Unpaid internships are a systemic labor exploitation scam- yes, in science labs too.

June 12, 2013

Tweep @biochemprof pointed to a story of the day about a judicial ruling that unpaid interns on a movie production should have been paid. The story via via NBC:

In the decision, Judge William H. Pauley III ruled that Fox Searchlight should have paid two interns on the movie “Black Swan,” because they were essentially regular employees.

The judge noted that these internships did not foster an educational environment and that the studio received the benefits of the work. The case could have broad implications. Young people have flocked to internships, especially against the backdrop of a weak job market.

“Weak job market”, my eye. I still recall the disbelief I was in during the end of my senior year in college when my friends described how they “had to” take unpaid internships. There were several industries (I can’t recall the specifics at this far remove) for which my fellow newly bachelor degree’d worker drones were convinced they had to start their careers by working for free. Having secured what I thought was a pretty good gig, being paid the 2013 equivalent of $23,000 per year to earn my PhD, I felt comparatively fortunate. There is no way in hell, or so I thought at the time, that I would be able to have followed such a path. I needed to do something that was going to put a roof over my head and at least some cheap pasta on the table. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I grew up in an academic household. So the parental support for me going into academics was pretty good. However, it was by no means a fantastically well-off household either, being academic, and there was no way in hell my parents were going to pay all my bills deep into my 20s. I had to get a job that was going to pay me something. So I did.

As far as I can tell, the phenomenon of “unpaid internships” for both recent college grads and other long term or temporary would-be-workers has not diminished substantially.

Unpaid internships are a labor-exploitation scam.


In any industry.

And according to the NBC bit, this is the beginning of a long slog of court cases making exactly this point.

The “Black Swan” case was the first in a series of lawsuits filed by unpaid interns.

In February 2012, a former Harper’s Bazaar intern sued Hearst Magazines, asserting that she regularly worked 40 to 55 hours a week without being paid. Last July, a federal court ruled that the plaintiff could proceed with her lawsuit as a collective action, certifying a class of all unpaid interns who worked in the company’s magazines division since February 2009. This February, an unpaid intern sued Elite Model Management, seeking $50 million.

After a lawsuit brought by unpaid interns, Charlie Rose and his production company announced last December that they would pay back wages to as many as 189 interns. The settlement called for many of the interns to receive about $1,100 each — amounting to roughly $110 a week in back pay, for a maximum of 10 weeks, the approximate length of a school semester.

As part of his ruling on Tuesday, Judge Pauley also granted class certification to a group of unpaid interns in New York who worked in several divisions of the Fox Entertainment Group.


Look, obviously there will be much legal parsing about the relative benefit of unpaid work to both the employer and the employee. But the basic principles should be clear and easily understood in plain language and we should be highly attentive to where the putative “educational” or “training” benefit to the employee is being oversold and the relative work-product benefit to the employer is being intentionally undersold to justify the exploitation.

This brings me to us, DearReader. By which I mean my academic science peers, our research laboratories and the phenomenon of undergraduate or high-school “interns” who work without financial compensation. It is wrong, exploitative and immoral. We, you… our industry as a whole, should knock it off.

I am not swayed by arguments that you and your lab put more effort into summer interns than you get back in return. If this is so, stop taking them. Clearly, if you do take them then you get some sort of benefit. Even if that benefit is only that you can brag that you have trained numerous undergraduates or “provided a research experience” to several. But in many cases, these freebie interns do much that is of value and that you would otherwise have to pay someone else in the lab to do. At worst, this saves your lab on technician salaries or frees up the time of the betters in the lab to work on the more complicated stuff instead of washing glassware or making up buffers. In better situations the intern produces data that helps the lab forward on a project.

If this is the case, ever, then you have exploited the internship scam. You have accepted someone working for you for free. This is almost mind bogglingly immoral to me and I do not know how my fellow left-leaning academic types can bring themselves to ignore it.

I don’t care one whit that you have 10 or 20 requests each and every Spring from some undergrad on campus or some undergrad from another University that happens to live in your town and is home for the summer. I get them myself. They make it clear that they expect no compensation…all this tells me is that our business has successfully created a system of exploitation. We have convinced the suckers that they “have to” take these positions to advance in their own career goals.

This is absolutely no different from times in the past, prior to labor protections, in which workers “had to” accept dangerous working conditions, longer than 40 hour weeks, no breaks, employment of juveniles, low pay, company stores/towns that stole back much of the wages, etc, etc. The list is lengthy. In every case the industry had fantastic reasons for why they “had to” treat their employees in such a way. The workers themselves were often convinced things “had to” be that way. And what do you know? After hard fought labor protections were put in place the industries got along just fine.

So far, I have gotten along just fine without exploiting unpaid interns in my laboratory. If they are not getting compensated in some way, they don’t work in my lab. I plan to stick with this principle. In my book, training, recommendation letters and the nebulous concept of experience do not qualify as compensation. There should be an hourly wage that is at least as great as the local minimum wage. In some cases, under the formal structure of an undergraduate institution, course credit can be acceptable compensation. I would recommend keeping this to a minimum, particularly when it comes to summer internships and/or work conducted outside of the academic semester. With respect to this latter, no, you can’t skate on the scam that they are just finishing up what they started under a for-credit stint during the regular academic calendar.

In addition to the general immorality of science labs exploiting the powerless (those desiring to enter the career) there is another factor for you to consider. The unpaid internship scam has the effect of blocking the financially disadvantaged from entering a particular career. Think about your mental (or your department’s formal) graduate admissions schema. Does it prioritize those who have had some prior experience working in a research laboratory, preferably in a closely related field of work? Of course it does. Which means it prioritizes those who could afford to gain such experiences. Those who had parents who were willing to float their rent and food bills over the summer months instead of making them find a real job, such as installing itchy insulation in scorching hot attics for 10 hr days, digging ditches, busing tables or changing oil filters. (As I have come to hear postdocs making upwards of $35,000 per year and graduate students $29,000 per year — Federal minimum wage is about $15,000 at present — complain about their treatment, I am certainly coming to reconsider which type of undergraduate summer experience is really the best way to select doctoral students.)

Even if we do not apply an admissions filter, how would the latter type of undergraduate student even come to appreciate that a laboratory career might be for them?

Clearly the solution is to find a way to pay our scientific interns. Much of the time, these mechanisms exist and it is mere laziness on the part of the PI that keeps the intern from being paid. There are administrative supplements to NIH grants for disadvantaged students that are, from what I hear, pretty much there for the asking as they are underutilized. Local summer-experience programs, small scale philanthropy and academic senate funds. Even if you cough up some grant money, what does 10 weeks cost you? Not that much. Can you look yourself square in the mirror and tell yourself honestly that you can’t afford the outlay from your grant and that you are not getting any value out of this prospective intern?

I can’t.

Unpaid internships are as much a scam and a labor exploitation in academic science labs as they are at Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Knock it off people.

130 Responses to “Unpaid internships are a systemic labor exploitation scam- yes, in science labs too.”

  1. meshugena313 Says:

    What about school sponsored summer undergraduate research programs? The school provides housing and a few pennies, but its still effectively an “unpaid internship”, especially for those who can’t afford not to work for real. I have such an undergrad in my lab this summer, am I taking advantage?


  2. Adrian Blake Says:

    The UK has banned unpaid internships, but they continue, because (rich) people can get experience they need which gives them the advantage for the entry level jobs, and employers can get free labour.

    When people will work for free, then entry level paid jobs start to require experience,which you can’t get without working for free. At that point, it’s only those with parents/partners who can support them who can go into the career, which is sickening to see.


  3. namnezia Says:

    And what if the student is working on an undergrad thesis? Or in a university sponsored fellowship that pays a fixed stipend to cover housing costs? What if he gets a publication for his research? To argue that getting research experience as an undergrad (even if unpaid) is exploitative is flat out ridiculous. There is nothing tenuous about the benefits they get as part of their undergraduate lab training. Both in terms of applying to med school/grad school and for the authorships they obtain in the papers that result from their work.


  4. AcademicLurker Says:

    If a student is getting a stipend from the university than they are not unpaid. I have 2 undergrads in my lab this Summer. One’s getting paid through a Summer fellowship program (and thus “free” from my point of view) and the other is getting paid an equivalent amount from one of my grants.

    This issue isn’t where the money comes from, the issue is that we shouldn’t be making people work for free.


  5. DrugMonkey Says:


    Devil is in the details. Since housing would otherwise come out of wages, it is compensation. What does “pittance” mean in terms of the stipend, how many hours to be worked?

    I agree putting the 10 wk program in the middle of summer can prevent other gainful employ but this is a secondary issue (which I’ve solved by hiring off grant funds before an after the summer program interval). The essential issue for me is that the minimum idea of employment be met- and that’s a wage paid for hours worked.


