Apr 22 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

If you have a laboratory that has one postdoc, one grad student and on average has two undergrad volunteers most of the time, you don't run a two person lab. You run a four person lab.

Reflexively appealing to how they have to be trained in a ploy to pretend you aren't using their labor is nonsense.

119 responses so far

  • Laffer says:

    That looks like 5 by my count.

  • drugmonkey says:


  • BWJones says:


    However, I don't like volunteers as I believe everyone should get paid for their time. It creates investment on the part of the undergrads, and protects them and you. It respects their time, just as much as yours. Once trained, if they are paid, they tend to stay longer than volunteers just looking for a letter of recommendation and you spend less effort on the constant training.

    Also, paid students are easier on your as well as core equipment than volunteers.

  • Samia says:

    Agreed. I also really wish "undergrad volunteers" weren't a thing.

  • PaleoGould says:

    Again, agreed.
    Almost all new hires require some training, regardless of field.

  • dr24 says:

    This is why I don't take volunteers. They must receive money or credit, or I will not train them.

  • Potty says:

    If volunteers is classist. Only rich kids can afford.

  • drugmonkey says:

    For today's discussion, I am more concerned about whether a PI admits that they have this labor as a benefit to their lab than I am with how the undergraduate is compensated for it.

    It relates to an older thread where I asked what people thought of as a "medium sized lab" and people were spouting numbers (6ish as I recall) that to my eye were hugely discordant from the group wisdom on the number of concurrent NIH grants that represented a "medium sized lab". The only way to make these two estimates meet is, in my view, to use uncompensated labor- undergraduates or grad/postdocs on fellowships, TAs or other funding external to the PI.

  • qaz says:

    So what do I do with undergrads who WANT to volunteer. Is it fair to say to them "I can't pay you, so you can't learn from me?"

    I wish I has enough money to pay everyone who wants to come do science in my lab with me and learn from me. But I don't. That's the simple fact of it.

    All volunteers sign forms saying that I can't make them do anything, but neither can they make me pay them. In practice, there are undergraduates (and graduated students as well taking a "gap year") who want the experience and the training and to learn from me who want to volunteer. As long as the lab and the science and the training is interesting they keep coming back. Should I turn them away because I can't pay them? That doesn't seem fair.

  • qaz says:

    Oh I definitely count them as "lab members" when people ask how big a lab I have.

    In my view, there are lots of ways to compensate people. It can range from paying a salary to class credit to giving them an opportunity to do science fiction experiments.

    Given what you say is the question at hand, they definitely count as part of lab size because they take my time and effort.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I wish I has enough money to pay everyone who wants to come do science in my lab with me and learn from me. But I don't. That's the simple fact of it.

    "I wish I had enough money to make my insane profits and still pay my garment workers a NYC living wage. Sadly, I must resort to Bangladeshi child labor. Simple fact"

    "What do I do with with the coal miner who WANTS to work an extra 2 h uncompensated every day? Is it my fault that our industry is so competitive that this is what they see as necessary, so sad, to keep their job? I mean, I may have mentioned that they need to go above and beyond a time or two but is that my fault? They chose to mine coal."

    That doesn't seem fair.

    Fair? For which person in this cosy little prof types or the undergrads?

  • Dude, while there is some merit to your general assertions, the analogy of volunteer undergrad researchers in a research lab to Bangladeshi child garment workers and coal miners is ridiculous.

  • zb says:

    "So what do I do with undergrads who WANT to volunteer. Is it fair to say to them "I can't pay you, so you can't learn from me?""

    What about if they want to clean your car or mow your lawn for the opportunity. And, if they did, you'd have time to spend on showing them how to analyze the data/build the cool gadget/do the technique . . . .

    "Volunteering" is a gray area and a slippery slope and stops being voluntary when it becomes expected practice in the field.

    DM is making it too easy by making "insane profits" the trade off for accepting the volunteer, rather than just getting the job done, or curing cancer.

  • mgh says:

    if the undergraduates are not working full time then they are not counted equivalent to a full person.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    We sometimes have volunteers, but that is for students seeing if they want to try to do research and aren't sure about the time commitment. So for those students we are donating our time training, and giving option of bailing if it gets too busy. If research is not for a student or they realize they don't have the time, then they don't get poor grade for that decision. For many students, regardless of what they say, lab will come last.

  • Philapodia says:

    Currency is defined as something of "value" that can be used in exchange for something else of "value". It doesn't have to be paper, it can be glass beads, shells, or DM bobbleheads, just something that someone has and the other person wants. The idea that students who want to learn what it's like to be in a lab by volunteering are being exploited because they're not getting money is silly. Experience has value and is a perfectly valid currency in exchange for work. To be honest, most UG students get more out of their voluntary work in labs then the lab gets out of them, and labs tend to get the short end of the straw on these deals.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Dude, while there is some merit to your general assertions, the analogy of volunteer undergrad researchers in a research lab to Bangladeshi child garment workers and coal miners is ridiculous.

    qoth the salt mine strawboss.....

  • drugmonkey says:

    To be honest, most UG students get more out of their voluntary work in labs then the lab gets out of them, and labs tend to get the short end of the straw on these deals.

    Bull. Shit.

    The PI and or the lab is getting something out of each and every one of these. Even if only the general credit for teaching them, or heck, the warm fuzzies of doing what one thinks one should be doing, it is an item of value to a PI.

    Or they wouldn't do it.

  • drugmonkey says:

    oh and PP, this may be more palatable for your inability to draw a lesson from hyperbole.

    I realize hyperbolic statements would never be deployed by you for didactic purposes....

  • drugmonkey says:

    mgh- and do you argue that graduate students are full time employees? nominally they are half-time in my experience.

  • dr24 says:

    "I wish I has enough money to pay everyone who wants to come do science in my lab with me and learn from me. But I don't. That's the simple fact of it."

    Me too. That's why I REFUSE TO LET THEM COME LEARN FROM ME. I turn down a dozen students a year.

    Accepting volunteer labor is exploitative of the individuals, exclusionary to those who can't afford to work for free, and perpetuates a system that tells scientists they should be willing to work for free to do what they love.

    Say "no".

  • Philapodia says:

    "The PI and or the lab is getting something out of each and every one of these. Even if only the general credit for teaching them, or heck, the warm fuzzies of doing what one thinks one should be doing, it is an item of value to a PI.

    Or they wouldn't do it."

    "gets more out if it" is much different than "student gets something and lab gets nothing". The lab gets all of the things you mention, but at least in my experience it ends up costing more and taking significantly longer than if the tech/post-doc just did the work.

  • Newbie PI says:

    The undergrads who have come through my lab have not proven to be capable or reliable enough to actually complete the type of experiments that we do. For example, I haven't found anyone committed enough to actually show up every day to do a timecourse. When that happens maybe I'd consider paying them. Until then, they get their "lab experience" for their med school applications by making buffers and emptying trash. Honestly, if it weren't for needing a list of "trainees" for my tenure dossier, I wouldn't have undergrads in the lab at all. On a related note: I'm shocked at how busy every pre-med student seems to be these days. I wish they would realize that they'd be much better off with their med school applications if they accomplished something significant in one area rather than volunteering at ten random places.

  • JC says:

    What if they are getting course credit, i.e., independent study?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Philapodia- it isn't a matter of trying to equate value. Especially for non-substitutable values like "trains undergrads".

  • drugmonkey says:

    I hope everyone has read this
    needing a list of "trainees" for my tenure dossier,

  • drugmonkey says:

    I'm squishy on course credit and infirm on the need for lab experience for grad/Med apps. I dodge on the latter b/c I have the situational privilege to be selective. The former b/c, well that is what they are paying tuition for. Course credit and the instruction that comes with it. Tangible and specific arrangement.

