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Should you pay undergrads that work in your lab?
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I am starting my lab as an Assistant Professor at a Big Research University (summer 2010). I have a super partner and an adorable kiddo, Mini-G. I tend to rush into things and then figure them out as I muddle along. I'm sure that will be true here, too. I hope to use this space to maintain my sanity and share my perspectives on science and academia. These perspectives may sometimes qualify as rants. There will undoubtedly be some crazy times on the tenure track. Gmail me [at] primaryinvestigator

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

A situation with the undergraduate in my lab has me thinking a lot about how access to science, as a profession, is controlled. And whether I'm contributing to the problem.

I have worked with Undergrad for over 2 years (I first hired her at postdoc inst). Right now, she is arguably the most productive member of my newbie group. I hired her to help unpack boxes, organize the lab, make media and solutions, etc. She also started helping me with experiments. It has all been going really well. This fall, Undergrad wants to do research for credit, in addition to her job as a paid "lab assistant". She is organized and responsible, so I have no doubt that she will be able to make this work. Also, she wants to go to graduate school so having some more intensive research experience would be great for her. Especially if we can publish her work.

The problem, for me, arose when I was talking with my new colleagues about Undergrad's situation. I wanted to make sure that there were no hidden pitfalls that may come back to haunt me or Undergrad. Every single one of my colleagues seemed confused that I would ever pay an undergrad to work in the lab. They all assured me that there were dozens, maybe hundreds, of undergrads more than willing to work in the lab for free. Apparently, the standard MO is to have students work in the lab doing the more menial tasks for a year or so and then "promote" the good ones and let them do research for credit. This seemed like a great idea! But then I started to feel weird about having people work for me without pay. Sure, if you are taking research credit there is non-monetary compensation (progress to graduation, research experience, a letter of reference). But what about that first year?

The more I thought about this system, the more it bothered me. Why should only those students willing and able to work for free for a year be given the opportunity to do research for credit? Doesn't this mean that all those students that need to work at a paying job in order to make ends meet won't have this opportunity? Which means that, even if they want to go to graduate school, they will not be as competitive as those students that could afford to work for no money for a couple of years.

I agree with DrugMonkey that we need to make sure that undergrads understand that if they go to graduate school they will get a stipend and have their tuition paid (at least that is standard in my field). But I think that we also need to realize that there are forces that weed out some of the undergrads before they even get to the point of considering graduate school.

But I'm left wondering what I should do? Clearly I will continue to pay Undergrad. I know that without pay she would have to choose between not taking research for credit or find time to get another job. But what about the next undergrad? Am I just naive that I even care about this?

Do you pay the undergrads that work in your lab?

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Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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I think a lot of professors are stindgy bastards. It always really pissed me off when I was in a lab where the PI would brag about how much money he had to waste on new computers or whatever at the end of the fiscal year and yet the undergrads in the lab are unpaid and the techs haven't seen raises in years. I say pay your good students and pay them well. Good people are really hard to find and the "compensation" of training is such a ridiculously arcane idea. Sometimes people need to eat too. And in this case, I think you're right. A student shouldn't have to choose between debt and research, especially if the PI can afford to pay them
Autistic Lurker

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Some time ago, when I did research work as research assistant, I was paid and I am credited on the publication (third author out of four) which is in review right now but I agree that my situation was unusual.


Prodigal Academic
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I do accept undergraduate volunteers, but I only use them for actual research so they can get actual research experience. I would never use a volunteer to do menial tasks--that seems exploitive to me. I've had 5 undergrads work with me so far--3 over the summer (1 volunteer, 1 work/study, and 1 for credit). The 2 in my lab now are both working for credit.

In the summer, the one who worked for free without getting credit for it really wanted to work with me after being in my class (woo hoo!), was in a different department that didn't like their undergrads doing research in other departments for credit, and wanted a really strong letter for med school. So I took him on for the summer to do a research task, and it worked out for everyone.

I think you should listen to that voice telling you that exploiting eager undergrads is not ethical to do (plus it screws over the students who MUST work for money).