  6. DrugMonkey Says:

    Namnezia- I already mentioned course credit. Stipend, fine, if it is at least min wage. Authorship? Hell to the no. Would you say that all the way up to postdoc? Try to buy off technicians with this false coin? Do you work for publications only yourself? Of course not.

    The future benefits of the research experience requires similar introspection. These are highly uncertain outcomes with remuneration that is very distant even if it does result.

    You are making excuses for an immoral system.


  7. meshugena313 Says:

    Just checked, ~$3k for 10 weeks plus free housing. So a little more than I thought.

    Not sure I entirely agree, though, that “unpaid” by cash is a problem in the context of lab experience. I had a high school student in my lab for 2 summers whom no one would ever pay cash to for lab work, since she had never held a pipet before. But she had a phenomenal experience that was itself compensation, plus my letter for college applications. Is this compensation appropriate for her work? Since no one would ever pay a high school student for lab work, the question is a red herring.


  8. mikka Says:

    Sadly, with diminished funding there will be fewer paid positions, and that will only exacerbate the problem: it will get to the point that a period of slave labour is a prerequisite for being considered for a salary of any kind. It happened this way for every other industry in which internships rule the entry into the labor force. In science we are not there yet, i think.

    But unpaid “volunteer” positions is a nice way for the kids to find out if they like the line of work. I’ve had two students that, when they realized the low ratio of reward/effort that this work gave, walked to the nearest exit and found successful carrer paths elsewhere. If I’d had to pay them it would have been a waste of my money. Was it a waste of their time? Perhaps, but I think that if they had jumped into a PhD program without looking first it would have been a much bigger disaster.


  9. mikka Says:

    Also: Bennies in my place are set to go up to 49% regular employees, 43% postdocs, 34% Grad students by FY2018. Free labour looks like the only thing we’ll be able to afford!


  10. Eleventy Says:

    thanks for saying this. so true

    I always thought the summer undergrad programs were a fantastic deal, as when you noted in that they provided housing (which most did), the stipends actually paid much better than the vast majority of summer jobs I could get (not to mention being roughly 100x less demeaning).

    But course credit is not necessarily a positive swap. As an undergrad, I never had any trouble filling up all the credits allowed each semester with normal classes I really wanted to take (overloading required special permission and paying tuition above the full tuition rate), and there was only one requirement that independent research credits counted towards. So I requested to be exploited for free labor after my one semester of research for credits that actually got me closer to graduating. To me, doing any more for credit was not just working for free, but actually paying to work in the lab (in the form of classes I couldn’t take despite forking over the huge tuition for my fancy private school).


  11. DrugMonkey Says:

    “Waste of *your* money”? “No one would hire”?

    You are still not grasping the point.

    Are you getting value from this person’s labor? In the broader scheme does the whole industry get positive benefit from this class even if one specific individual can be proven to not contribute?

    I worked as a high school kid for minimum wage doing work that adults could be, and in some cases were, hired for. Some college summer employment was similarly work that adults, nontemps did as well.

    Does a piss poor employee at McDs who quits after three weeks not get paid even though the training effort probably exceeded the real work?


  12. meshugena313 Says:

    I get the point, and while in the abstract I agree, in practice its irrelevant for high school students and in some cases undergraduates especially in current budgetary constraints. DM, have you ever paid a high school student or beginning undergrad out of your own lab budget?

    I worked in a lab in high school for free (even got to leave HS early to go there). It was an invaluable experience. I also had paying jobs delivering newspapers and filing.


  13. Elizabeth Says:

    I disagree about the class credit thing. I wouldn’t fork over money for tuition to do stuff in a lab.


  14. eeke Says:

    meshug: ” I had a high school student in my lab for 2 summers whom no one would ever pay cash to for lab work, since she had never held a pipet before.”

    This is absolute bullshit. I paid a highschool student to work in my lab for a summer. She was excellent. What does it take to train someone to hold a pipette? 5 minutes? Volunteer positions at my university are illegal and enforced, with good reason, as Drugmonkey points out. I was not only happy to pay her, but I also wrote a good letter for her to go to college. I routinely take in people with no experience and pay them to do a good job.

    As for bennies, most of these inexperienced “interns” (high-school, undergrad, etc) work part-time or for only part of the year (summer). They are not eligible for bennies, and are usually on a plan provided by their parents, or some student plan.


  15. meshugena313 Says:

    I’m willing to reconsider the idea of paying a high school student for summer research, but what kind of funding mechanism do you use? Does your administration support this? I doubt anyone at my institution has ever done that…


  16. redqueen Says:

    I totally agree.
    Thank you for this


  17. Former technician Says:

    The ruling for our University is that a volunteer cannot do the work that a paid employee would do. Does that stop anyone from using volunteers as free labor? No. There are even forms from EHSO to cover the liability of having volunteers in the lab.

    I have always disliked the volunteer idea. As a technician and later lab manager, I would have to teach summer volunteers how to do the work. It would take twice (or more) as long to teach as it did to do the work myself. That means that for my paid man-hours half (or less) work was done for at least the first month. Since summer students rarely stayed more than 10 weeks and could not work at my speed by the time they left, the lab was actually losing money/efficiency by having the volunteers. Not that I could ever get my bosses to look past the free labor to the actual cost.

    What is your feeling about Med students wanting “summer research experience”?


  18. @meshugena313: “Since no one would ever pay a high school student for lab work, the question is a red herring.”

    My high school job (this was in the late 90s) ages 16 to 18 was in a genetics lab a the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Got paid $8.50/hr to tend to drosophila stocks and do DNA gels, primer design, fill agar plates, etc. A monkey could do that job- but the monkey, as DM is pointing out, deserves to get paid fair wages for it.


  19. CB12 Says:

    Well, I generally do not take undergraduate students into my lab unless it is through a formal summer research fellowship program (sponsored by the school and paying students a stipend). Since money for this program comes in part from grant funds, we seem to be taking fewer students in every year.

    I do consider it to be too much work to train and supervise an inexperienced student. If I did not have technicians in the lab, I am sure I could find some scut work for the student to do but as is, I have an experienced technician doing this type of work with a reliable 9 to 5 schedule and great recordkeeping.

    I am not sure that students gain anything from my refusal to take them in as volunteers, though – they are always looking for ways to get some experience or for labs to work on their undergraduate thesis, and places that do take them – with or without pay – are few and far between.

    From time to time I give in and take some volunteers – usually when someone I know begs me to take a student in. It so happens, that at least half of my “volunteers” ended up getting paid by me for various reasons (usually those that were truly productive). Others were really more work for me, and I never used any of their work product.


  20. meshugena313 Says:

    alright, I’m wrong.


  21. eeke Says:

    meshug – I’ve used my grant funds to support hs or undergrad summer students. They get paid $10 per hour (or less, if they do not yet have a h.s. diploma), which doesn’t really add up to much. Since they are paid, I do not feel guilty asking them to do jobs that others in the lab hate – it is new to them, the more experienced people are happy to get a break from that work (and train someone to do it), and I always tell them that the work, however tedious, is extremely important and we can’t afford to have anyone fuck it up. The more they learn, the more we give them to do. I also always ask for references. If the kid is still in high-school, it can be from a baby-sitter type employer, scout leader, sports coach, teacher, etc. The university administrators that handle this have no problem arranging for ID and key access. I usually only have one or two people at this level working in the lab at one time, and in every case so far, it’s worked out well for everyone.


  22. profguy Says:

    With undergrads most of the time, and high school students always (in my experience) it is absolutely the case that I have to put into them much more than I get out. So I never take high school students any more, and I have a very high bar for taking undergrads – I take very few, and usually make sure, nowadays, that I have someone to co-advise them with me. And I still pay them, if it’s in the summer for sure; during the term I do let them work for credit, if they want to do that.

    I should say work in a theoretical/computational area, there are no test tubes to clean. I have to design and supervise a separate project for every student. So it is really a drag if the person is not highly motivated, and they very rarely do anything that I actually need to be done – if I needed it to be done, I wouldn’t give it to an undergrad.


  23. cb12 Says:

    Oh, and what about labs that have no grant funding and/or labs that are based and primarily undergraduate institutions?


  24. Eli Rabett Says:

    “Are you getting value from this person’s labor? ”



  25. mikka Says:

    Am I getting value? Not until after a solid 6 months of baby sitting. Unlike the interns at that movie, who i’m sure didn’t need any training to make copies or go on starbucks runs and were therefore being enslaved from day one, the people i don’t pay get a good training. If they want, they can leave right after being trained, and if they do that I’ve lost money and time. Which they have gained in the form of experience. Surely that’s worth something?


  26. D. Says:

    I paid a high school student 8.5-11.0$/h two years ago, from the NIH grant. My (academic) institution supports it. In fact, we cannot have “volunteers”.


