? Of course. Waitstaff/tips? Paid.

    There is a huge qualitative gulf between arguing over compensation levels and work conditions versus *no* pay. This is not complicated.

  • bsci says:

    I specifically used the school volunteer example because, as DM notes, parents are doing jobs that could be paid positions. Decreasing funding for public schools might be unethical, but people volunteering to fill the gaps is legal.

    TOD's example of 9-month faculty appointments was also interesting. It seems to me that the logical extension of the no-unpaid stance is that a faculty member who doesn't yet pull the extra months of salary from a grant has to cease all professional activities during the Summer.

    If a faculty contract says you have a 40h/week job, do you stick to that or do you work extra unpaid hours.

    How does a soft-money institute handle visiting faculty (i.e. on Sabbatical)? Having a regular rotation of free visiting faculty while not paying to have internal faculty work elsewhere essentially reduces the number of needed faculty positions.

    These examples aren't all directly comparable to the speculated situation at hand, but there is nuance here.

    Also, Dave, reading the document from Vanderbilt, it seems clear they follow a very conservative interpretation of the actual laws. Nothing in the laws they list make it seem like a person who was planning to be in the US for a year or two and then move away is a forbidden to volunteer. If the person came in and said they're hoping to stay the US wants to eventually find a job at that specific university, it would be a violation.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    There is a suggestion from @Lewis_Lab that the prospective candidate had a faculty job at home. The ad did say "scientist", not postdoc. So....complicated.

  • Dr. Noncoding Arenay says:

    Anecdotally, I have heard that students/scientists from some Middle Eastern countries are thrilled to get some experience at leading US research institutes for the experience alone because it propels them significantly up the ladder in their home institution once they return. Not saying that is the case here, but I would be unsurprised if it were because working for free at an institution like UCSD would probably provide big payoffs back home for such candidates.

  • Dr. Noncoding Arenay says:

    *I should add that I know Egypt is in Africa but I am talking about the approximate geographical region.

  • The Other Dave says:

    DM, you are a sweetie. Unfailingly noble. Our arguments pointing out the general ludicrousness of your position are not swaying you.

    How about this angle...

    Postdoctoral positions are by definition training positions. The training is the compensation. Thus, 'volunteer' postdocs are in fact always compensated.

    Does that sit OK with you?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Let me tell you about my coal mining "internship" TOD, you "realist" or "troll" or wtfever pose you are striking.

  • Dave says:

    Nothing in the laws they list make it seem like a person who was planning to be in the US for a year or two and then move away is a forbidden to volunteer

    Rubbish. Did you not read this part from the USCIS?

    Volunteer services for a prospective employer constitute unauthorized employment if the alien will ultimately derive some benefit from the work. The ultimate question in most volunteer cases will be: What did the alien expect in return? If he or she expected compensation, reward, or future benefit, then the volunteer work probably violates status. (95-05 Immigr. Briefings 1).

  • Dave says:

    I might notify USCIS of this and see what they have to say about it. It's fucking blatant abuse of foreign labor.

  • dsks says:

    Unless the spouse has an ead this seems like a pretty clear cut violation of immigration law. I'm going to follow Dave's lead and make inquiries on Monday.

  • Dave says:

    Reading the twits, there is some chat about a sabbatical and that the lady in question was paid from home. If that were true, then she would have the correct visa and paperwork in place, so that is a key question here. If it was a sabbatical she would NOT be applying to a job randomly when she arrived with her husband; she would have done everything officially before she left and made salary arrangements accordingly. It would have been arranged a long-time ago. Something smells off with that story line.

  • Mum says:

    Dave, the issue in discussion is not whether this is legal or not but whether it is ethical. As you might have noticed, in our society those two are not one and the same.

    DM, I like your perspective, but what about the issue of fellowiships that was raised above? All the big labs I know have several people working there who are not paid for by the PI. Because they are big, well-connected and have cool toys they get most of the "free" work. It clearly puts others at a disadvantage in terms of productivity.

