This topic was inspired by a conversation with my boss about getting the undergrad volunteers on payroll. He raised several objections initially, not because he objected (he said) but because he was trying to think of the possible consequences. But the next morning, before I had a chance to present my battery of persuasive arguments, he acted as if he had never objected at all, and the paperwork is in process to get them on payroll. While it’s great that I get my way, my nature is such that I was oddly disappointed at getting my way so easily.
Should undergraduates be paid for their research experience? There are many opinions on this, ranging from “No, never, they are lucky to get the opportunity” to “Yes, always”. Predictably, most people fall somewhere in the middle of the continuum. Many professors require a volunteer period, after which the students will be paid. Some professors tell the students this up front. Others let them know with the first paycheck. Some professors pay students if there is a grant to do so. Others insist on work study, scholarship, or internship (i.e., the professor’s grant isn’t paying the student).
I have always felt strongly that students should be paid, although I have had good experience with an initial volunteer period. The volunteer period lets you and the student decide if the student is a good fit for the lab. It should be about a month or 15 hours of work. On the other hand, I don’t feel that unpaid students are exploited.
A typical undergraduate research experience averages about 5 hours a week for the student. (Maybe 20 hrs/week for a summer project.) Undergraduate research assistant wages are set by the institution and are not much greater than minimum wage. So a student can expect to earn $160 in a month. It’s spending money, or as one student described it, “beer money”. Students don’t do research for beer money. They do research for a lot of other reasons: another line on their resume, course credit, a capstone project, a letter of recommendation.
As long as the student is a volunteer, I feel indebted to her for her help. I feel a tiny bit reluctant to ask her to come in at 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday or at 6:30 a.m. during the week. As soon as she is receiving compensation I am eager to give her the opportunity to earn another $8.50 minus taxes for an early hour Saturday morning.
That is why I feel so strongly about paying undergrads. It’s not for them. It’s for me.