  • JC says:

    Okay - so you don't fundamentally disagree that the training a student gets has value, you just would like it to be officially recognized? In other words, I can't just "sell" letters of recommendation? 🙂

    FWIW, in my experience undergrads on the whole are borderline useless. Maybe 1 out of 5 (at best) actually wants to put in the time to contribute something. I'm trying to get better at figuring this out quickly and with little investment from my side. But I do consistently pay them (or course credit - I always give them the option) once we commit to it. Besides, undergrads are cheap ($10-15/hour, no benefits) compared to grads / postdocs.

  • Newbie(ish) says:

    I'm all for protection of workers, but, undergrad volunteers are getting a heck of a lot of out of us and it is very reasonable for them to offer something back.

    Professors train undergraduates when they teach classes; undergraduates pay the university who in turn pays part of the teacher's salary

    Professors (or the people they have trained) train undergraduates in the lab; undergraduates pay the lab for this training through their labor... until they reach the point when they are contributing more than they are getting trained, and then they get paid.

    My time costs money and so does the time of my graduate students. I invest a heck of a lot into anyone in my lab, volunteer or not: they get one on one meetings as often as they request, career advice, hands on training, editing, letters of recommendation, etc. When an undergrad gets to the point of returning value back to me (generating data independently), I happily pay them

  • Newbie(ish) says:

    JC's comment makes me curious. What's your hit ratio for decent undergrads? In my experience, it's 50/50 whether someone works out or not. But I also invest a tremendous amount into undergrads, and I train my grad students and techs to do the same. We give them as much as they invest in their project (meaning, the more motivated they are, the more time we spend with them). That means some students drop out after a semester, but the ones that stay are always worth it. And many of them have progressed into paid positions.

    The number one attribute I recruit for is drive. Anytime I've taken on students who are truly *driven*, it's a win-win situation.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Newbieosh- you conveniently fail to account for the considerable career benefit you reap by the CV item provided you by the undergraduate.

  • BWJones says:

    Its very simple... You get paid. The undergraduates get paid.

    btw: it also formalizes the employment so that is someone, God forbid, is hurt on the job, they are covered under OSHA and employment insurance.

  • MRHUNSAKER says:

    Woohoo. This means I can say I worked for a 50 person lab! Thanks DM!

  • drugmonkey says:

    Concurrently? Then yeah.

  • David Condon says:

    "What do I do with with the coal miner who WANTS to work an extra 2 h uncompensated every day? Is it my fault that our industry is so competitive that this is what they see as necessary, so sad, to keep their job? I mean, I may have mentioned that they need to go above and beyond a time or two but is that my fault? They chose to mine coal."

    How about a more realistic scenario?

    "What do I do with the player who wants to spend an extra two hours uncompensated at practice each day so they don't get cut from the team? Is it my fault that our industry is so competitive that this is what they see as necessary, so sad, to keep their job? I mean, I may have mentioned that they need to go above and beyond a time or two but is that my fault? They chose to play basketball for millions of dollars."

    This is a common error. Regulating employee-employer contracts or modifying them so that they are different from the market rate is an incredibly inefficient means of redistribution.

    If you feel bad about it, it's a hell of a lot better to either donate to charity, invest in new businesses in that particular area to increase capitalization (if the industry as a whole is suffering from a lack of capital), or increase taxes.

    So like with the garment example, yes, there are fair trade companies which claim to do a better job providing for factory workers, but the increase in the cost of goods that they charge relative to competitors is much larger than the amount necessary to increase the salary to the factory worker. It'd be more efficient for me to buy the cheap shirt for about a fifth of the price, and then mail the factory worker a check with the savings.

  • SidVic says:

    I worked in coal mine, no shit. I can assure you that nobody was working off the clock for 2 extra hours. I can also assure that they would reject the mantel of victimhood that you bestow.

  • qaz says:

    DM - let's think this through logically. I assume that you are OK with a student getting course credit for working in my lab. (If you're not, then you don't know WTF you are talking about because course credit to work in lab is an important part of college experiences and an important part of learning about research outside of the classroom.) Because we're all anonymous I'm not going to make any assumptions about whether you have undergraduates at your institution or not, but I assume that you remember what it was like when you were an undergraduate. Undergraduates PAY for course credit. They pay this thing called "tuition". That means that an undergraduate working in my laboratory for course credit is PAYING for the privilege of working with me. Obviously, they are getting something of value from this.

    So if an undergraduate doesn't want to pay for that extra tuition because they don't need any more credits in order to graduate or because they are trying to keep their university costs down or because they have already graduated and don't want to pay the "non-student" fee on top of the tuition, then there should be nothing wrong with them volunteering in my lab. (If you like, they are getting compensated by several thousand dollars that they are NOT paying to the university.) Any student volunteering in my lab is not being forced to work. The idea that somehow this is equivalent to a child working in Bangladesh is insulting and so obviously wrong that I can only think you are trolling. (Unless... maybe DrugMonkey's lab is really really boring. Working in DM's lab is like toiling away in a coal mine or sewing shoes. My lab is not like that. It's cool and fun and people WANT to do research there.) Students volunteering in my lab are getting a very positive learning experience from me, including one-on-one science training by a world-expert in the field.

    Let's take that baseball example. Imagine a minor league ball player who gets the chance to practice for a few extra hours a day (for free) at a fielding clinic run by Cal Ripkin Jr and spends two hours a day learning how to field from Cal Ripkin Jr. Basically, let's assume that Cal spends every afternoon at the park hitting baseballs and anyone who wants to stop by and play a pickup game with him (including getting instruction) is welcome to come by. You can even assume that that instruction includes him telling them to run laps or maybe he takes some time out to hit grounders to them for practice, if you want to make this a closer analogy. You're telling me they can't go do that because they're being exploited? (And yes, learning science in my lab is the equivalent of a fielding clinic run by Cal Ripkin Jr. 🙂 )

    An important point about volunteering is that we have a formal agreement that basically says I can't force them to do anything and they can't demand payment from me. (It is illegal for a student to do research in my lab without such a formal volunteer agreement.) I would have to go double check what the agreement says about workman's compensation. I believe that if there's an injury in the lab, the university covers it, but I would pay for it if the university won't.

    PS. The idea that one gets a CV boost from training undergraduates is supposed to be a joke, right?

  • ProdigalAcademic says:

    I can't afford to pay undergrads either, but I only accept undergrads into my lab who will receive course credit or have a research award. At my University, there are a range of mechanisms to enable research for credit, as the University wants to make research opportunities available to all, not just to those who can afford to volunteer.

    The skill/usefulness of these undergrad trainees varies widely, but around a quarter of my undergrads have ended up co-authors on publications, and most of the rest were useful assistants in the lab. I've only had 1 or 2 who were completely useless timesinks for the group. I usually assign undergrads to help test new ideas (so I don't gamble a grad student's PhD on a project that will never work) or to assist in a project that is in the collecting lots of data period.

    Personal CV considerations aside (and yes, ProdigalU expects us to mentor undergraduate researchers), my group absolutely benefits from undergrad labor, and I count them as part of my group. This is why I fully support compensating them for their work, even if all I can offer is University credit or support for research award applications right now.

  • KRoq says:

    I think the key point here is that the UG and the lab should come to an agreement on what is adequate compensation. Each student and each lab are individuals with different goals, tangible and intangible. There is not one answer for all circumstances.

    Undergrad students are adults who have a choice. During my own UG, I volunteered in a lab during the school year, for the experience and training. I could have stayed at my university for the summer and continued to volunteer, but I needed to make money to pay for school. So I went home and worked at a grocery store, and one summer got a paid internship in a lab at a local university. I chose this path. Other students chose to stay and volunteer for the summer, and two of them got their names on a paper (whereas my work the PI only presented at a national conference). Was this fair? I suppose it was since we each acted of our own free will to make a choice. I do know that now, all 3 of us are graduate students in our programs of choice, and I don't have any student loans. I met my goals, so I'm happy.

    Currently I'm interviewing undergrads to work with me in the fall. I'm not doing this because my PI asked me to, or because I need the extra labor on my project. PI will not pay undergrads, and obviously I don't have any money to pay them. They know this up front. With the highly specialized technique we use, I won't let the students alone on the instruments for at least several months. I'm planning to put in lots of time training in order to get out of it the opportunity to try teaching someone to do research. So yes, I benefit. But most of the students who have applied mainly want a recommendation letter to help them get into med school or vet school or pharmacy school. I don't know if they will become invested enough to contribute to the lab or not.