  • Busy says:

    Dave, are you aware that "future benefit" in the law is meant to signify financial benefit and other like considerations and not, for example, benefit in the sense of increased academic experience?

    IANAL, YMMV

  • dsks says:

    Busy, the central issue is whether the foreign national is engaged in activities that are usually compensated. The purpose of the law is precisely to prevent employers abusing immigrants; including those who might be in process for an was ead and pressured into working for free in the meantime (the employer usually having coercive influence because they are the sponsor of the application).

  • Busy says:

    There is another paragraph in the law which deals with the issues dsks brings forward, and the posted job does seem to violate that one. I was simply pointing out that the bolded "future benefit" part does not seem to be the problem.

    Plus I've already stated in the original thread that I think this is unethical. Can the research lab really not cobble together some money and pay her a reasonable wage given her experience and match of research interests?

  • The Other Dave says:

    @DM: Call me a troll all you want, but you haven't responded to a single one of my questions.

    @Dave and others: Seriously?! A crusade to ruin the life of a young woman PI trying to do nothing but provide an opportunity for a foreign woman scientist?

    Have fun with your internet witch-hunt, you bastards.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    You've been answered TOD. You either just don't like the answer or are too dumb to recognize it. Either way, no my problem.

  • rs says:

    TOD,

    The problem is that even if the lab is capable of paying some wages, they will not do it since they know that the lady in question needs this experience and is in tough situation because of her visa or whatever.

    The PI is not on a charity mission and will definitely benefit from the labor, otherwise she/he will not let anyone put a foot in her/his lab.

    Since they can get away from this situation, they take advantage of that. And this is more common than anyone who wants to think otherwise. I applaud DM for taking a stand on this issue.

    This is a clear cut case of exploitation.

  • Legal_Alien says:

    I would just like to mention that as a non-american living in the US, and surrounded by other non-americans, I am totally with this Egyptian lady. And I find it rather cruel that people put some hurray-patriotism and nice general ideas ahead of their empathy for other people: real individual people.

    See, I really do believe that if somebody can afford doing something good for free, the society can not really (or rather should not really) forbid them from doing so. Especially when aliens are considered, and for two separate reasons. First, because patriotism stays in the way, you know, american jobs and everything. Which is just a wrong, obsolete, shameful way to think about the world in general (and about the inherently immigrant-based US in particular). Second, because aliens are often caught in some strange visa-related situations that can totally screw their lives. They try to find ways to survive as humans, but it is not always easy.

    Let me give you an example. I know a family in which the husband works in the US, on a H1b visa, and so his wife is on an H4 visa, and she can not legally work. She would like to volunteer, but interestingly, she can not legally volunteer in most meaningful ways! Like she is a specialist in a certain field, and she'd like to use her skills to interact with other specialists in this field, to learn English, and most importantly - to help other people. Because she can afford providing these services for free, and these services are useful, and she's OK with giving them to people for free (as long as she can not work at least). But alas, it is illegal. As a person on H4 visa she can volunteer in a soup kitchen, but she can not practice her skills. She is kind of bound to get rusty and forget most of things she new, because the US does not let her volunteer performing activities for which other people (US citizens) would be get paid for.

    And my feeling is that probably the situation of this Egyptian lady is similar. She is probably on the H4 visa, and so she is bound to be sitting home. An american citizen can volunteer as much as they want, but an alien - can not. That's why her would-be-PI tried to pull this trick with legally proving that no US person would take this job, and thus by performing it this Egyptian lady would not "steal jobs from the americans". But alas, she is now on the radar of vigilant fighters for freedom and justice, and so the lady (both ladies) are screwed. What a shame, really.

  • AnonPI says:

    For those who think this situation is unethical/exploitation, I'm curious how you would handle the following situation:

    You (a PI) had a postdoc that just spent say 2 or 3 years in your lab. This was the agreed duration you had offered for the postdoc and now the grant you used to pay her has ended so she leaves your lab. She hasn't gotten another job yet so she's currently unemployed (or maybe she's already moved on to the next job). She still has some data from her time in your lab that she never managed to get around to writing up for publication. She wants to write it up (with your help of course) and submit it now, since she knows it'll be good for her CV to have that extra paper.

