originally posted 26 Sept 2010
A situation with the undergraduate in my lab has me thinking a lot about how access to science, as a profession, is controlled. And whether I’m contributing to the problem.
I have worked with Undergrad for over 2 years (I first hired her at postdoc inst). Right now, she is arguably the most productive member of my newbie group. I hired her to help unpack boxes, organize the lab, make media and solutions, etc. She also started helping me with experiments. It has all been going really well. This fall, Undergrad wants to do research for credit, in addition to her job as a paid “lab assistant”. She is organized and responsible, so I have no doubt that she will be able to make this work. Also, she wants to go to graduate school so having some more intensive research experience would be great for her. Especially if we can publish her work.
The problem, for me, arose when I was talking with my new colleagues about Undergrad’s situation. I wanted to make sure that there were no hidden pitfalls that may come back to haunt me or Undergrad. Every single one of my colleagues seemed confused that I would ever pay an undergrad to work in the lab. They all assured me that there were dozens, maybe hundreds, of undergrads more than willing to work in the lab for free. Apparently, the standard MO is to have students work in the lab doing the more menial tasks for a year or so and then “promote” the good ones and let them do research for credit. This seemed like a great idea! But then I started to feel weird about having people work for me without pay. Sure, if you are taking research credit there is non-monetary compensation (progress to graduation, research experience, a letter of reference). But what about that first year?
The more I thought about this system, the more it bothered me. Why should only those students willing and able to work for free for a year be given the opportunity to do research for credit? Doesn’t this mean that all those students that need to work at a paying job in order to make ends meet won’t have this opportunity? Which means that, even if they want to go to graduate school, they will not be as competitive as those students that could afford to work for no money for a couple of years.
I agree with DrugMonkey that we need to make sure that undergrads understand that if they go to graduate school they will get a stipend and have their tuition paid (at least that is standard in my field). But I think that we also need to realize that there are forces that weed out some of the undergrads before they even get to the point of considering graduate school.
But I’m left wondering what I should do? Clearly I will continue to pay Undergrad. I know that without pay she would have to choose between not taking research for credit or find time to get another job. But what about the next undergrad? Am I just naive that I even care about this?
Do you pay the undergrads that work in your lab?