    But if the student gives what they agree upon (time), and gets what they want/need (realizing that other labs on our campus DO pay money, as do other jobs like working at a dining court), and I give time and get what I want/need, and no one is being forced to do anything, then I don't see why this is anything but a great agreement.

    By the way, since I'm funded by a TA, does that mean that my many hours of unpaid research on my thesis project is exploitation?

  • Back to the original question, when I'm asked how big my lab is, I respond X phd students, and when someone tells me they have X students, I ask how many of them are phd/postdoc. I have yet to meet anyone in a face-to-face conversation that counts undergrads in the lab size.

    On the separate topic of volunteering, My private Uni allows me to hire undergrads with financial hardships as workstudies. They get paid $15/hour by the university/federal government. Those that don't qualify for federal aid can afford to volunteer in my lab.

    Also, different from DM's analogy to child labor and coal miners, I see lab trainees as an apprenticeship, they are learning valuable skills for their future job that pays better than my job. They are not starting down a path of permanent servitude. Maybe that is the difference between the overblown academic basic science machine and engineering education where nearly all undergrads and grads are there to get jobs in industry, not fight for academic positions.

  • flyover says:

    qaz- Your Cal Ripken analogy doesn't quite fit. In the scenario you lay out, good ole' Cal is getting nothing in return aside from a sore arm and maybe a feeling of doing something good. Clearly, the PI and lab are (hopefully) gaining something of value from undergrad volunteers--even if it is only autoclaving. Your example is more closely related to an undergrad spending extra time 'off the clock' reading papers in order to learn more about the project or techniques.

  • drugmonkey says:

    It is amazing the degree to which what is "logical" or the "most apt analogy" or what it "seems" like to people is that which permits supervising profs to continue the labor scam.

  • qaz says:

    Cal Ripkin is definitely getting something. He is still playing baseball. What am I getting? People to do science with.

    These kids are volunteering. That means they are not being required to do anything. If they are not getting something out of it, they can quit at any time. (And some do, presumably because they are not getting what they hoped for out of the lab. Others stay for a long time, presumably because they are getting enough out of the lab to compensate for their time.)

    What I have seen is that they seem to be getting something out of being at the forefront of science, of learning how to think about problems where there are no answers in the back of the book, of intellectual stimulation, of coming to journal clubs and discussing papers, of talking to grad students and professors (me). They also get good rec letters and the potential for authorships on publications. KRoc has the key. They are volunteers. If they are unhappy with their compensation, they can always leave. There are plenty of other things they can do.

    The way you describe how your lab works makes me very sad. My lab is a place where people learn and do cool science. For some, its worth it, even if they are not monetarily compensated for it.

  • drugmonkey says:

    If you are talking to me, when did I say anything about how my lab works?

    I mean sure, I may curb the trainee excitement about how their best evah n=1 isn't actually representative of the experimental outcome. Is that what you mean?

  • Dr24 says:

    JC- I will accept UGs receiving course credit. In engineering, real-world experience and projects are often a requirement of graduation. And course credit has a specific, enumerable value that can be converted to dollars.

    I do not believe in pay with anything nebulous. Like "experience", "recommendation", "authorship" or anything similar.

  • Dr24 says:

    Qaz-I'm sad is doesn't bother you that you're reinforcing unjust structures in the world of science. But that's your prerogative.

  • qaz says:

    You describe lab minions as coal miners only differentiable from underpaid workers in Bangladesh sweatshops because they are not underpaid. (I am sure your lab is not really like this. I am sure they work in your lab because it is fun and exciting.)

    So do you also recommend that prospective graduate students go to the school that will pay them the best salary? Or do you tell them that they should take other issues into account? (Like who to work with? Perhaps because there are other compensations than money? Like learning science?)

  • eeke says:

    qaz - At my institution, it is against policy (and the law) to accept volunteer workers, regardless of their academic status. Undergraduates doing research for academic credit is fine - I agree you should not have to pay for that. But to what extent is autoclaving, doing dishes, etc adding to the student's scientific training and education? The reason it's against policy is that these students are taking away jobs from someone who could (and needs to) be paid, even if it is part time. I've always paid students who work in the lab outside of independent research/academic credit. They are not salaried; paid by the hour.

  • Newbie(ish) says:

    DM: CV credit? First of all, undergrads *hardly* provide CV credit. Yes, it is a part of my overall picture showing that I am committed to mentorship, but come on - nobody pays much attention to what happens to my undergrads unless they do something pretty significant. I could just pile on undergrads willy nilly and reap loads of benefit. Second, I get CV credit for the courses I teach, too, and undergrads still pay for that value.

    How is my training an undergrad any different from an undergrad taking a class from me? They "pay" for both in various ways.

    It takes a few months for a decent grad student to start "returning value" - i.e., generating work that actually benefits me. It takes a decent undergrad 1 and sometimes even 2 years to reach that point. Grad students have a commitment to me by their commitment to getting their degree. Undergrads do not; many jump ship very quickly. They offer me no certainty of staying. I risk all of my investment in their professional and scientific development hoping that they will return and, one day, be capable of truly independent work.

    I have gotten undergrads on papers, winning competitive awards, graduating with honors, getting external fellowships, earning course credit, earning masters degrees, straight into their dream graduate school, etc. I give them a shit ton of my own work for what accounts to modest commitments in lab. Eventually (usually after a year), I pay them. But it is not exploitation to wait that year to pay them, because it's a fairly unidirectional relationship until then. I really don't see the difference between a person's first year in lab and their taking a class from me.

    Also, to clarify: undergrads as I am referencing them are not cleaning glassware. I don't subscribe to that model. My group is far more egalitarian than that: everybody is responsible for making their own stocks, dealing with their own ordering, dishes, etc. If their mentor needs some help cleaning up from a random experiment, fine, but that's rarely how the mentors work because that's not how I train them to train others.

  • qaz says:

    eeke - This only works if you can really separate the lab chores (washing dishes) from research. I would agree completely that if you are hiring someone to do a lab chore and providing them with no research opportunities then it is absolutely critical to pay them. But that is because they are getting no compensation otherwise. At my university, one example of this is changing animal cages which is done at my university by salaried technicians in the animal care facility. They do not plan or design research. They do not come to lab meeting or journal club. They are not learning at the feet of the great and glorious qaz (or learning [like I am] from the postdocs and graduate students that I have been lucky enough to work with).

    The true chores in my lab are done by paid technicians (yearly salaries with good benefits). Research is done by students, including paid postdocs, paid graduate students, undergraduates for credit, undergraduates on fellowships, and volunteers. Those people get to come to journal club, discuss research, plan experiments, perform them, analyze data, and write papers.

    I have never argued that people should do work for no compensation. I have merely been claiming that volunteers get a different form of compensation than monetary salaries.

  • Newbie(ish) says:

    And agreed with some comments about about freedom of undergrad to quit at any point.

    **Exploitation requires an imbalance of power.** There is no imbalance of power in the scenarios here. My undergrads sign a form walking them through two-way expectations: what we expect of them, what they expect of us. They can quit anytime. I've never had an undergrad have a bad experience in my lab, ever. The worst that happens is they decide they don't like bench science. The best that happens is they get launched forward to the next big step in their career. Either way, they choose.

    Imbalance of power example: you don't get to learn science until you wash hundreds and hundreds of dishes, I won't write an accurate letter of recommendation until you give me 3 more months of research/come in on weekends/etc/etc.

    Hell I just spent several hours writing a thoughtful letter of rec for an undergrad that worked 3 months in my lab and now wants to aim for a higher tier than me: fine. That is as far as it can get from exploitation.