    So my question is: should you refuse to allow her to do this? Your name will of course be on the paper, so you would be exploiting her unpaid labor for your professional benefit. You do routinely pay postdocs to write papers, so why should you have her do it for free? But you don't have funds available, so paying her is not possible. Is your only option to refuse to allow her write the paper (aka work for you for free)?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    L-A: I'll just point out that I would personally go for a different approach to immigration and labor on this spousal issue. OTOH I think that laws should be followed even if you don't agree with them. Unless there is some very clear ethical or moral problem. This isn't one of those.

  • Mum says:

    DM your whole argument was about how clearly and obviously unethical the volunteering is. How it is essentially the door to the coal mines and child exploitation. Now you argue that you would like things to be different, but, sadly, the laws are what they are. Then add that we must follow the laws even if we don't like them, and finish with an escape clause. Still certain you don't agree with bsci that things are complicated?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Does it really escape your attention that the issue is payment? And that if this person could be paid under US law, and the lab paid her, I would have no difficulty? Is this so complicated to grasp?

  • Mum says:

    DM, I get your point and I also share your concern for labor laws. But your claims of things being simple and clearly black or white are naive. The world is complicated and situations vary.

  • Asst Prof says:

    I agree with Mum. Sound to me like another instance of the debate about whether there can be coercion without physical force. I think Rawls and Nozick spent most of the 1970s arguing about this. Very interesting topic but may not be resolved on this blog.

  • Dave says:

    Dave, are you aware that "future benefit" in the law is meant to signify financial benefit and other like considerations and not, for example, benefit in the sense of increased academic experience?

    Not necessarily, but I will admit that the interpretation of this is very murky.

    Your name will of course be on the paper, so you would be exploiting her unpaid labor for your professional benefit

    Are you taking the piss? Of course not, but then you pay her a wage. It's really not that complicated.

    I can't believe the majority of you are OK with this.

  • Dave says:

    So my question is: should you refuse to allow her to do this? Your name will of course be on the paper, so you would be exploiting her unpaid labor for your professional benefit.

    Sorry, I was responding to this statement by AnonPI.

  • AnonPI says:

    Dave: You can't pay her a wage. Your grant has expired, you have no money. What do you do?

    This is not some absurd hypothetical, it's something that actually happens all the time. A former postdoc wants to write a paper with you, but you *cannot* pay this person even if you wanted to. What do you do?

  • Grumble says:

    Let me take a crack, AnonPI.

    Let's bend your scenario a bit to this: you and a colleague get together and decide to write a review. Then, in the middle of writing it, your colleague's funding runs out and she gets sacked. She desperately wants to finish the review because the more papers she has, the easier it will be for her to find another job (even if it isn't tenure-track). You don't have money to pay her, either. Is it ethical to continue working on the review with her without compensating her?

    With post-docs, I view it this way: once they leave the lab, they are now more like colleagues and less like employees. They could refuse to work on papers from their old lab unless they get paid for it, but everyone knows this would be a really dumb move because they are turning down the opportunity to get publications.

    In addition, the ethical situation for the former PI is less pressing if the post-doc has another job. Most PIs have no problem with their post-docs working on papers from their former labs. I've never had a problem with it, and in exchange, I expect other PIs not to have a problem with my former postdocs working on papers from my lab once they leave it. I think this informal system results, roughly, in a fair deal for everyone, although I'm sure there are exceptions.

  • Dave says:

    Dave: You can't pay her a wage. Your grant has expired, you have no money. What do you do?

    If I don't have money to pay someone, I don't employ them. Simple as that. Why is this so fucking difficult? A post-doc is a paid position. Or at least it used to be.

    A former postdoc wants to write a paper with you, but you *cannot* pay this person even if you wanted to. What do you do?

    You are shifting the goalposts here....big time. This is a completely different situation to the one under discussion here.