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All the undergrads in our lab were paid. They did the work, they got a check. Anything on top of that - research experience, honors credits, perhaps even publication - was a benefit.

biochem belle
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Pay them! At my undergrad institute (which was a PUI), all undergrads working in labs did so for pay or for credit. You're not paying UGs exorbitantly and you're not paying benefits. UGs are typically limited in the number of hours they can paid for (usually less than 20 h). As you point out, there are many UGs who need to work for money so they can live-like I did and like my hubby does now. Personally I think it's completely inappropriate to employ a UG without pay or research credit. And that deal of doing menial crap for a year and then giving them the "opportunity" to work for credit has got to be the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard-how "generous" of those PIs!

btw, Drugmonkey (or another one at Sciblogs) posted on this topic several months ago. I'll see if I can find a link later.

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For menial tasks they are always paid. Usually these students aren't really interested in my research, just need a job. Those wanting to do research will volunteer for a semester- and this comes with minimal obligations, they have to come to lab meeting and shadow someone on the lab. This is unpaid. If they take the research for credit, the university does not allow them to be on the payroll (unless its unrelated to their for-credit independent study). Over the summer they always get paid, often with a university fellowship or out of our lab budget.

I don't see the volunteer semester as exploitative, since it is basically a type of trial to see if they like the lab (and if I like them), plus it comes with minimal obligations.
Comrade PhysioProf

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My policy is that undergrads in my lab either get paid by the hour or they get course credit for research. The former I expect to spend 80% of their paid time in the lab doing lab service tasks and 20% doing research. If they want to spend additional unpaid time on research, that is up to them. The latter I expect to spend 80% of their time in the lab doing research and 20% of their time in the lab doing lab service tasks.

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If an undergrad wants to do research with me (and I want them in my lab), then they're either paid or get credit. As with Namnezia, my institution won't allow them to be paid and get credit. And they do research ~80% of the time, with ~20% of their time spent on lab service. I don't hire undergrads to do the menial work. If they don't want to do research, I don't want them.

This works for me. I've had 17 undergrads in my lab so far and have published 6 papers featuring 8 undergrad co-authors.

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My MO is like CPPs: I pay the undergrads who perform lab service tasks by the hour ($10/h) and I offer research for credit during the school year for the ones working on research projects. During the summer, we have found stipend funding for everyone staying on to do research (from local fellowship programs) and continue to pay for service work as before. One great way I handle paying my service students a decent rate: I set it up as a work-study position, so that students on work study can benefit from the job and I can benefit from the Federal program covering 70-80% of their hourly cost. I always guarantee to them that I will still pay them even when their work study total amount runs out, though, otherwise they could get screwed out of a job by working too hard.

I agree that it is not okay to let undergrads give a ton of their time for no compensation, and that particularly during the summer when they won't have time to take another job, they should be paid if they are going to work in the lab on research. But if they are getting course credit (for the designated 6 hours of research time a week), I don't think they're allowed to get paid for it at my institution. Any fellowships they get that give them extra research stipend during the school year mean they have to go above and beyond that 6 hours that corresponds to their course credit.

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YES! I agree with all of this! Why shouldn't students be either paid or get credti? I'm really hoping that I have just misunderstood my colleagues. I just don't think I could sleep at night if I wasn't paying undergrads that aren't taking research credit.

@Arlenna: I like the work-study idea! I am going to look into that more.
@biochembelle: link would be most appreciated. I can't remember seeing that post.

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Paying your undergrads is a win-win situation! If you're getting paid, you will spend more time in lab, and contribute more to the research. I know undergrads generally don't produce as much as grads (although that's not always the case), but if they have some incentive to spend every free moment in your lab, they will eventually learn. An undergrad who spends all 4 years in your lab will end up contributing way more than a rotation grad student who spends only 1 semester... as with all things in life, you get what you pay for.

biochem belle
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Actually both DrugMonkey and Isis discussed this topic... almost a year ago to the day... weird.

Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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@Maggie, your rotations last an entire semester?? I have a rotation student in my lab right now and he's only here for 6 weeks!

Prof-like Substance
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I agree with the idea of pay OR credit for undergrads and all of my students fall under one category or another. I mostly take students for credit because, like Odyssey, I want students doing research in the lab, not just washing dishes.