  • Newbie(ish) says:

    @qaz: "The true chores in my lab are done by paid technicians (yearly salaries with good benefits). Research is done by students, including paid postdocs, paid graduate students, undergraduates for credit, undergraduates on fellowships, and volunteers. Those people get to come to journal club, discuss research, plan experiments, perform them, analyze data, and write papers.

    I have never argued that people should do work for no compensation. I have merely been claiming that volunteers get a different form of compensation than monetary salaries."


  • Eli Rabett says:

    So, anybunny here have a grad student working as a TA doing research in their labs? They are not volunteering, they are paying to work in your lab.

  • Biobim says:

    So what about the undergrad that says they want to volunteer in a lab because having research experience will help them get into medical school. Aren't they getting a cv boost from your time and resources as a pi?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Who invented a "need" for lab experience and letters of rec from active scientists as a gateway to graduate education? Who started to triage applications by the breadth and depth of those experiences? And of the reputation of the lab?

    Tell me again how this is a contract freely entered into by parties of equal power?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Oh and anyone who talks about having to train undergrads until they "return value" is making an excellent case for my position.

  • David Condon says:

    "Who invented a "need" for lab experience and letters of rec from active scientists as a gateway to graduate education? Who started to triage applications by the breadth and depth of those experiences? And of the reputation of the lab?"

    The market did. The demand among undergraduates for graduate school increased while the funding for graduate school decreased, so undergraduates have to put in more hours to get accepted to the same positions. The same is true at the graduate level, and the postdoctoral level, and the tenured professor level. This is supply and demand. There's nobody out there deciding on the market rate. The market rate is a reflection of supply and demand.

  • Zb says:

    So is it ok for a post doc to volunteer in a lab? For those of you advocating for volunteers ever undergrads?

  • drugmonkey says:

    "The market". What a spectacularly self-serving convenient falsehood.

  • Craig says:

    I'm with Newbie(ish). I'll fund an undergraduate from day 1 if they're doing dishes, making buffers, or other menial foot-in-the-door lab jobs. I have no interest in taking someone who walks in the door wanting to do research with zero experience and expects a paycheck.

    If the dishwasher wants to do real research and has demonstrated they have their head on right, they can start taking on projects. If someone wants to work for credit first, demonstrate that they can come in more than once or twice a week and actually deal with how irregularly science can be then we can talk about taking them on as a job.

    There are too many people who want to check the research experience box on their future application out there without actually having interest. It takes a lot of time to teach someone to do passable science, and there's not enough time in the world to handicap yourself with dead weight. I'm even skeptical of summer students who are paid on a REU type mechanism, unless they're working in my group during the academic year.

    Hell, I've seen situations with volunteer postdocs and med students were the individual was taking so much of the individual who they were supposed to be helpings "time" that they became a net time sink.

  • Newbie(ish) says:

    If you’re suggesting that I should be paying someone who, after a year of scientific training by both myself and one of my grad students or postdocs, isn’t returning value to the lab… well, that’s just absurd. You clearly haven’t grown with the scientific times. There is nothing evil or wrong about expecting a trainee to add value to a lab. Good grief. You really think someone who isn’t capable of independently running an experiment should continue in this career path? And they should be PAID for it - given financial incentive to continue doing something they clearly have no aptitude for? Uh, no, the person that’s harming the most is the undergraduate. You're advocating for the very thing you spend a lot of time battling on this blog - the creation of an absurdly large and unstable base of labor, full of people who don't really understand what it takes competing for jobs that simply don't exist. Paying cash to undergrads before they have even touched a pipette is making the problem plenty worse.

    I’m actually in science for the mentorship - not the research glory - but I absolutely expect that anyone I invest in is investing in themselves, and, by extension, the people that are training them. The only way it’s going to be good for them is if the time they spend is increasing their professional value. Frankly, anyone who doesn’t recognize that shouldn’t be mentoring.

    Let’s do a little math here, modeling for a typical summer research experience. Each undergrad in my lab eats up the following resources, on a per-weekly basis:
    1-3 hours of my time
    6-8 hours of their mentor’s time
    1-2 hours of research tech time
    About $100 in supplies, minimum

    2*60+7*24+1.5*29+100 = $430/week

    And you still think I should be paying them a salary regardless of whether they are they slightest bit scientifically productive?

    Maybe paying salary is a way to avoid the PI having to invest their own time? I really cannot fathom your logic. I give my heart and soul to my undergrads.

  • ProdigalAcademic says:

    It takes a year or more before an undergrad provides work that benefits your lab...really? What on earth does your lab do? How do you mentor Honors Projects if your research is so difficult to master?

    I can get my undergrads to provide "value" in 1-2 weeks for a summer student and maybe double that for during the academic year. They don't have to be doing groundbreaking research in order to provide value. My expectations for an undergrad are quite a bit different from that of a grad student, and their assigned projects reflect that. Research for credit means I need to design a project that can produce a final paper for them at the end of the research period (as short as 1 semester, depending on the student). Maybe this expectation is why my students can "return value" so quickly?

    Research skills aside, I find that most of my grad students are interested in trying out mentoring at some point. Undergrad researchers give them a chance to do that, which is also a net benefit to my group.

    I prefer to take grad students who have some research experience. Thus, I feel obligated to provide undergrads with that experience so they are qualified to join labs like mine. I am uncomfortable with the idea that it is OK to shut out students who must work for money from gaining this experience. As a side benefit, requiring students to sign up for research for credit eliminates most of the ones who just want to check a box without doing the work, since there is a grade to be assigned at the end of it.

    Back to the original question--if I am asked how big my lab is, I'll say X grad students and Y undergrads.

  • DJMH says:

    Making lab jobs for UGs on a volunteer basis is an easy and convenient way to prevent poor and underprivileged losers from mucking up my vertically ascending science.

  • Newbie(ish) says:

    It takes them a year to get to the point where they can do their work without me or their direct mentor combing through their protocol, watching over their shoulder, teaching them how to do the stats properly, etc. Can they run some IC50s within a few weeks, sure, but at that point, someone else is still designing the experiment (here are your controls, here is your group size) and directly supervising at 6-8 hours per week. I can't imagine any science I would trust an undergrad to do independently right out of the starting gate. We also do a lot of in vivo studies in terminal/lethal models, and I'm definitely not letting anyone run one of those until I'm very sure they have good judgment and the maturity needed to be responsible for animal welfare.

    1 year = time it takes for an undergrad to get to the point where they are coming up with their own experiment, implementing it, and analyzing/interpreting it.

    (And generally they are earning course credit or doing a thesis in that training period anyway)

  • drugmonkey says:

    So in reality, you view undergraduates and graduates in your lab pretty much the same?

  • Newbie(ish) says:

    I view every undergraduate as eventually reaching the level of a graduate student, yes. I have had several where we came to the mutual conclusion that they enjoyed laboratory work but did not want to become independent; they are paid techs in my group now.

    I start any person with the following conversation: what do you like about science, what drew you here, what do you hope to get out of this experience, and are there any professional goals I can help you reach? With the exception of the people mentioned above (who, in all fairness, started with "I'd really just like to learn how to do bench work"), it is pretty rare to meet a student who wants anything less than stuff like... contribute to a manuscript, be a first author on a paper, go to a scientific conference, learn XYZ (typically animal, for my group) skills, etc.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Do you have the resources to just make up training projects for an entire year before letting these undergraduates work on anything real?

  • Newbie(ish) says:

    I realized I may be modeling this after my own experiences. I earned a first author paper after two years of undergraduate research; that paper took me from a B rate undergrad uni to getting into several of the top grad programs around. I may not have had a pedigreed CV (very far from it), but I knew how to design, implement, and analyze scientific studies; the paper but more so the letters of recommendation describing graduate-level research ability got me in. You may dislike that this demand (for research experience) is being generated, but I see no difference between that and hefty \(\) for tuition. I took out ~15k in student loans to support my living expenses so I could do research, and that was my investment into my education instead of borrowing for tuition.

    I don't expect every undergraduate to reach grad level, but, if I'm training them in how to do science, that's always the long term goal. Those are skills that will serve them well regardless of career path.