  • Notorious_Anon says:

    So when I am on sabbatical from my tenured, hard money, academic position, I continue to be paid my salary by my university. If I decide to go work in the lab of a colleague, whether overseas or locally I would not ask to be paid - my actual job is paying me and that would be double dipping. In this case I am not a postdoc but a "visiting scientist" but that is purely a matter of semantics- I do the same sorts of things that a postdoc does.
    So are all "visiting scientist" positions unethical also? Or is the unpaid nature of it now OK b/c there is not the same sort of power differential (guest instead of employee)?
    If the foreign scientist involved in this situation had been just appointed as a "visiting scientist" (unpaid) would people have the same issues with it?
    One would think that if such a solution had been possible, that would have been taken but the VA likely has all kinds of archaic and inflexible rules. Likely this is the closest approximation that the PI was able to come up with.

  • Alex says:

    Faculty on sabbatical do not pose the same ethical issues. Our labor is still tied to funding--our own institutional funding. This is different from increasing the system's output by working for free. The volunteer postdoc adds something to the system without getting anything back. The professor on sabbatical takes something from his institution and brings it to another. It might still increase the productivity of the system (isn't the whole idea of these sabbatical visits that the visitor and host both benefit?) but it does it through combining talent, ideas, and resources in new ways, rather than by somebody sacrificing to work for free.

    (In case you can't tell, in January I go on sabbatical for several glorious months. Oh, am I looking forward to it...)

  • gingerest says:

    Oh come on, everyone has papers to finish up from old postdocs. You finish them on your own dime and call it following through on a collaborative commitment. The alternative is to stop collecting data for the last six months of your postdoc, which is a terrible idea.

    What's really shocking is that the US issues only non-working visas to spouses of H working visa holders (Australia's business visas all let the applicant's spouse work if the two parties are admitted to the country; this is a smart, compassionate approach. For now. We'll see if the new, wildly xenophobic, anti-labor government changes that.)

    I am irritated not only that this lady is being exploited, but that the HR folks were apparently okay with advertising a position when the job was created to be desirable only for a particular, specific individual. It happens all the time, but it's just such a waste of resources and it follows the letter but not the spirit of fair hiring. Forcing a position description to fit one person only, so that you can say you advertised the job and hired the best candidate, is not any more ethical than unpaid internship.

  • S Mukherjee says:

    Was this post-doc position created just to oblige the volunteer, or is there truly a need to hire a post-doc in that lab? If it is the latter, then the hiring process is blatantly unfair, as gingerest pointed out above. If it is the former, then it's still unfair -- what is so special about this person that she has to be favoured like this?

    As for the volunteer herself -- she chose to come with her husband to another country where she knew she wouldn't be able to do paid work. If it's true that she already had an academic position in Egypt, she could have very well stayed there and continued her career without any breaks. It's hard to be away from a spouse, but academic couples do it all the time.

  • sciencedude says:

    Has anyone considered the old adage that you get what you pay for. I would not be at all surprised if a few months into this volunteer position, the person who "hired" her finds she is getting a negative return on her investment.

  • Busy says:

    What's really shocking is that the US issues only non-working visas to spouses of H working visa holders

    Which is par for the course with the historical mistreatment of non-green card foreigners in America starting from the label alien, which used to be an adjective and became a noun under US law.

  • Busy says:

    As for the volunteer herself -- she chose to come with her husband to another country where she knew she wouldn't be able to do paid work.

    The fact that you are warned that mistreatment is about to happen does not make it Ok, particularly when the situation has incentives for you to step in so you really cannot freely choose to pass on it.

    Say, suppose you go to an important scientific meeting which is important to your career advancement. Furthermore, let's say it is well known that people from India are discriminated against in said meeting. When you come back, you rightly vent against the discrimination you suffered. Would you accept a "you knew what you were getting into" response? Of course not!

    Then why are you defending the abusive visa system in the case of this Egyptian lady?

  • Jonathan says:

    Sorry the sabbatical argument is total bollocks. If you go on sabbatical from a US university but want to spend it working in a lab in the UK or China, even if your salary is being paid by your US employer, you would still need a visa from the UK or China. Why should the US be any different?