That said, I did want to point out the issue I have with the following statement, which I hear a lot from trainees:

Brian Krueger, PhD said: I think a lot of professors are stindgy bastards. It always really pissed me off when I was in a lab where the PI would brag about how much money he had to waste on new computers or whatever at the end of the fiscal year and yet the undergrads in the lab are unpaid and the techs haven't seen raises in years. I say pay your good students and pay them well. Good people are really hard to find and the "compensation" of training is such a ridiculously arcane idea. Sometimes people need to eat too. And in this case, I think you're right. A student shouldn't have to choose between debt and research, especially if the PI can afford to pay them

Unfortunately, it doesn't work like this. If you are paying people off a grant, you can't just wave a magic wand and pay everyone more. Some money is tied up in specific categories (especially true for computer equipment, which requires a special form filled out if you want to even be able to buy anything computer related in fed money) and can't just be moved to the salary line. Another complication, especially with techs and grad students, can be unions. Certain people can just not be paid more than they are getting or can't get a big raise all at once. It may not be fair, but it is what it is.

Salary decisions and actions tend to be far more complicated than most people not responsible for those decisions often realize. Yes, some PIs are just cheap, but there can also be an element of having one's hands tied that plays into the game as well.

Genomic Repairman
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They way it worked at my undergrad was that you worked for pay over the summer (~3K in stipend money) and you did some more work during the school year and received credit. If you have the funds to spare then pay them. To not pay a kid whose job in your lab is to solely do bitchwork (no connotation implied, just what we called the shitty jobs we undergrads got stuck with) like washing dishes for no credit or money is bullshit. Either let me in the lab and teach me how to do stuff so that I can grow scientifically or cut me loose and let me go get a bartending gig that'll pay some decent fucking coin. Give me cash or credit, but either way, I've got to get my cheese!

Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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@PLS, in this lab, it wasn't a case of "The money was tied up." It was a case of PI being a cheap asshole. Because "a monkey could do their job" when a monkey couldn't, but that was the justification. People sat in this lab for 4+ years without a raise. That's just wrong.

Prof-like Substance
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Brian, agreed that not taking care of the people you have is certainly a way to lose them and deflate morale in the group. My point was simply that there are times when the PI does not have control over everyone's pay in the way they might like.

Dr Becca, Ph.D.
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I worked in two labs as an undergrad--one for $$ as part of my "work study" financial aid, and one for credit. The paid one started out as mind-numbing data entry (it was a human psych lab, so no dishes to wash, yay!), but over the years I was allowed to be more and more involved in research. In the credit lab I did research, and very little menial labor. The whole point of a university offering class credit for lab work is that you're supposed to be learning something in the lab, as opposed to in a classroom. PIs who exploit this and use their credit undergrads to do their crap work are failing in their commitment to be teachers.

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I think it is absolutely correct to pay someone who is unpacking boxes, organizing the lab, etc. If they are doing menial work, you should pay them. But I've known plenty of undergrads who worked without pay in order to gain research experience - but this means they are doing a research project, not making solutions. Usually, I've seen this happen in Big Famous Labs of Big Famous PI's, where the student *really* is after two things: (a) to get research experience with Big Famous PI, and (b) to secure a letter for grad or med school from Big Famous PI.

Dr. O
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First off, I'm appalled that any faculty would have students doing any work, much less, menial scut work "for free" (no credit or $$$), in the hopes that they could eventually move up to more exciting and promising prospects after putting in their dues. This seems like it should be illegal...there's absolutely no rationale for subjecting any student to what amounts to slave labor.

I have no problem with undergrads doing menial tasks for pay (as with a dishwasher position), especially for the financially-strapped student that needs a job to pay tuition. And I think it's a great idea to get that worker involved in at least a small amount of research, since it helps them better understand the job they're doing. When an undergrad starts working on their own research project, however small it might be, they should be getting course credit for this work, even if they continue their paying dishwashing gig on the side. Undergraduate research under the guidance of a qualified professor, however it evolved, qualifies as coursework, not a job, and it should be treated as such.

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I got paid to work at the two labs I partook in as an undergrad. They didn't always have money, and I stayed on for less hours when they didn't, but for the most part they paid, and pretty well at that. If they didn't pay I definitely could not have put in the same amount of hours there. And there were times when I took paying jobs at the psychology dept and the ER lab (totally out of my field) instead of volunteer work in my labs, 'cause I needed the money.
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