  • Newbie(ish) says:

    "Do you have the resources to just make up training projects for an entire year before letting these undergraduates work on anything real?"

    I'm not sure what this means. Training projects are real projects. But quality work on real projects requires supervision and feedback.

  • Newbie(ish) says:

    "hefty [insert dollar signs] for tuition"

  • drugmonkey says:

    If they are real projects than how is it not real labor?

  • drugmonkey says:

    I "supervise and give feedback to" everyone in my lab, appropriate to circumstances. It's kind of my job as the PI. (Or how I see my job, perhaps others differ.) So the fact that any given staff member gets supervision or feedback means exactly zero to whether they are providing labor in support of the laboratory mission.

  • Newbie(ish) says:

    "If they are real projects than how is it not real labor?"

    Because the hours we invest into the student are far more than the actual labor that is accomplished. It's not just that the grad student can do the experiment faster - it's that they spend more time *teaching* and supervising the student's work than they would spend implementing the experiment themselves.

    You're saying I should pay them for the hours I spend walking them through journal articles? Editing their personal statement? White-boarding how to write a scientific manuscript? Answering their questions in lab meeting? Happy to: once they are adding value back into the lab by doing independent work. Until that point, it is the very definition of training.

    I mean, here's the real litmus test. Go into your lab and ask the first grad student: "Hey, I've got an undergrad who would like to learn how to do research. They've never held a pipette before! And they're taking 18 credit hours, too! Want them?" and see how many immediately go "Oh yes please pick me that would make my life so much easier!!!". Sure, training is important, and that's why my grad students and postdocs take on undergrads. But nobody has that reaction precisely *because* everyone knows it takes more work than you get back for a long period of time.

    Once the mentor acknowledges that the undergrad is adding value by reducing the amount of time they spend on an aspect of a project, the undergrad gets paid.

  • drugmonkey says:

    That isn't a litmus test for whether you are getting value at all. The litmus test is whether you take them into your lab or not. You do. You get value. And it is very much in your interest to pretend otherwise.

  • Newbie(ish) says:

    And the issue is not that I am putting in time - it's that I'm putting in time in anticipation of a future return with very little certainty of any return. It's different for grad students because they have committed (in theory) to finishing a PhD. Undergrads jump ship All. The. Time. Asking me to make a $430/week investment from laboratory/personnel resources and then to *also* pay them an hourly wage to do work that could be accomplished much more quickly by a trained, qualified individual is not sustainable. I cannot even conceive of paying them so they will spend two hours on one on one journal club with me; that's nuts.

    Also, speaking of sustainability - you have not addressed the fact that paying undergrads as a rule only adds to the problem of too many people and too few jobs.

  • DJMH says:

    I took out ~15k in student loans to support my living expenses so I could do research, and that was my investment into my education instead of borrowing for tuition.

    Exactly! People who had to borrow for tuition would have produced crap science in my lab, so it's best to have volunteers so you can see who has the right kind of background for this game!


    Newbie-ish, you are taking in u/gs so that you can have a pre-trained, zero-risk labor force for your lab. It is wholly akin to the entertainment industry where college grads must "intern" for a year or two, for free, and the end result is that the poor need not apply. If that's how you proceed, you're part of the reason science is as white- and rich-skewed as it is.

    I take on undergrads who seem motivated and I design projects so that they can be working at least semi-independently within a couple of weeks, if they're any good. And I pay them in money or in course credit, whichever applies. So I don't take on very many.

  • JC says:

    That isn't a litmus test for whether you are getting value at all. The litmus test is whether you take them into your lab or not. You do. You get value. And it is very much in your interest to pretend otherwise.

    I'm getting flashbacks of Ayn Rand from high school. We're all just doing thing out of pure self interest, right?

    Really I think most of us just like teaching others about our craft. My pre-tenure impression is that the CV benefits are marginal.

  • drugmonkey says:

    What does "like" mean in this context?

  • Geo says:

    I never have "volunteer" undergraduates nor do I pay them. But if you are ambitious, you can come and hang out at my lab over the summer for free and learn something. I don't expect you to work for me. I just hope you make a discovery.

  • Grumpy says:

    I took on two high school student volunteers this summer. I consider it charity work. I consider the same for undergrads with minimal lab experience. In my area experiments take a long time and require extensive knowledge of theory, so it would be pretty rare for a sophomore undergrad to make net-positive contributions.

    If folks like DM want to prevent me from taking on volunteer grad students then I guess I will have to find a new way to do charity. But I don't think it is fair to waste salary-earmarked grant money on my own charitable ventures.

  • drugmonkey says:


    Are you aware most employees in the US could jump ship on 2 week's notice at any tenure of employment?

    The way to get certainty of return is either slavery,manipulating the entire system to facilitate wage slavery OR being so awesome a workplace that no other place would appear better.

  • Ola says:

    A huge disparity in deciding whether to take unpaid volunteers comes at the level of expected faculty salary support. At my institution (R1 med sch) for a full prof', it's expected to be 70%. With a single R01, by the time I've covered my own ass there's enough for maybe a single post-doc' or grad student (not both), and a bit left over for for animals and supplies. So, a lot of my peers use undergrads for cheap labor. I've also seen a lot of folks on NSF support at the local SLAC use undergrad cheap labor - lots of willing volunteers and not a lot of infrastructure resources, so a big part of the grant budget goes into field work, travel, or buying small equipment. I can see why people do it (or rather, how they justify it to themselves) but I choose not to.

    I never take un-paid volunteers, and I don't use paid undergrads during the academic year either. Every summer we have an undergrad through our sponsored programs, where the school pays half the summer stipend ($4800/8wks) and the PI pays the rest. I find having it structured as part of an official program makes things run smoothly - there's an end of the summer poster session which forces them to actually think about a research product. The cost and strict timetable mandate that you actually come up with a decent project with a start/middle/end, a hypothesis and aims, and get the supplies ready in advance (i.e. breeding mice). IMHO this is better than the casual inefficiency of having someone come hang out and do dishes and gradually get into research by osmosis.

    The other big deciders for me are motivation and timing. The summer program here is competitive entry and the deadline is December. The ones already thinking about their summer way back around Thanksgiving, tend to be the ones who show up on time and get shit done. Undergrads who approach me in April (!) because the prospect of 8 weeks mowing the lawn for Mommy and Daddy just dawned, get a polite reminder that they are so far behind the frickin' curve, the curve already left for another state. That and a link to the website to apply for next year.

  • ProdigalAcademic says:

    Hmmm. I'd say most of my grad students have been happy to take the offer of free labor, even if it is someone who has never held a pipette before and is taking an 18 credit load. That is how I decide how many undergrads I can take at any given time--I ask my grad students to let me know if they would be interested in mentoring an undergrad. Then I match the project(s) to the interests and skills of any undergrads who want to work with me.

    The experiments run by an inexperienced undergrad definitely take longer than if the grad student ran it themselves. It is also true that the grad student does have to supervise and do the bulk of the experimental design, but then the grad student doesn't have to run the experiment. Even if a grad student isn't getting twice as much work done while mentoring an undergrad trainee, they are still generating more data than they would alone. That absolutely provides value to both the grad student and to the lab. So, I think this undergrad labor should be compensated in some way.

    Yes, sometimes undergrads spend one semester in my lab and then leave, but I also get students who were trained by my colleagues who then join my lab with more experience. I don't go in viewing undergrads as a long term source of trained labor. If it works out, then great. If not, then I am doing my share to train the next generation of researcher while benefiting from their work while they are with my group.

    In my case, I don't have a choice, since my departmental policy forbids volunteers in the lab, but I work to continue this policy whenever it comes up (and it does almost every year) because I strongly believe that students should be compensated in credit or money for their labor. It is grossly unfair to limit research experience to only those students who can afford to work for free. It is also unjust to expect people to work for free to make sure they are truly committed or whatever. FWIW, I can't afford to fairly compensate postdocs either, so I don't have any. It is definitely possible to get tenure at an R1 sort of school working only with graduate students and undergrads doing research for credit or on fellowship, since that is what I have been doing since I started.