  27. Ola Says:

    Year-round undergrad interns in my lab get $10/hr and up, depending on experience, and are allowed to work a max’ of 20 hrs a week as per university policy (altho’ I usually limit them to 10 hrs to keep overall costs down). Summer undergrad interns in our university-wide program (competitive entry, usually 5x more applicants than slots) get $4k for 8 weeks, of which 2.5 is paid by the PI and the rest by the university. This particular program closes applications in January, and generally speaking we find the ones who are willing to work for free are the late stragglers…. the ones emailing everyone in April/May looking for a stint beginning in June. It should come as no surprise that if you’re late to the game, you have to take what you can get. I’ve never done that, but know several PIs who readily turn down the paid interns (who are fantastic – competitive entry FTW), then get the free stragglers.


  28. Isabel Says:

    What about students who can’t afford to work all summer for no pay? They are automatically out of the running.

    And seriously? A “monkey” could run gels and design primers? And all movie interns do is make Starbucks runs?

    Well, we know PI’s have it easy and they get the big bucks, so why should “monkeys” work for free or cheap?


  29. Jekka Says:

    This is why I got the majority of my undergrad research experience working in biotech (starting at $7/hr!). Had to pay summer rent somehow.


  30. Jekka Says:

    On a related note, I see more and more grad students coming in that have never held a paying job. Seems like their entire lives have been test prep and extra curricular whateverness. Give me someone who has seen a bit of the real world, they’re more likely to have their head screwed on straight.


  31. nyb Says:

    Maybe they’ve never held a paying job because they can only get unpaid internships?


  32. The Other Dave Says:

    DM, you have it all backwards. The question is not whether they should work for free, but rather whether we should charge them for the opportunity to work in the lab.

    They are STUDENTS. They pay tuition — tens of thousands of dollars — for the opportunity to otherwise be in a lab or interact with researchers. Do the math. The opportunity to work in groups with faculty and grad students normally commands $100/hour or more. Students go into debt to pay for that opportunity.

    So… The way I figure it, an hour in my lab working with me and my grad students is worth at least $100/hour. By paying them nothing, but not charging them, it’s like they’re getting at least $100/hr.

    Pretty damn good pay if you ask me. The little whiners should be grateful.


  33. becca Says:

    The Other Dave brings up a good point- undergrads pay a lot for their educations. Undergrad course “credit” causing cognitive dissonance should be a sign- there is something seriously wrong with our system of higher ed, who it serves (and why).

    My postdoc lab took on oodles of unpaid people- a high school student, undergrads, and we even had a friend-of-the-department from a local liberal arts university who had graduated who had a vague notion of volunteering (my boss sent her packing- it was awkward. Very nice girl, but had no idea how to fake an interest).
    It bothered me that no one could even cough up work-study money for the undergrads, but even the one who was working two jobs mentioned that it was “impossible to qualify for that” on our campus. I don’t know if his family had a LOT more money than I was used to (they lived in New York, so their income easily could have looked great on paper but corresponded to a lower quality of living than I was used to), or if there was something messed up about the financial aid on our campus.

    The high school student was a son of one of the department’s professors. He was also taking an econ course, but otherwise had an open schedule, and he was exceptionally bright, and motivated yet steady. In himself he made me wonder if science was something you just had to have the genes for (which I don’t). He was probably worth more than some of the grad students.
    I was uneasy with the unpaid labor, and discussed it with my boss but I don’t think I really got through to him.


  34. DrugMonkey Says:

    Those of you arguing that you don’t have the money to pay salaries so, shrug, you have to exploit free labor bother me tremendously. Can you not see the problem here? It’s just another systemic scam excuse. Find the money or don’t take the poor kids on.


  35. molliebatmit Says:

    I whole-heartedly agree. I was always paid as an undergrad (from the university’s undergrad research program, or from a funding source of my PI’s that had money set aside for undergraduate salaries).

    A labmate in my Ph.D. lab thinks it’s horrifying that I was paid — since she wasn’t ever paid, she thinks all undergrads should do it for the experience. Well, that’s great, but some of us had tuition bills to pay and food to buy as undergrads. If I hadn’t been paid for my labwork, I wouldn’t have been able to do research. I would have needed to take a work-study job instead.


  36. DrugMonkey Says:

    It is also fascinating to me that some people know full well their University agrees with me, has formal policy to prevent volunteering and yet it goes on anyway.

    HR is irrelevant and annoying, eh? Do you similarly avoid policies on sexual harassment? On nepotism of hiring?


  37. Grumble Says:

    Actually what you meant to say, DM, is “find the money or don’t take the rich kids on,” because it’s the “poor kids” who can’t afford to volunteer.

    I get that, and if it’s really true that we’re denying qualified poor kids opportunities that wealthier kids can easily get, then I’d agree that there’s a problem. However, there are two things to consider that prevent me from agreeing with your blanket “no volunteers” rule. First, “the disadvantaged” aren’t clamoring at my door trying to get in. They are not even asking for paid positions. So how is my denying a less-disadvantaged volunteer a position going to affect all those among the huddled masses who show no interest in my lab at all?

    If someone contacts me and shows evidence of striking intelligence and interest in my work – has read my papers and asks good questions – then I’ll find a way to get that person into my lab, paid if that’s what they need. That sort of person would easily qualify for my college’s undergraduate research program. Everyone else is at a competitive disadvantage. If they offer their services for free, I don’t think I’m exploiting them by giving them a chance to prove themselves.

    Second, there are, in fact, mechanisms through which “the disadvantaged” can gain research experience and get paid for it. My college, for instance, has a special undergrad research program targeted to minorities. That goes some way towards equalizing opportunity. I’d also be perfectly willing to pursue things like minority supplements to pay an undergrad for the summer or even a whole year – but as I said, they aren’t exactly banging my door down looking for work. Instead, I get people a few notches up on the socioeconomic scale who are willing to work for free. I really don’t see any concrete evidence that giving them that opportunity is preventing anyone else from having it.


  38. DrugMonkey Says:

    It is very convenient to refuse to see the forest for your carefully tended tree, Grumble.

    In case I have mislead, I am not against people taking on high school students and undergraduates in the lab. I totally* endorse that. I just want to see them treated like the employees that they are. And for our business to stop getting by on labor exploitation.

    *when we are not discussing the oversupply of PhDs, that is.


  39. lylebot Says:

    Question for those defending unpaid internships: when reading CVs, how do you weigh an unpaid internship against a paid one? Are they equal in your mind?

    Personally, unless there’s a good letter from a supervisor, I treat an unpaid internship as about equal to a course audit—that is, not very meaningful. At least you can assume that if they were getting paid, someone was probably paying attention to what they were doing. If they weren’t, who knows?

    (And if you really care about providing “valuable experience”, just know that I’m probably not alone in discounting unpaid internships.)


  40. DrugMonkey Says:

    I can’t recall seeing a CV distinguish paid (by the lab) from unpaid internships. If there is some sort of titled “award”, like a fellowship program or whatall, then it shows up. I would view it in the category of Awards like any other fellowship.


  41. rs Says:

    A big scam, all around academia. I have worked on courtesy faculty appointment when my grant ran out (I am a soft money faculty) and department refused to pay a penny. Couldn’t let my years of efforts go waste for a drench we are in because of the current funding situation. Nothing changed during that time except I wasn’t getting any salary. I published articles, submitted invention disclosure, and mentored students. Not sure if I qualify for this discussion, but the whole academic system is based on exploitation and it never stops. For the record, I think even the full professors are getting exploited. They get paid poorly compare to other employee in the university and think that they have a good deal.


  42. Dave Says:

    @rs: you worked for free at the faculty level? That’s insane. No career is worth that.

    I’m still trying to figure out why kids want to do science anymore, but most of the ones that we see are only doing stints in the lab to help them secure a med school spot. So I dont feel too bad for them. Agree that they should be compensated, but asking PIs to do that when they are happy to pay foreign post docs 25K year is just wishful thinking. Legal or not. Not happening. Next.


  43. Dave Says:

    Google pays their interns 6K/month btw.


  44. SEL Says:

    rs has got a point. I’m on a 9-month salary. If I’m lucky, I can put a month of summer salary on my grant. Do I piss off to France or wherever for the other two months since I’m not getting paid? Hell no; I’m in lab or training people or writing or giving talks. Sometimes I get no summer salary at all….the NSF might like my proposal but they laugh at how much I’m asking for. “Here’s what we’re giving people. Adjust your budget accordingly.” What gets cut first? My summer salary. And travel funds. Keep enough to pay for students to go to conferences, but my own travel expenses, I pay out of pocket. Am I going to even bother to ask for funding for undergrads or high school students who will work in my lab with a LOT of handholding for a month or two begrudgingly (they all want to be doctors and my research is not bio-related at all….but if the bio types aren’t taking students, they’re stuck with me)? No.


