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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The reporter further specified:

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

This is wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

h/t: @neuromusic