  • Grumble says:

    If, as an undergrad, I hadn't been allowed to "volunteer" in a lab for "course credit" (which I did not need and did not care about), I would never have become excited by science and I would not now be sitting here in this professor's chair.

    As a "volunteer" I had to beg people to show me how to do things, eat enormous amounts of humble pie when I broke things or otherwise fucked things up, nag my PI and a post-doc for letters of recommendation, and I generally got in everyone's way and I never got a paper out of it (although I came close). So my value to the lab was close to zero, and there is zero chance the PI would have allowed me anywhere close to the lab had he been forced to pay me. Yet the value I got out of the experience was greater than almost any other experience I had in college short of meeting my wife.

    So I will treat all this sermonizing about exploitation of volunteers as the bullshit it most likely is. I am sure there is a line where not paying someone who works for you is exploitation. But I am also sure that there is a large region of the curve before that line where it is perfectly legitimate to not pay someone who is studying and learning.

  • Grumble says:

    @Prodigal: "I strongly believe that students should be compensated in credit or money for their labor."

    What is "compensation with [course] credit"? Let me get this straight. If the student pays good money for tuition, and that tuition buys him a space in the lab, it's OK for her to volunteer until her fingers are stripped to the bone and the PI's behavior is perfectly ethical. But if she says, screw the credit, I don't care about it, I just want to hang out here and learn something (and work her fingers to the bone), then the PI is an exploitative asshole who is no better than a Bangladeshi slave driver.

    This is about the smelliest horseshit I've run across in a long time.

  • ProdigalAcademic says:

    Bully for you that you could afford to spend time in a lab rather than working to support yourself or your family. Why should your relative privilege give you an advantage in graduate admissions over other students who are not in a position to hang out in a lab instead of working for pay? There have been times that I told a student who was not interested in course credit that they had to sign up for a research course, get a summer fellowship, or find another group. It isn't like mine is the only group on campus that does research.

    Students who do research for course credit are only supposed to work on their projects a number of hours commensurate with the credit they receive (typically, this is supposed to average 10-12 hours per week during the academic year and 20-24 hours per week over the summer). This does in fact mean that my research for credit students in the summer are only part time in the lab. Many of the students who opt for this sort of program in the summer also have jobs for pay. Since they are part time, I expect a part time level of work from them. My full time summer undergrads have summer research fellowships, which are competitive.

    There may be PIs who abuse this, but 1) I am not one of them and 2) students can then rightfully complain to the department that their mentors are abusing them and get relief. I discuss my workload expectations before a student joins my lab. Research is not an "on the clock" kind of job, but it is definitely possible to get things done in a way that doesn't eat up all the time available outside of class. The time in lab is an average, so of course some weeks the students are in lab more time than others. Some do more than the minimum, but not that much more. I haven't had any students attempt to spend hours and hours above the credit expectation actually working, and I think that is a good thing. That said, many of my undergrads do their other coursework at the desk I provide them in the lab, since it is quiet, convenient, and guaranteed to be available. That is not the same thing as working, but it does give them some additional insight into the academic research environment.

  • becca says:

    Dear PIs,
    37.2% of college students transfer at least once. Most of these students face issues with transferability of credits. The students coming from the most economically disadvantaged backgrounds are disproportionately likely to be transfer students from community colleges. Even with articulation initiatives, in the hard sciences, coursework is such that these students will almost universally have more credits than they need to graduate. "Free electives is where credits go to die", as Dean Dad puts it. The lack of free electives in many of the undergraduate programs that you and your peers design is also a large issue for many other non-transfer students (crossover disciplines like bioengineering seem particularly prone to credit-bloat, but it varies a lot by institution).

    In short, if you are *actually* worried about students too poor to afford to volunteer in your labs, accepting them while "paying" them in credits is actively hurting the most vulnerable. This moral note is, of course, subject to the notable exception of undergrads in programs where both a stipend and the credits are paid for by the program. Bless HHMI.
    -Been there.

  • Grumble says:

    @Prodigal: You are not addressing the fundamental point I made, which is that it is illogical to state that you are somehow protecting students from exploitation by paying them with currency (credits) that they have already bought (tuition). If anything, you are exploiting them *more* by forcing them to pay tuition for the privilege of being in your lab.

    By the way, I recently visited a department at a large expensive private school that has been clamoring to start a masters program, which, in addition to recruiting new students, will allow undergraduates to extend their 4 years to 5 or 6 and get a masters degree as well as a bachelors. Why? Because masters students pay that ridiculous tuition, some of which goes straight to the department in question. Most of the masters students' time is to be spent in the lab, doing research. For a PI to accept one of those students is potentially more exploitative than for the same PI to accept an unpaid volunteer for a year. At least the volunteer doesn't have to pay tuition (but, of course, also doesn't end up with a degree at the end of it). If the student's goal is to "figure out whether she wants to do research" (which, I was told, is the sort of student for whom this program is geared) I'd argue that depending on her finances, financial aid, etc, she might be better off just volunteering rather than going into debt to answer that particular question.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Those add on Master's programs have always enraged me. My training dept started one of those scams while I was there. It already had a consolation Master's for the PHD program - basically after the first year you had earned the Master's. The PhD program had a stipend and the add-on Master's students were paying tuition w/o stipend.

  • jmz4 says:

    Our university would attempt to charge you for that Masters if you got drummed out of the PhD program. At least, that's what we were told. Never found an actual example of it happening.
    As an undergrad at a SLAC, I did a research undergrad thesis for credit, and a tech job setting up the intro genetics labs. This was a pretty satisfactory arrangement. The undergrad thesis gave me a good understanding of how to read and write scientifically, and how to plan experiments to advance a coherent hypothesis. The tech job paid a about a grand/month via work-study financial aid and I learned some good technical skills.

    I know this has come up before, but wouldn't making undergrad research compensation eligible for work-study financial aid support be a good compromise? The kids that get that support can work a job that actually helps their career, the PI only has to pay 1/4 of their salary, and the kid that doesn't need the money can still volunteer.

  • Grumble says:

    "wouldn't making undergrad research compensation eligible for work-study financial aid support be a good compromise"

    Wouldn't this actually discriminate against those kids who *don't* need financial aid? They couldn't get a job in a lab because they can't get someone else to pay 75% of it - so the PI says tough luck, I can't pay you 100%, so no job for you.

  • jmz4 says:

    Well, it would help address the issue of unfairness in allowing volunteers. Could it cause some envy? Probably, though the bar for work-study financial aid is pretty low, you had to be legitimately rich to be ineligible for it back in my day.

  • ProdigalAcademic says:

    I think any grad degree in science that doesn't come with a livable stipend is a crock of shit.

    I don't think providing credit for research is any more exploitative than requiring students to pay tuition in general. Students are at the University to learn. Paying for the opportunity is the current model in the US and Canada. In my opinion, there is no real difference between paying for a class and paying for a mentored research opportunity. Students at ProdigalU pay by semester, not by the credit. The benefit to students of research for credit (other than the credit themselves) is that it clears time in the schedule to allow students to do their research.

    Second (and I realize this is local), in my department, 45% of the credits for majors are unrestricted electives, so desiring research credit is pretty common. ProdigalU encourages this further with many programs that require 3 or 6 credits of research other than just the straight Honors program. I admit I hadn't considered the issue of transfers before, because it is very easy to get permission to go over the credit cap at ProdigalU. This happens a lot with students who have a lot of AP/IB credits, especially if they change majors, so I guess I thought it would also be true for transfers. I assume someone transferring in must get SOME required credits to transfer or they wouldn't save any time. Do students at other 4 year institutions pay by the credit? I've never been anywhere where this is the case. I would have to think about the implications of paying by the credit before supporting research for credit so hard in that situation. I still think allowing volunteers unevens the playing field, and opens up a big can of worms for the unethical PI (I've heard some quite nasty stories about things that happened in my department before they banned volunteering in the lab).