  45. I don’t really mind the idea of undergraduate or high school interns — like many have said, they probably get more out of the experience than they produce useful work. What really seems exploitative is the ones that have undergraduate (or even masters) degrees. Why would such people take internships? The economy, I suppose. But they are taken on to do useful work and either are unpaid or have a very small stipend for their work.


  46. CB12 Says:

    I thought about this some more (I have been uneasy about unpaid internships for some time, which is why I generally refuse to take these type of interns). My son has done lots of unpaid volunteering on his campus during his undergrad career; that was the only type of experience he could get. He got one publication out of it as an undergrad. While doing unpaid work in the lab, he was working in food service to pay for his summer housing, so this was not really the case of “only rich kids can afford to do unpaid internships”. I feel that he was very lucky to be able to get this experience.

    And yes, similarly to the Other Dave, I have always maintained that students with no research experience should be paying me for all the teaching and hands-on mentoring I have to do when they work in the lab, not the other way around.


  47. CB12 Says:

    Oh, and I know some PIs who work with their (unpaid) undergraduate interns on their projects (which result in undergraduate theses) during the workweek and then come in on the weekends to do hands-on work to generate preliminary data for the grants for their lab (effectively working lots of unpaid overtime to be able to do both). Are they also exploiting the students?


  48. I had the same experience as DrugMonkey. Several of my friends felt forced into unpaid internships after graduation and I didn’t see how I could do that. In fact, I declined an offer for a paid PhD student position (which has a >real< documented experience gain AND a degree) because the sallary was only half of what students on stipends or publicly funded research projects got. It would have barely paid my rent. If I hadn't been lucky enough to (immediately) find a properly paid position, I wouldn't be in academia anymore.

    Authorship as a compensation is ridiculous. If the interns did a main body of the work you gain reputation for, isn't that even more reason to value their work? I have seen people making their ways on author lists for much less then that. It is not a compensation that ways in money.

    Also, if you 'pay' (still sounds ridiculous) an intern for work on a successfull project with authorship, would you then pay the one who worked as hard on a not-successful project in dollars instead?

    Or in other words: What is the monetary equivalent for sharing authorship fame?

    When it comes to undergraduate theses, then that is part of the regular education program, it is not an internship. Although I have been paid for teaching during my undergrad thesis.


  49. DrugMonkey Says:

    CB12- “theses” sounds like academic credit and therefore is under the teaching mission. This is not all that complicated to keep straight.

    SEL- Your description merely points out the entrenched exploitation. If the granting bodies rely upon such exploitation, it is no excuse but rather a scathing indictment.


  50. *’weighs in money’, of course… geez.


  51. professa Says:

    I think there is another important reason to compensate undergrads/summer students: so that they have some skin in the game.
    I have found that unpaid students are generally pretty uncommitted to getting any work done, so I don’t ever take them. When they are registered for a class, at least they know I will be grading them. For those students, I usually try to design a project where they will test a specific hypothesis. I figure they are paying to learn this process from me (isn’t that one of my jobs as a faculty member?), but honestly the lab benefits very little from these kids until at least 6 months into the process.

    I also always have an undergrad in the lab working as a “lab aid”. These kids get paid about $9/hr (pretty good in a midsized midwestern city), and their primary function is mouse husbandry/genotyping. Any training they get is a bonus, just like I was trained how to make pizza for 50 people at a time or cook on the line–while I was getting paid. (I also learned that that job sucks and I wanted a cushy academic job!).

    I also accept summer interns that are paid by various programs. I’d say their commitment to working has ranged hugely–again probably linked to how much they thought I was responsible for their compensation.


  52. Bashir Says:

    Our lab tends to not allow volunteering. A few exceptions have been made for continuing students for a short amount of time but PI doesn’t like to do it.


  53. leigh Says:

    i was one of those underprivileged people who scored some wonderful paid opportunities to do research at the undergrad level. while i truly enjoyed my time in the lab, i had to eat somehow and working for free wasn’t going to achieve that end. nobody else had much interest in ensuring my survival, so i had decisions to make. i would have turned down unpaid research experience for paid work, period.

    what got me into a Big Time Grad Program? (one which, to this day, garners enough brand-name recognition on my CV as to continue to receive attention? one which provided a shittetonne of field connections? you get the idea of some of the benefits i continue to reap.) *research experience* first and foremost.

    if research hadn’t also served the purpose of paying the bills, well, i worked hard to do it all… but that would have been a breaking point.


  54. sciencedude Says:

    How about not paying interns, undergraduates, or graduate students. In theory, graduate students are “getting an education,” so they should be paying for it, just like medical school. That might put a dent in the PhD glut. I think I am going to get an internship at Google.


  55. The Other Dave Says:

    I am not doing the laundry or cooking anymore. Now I realize that my wife is exploiting me. I need pay.

    And what’s a gigolo’s salary these days? She can’t have me for nothing. Slave-driving bitch.


  56. J.W. Hamner Says:

    The reason why people would take on interns who provide negative value is very simple: as a scientist you are obligated to help train the next generation of scientists.


  57. Grumble Says:

    “SEL- Your description merely points out the entrenched exploitation. If the granting bodies rely upon such exploitation, it is no excuse but rather a scathing indictment.”

    Sure. It’s an indictment of Congress and the American people too. They’re too damn cheap to pay for the technological/scientific advances that so clearly benefit them.

    All very nice, but the reality is that we, as PIs, can’t do anything about Congress’ miserliness, yet we still have the primary responsibility of keeping our labs afloat. When survival is at stake, it’s hard for me to get too worked up about paying summer interns who haven’t even asked to be paid. It’s also hard for me to justify spending a lot of time and effort on securing funding for kids who want to intern (although I willingly do it if the right person asks) when I need to submit 3 R01s per year to stay alive.

    Yes, you can accuse me of acting like a 19th century industrialist who demanded 80 hour workweeks in his sweatshops, but the difference is that those industrialists fought reform tooth and nail. (Also, they lived in mansions and were conveyed around in vehicles more elegant than a beat-up old Toyota.) I’m very open to reform – but in the meantime, I have some grants and papers to write.


  58. DrugMonkey Says:

    No, Grumble, you are more like the Industrial Age foreman or floor boss. An apologist for the system without the true ownership of the means of production.


  59. CB12 Says:

    “The reason why people would take on interns who provide negative value is very simple: as a scientist you are obligated to help train the next generation of scientists.”

    Totally agree. Are we also obligated to pay them while they are providing negative value?


  60. Elsa Says:

    As a new PI in a dept that doesn’t typically pay undergrad assistants, I created a lab policy that the first semester in the lab you are a volunteer or receive credit. If you stick around after that, you are paid or may continue to receive credit if you so choose. I feel this clearly defines the actual training/education period. After 10 weeks it’s clear who is going to be an asset to the lab in the longer term. And that has helped me justify to the department the value in paying the student (from my startup $) in subsequent semesters.


  61. J.W. Hamner Says:

    Our lab is outside of the university setting (a hospital) so my experience is probably pretty different since we don’t even have grad students… but it takes us 3 months just to get a post-doc up to speed and collecting data, an undergraduate or (god forbid a high school student) is much *much* worse than useless to us. We occasionally take such people on for a month or the summer or whatever but I’ve never had one of them contribute anything meaningful. If someone came and said they wanted to volunteer for a summer for their med/grad school application we would let them and I wouldn’t feel the least bit exploitative about it: they have no useful skills and anything they did would need to be supervised or at the very least checked over by someone who knew what they were doing. Do we have lame things that need to get done for the lab to function? Of course. But we wouldn’t ask a volunteer to do it because they didn’t volunteer to do IRB paperwork, they volunteered to learn about science. I’d actually be more worried about the quality of our work if it was capable of being done by unpaid high school students.


  62. Grumble Says:

    Elsa – Beyond 10 weeks, it’s not really an internship anymore (most technical skills have been learned) and I think anyone who shows up daily for that long and is doing a good job deserves to be paid. Less than 10 weeks, and the kid is just dabbling his/her toes in the water to see if they like research, and PIs are doing them a favor as much as reaping any benefits. So, setting a cut-off time is an excellent policy that neatly solves the moral issue.

    DM – Guilty as charged. I’m the floor boss. I have no ownership in the system. But then, neither do you, and paying summer interns doesn’t give you that either. You can choose to pay them and collect your brownie points, but since I have no idea where to redeem them for anything of real value, I guess I’ll just have to continue the status quo.


  63. Dr. Noncoding Arenay Says:

    “As a new PI in a dept that doesn’t typically pay undergrad assistants, I created a lab policy that the first semester in the lab you are a volunteer or receive credit. If you stick around after that, you are paid or may continue to receive credit if you so choose.”

    I think this is a great middle ground. That way the committed students stay and get paid for the skills that they picked up after “volunteering” for one semester while the uncommitted ones leave with at least a better skill set than when they started, which is a win-win situation for both parties and may be helpful to the students in the future.


