You don’t/can’t pay all undergrads in your lab – are you evil?


This issue comes up a lot in the academic twitter-verse. Usually in the context of internships at conservation NGOs (at least in my world). I generally agree, people should be paid for such internships. They are usually true work or something close to work, even though students gain valuable experience.

The issue also gets discussed in the context of students doing research on campus. The tweet that I saw that set the current round off (and set me off):

Below are some my thoughts on the issue.

But first, I’m aware there are students with great financial need, including some that are homeless. I’m strongly supportive of greater inclusion of underrepresented groups in science and in increasing their participation. And I think we all agree, it is crucial to do what we need to do, as individuals and as institutions, to make big changes so that everybody is able to gain research experience (if they want it) regardless of their financial situation, i.e., I totally agree paid internships are invaluable for some people. Dozens of friends and colleagues shared their stories and how important paid internships were to them:

Me too! When I first left high school, I took classes at a local Jr college while working as a waiter, mowing lawns, cleaning boat bottoms, working in a warehouse, etc. In Boston at NU as an undergrad, I worked as a bike messenger and waiter, had a work study position to work for Jon Witman gaining invaluable experience, got financial aid, took out student loans, etc. I hear you. I get it. I experienced this too and I’m supportive. But this isn’t what’s being debated.

I just counted and roughly 47 people tweeted at me version of:

Of course I don’t reject this. (And I note, this debate tactic is nasty, lame, and all too common amongst us lefty twitter peeps. Not cool people).

In my own lab, I’d pay a student out of pocket if that’s what it took to give them time to work with me on science. And finally, no, I am not pro-slavery. So please, if you want to join this discussion, be fair and reasonable and don’t make straw man attacks on me, e.g., claiming as one idiot did, that I support the exploitation of persons of color for their labor. In fact, every single person that’s chimed in to agree with me has immediately been attacked like this, e.g.;

So here is what I think:

1. I do not agree that we should pay all students learning to do research in academic science labs. My rationale is that;

2. Doing so would be practically impossible. Your’e talking about literally millions of students learning to do research in many hundreds of universities across just the U.S. There really isn’t funding to pay them all. Departments certainly don’t have it. And most academic scientists do not have NSF funding. Restricting undergraduate research training to only paid positions would greatly, enormously reduce the number of students, including underrepresented students, learning to do research. Also, as Luiz Rocha pointed out, many people don’t have the $ to pay students working with them and this would also exclude those PIs and that research: 




3. Science can be a powerful tool in righting many societal wrongs. I fully support that. But I don’t agree there should be a litmus test. I think scientists have the right to focus on basic science, conservation, curing cancer, whatever, and frankly ignore solving other ills of the world. I loathe the twitter-view that we all have to simultaneously solve every wrong, every problem, from income inequality, to biodiversity loss, to childhood morbidity, in each and every one of our labs, every single day. People. This is insane. We can’t all do it all. Please give your colleagues a break and let them focus on what they choose to focus on. I see some colleagues doing amazing work with training underrepresented groups in STEM, while others protect endangered sawfishes. Others may disagree, but me, I’m fine with that. Do what you have the time and resources to do, and don’t beat yourself up because some asshole on twitter is berating you for not doing more.

4. I definitely don’t agree anytime a student is “doing” research (i.e., learning to do it via an apprenticeship) in an academic lab they are doing “work” and are thus an “employee”. In most cases, they are not doing anything of value commercially or even to research, so its dumb to call it work. Students come to university to learn. They learn in the classroom and in the lab. This activity, again we call it learning in higher education, generally is clearly distinguishable from actual work. (I recognize that true work does take commonly take place by students, in labs, e.g., if somebody is washing glassware, they probably should get paid to do so, as that seems closer to work than a meaningful research experience). One person argued since I/professors get paid to do science, so should students. First, mostly we don’t get paid to do science! At least in academia. e.g., I rarely get summer salary when I do most my science. In fact, we often PAY TO DO AND PUBLISH science. Second, we are professional scientists. We actually produce published science. (Few grad students get paid to do science either). And an undergraduate student going through the motions in a lab, just learning the ropes, often isn’t doing anything that leads to published science, i.e., its only marginally “research” . It isn’t work. It is learning. (Yes, some students do publishable, awesome research. Many in my lab have and Ive published countless papers with undergraduates. But mostly, UG student research isn’t publishable)

5. At least at my institution, most undergrads (about 500 per semester in my department) get course credit for doing research. And we are greatly expanding CUREs – Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences, where we merge the lab and classroom, and do research collaboratively as a class. Hopefully, it’s obvious that students getting course credit for learning to do research cannot be paid for it

6. There are many other dimensions that people have brought up. Craig McLain argued paying some but not other students in your lab creates a stigma. I don’t really see how, since that should be privileged information. But I’m not totally rejecting this argument. I think his solution to this (which many people argued for) is to pay all students in labs, even if they don’t need it, even if they’re rich, even if they’re not doing work. I don’t agree. Even if you can, even if you have funding, there are circumstances where there might be better uses of your limited research dollars, e.g., outreach, students with greater need, grad students with low salaries and poor benefits, etc. Fact: it’s a zero-sum-game. A lot of the calls for paying any student in a lab don’t recognize this.

7. I think Terry asked a fair and challenging question about my argument:

I don’t really disagree. Taken in isolation, yeah that is unfair. I agree with everybody we need to work to avoid that situation. My “solution” (greatly oversimplified here) is to find funding so that low-income students can obtain research experiences. Including field courses, which are wildly expensive and from which are nearly always excluded. Yes that is really unfair. It sucks. I just disagree with Terry (and lots of other people it seems) that a practical solution is to pay everybody learning to do research in a lab. In the field course example, that would be like waving tuition, fees, travel costs for every student. But is that reasonable? I never retaught a field course I developed in the Galapagos because UNC Study Abroad is charing ~ 10K for a 6 ch course. Crazy. And that excludes even students from middle income families. But realistically, the course can’t run without income, so I don’t see waiving cost to students as a practical solution. At least at a PI/lab/institutional level. But maybe that could be part of a Bernie Sanders free-college-for all approach (which I’d support, but somebody’s gotta pay).

I guess the exception is a world where there literally were no resources to enable low-income students to participate. In that case, I suppose I agree; there shouldn’t be unpaid internships. I just don’t agree that’s the world we live in. And I think you (Terry) agree, since your “pay everybody” argument requires vast resources (that I don’t think exist).

8. Overall, I think we should all chillax, have trust in each other, and accept each others financial limitations and choices. And Academic Twitter, please stop being so prescriptive and well, just demanding and judgmental. I think Terry could have argued his point without making any broad accusations. And I don’t agree that if you have an undergraduate learning to do research in your lab that your’e not paying – because maybe they have a scholarship, maybe they are getting course credit, maybe their dad is Donald trump… whatever – that you are complicit in a great evil. I just don’t think its that simple and I believe its a mean and unfair accusation.

You can’t know everybody’s goals, situation, etc. We can’t all do it all. Isn’t that obvious? We are all on the same side, fighting many of the same fights. Let’s try to use twitter to spread the love and support amongst our field rather than to tear colleagues that don’t do it exactly as you do down.

Lots of really interesting perspectives coming in on twitter. All kinds of nuances.

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