    Third, my lab is not the only lab on campus, and some of my colleagues can afford to (and therefore do, especially in departments that require it) pay undergrads. There is a lot of concern that allowing volunteers will eliminate those for pay positions, since why pay for something you can get for free? Volunteers also require less effort than research for credit, since the project can be less (or not at all) defined, and there is no grading or record keeping.

    In the broader scheme of things, I think students should get something other than the experience of it all for their work. I strongly support allowing work-study in a research lab (and it might be possible at ProdigalU, but I haven't had any students who wanted to try it). I actually get more requests for research for credit projects than for opportunities to volunteer, probably due to ProdigalU pushing research for credit to incoming students. I don't think students should be required to volunteer in order to get lab experience. There is lots of that sort of "volunteering" among the premeds. No need to spread it to everyone else if we can avoid it.

    A question for the pro-volunteer crowd--what do you do about summers? A summer volunteer who isn't enrolled in the summer semester is probably not covered by University insurance in case of accidents, since they are just a random person with no formal connection to the University. Most of the people who offer to volunteer in my lab want to start/continue over the summer, which is strictly forbidden for insurance reasons at ProdigalU. Do you allow summer volunteers?

    Also what happens when volunteers really are exploited (in the sense that we all would agree is exploitation--like providing uncompensated labor on a PI's lake house in exchange for the chance to volunteer in the lab. This happened at GradU. Not to me.)? How do/would you handle issues of outright abuse that fall short of criminal behavior?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Wouldn't this actually discriminate against those kids who *don't* need financial aid?

    Thank you for so succinctly reminding us of my points about redressing bias and lack of opportunity in a prior post on that UT affirmative action case before SCOTUS. And also about this funding success graph from the NIH.

    God forbid the privileged should slide one iota below 50/50 because obviously that is the end of the damn world.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Every summer we have an undergrad through our sponsored programs, where the school pays half the summer stipend ($4800/8wks) and the PI pays the rest. I find having it structured as part of an official program makes things run smoothly - there's an end of the summer poster session which forces them to actually think about a research product.

    One thing that I find important about these summer research experiences (I've had a few trainees from these over the years) is that a summer is typically longer than the program (10 wk typical ime). This means that some candidates might look at it as suboptimal, because who is going to hire them for a couple weeks at the beginning and then again at the end of summer with a 8-10 wk break in between?

    What I try to do is to offer the person entry level tech employment before and after the formal program to fill their summer.

  • Newbie(ish) says:

    Two points.

    1. Nowhere, in any economically sustainable model (whether you like it or not, laboratories have to be economically stable), would you expect to hire someone for *skilled* labor that does not possess the skills yet and cannot give you any indication of whether they are even capable of providing the skills. Undergraduates are unskilled and they are getting an education. They are learning. I am teaching them. I am, as described, spending $430/week on their training. For the vast majority of the students, it's a time suck for several months until they trained. This is the modern, western world: you get paid when you have (net positive) work output.

    2. My point about paying tuition versus taking an unpaid volunteer position in the lab is that the offense some of you are taking to unpaid positions is the height of hypocrisy. What *do* you evaluate on a grad school app and how is it that you imagine those criteria don't elevate those who come from privilege and wealth? Like many, I could not afford a nice undergrad degree. It was a hell of a lot cheaper to get my research experience in, and that commitment on my part (which was modest, financially) opened all the doors. Let's think about other typical criteria: undergrad degree (money for tuition), GRE scores (money to take the prep classes), soft evidence of skill sets (money that enables a person to take onvolunteer positions, leadership positions, etc.), the personal essay (editing, editing, editing), etc. All of it relies on economic privilege. But you know what's accessible to *nearly* anyone? 5-10 hours/week volunteering in a research lab. THAT's how you prove yourself without going into serious debt. How is that you are offended there would be an economic sacrifice to volunteer in a lab but, presumably, OK with taking a student who comes from a pedigreed school and has paid out an enormous sum for their tuition? I'd argue any day that research experiences are less subject to economic bias than other common metrics we evaluate grad candidates by.

    Lastly, yes, there will be some people who still cannot afford research time - perhaps they have children/spouses/relatives to support, medical bills, or other circumstances. The problem is, if someone cannot spare 5-10 hours/week in undergrad, there is simply no way that they will manage years and years of low income and long hours in grad school. I'm not saying it's fair - I am ALL FOR raising salary for grad students and postdocs - but it's also not fair to pretend that these paid positions will magically exist once the person exits undergrad. Higher education requires a training period, no matter how you look at it, and paying undergrads before they have any idea whether they like science or are capable of it just further fuels an unsustainable labor base.

  • Newbie(ish) says:

    I reread and didn't mean to generalize that anyone who objects to an unpaid position is hypocritical. What I meant is that I do not agree in the slightest bit with the idea that taking an unpaid intern is fueling bias in the system. I am arguing that it is far less biased than most other measures we would judge a CV by

  • drugmonkey says:

    I paid zero to prepare for the GRE and my high scores were a key part of my graduate school admission bids. Undoubtedly in some degree of compensation for lack of research experience or connection with impressive names-of-science.

  • Here, summer student positions are 16 weeks.

  • Philapodia says:

    A big reason that graduate students nowadays have to have UG research is that in many departments their stipends and tuition are paid for on grants. Total costs of 1 graduate student over 4 years can easily push $150K which most of the time comes from grants, so graduate programs unofficially make research experience mandatory to derisk the students coming in. Students who have performed UG research have a much better idea of what they are getting themselves into and are not as likely to drop out after figuring out that grad school is hard. Students who come in with high GRE scores/grades but no research experience are a perceived risk. You don't know if they have bad hands, know how to do basic stuff like make a solution, or even really know if they want a career in science.

  • Laffer says:

    Last time I checked, entry level positions pay the person during their training period. Real jobs, anyway.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Last time I checked, entry level positions pay the person during their training period


    A big reason that graduate students nowadays have to have UG research is that in many departments their stipends and tuition are paid for on grants. Total costs of 1 graduate student over 4 years can easily push $150K which most of the time comes from grants, so graduate programs unofficially make research experience mandatory to derisk the students coming in.

    Again. What are these people? LABOR! You are underlining my argument in thick red sharpie. thank you.

  • qaz says:

    Wait a second! Let's be aware of the history here.

    The reason that admission committees want research experience in candidates has absolutely nothing to do with labor. It has to do with the fact that we get in trouble for failing people out of grad school. By far the best predictor of success in grad school is whether you tried research and liked it. The people who do not make it through the PhD process are those who cannot handle open questions, who need answers in the back of the book, who cannot develop independent research questions. So, if, as a graduate program, you are committed to not wasting kids' time, then you need to select those candidates most likely to succeed, which means those with research experience.

  • ProdigalAcademic says:

    I didn't do any of the following things, and I still got into almost all the grad programs I applied for: pay for GRE prep, volunteer anywhere (lab or otherwise), have a leadership position anywhere.

    What I did do: pay tuition (that does require money, but no way around this in the US or Canada), prepare for the GREs using the University library, write a good personal statement (requires writing skill--a core skill for a graduate student), get research experience as part of my undergrad degree.

    In my department at ProdigalU, most of our students are not from "pedigree" schools. We prioritize students with research experience and good transcripts/GRE scores who can write reasonably well. A student who has all of those things and also has a job is as impressive as a similar student who was a volunteer EMT and/or president of a club. Evidence of extracurriculars suggests that someone has time management skills. I don't think it really matters what else they were doing to be honest.

    For me, the research experience part is more about making sure they know what they are getting into. Even one semester is enough for that. In my PhD cohort, there were a number of students who had never really done research before, found it was not for them during the first year and left. A little bit of prior experience would have let them know this before heading off to grad school. Less then 50% of the people I came in with got PhDs. Since I pay grad students from day 1, I prefer to mitigate the risk of that. I'd rather pay an undergrad for a year, where I know they are short term than put a new student on a more long term project and have them quit, possibly preventing information transfer to the next person on the project. When an undergrad leaves my group, I can usually get them to come back for a day before they graduate to transfer what they know to someone else. When a grad student quits, they are gone.