  64. Isabel Says:

    “- but as I said, they aren’t exactly banging my door down looking for work.”

    Have you ever wondered why that is? A couple ideas: 1) They have no idea the opportunity even exists, and that it would help them get ahead. You think underprivileged kids are born with this knowledge? 2) They have not developed enough sense of entitlement to figure out that when an opportunity doesn’t officially exist they could, as you suggest, create it, nor have they developed the confidence to see it through.

    “I think this is a great middle ground. That way the committed students stay and get paid for the skills that they picked up after “volunteering” for one semester while the ”

    As long as the volunteering is for few hours only and leads to full-time paid work in the summer. And the opportunity is clearly broadcast to all students.


  65. Dr. Noncoding Arenay Says:

    “As long as the volunteering is for few hours only and leads to full-time paid work in the summer. And the opportunity is clearly broadcast to all students.”

    The volunteering could be based on their choice of hours, albeit with some sort of disciplined schedule. During this time, they can pick up skills, decide whether they like the work, and be made aware that as long as their progress over the summer is satisfactory (this doesn’t have to be data of course, but independence in a few skills useful to the lab such as PCR, maintaining cell cultures, genotyping, etc) they will be hired as paid “interns” over the summer.

    To make sure that you have enough money to pay the interns, take in fewer than you actually can support during the semester so that you can keep your word and hire 100% of them if they are all satisfactory.


  66. Ellen Says:

    This exploitation is growing in other ways and spilling over to other demographics.

    I’m over 55 and have been out of work for a couple of years. One way I can get a job — POSSIBLY — is to intern for SIX MONTHS at one of several places (this is through an established program with a major nonprofit that works ‘helping’ “seniors” get back into the workforce). Work for free for six months! Then, if they “like” me, I may or may not be offered a job, wages and duties unspecified at the outset. No guarantees of any kind, and you could be starting from scratch at a new place in six months.

    I think it’s hugely exploitative and when I was fresh out of college refused to participate in this system, and it’s absolutely disheartening to have to do it now. Of course employers will be jumping all over this practice in the current economy.


  67. hydropsyche Says:

    As an ecologist, I find this discussion interesting. In our field, research requires a lot of field work, and field work is generally done by (paid!) undergrads and occasionally high school students, supervised by grad students. These labor costs have to be written into grants–I don’t think an ecology proposal that didn’t include cost of field labor would be believable.


  68. undergraduate neuroscience student Says:

    You just described the past two years of my life and what I continue to do. I work for free, the data from my independent research (a line of work that I proposed and is not monitored by a grad. student) goes into grants (that I edit and help out with). I even took on a post-doc’s project at one point. The amount of time I spend in the lab during the school year (20-30 hours/week) leaves me absolutely no time to have a job on the side since I’m trying to keep my GPA from flat-lining.

    My dad has been unemployed for the last 11+ years. I afford 2/3rds of my tuition through a merit-based scholarship. I split a tiny 2 bedroom apartment with three people and make sure my classes are scheduled so that I don’t have to pay for parking more than 3 x week. I’m happy to be thrifty to continue working, even if it is for free, because I love what I do. I love my lab. I have a wonderful PI, and my project is awesome. But I am not very comfortable with the assumption I’ve seen in these comments that I am a “rich” kid. Unfortunately, this is just not the case.

    There are ways to make it work when times are tough and funding is limited as an undergrad. It’s definitely not a glamorous lifestyle, but it works.


  69. drugmonkey Says:

    There is not an assumption that every volunteer in the lab is well off. It is the assumption that on an industry basis, those kids who are well off are going to be more easily able to do such freebie work in science labs. Those who are not will be underrepresented. This means that brains that might otherwise make strong contributions are lost to science. This is a problem.

    Do you have any insight as to why with all this work you are doing that your “wonderful PI” has not yet come up with a way to pay you?


  70. Isabel Says:

    “There are ways to make it work when times are tough and funding is limited as an undergrad. It’s definitely not a glamorous lifestyle, but it works.”

    Well, it’s hard to comment on your situation since you didn’t mention how you support yourself, besides a scholarship that covers 2/3 of your tuition. How do you pay rent? Utilities? Books? Clothes? You pay for parking? You have a car…How do you cover all the car expenses? Thriftiness only goes so far. Do you work summers? For free?

    The bottom line is students from working class and lower middle class families usually work. It’s not a matter of willingness to tolerate an “unglamorous lifestyle” as you seem to suggest.

    “This exploitation is growing in other ways and spilling over to other demographics. ”

    Yes, even disabled children are not exempt from the trend. Sweatshops are making a comeback.



  71. undergraduate neuroscience student Says:

    Hi, thank you for your response and for clarifying that assumption.

    I see your point, and as an undergraduate I know there are numerous scholarships and fellowships available that are both need and merit-based for STEM students to potentially prevent certain students from falling through the cracks. Maybe URLs to these could be advertised on a lab’s website, so that interested students could understand from the get-go that they may not be paid, but that there are resources available to make gaining a research experience financially possible. Obviously, not every PI is going to start paying every high school/undergraduate student starting tomorrow morning, but it would only take a few minutes to collect links to scholarships and make them available on lab websites for students when they are searching for labs they may be interested in joining. Maybe some PI’s would be open to matching whatever amount a student could earn as an extra incentive. I think that would be a step in the right direction.

    Our lab was established only about three years ago. From my understanding, this makes it a little difficult when competing for funding. The sequester didn’t make this any easier. I believe this contributes to why I (and the other undergrads in my lab) do not get paid. However, my PI has offered me a full-time paid position to continue my project between when I graduate this December and when I start grad. school in fall 2014.

    Thanks again for your response.


  72. The Other Dave Says:

    OK, enough screwing around. DM is pointedly ignoring my jokes. Time to inject some actual real information into this discussion.

    Here is the United States Department of Labor Fact Sheet, upon which the judicial ruling was based: http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs71.htm

    This is the heart of it:

    The following six criteria must be applied when making [the determination that an internship is legal]:

    1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;

    2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;

    3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;

    4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;

    5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and

    6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

    I suggest, and discussion here supports the idea, that the vast majority of science internships meet those 6 criteria. They are therefore not considered exploitation, and are perfectly legal. Save your grant funds, folks. No need to pay those undergrads.


  73. Philip Says:

    Thank you, TOD. I’m sure everyone here will agree that Congress passes only fair, just, and equitable laws.


  74. Grumble Says:

    Well, Philip, do YOU really think that set of rules is unjust? It seems eminently reasonable to me. The question is whether summer internships in science labs qualify as legally unpaid under these rules.

    I think a lot hinges on #2, ” The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern”. As I wrote above, a short period (summer, 10 week, 1 semester) of research experience is certainly of benefit: the whole reason why most interns seek out an internship is to get the research experience to see if they like it, so they can decide if they want to pursue it as a career. That or they want a nice letter so they can get into med school. Either way, it benefits the intern.

    But when someone works for longer than that, s/he is no longer learning new skills, and is not benefiting much from the experience. So I still think that short unpaid internships are both legal and ethical, whereas longer ones are not unless there is some clear benefit to the intern.


  75. drugmonkey Says:

    3. and 4. are equally important. All of 2-4 are, naturally, going to depend on your viewpoint and interpretation, as well as the balancing of factors, thus the legal cases.

    4. is the obvious place where employers are highly motivated to lie and/or overlook the benefits they receive. I also take issue with “immediate”. Like the fact that a newbie assistant prof won’t be reviewed on “trainees” until a tenure decision 3-4 years away isn’t an “immediate” benefit but it is nevertheless a clear one for our industry. Ditto the fact that the paper may not be published for three years after the trainee has left.

    3. really requires a broader viewpoint. one that looks at the entire industry and one that looks at the longer haul for a given laboratory.


  76. Isabel Says:


    1. A monkey could run gels and design primers

    2. After 10 weeks a student (and probably a top student at that sice they had to compete for the position) can offer nothing of value to a lab because they had to spend the whole summer learning basic skills.

    3. The problem of underprivileged kids who can’t afford to work for free all summer is solved by putting notices on the lab web site with ideas for how they can get scholarships that maybe the PI could even match, you never know.


  77. Isabel Says:

    Just to be clear, those numbers are my own tally, nothing to do with DOL fact sheet above.


  78. rs Says:

    Utter bullshit, TOD. No PI will put student in the project which has no value. In most cases, PI uses new student to solve some of the real problems in lab (running standard gel, trying to get new pilot data or making website or movie of the lab research or whatever…) where undergraduates can be used. It is real work.


  79. poke Says:

    No PI will put student in the project which has no value.

    Seriously? You call bullshit on others but think this is true?


  80. tehpet Says:

    In our lab, we have three different types of undergraduate labour.

    During the summer months, we often (but not always) take a first- or second-year volunteer who typically works ~10 hours per week on side projects helping out grad students. These are very clearly research training positions. They learn sterile technique, PCR, sequencing, how to use basic alignment programs, and more, depending on their area of interest.