    I had to play by the rules when I came here on a J-1 and then H1-B and now green card, why should other people get to break them? Argue all you like about whether or not the rules are fair, they are what they are unless and until Congress changes them.

  • Mum says:

    Jonathan, "Why should the US be any different?" is a great question. Why should any country be any different? Let's just all agree to be the lowest common denominator. Who cares what is right.
    The second one is even nicer: You had to go through something, why shouldn't others? I doubt you would make the same silly case when you argue the significance of your grants: lots of people suffer the disease. I support their continued suffering, just to make things even. Argue all you want about whether it is fair or not, these are the rules God/Nature intended.

    I am so glad most scientists actually want to make things better for others.

  • S Mukherjee says:

    @Busy above: The reason I pointed out that the Egyptian citizen probably voluntarily came to the US along with her husband knowing that her visa status did not permit her to work for pay is because she is being presented as a victim of some sort, which I don't think is necessarily the case.

    Also, if I knew that there was a conference where Indian people were being discriminated against, I may or may not go accordingly to my circumstances, but I'd certainly fight against the discrimination. I wouldn't sneakily try to escape the discrimination by pretending to not be Indian or something.

    We're focussing a lot on the non-US citizen aspect of the volunteer in question. Would the main point be different if it was a US citizen who had volunteered in this manner and for whom the bogus ad was published? There are two big things here -- the use of unpaid labour and a 'selection' process that is a sham.

  • Busy says:

    Would the main point be different if it was a US citizen who had volunteered in this manner and for whom the bogus ad was published?

    DM first brought this to everyone's attention before we knew the work status of the intended candidate. So we know the answer to that.

    However we cannot be blind to the fact that this weird situation is in part forced by the circumstances. I'm not implying that breaking the law is the right way to go about it. We're simply pointing out that all this mess happened in part due to ridiculous discriminatory spousal visa policies in the USA.

  • Dave says:

    ...ridiculous discriminatory spousal visa policies in the USA

    They're really not all that ridiculous and one can get permission to work on both a J2 and H4. There are very good reasons why spouses are not allowed to work and the US actually does a better job (although not great) than most in protecting the US workforce.

  • Busy says:

    There are very good reasons why spouses should be allowed to work in the US, while there is no no data to back up the implication that the USA work force is threatened by H1B spousal spousal visas. In fact Canada, for example, moved from not allowing spouses to work to allowing them to work and nothing bad happened.

    "Protecting the US workforce" is just a good soundbite with little meaning to it. For example, the supposedly labor force threatening immigration (legal and otherwise) worked as a relief valve during the great recession in the USA and Europe, where large number of immigrants left the country thus effectively making the unemployment rate much lower than it would have been otherwise.

  • Jonathan says:

    @Mum: Really? What have you personally done to make the international postdoc's experience a better one?

    Did you chair the National Postdoctoral Association's International Postdoc Committee? Did you author a white paper on visa reform for international postdocs? http://www.nationalpostdoc.org/publications/international-postdoc-resources/144-npa-white-paper-on-visa-reform

    I did.*

    Your move.

    *Not that the white paper was going to change anything, especially in the absence of widespread immigration reform.

  • Mum says:

    Jonathan, awesome for you that you did all those things. Good for you! How good for the postdocs? That's still not so clear. I don't know what you did or not as Big Cajun at the postdoctoral association. Several of the points in the white paper seem rather reasonable, though you don't seem optimistic that it will change anything. Seems contradictory with your chest-thumping.

    Nevertheless, my point about your comment here stands: you made the argument that you had to go through some trouble, and therefore others should too. That is one lame argument.

    Your other argument on whether the US should be any different from China or the Uk is also quite poor. Of course we want some laws in the US to be different from those in China. You don't?

    If elsewhere you have made different and better arguments, that would be cool.

  • […] two post-docs that were ‘voluntary’–essentially unpaid internships for PhDs. DrugMonkey has more details (boldface […]

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