  • AnonNeuro says:

    An undergrad approached me to adviser her on a computational project. The topic is only somewhat related to my lab, and I told her I don't have money to support the work. She wanted to go ahead anyway because it interested her, and we meet weekly for an hour.

    She doesn't get paid, and I don't get paid (soft money, so no support for this work). Should this have been a non-starter? Should I have only worked with her if I could pay her? (Should I have forced her to pay part of my salary?) Can't we both decide to volunteer a little bit of our time and share authorship of an eventual paper?

  • jojo says:

    It's been interesting to read this debate. I think there's a lot to be said about the fact that it's a pretty field-specific thing. If you're someone who is awash in NIH money it's a bit easier to say "all undergrads should be paid no matter what". If you're someone who can barely afford pipette tips or animal supplies, it's a lot harder.

    I'll be starting as Asst. prof as a SLAC next year. I have been advised that my job has two roughly equal parts. Job one is to teach courses. Job two is to train and advise undergraduate students in my lab. The idea is that I am training the next generation of scientists to be ready for success in graduate school. In reality since it's a Bio program most of the students I mentor will end up being pre-health majors (and honestly I don't think it's that important for them to get research experience) but some number will catch the research bug, and some number will have had it all along. I do think that PI's now expect incoming grad students to be able to speak coherently about research they themselves did, so there objectively is value to the experience they had - whether they did it as volunteers, for credit or paid workers.

    I tend to agree with the people above who are wondering why forcing students to pay to do research in the lab (via tuition) is supposed to be morally superior to taking research volunteers. If anything, restricting oneself only to people paying tuition to work in the lab will discriminate against those who are behind on course requirements because they transferred from community college (as many people of lesser means and from underrepresented groups do).

    I also think that doing mostly boring stuff like dishes or feeding animals should be paid with money and not with a grad recommendation.

  • jojo says:

    Here's another thought.

    Students who go into music as a career are not paid to play in the orchestra / sing in the choir. In some cases they can do these things for credit, but in other cases it's a volunteer experience. And some people choose do these things as extracurriculars instead, with no intention of it being training for a specific career. Should we force colleges to pay the students who legitimately work hard at these activities an hourly wage?

    If not, why is choosing to work in a lab instead different? If so, wouldn't this reduce the ability of the college to offer these type of enriching experiences to kids (or force the college to have massive tuition increases)? I legitimately am curious what people think.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I am unclear on how having grant support or not having grant support changes the moral calculus here?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Jojo- what external entity is paying for undergraduate orchestras to satisfy the majority of their desired good or service for which they pay the University handsomely?

  • Laffer says:

    Thankfully this Discussion is on under- and unpaid undergraduate research experiences, not the NCAA.

  • Jojo says:

    DM - in the case of undergrads at SLACs, funding situation is not that different between arts and science. In some schools arts bring in more money. I don't know much about how much external money the best university orchestras and choirs bring in but it's not zero.

    Plus Didn't you just get done saying that having outside funding or not shouldn't effect the moral calculus? Confused.

  • Grumble says:

    Jojo - you are confused because DM doesn't really have a solid leg to stand on with his assertion that unpaid volunteers are being exploited.

    You bring up a good point, with orchestras etc. University orchestras don't have the funds to pay student musicians. I have three NIH grants and also do not have the funds to pay volunteers to hang around in my lab and maybe pick up some useful skills.

  • drugmonkey says:

    You have three friggen NIH grants and you still can't carve off ten bucks an hour for undergrads??????


    I rest* my case.

  • Newbie(ish) says:

    "Total costs of 1 graduate student over 4 years can easily push $150K which most of the time comes from grants"

    I wish it was 150k... 50k/year, minimum, and 4-5 years is standard in my field. So every grad student I commit to is more like 200-250k. Looking for research experience on a CV is a pretty darn reasonable thing to do.

    "I paid zero to prepare for the GRE and my high scores were a key part of my graduate school admission bids. "

    For the record, I actually paid zero for my GRE prep, too, and I had perfect scores on analytical and math; missed one question on verbal. It can be done. But you don't think a vast quantity of the CVs you receive have GRE scores that have been bumped up *significantly* by prep courses? How can you not see that there is unfairness built into every aspect of a CV evaluation? And can't you feel, when you read personal statements, the signs of external editing?

    EVERYTHING on the CV is influenced by circumstance and privilege. Volunteering in a lab is far less susceptible to bias than other typical measures. Most importantly, it shows that the person is capable of pipetting, has a decent work ethic, and isn't about to get themselves into a career path that would drown them. I think it would be downright stupid for a person to go into grad school without have spent even a few months in a lab observing. Research experience is the most significant criteria that stands out to me on a CV and I definitely do not feel bad about valuing it.

    Also, two week notice or not, when most employers hire an employee, it is with the understanding that they will work for a period of time. That is not the case with undergrads. They come and go on whim. They can't really commit more than a semester at a time. And they can't devote more than ~10 hours per week to research during times of heavy coursework. That mimics no entry level position I've ever heard of. Double also, a critical policy in my lab is coursework comes first, and we expect our undergrads to disappear at regular intervals. That doesn't work once you start paying someone.

  • Grumble says:

    "You have three friggen NIH grants and you still can't carve off ten bucks an hour for undergrads??????"

    That is correct. I spend that money on grad students, sometimes for several years before they produce a damn thing, and on post-docs, who are productive sooner (but not always), and on technicians (always productive), and on animals and supplies (essential). Aside from my own salary (which I would gladly not pay from my own grants, but it's up to the college, not me), I do not in fact have a single penny leftover to indulge in paying undergrads to hang around the lab and dabble in projects.

    And you know what? I'm STILL kept awake at night by the prospect of losing some of this funding and having to let my post-docs go prematurely, or being told by my chair that the college will support me for only a year if I can't bring in half my salary or more, after which it's curtains. Turns out that having more than 1 grant doesn't reduce this angst at all. And you want me to fling this money at undergrads? Maybe if they bought me some Valium with that money.

    Sorry. It hurts when idealism collides with cold reality.

  • jmz4 says:

    Just a wonky aside on this really interesting debate. For those of you that do pay a stipend to undergrads, where does it come from? Can you just pull it out of the R01 budget freely? Or does it have to be built in at an earlier date? Like, could I use K research funds to cover a modest stipend for an undergrad to do 2-3 months over the summer?

  • Newbie(ish) says:

    "Sorry. It hurts when idealism collides with cold reality."

    Yes to everything Grumble said. I am not going to sit and here and be jealous just because someone is well-funded. Being well funded doesn't do a damn thing to cure the flawed system. This system expects an unreasonable amount of work on an ever-shrinking pile of money. Whether you're operating off of no R01s or 3 R01s, the pressure is the same and the economics are the same. Labs have to make money. Undergrads do not contribute value until they are trained up and give you some idea of a commitment to their training.

    Also, there's a reason many private foundations won't pay tuition dollars for grad students: they're being trained. Their "tuition" cost is going to fuel PI salary and, indirectly, institutional overhead.

    I do wonder how much our opinions would stratify based on requirements for external salary support. I have to raise 50%, as well, and I do not hesitate to view that as a part of my calculation for what I give undergrads in my lab. They are getting a lot of expensive time out of me and my lab members. It's a fair trade for a few hours of work. Maybe I would feel differently if I wasn't constantly thinking about salary support.

  • Grumble says:

    @jmz4 - AFAIK, NIH grants have no restrictions saying you can't spend the money on undergrad labor. Just call your undergrad a technician, which I'm guessing is how most people who pay undergrads out of NIH grants probably categorize them.

  • Dusanbe says:

    The vast majority of add-on Masters students at our big private school are from overseas. Children of the elites who don't blink twice at paying ridiculous lumps of cash to ship their kids off to Murica for a couple of years getting run into the ground as regular pipet jockeys. It's a bizarre twist of power dynamics for sure.

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