    Second, we offer work study positions throughout the year which are paid jointly by the university and the lab. These students wash glassware, autoclave media, perform general cleaning and lab maintenance duties, and care for experimental plants.

    Finally, we have research students, who are doing coursework for which they receive credit. They do all the appropriate reading, design and perform their experiments, give presentations in lab meetings, and produce both a final paper and a poster which they present. They pay a course fee to the school for the privilege of taking on an independent project with our lab.

    I think all three are valid positions, but we take great care to ensure that only our paid students are doing the “grunt work”. We don’t believe it’s fair to ask students to volunteer to wash our dirty dishes and learn little or nothing of value in the lab. Unfortunately, I have heard stories of many labs who rely on volunteers to do all their dirty work, and I think it’s pretty horrible. I do think there’s a place for volunteering, but it needs to be a position in which learning is truly the focus.


  81. Isabel Says:

    Are PIs taking on these students completely selflessly? I am asking sincerely. If on the other hand this improves your standing for getting grants, satisfies a requirement of your job with the university, gives your grad students help and mentoring experience that looks good on their CVs etc then YES they are contributing. They should get credit or payment.

    I think this is a sign of the times. My first job ever as a teenager over 30 yrs ago was as nurses aide in a local nursing home. For three weeks I shadowed and was intensively trained and constantly evaluated by a seasoned aide. I learned everything from personal care to taking vital signs to dressing bed sores to filling out charts. I was paid the whole time, $6/hr. After 3 months “probation” I was offered full-time benefits.

    Today nurses aides must be certified in advance, and CNA training programs (three weeks full time) cost about $1500. Then CNAs can make 10-12/hr.


  82. DrugMonkey Says:

    In a word Isabel, yes, there is benefit. Credit accrues to the PI and even the other trainees if they can claim to have supervised/trained. (I recommend this heartily for postdocs btw).


  83. Grumble Says:

    Credit accrues to the intern, too, in the form of a very positive experience to put on med/grad school applications. In fact, I’d say this is far more valuable than what PIs get. For instance, I have plenty of grad students, and that satisfies the requirements for promotion/tenure. But good luck to the grad school applicant without any research experience.


  84. DrugMonkey Says:

    And the wages of a walMart checker are far more important to her than the marginal value she individually provides to a member of the Walton Klan. Your point?


  85. Grumble Says:

    What does Walmart have to do with any of this? The question is one of relative benefit to the intern and the mentor. One way to figure out if the relationship is exploitative is to ask whether what the intern gets is of equal or greater value to what the mentor gets. I think it’s a fair exchange: mentor gets some small amount of work done, intern gets loads of experience and a nice letter that unlocks a door that would otherwise be closed.

    (Now, of course, if the internship is longer than a few weeks, the whole relationship balance clearly changes. It does begin to look more like Sam Walton and his 2 million underpaid cashiers.)


  86. DrugMonkey Says:

    The benefit a Walton gets from any given employee is tiny. Much smaller than what a PI gets even for one more anonymous trainee padding the count.


  87. Alex Says:

    Publish a paper with an undergrad, especially from the right background, and certain funding avenues become a bit more plausible, especially (though not exclusively) with NSF.


  88. Barbara Says:

    I’ve been concerned for a long time about how strongly participation in environmental work is strongly skewed toward white people from middle-class or rich backgrounds. We’re not the only ones interested in the natural world, effects of pollution on health, or other environmental issues. However, we are the ones who can afford to do the volunteer work and take the unpaid internships. And the few employers in this field understandably hire mostly from the pool of people with that (unpaid) experience.

    Drawing more diverse people into the work is important and paid internships plus a real effort at outreach can help.


  89. Barbara Says:

    The course I taught this spring attracted undergraduate teaching assistants. They were very helpful for the course, answering student questions, collection material for labs, photocopying, running errors, grading papers, etc. The undergrads worked as “students” in a reading-and-conference “course” for which they PAID tuition.

    This seemed totally unfair to me. Their contribution was valuable and giving them their academic credit for free seemed the very least we should be doing for them. My opinion was not well received within the department.


  90. Barbara Says:

    To me, it seems that science research work can be divided into two categories for purposes of deciding whether to pay or call it an unpaid intern.

    1. Boring work that no one in her right mind would do for fun. In my work, that’s data entry, writing labels, and variations on sorting and filing. For others, that would include washing glassware or cleaning cages. We really must pay for that work because we really can’t honestly call it educational. And I find that in an academic environment, work-study students are astonishingly cheap.

    2. Work that is or can be interesting and informative. Field work. Preparing some kinds of interesting specimens. Extracting and sequencing DNA (at least the first couple of times one does it). Generating and analyzing data. Actual research. This is work that requires a commitment from a supervisor. I think this would fall into three subcategories. (a) Student brings in a question of her own. It’s her issue, and she can devote all the time needed to it, unpaid. This happened to me once. (b) Students gets a brief taste of the work – goes on one field trip, spends a week or two in the lab to learn things. For free. (c) Student works longer or more steadily. Student actually earns a place on that publication, doing something that furthers the PI’s research. That work ought to be paid.

    As for me, although I can’t imagine turning down the offer of volunteer interns should they appear, my colleagues and I are paying two students now to collect data and do basic analysis, to further two projects that we can’t seem to find time for otherwise. The students are being paid through the work study program — they were originally hired to do grunt work — and will be co-authors.


  91. boba Says:

    Interesting perspective. Another one is that the Dev1 payline reached 3% this past review cycle. I’m sure if the PO knew of these chains we clap on unsuspecting acolytes, they would raise it to 4%.


  92. Eli Rabett Says:

    Increasingly in the US the professional accrediting societies (ACS for example) are asking that for certified degrees the student show some research experience or something damn close to it. In the case of ACS the current requirement is 400 hours of lab experience with a strong recommendation that some of it be research.

    In the old German system students had to do research for their Diplom, which meant that even for the worst, some lab had to be found which would take them. The rush to the exits by the PIs was on occasion breath-taking.


  93. @Eli

    I’ve worked with the German Diplom kids- chemists & biologists. I’d take them over most of the USA trained Bachelor’s; I can see why the Germans kicked up such a fuss when they decided to switch to a Master’s system. Esp. the Dipl.-Ing’s, heh.


  94. qaz Says:

    Three data points to inject into the conversation.

    1. At my BigStateResearchU, volunteers are not covered by workman’s compensation. In fact, they have to sign a form that says that the BSRU is not responsible for anything that happens to them, up to and including death.

    2. Once a student is paid by anyone at the BSRU, they can never volunteer again. Once they are in the books as working for a salary, all work they do from then on has to be salaried or compensated in some specific way. (I had a situation where a young woman could not volunteer to finish the project she had gotten class credit on because she worked as a receptionist in another part of the BSRU. In fact, volunteering to finish her credit project meant I would have had to pay her overtime for whatever time she spent on the project [see point 3 below], and she never finished her project, never got the paper written, and never got “credit” for that project that she had worked so hard on.)

    3. All non-permanent salaries are hourly. There is no way to say that “I am willing to pay you $X for the summer. Come get some lab experience.” Anyone not given a one-year (or more) job has to turn in a time card and get paid overtime for any hours worked beyond 40 or any hours worked on the weekend.

    3a. How does one fairly measure hours worked on open-ended projects? Like data analysis or paper writing? This means I can never hire someone to let them do an open-ended project like real research.

    3b. There is no way to separate the projects I tell someone to do (wash the dishes) from the projects that I let them do (here’s your open-ended research project – write up the paper that you’ve been working on).

    The effect of condition 2 + condition 3 is that once you pay someone a salary to work in your lab, you can never let them do an open-ended research project. (Aren’t all research projects open-ended? They certainly are in my lab.) So if someone wants to ever do research, they need to volunteer, which is dangerous (see point 1.)

    I’ve been arguing with human resources here that they’re all SNAFU’d, but they won’t budge.

    … still trying to solve the contradictions between these three conditions…


  95. Eli Rabett Says:

    Allison, the pre-Diploms were not always a bargain. . . .:)


  96. Isabel Says:

    “I had a situation where a young woman could not volunteer to finish the project she had gotten class credit on because she worked as a receptionist in another part of the BSRU. ”

    This is just weird. Students at your University cannot work on their projects in a lab? What does this have to do with volunteering? We have undergrads in the lab working on their senior projects or grad students from other labs using the equipment etc all the time. Your uni sure has some strict rules.

    Working on ones own project is not volunteering,

    ” There is no way to say that “I am willing to pay you $X for the summer. Come get some lab experience.””

    You could estimate the hours in advance, or even commit to a number. Why is this so hard to imagine?

    “3a. How does one fairly measure hours worked on open-ended projects? Like data analysis or paper writing? This means I can never hire someone to let them do an open-ended project like real research.”

    They do it in the lab on lab computers 9-5 and you (or they) keep track of the hours.

    “3b. There is no way to separate the projects I tell someone to do (wash the dishes) from the projects that I let them do (here’s your open-ended research project – write up the paper that you’ve been working on). ”

    Putting aside why you need to hand someone their own project and order them to work on it, this is also very easy. If it’s their own project why are you even responsible for it?

    I don’t think anyone should be paid to do their own research, senior projects or whatever. If it is important to you as a paper coming out of your lab, then just count the hours along with the glass washing.

    It sounds like a lot of excuses, really.

    As far as Grumble and others bragging about how much the students are getting out of the experience, first the student doesn’t know either how it is going to work out- you just want them, the least powerful party i the negotiation, to take the whole risk. Second, getting experience and recommendations for the next job is how jobs work. Why do you think you are offering something special? I heard this many times as an artist – this will be great on your demo reel, we are offering you this great opportunity blah blah.


  97. Isabel Says:

    Just to repeat so I don’t come across as anti-volunteering, students volunteering 6-10 hours week during the semester for credit is fine with me, as long as they get good training (not just dish washing). This is also a more ethical way to try people out before hiring them.


  98. qaz Says:

    Isabel –

    The key is that my university does not distinguish between technician work (wash the dishes) and working on research (I want to study how X applies to Y so I’m going to do experiment Z. Qaz’s lab studies X, Y, and can do Z, so can I come to your lab and (with your help, of course) run experiment Z?)

    “This is just weird. Students at your University cannot work on their projects in a lab? What does this have to do with volunteering? ”

    The point is that this student had to be compensated for this work. I could not say “you’ll get a paper, which will help get you into grad school, as compensation”. I could not say “you’ll get to finish your project that you started and find out what happens”. Because she was working for another part of BigStateResearchU, she was technically an employee and if she worked in my lab for things that were equivalent to things other people got compensated for (like grad students), then she had to be paid. Because she was working 40 hours a week elsewhere, I would have had to pay her overtime on her receptionist’s salary.

    “You could estimate the hours in advance, or even commit to a number. Why is this so hard to imagine?”

    The problem is that if they work longer hours than that, than I am liable for overtime pay. So I would have to watch those hours carefully. (I had a colleague who got badly burned by this. He let an hourly-paid technician do an experiment [that the student suggested] on that student’s own time and then got told (after the fact) that he owed the student for all the time that student worked on the project – including all the time at home that the student was writing up the report!)

    “Putting aside why you need to hand someone their own project and order them to work on it, this is also very easy. If it’s their own project why are you even responsible for it? ”

    Projects in my lab are negotiations between student and faculty. That’s part of the value I add to their project. I help them work out what are the right experiments, what are the right controls. It’s not that I give them the project, but that they come to me with a project, and I make suggestions. When I said “Here’s your project”, I meant here is a project they’re doing in my lab.

    “They do it in the lab on lab computers 9-5 and you (or they) keep track of the hours.”

    I don’t know any research that actually runs 9-5. Research is an open-ended thing that entails a lot of thinking, wandering around trying to figure out why something is happening the way it is. A lot of writing is staring at a screen. How do you differentiate working on a project from slacking off?

    With my graduate students and postdocs, I measure output. But they’re not paid hourly. They’re paid a salary, which is renewed annually based on successful progress. (Of course, we discuss progress throughout the year, so no one is surprised at the end of a year.)

    The point is that research is not an hourly job.

    “It sounds like a lot of excuses, really.”

    The point I was making is that my university is a big business and is covered by big business labor laws. (I suspect most universities are this way. I only found out about all these rules because one of my colleagues got burned by a student complaining after agreeing to volunteer.)


  99. Isabel Says:

    “and if she worked in my lab for things that were equivalent to things other people got compensated for (like grad students)”

    Well maybe this is a biomed thing, I usually imagine even grad students not getting paid directly to do their own research. Maybe a post doc working independently on a mutually interesting topic for a limited time. In my dept. grad students either have a fellowship or (more often) TA or RA for their stipends.

    So basically what you are saying is that no one ever steps foot in your lab ever unless they are some sort of official employee or volunteer.

    ” (I suspect most universities are this way. I only found out about all these rules because one of my colleagues got burned by a student complaining after agreeing to volunteer.)”

    Sounds like it may have been an unusual case then. You really think the student who just wants to come in and finish her old project is going to do this to you? Sounds a little paranoid to me.

    “I don’t know any research that actually runs 9-5.”

    I know plenty of examples where undergrads stick to a regular summer schedule and their work includes analyzing results, writing, making presentations. It works out well because they can get help when needed. If they are out in the field extra time they take a day or two off. Are you talking about having to come in and care for animals or something? Sure we all work crazy hours but summer interns don’t have to.

    We are mainly talking about people who are working on your lab’s research as well as the washing dishes etc. I confess I do not understand the value of these student-designed projects to you and your lab. It seems odd that there is not a system in place where they get credit at least. And to refuse to let someone come in and finish their for-credit project on their own time…maybe she took on way to much? If she just needs a little time who would know the difference?


  100. qaz Says:

    “Well maybe this is a biomed thing, I usually imagine even grad students not getting paid directly to do their own research. Maybe a post doc working independently on a mutually interesting topic for a limited time. In my dept. grad students either have a fellowship or (more often) TA or RA for their stipends. ”

    A fellowship, a TA-ship, or an RA-ship are all ways of paying graduate students. This is DM’s point. These people are being paid to do research in your lab. Undergraduate students shouldn’t be any different.

    While I agree with DM, I was pointing out that the corporate institutional mechanisms sometimes complicate the volunteer vs paid issue.

    I wonder whether we should really be looking at this from the whole perspective of academia: science and engineering tends to pay students to be in the lab, but pays much less than equivalent jobs in their fields (so there is an opportunity cost), humanities makes the students pay for their degree (so there is a negative salary). In that context, allowing someone to volunteer is more of a mid-point between paying them a salary and charging them a cost.


  101. Isabel Says:

    “A fellowship, a TA-ship, or an RA-ship are all ways of paying graduate students. This is DM’s point. ”

    In my world these are not applied to a grad students’s own research project, except the fellowships which are the exception, temporary (one semester to three years), and are obtained independently by the grad so I don’t see how this applies to your undergrads working on their own self-initiated projects.

    Just don’t have any “volunteers” come in full time for the summer to work on a project for someone in your lab or to wash glassware.


  102. DrugMonkey Says:

    WTF kind of program are you in that an RAship doesn’t cover the grad student’s own work?


  103. Isabel Says:

    I mean not directly, as qaz seemed to be implying. Most grads in our program work half-time as a TA or RA and get a stipend and fee remittance. So in that sense of course we are supported by these, but not directly for the time we are in the lab working on our own research. The RA-ship can be for anyone at the university (one semester I worked for a PI in a completely different non-science department who had an NSF grant to design science curricula. It had absolutely nothing to do with my own dissertation research and did not result in any publications). I have never had an RAship in my advisor’s lab where I do my research or in another lab where I also work on my research and supervise undergrads (for credit and pay through a university program). Some weeks I spend very little time in my official ‘home’ lab and no one keeps track of my hours. I think this is pretty common in the evo/eco end of the biological sciences (as opposed to cell biology and bio-med). This is why I suggested the confusion was that this is a biomed thing, because I think of an RA-ship as by definition working on someone else’s research. And of course if an undergrad is working on one of these projects they should be paid or receive credit (for less hours of course). But if they just want to come in to the lab to finish their *own* project it seems ridiculous to say they can’t “volunteer” and they should be paid. Unless this is another semantic issue and it is not really their won project? I do side projects and collaborations in other labs all the time and no one is paying me for those. And yet I wouldn’t classify it as “volunteering.”


  104. CB12 Says:

    I think Isabel uncovered part of the reason this issue is so confusing. When I was a grad. student, my salary and tuition coverage came from TAship. In return, I was expected to teach certain number of hours. If I wanted to supplement my meager salary, I worked in the tutoring center or the animal facility as an hourly employee. The rest of my time (working in the lab on my project) was essentially unpaid. This was in biomedical sciences but at a relatively small university without much grant funding.

    I guess that’s why I don’t quite get what is so problematic with having undergrads work on their projects for free, as long it is “their project” that they get credit for (something they can report on for their honors program, put on their resume etc.).


  105. drugmonkey Says:

    What did your hourly pay for that TA ship work out to be?


  106. CB12 Says:

    Ah! That’s a good point. TAship worked out to be about $35/hr, not counting class preparation time. By contract, we were expected to work up to 20 hrs/week, which would have worked out to $15/hr, but we never were given that many hours. TAing a summer course (an optional, more-or-less fulltime job for a month and a half that many graduate students took to supplement the stipend) worked out to about $22/hr, not counting class preparation time. So I guess one could argue that we were overpaid for teaching, which in turn subsidized the lab work.


  107. drugmonkey Says:

    Hugely overpaid for running a few scantrons through the machine and making up a test or two.

    Not only “one could argue”, this is the *explicit* reason for the pay rate.


  108. drugmonkey Says:

    And yes, I do grasp that the workload of “TAships” varies tremendously. For the ones that I know the best, the payrate just for that was astronomical. This is because it was really a graduate student stipend funded by University $$$ for which the Uni demanded a little bit of help for the faculty.


  109. Isabel Says:

    Well you *should* count class prep time (obviously) and I *do* work 20/hrs week (especially at RAships) and make about $22/hr which is not too much for teaching a university class! It is only because of the suppressed wages in the US that people think this is a lot- it isn’t. And did you only work an additional 20 hrs/wk on your research?? I hope not! And yes it is supposed to support me for the whole period, what does that have to do with what qaz was saying, that every student who crosses the threshold of her/his lab has to be officially either an employee or a volunteer and once they are an employee somewhere they can’t work on their honors thesis without being paid? And what does how a grad student is compensated have to do with the topic of exploitation of undergrads and unpaid interns?
    I think we can agree that no one should ever wash glassware for someone else without compensation, that’s just gross.


  110. Isabel Says:

    “Hugely overpaid for running a few scantrons through the machine and making up a test or two. ”

    Ha ha good one DM.

    A monkey could teach a class, right.


  111. CB12 Says:

    The TA’s task was to explain to students what we needed to do each day, along with the background for each experiments, make sure they followed all procedures correctly, help them record the results of the previous lab’s experiments and discuss the conclusions and reasons for why certain things did not work. I also chose to prepare brief handouts for students so that things would go more smoothly.

    Grading involved reading written reports (some of them fairly long), brief oral tests in the end of each lab, and writing and grading practical exams (which often meant setting up dissections with numbered pins or something similar). The professors actually took care of the scantrons for the lecture exams since we had a lot more wor k to do writing and grading our lab exams.

    So yes, overpayed but not hugely.


  112. drugmonkey Says:

    $7.25 is US minimum, Isabel. I think the top State min wage is not much above $10? $9.something?

    There is a HUGE difference between arguing about what you imagine is sufficient pay and arguing about no pay (or, below minimum wage as far as I am concerned).


  113. Isabel Says:

    Okay so if I would 40+ hrs/wk on my research I am making less than minimum wage, so what? I am not complaining about my grad situation. (but if you scroll upthread you will see that a teenager over 30 yrs ago was paid $6/hr to be trained to be a nurses aide, so yes things are severely depressed today-but that’s another topic).

    “There is a HUGE difference between arguing about what you imagine is sufficient pay and arguing about no pay”

    Exactly! What does paying grad students have to do with this conversation? Do you think undergrads should be paid to work on their honors thesis? Is that what you are saying? I just think they should be paid to wash glassware, or assist your postdoc over the summer.


  114. Isabel Says:

    If I remember correctly it was about twice minimum wage at the time. Minimum wage has not kept up with inflation, as we all know. So CNA’s should be making 25+/hr starting pay today and I have heard many make 7-10/hr after paying for their own expensive training. I have seen many calculations of what minimum wage should be today if it had kept up with inflation, I think it’s like 22/hr.


  115. drugmonkey Says:

    Exceeding 40 hrs per week as a salaried employee is yet another issue that has very little to do with the fact that you are only formally required to put in 40.

    Undergrads are completing their honors thesis as part of the work leading to the degree for which they are paying. So no, they do not require additional compensation nor is it an unpaid internship.


  116. drugmonkey Says:

    Why do you imagine, Isabel, that the discussion of what minimum wage is has any relevance to unpaid interns?


  117. Isabel Says:

    That’s what I was asking! I didn’t bring it up- you did, saying CB12 was paid astronomically or something.


  118. Isabel Says:

    Oh, and I am definitely expected to work more than 20 hrs /wk on my research. But again, I have no complaints about that.


  119. E) You understand that the owners, users, and staff of this website can not be held responsible for
    any form of loss that may occur from using this website.


  120. Mac Says:

    I agree with this position and do not have people working with me who are unpaid. I think it’s right to pay people for work and I’m very concerned that the unpaid intern culture is excluding kids who do not come from wealth. I worked for pay from the age of 14 on and could not have spent a summer volunteering, no matter how much it might have benefited my college applications.

    However, I have a small exception to this which I think is valid but I’m curious what your response to this is. I do field work and students often think they will LOVE field work – they picture it as romping around through sunny fields cuddling bunnies. In truth it’s often hot, dusty and exhausting and when it’s not it’s cold, wet, and exhausting – but for some of us it’s heaven. Before I take a student on who I don’t know from another venue (typically classes) I do encourage them to come out in the field with us for at least a few days. This usually helps them decide if they actually want to do this work (where are the bunnies?) and lets me see how well they’re likely to handle field work (yes I have had students run away from bugs in disgust – we study insects, this will be a problem) . So for example before I take on a student for a senior thesis project I try to get a chance to work with them for 3-4 days in the field to see how they do and for them to test it out. We don’t rely on them for data collection although good ones are helpful on the days they join us. I consider this fair because it doesn’t interfere with them taking classes or holding other jobs but gives us each a valuable trial period.

    Exploitative or not?


  121. Anon Says:

    At my current medical college, it appears that unpaid internships help to foster nepotism. I see a lot of faculty giving their kids unpaid lab experience in colleagues or their own labs.

    This, plus the legacy treatment that many of these kids will get, simply for being related to MDs, when they apply to medical school, ensures that the “Good Ol’ Boy” network will remain intact.

    It also biases the system unfairly toward kids who get extra lab experience simply for being related to someone who works in a lab. They don’t get paid, but they still put it on their resumes, and this helps them to get future paid experiences for their resumes. Some kids will even get their names on papers, to help pad their resumes.


  122. Anon Says:

    Oh, one case involves a senior PI, who is an MD, helping his grandson get an unpaid internship in a buddy’s lab just a few floors up from his lab. Doesn’t hurt that the dude is chair of his small department and can push people around a little.


  123. JCSolomon Says:

    Thank you for writing that.

    I am currently a graduate student in a veterinary program and this topic is something I have been thinking about for a long time now.

    Recently, I have had my peers chastise me for admitting that I don’t believe in unpaid internships and that I believe students have a right to a wage for their work. I don’t find these beliefs to be salacious in the least bit, but the amount of anger my peers expressed was unbelievable.

    With the high cost of a veterinary education and most graduates leaving with $150,000+ of school debt, I find it sad that so few students want to question these exploitative practices. It’s no wonder why the profession is suffering. From early on, it’s reinforced that “making money” is not important. Vet med might be fundamentally different from many other fields, but the high debt coupled with the lower salaries make these practices even more harmful to pre-vet and veterinary students.


  124. Golflin Gortenats Says:

    “And what if the student is working on an undergrad thesis? Or in a university sponsored fellowship that pays a fixed stipend to cover housing costs? What if he gets a publication for his research?”

    Well, retard that would be UNPAID then would it. We know you didn’t go to college, as you obviously need adults to explain things to you.


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


  126. Dem Says:


    I’ve been reading this over and over but I have a question with a scenario concerning my cousin:

    He graduated with a chemistry degree this Spring and has been working in a research lab for the past 5 months. He has been consistently working 5 days a week + some weekends. He works anywhere between 40-45 hours per week consistently.

    1) He originally agreed to an unpaid internship.
    2) He managed to bargain with the professor to pay him money to pay back student loans.
    3) He is currently being paid $400 per month in total.
    4) He is required to report he only works 10-15 hours a month.
    5) His professor is promising a great letter of recommendation and a co-authorship on the paper.
    6) Professor NEEDS him to be there otherwise she is completely unable to do her work.
    7) He formats excel data, runs some dna tests, cleans things, and monitors test samples. (I’m not that savvy in this field).

    What kind of exploitation is this? I’ve looked up laws in my area in the US but I don’t really understand this field in science. He is very stressed out and strapped for money but sounds like the professor keeps baiting him.

    Any help really appreciated.


  127. drugmonkey Says:

    Sounds like a classic case. “recommendation and a paper authorship” are not sufficient in my view. The guy should be paid for the hours he is putting in. Since he graduated already, there is no academic credit compensation.

    In my view (and my practice) this guy should be paid as a research technician AND the professor should ALSO be offering a great recommendation letter and authorship (per usual practices of contribution which, since she’s offered at present, clearly apply).

    As you can tell from the Fox Searchlight Pictures case, this idea of unpaid internships is a matter of active jurisprudence.


  128. […] to think of the implications of recession and academic inflation in my own industry. Interestingly, this is even a problem in the research sciences, with today's glut of PhDs. The blog linked there hints at my own opinion: students and other […]


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