Why I don’t take high school students into my lab


Once in a while, I am approached about taking on a high school student over the summer. I always say no, for the same reason that I turn away most premeds: they want research “experience.”

Bungee jumping is an experience. Discovering that you’re allergic to seafood is an experience. Going backpacking in Europe is an experience. I don’t provide research “experiences” for students; I train scientists. I’m a scientist and a university instructor, not an unpaid private tutor.

High school students want to look awesome so that they can get into a fancy university. That has nothing to do with why I am paid to work for the State of California, so I’ll take a pass. But I don’t let the high school students off with a simple “No, thank you.”

The primary purposes of my research lab are to get research done and to train scientists. My lab doesn’t have room for tourists having an “experience,” because there is only space for researchers. I turn away high school students because they take resources (time, space, roles) away from the students who really need it and deserve the opportunity. These students that want to join my lab are the kind that end up winning science fairs because of privileged access to university resources.

I have another reason for turning away the high school students that come to me in search of a research experience.

The high school students who have sought research experiences have two common denominators: The first is that they’re wealthy. They attend either an expensive prep school, or attend public school in a district with million-dollar homes and a well-endowed foundation supplementing the inadequate funding provided by the State of California. These high school students think it’s perfectly normal – perhaps even laudable – to seek out research experiences at the local university that trains undergraduates.

The second common denominator among the high school students who ask to volunteer in my lab is they never, ever, will even consider attending my university, CSU Dominguez Hills.

When high school students ask me for a slot in my lab, the first thing I do is ask them about their college plans. They name schools with pricetags that would clean out the bulk of my salary. I then give these students some umbrage:

Do you think it’s acceptable for me to spend taxpayer dollars giving you free research training?

If getting research experience in my lab is good enough for you as a high school student, then why isn’t it good enough for you in college?

Why do you think that you might deserve a space in my lab over students who are enrolled at Dominguez Hills? Presumably you’re hard-working and smart, but how does that entitle you to special opportunities over the hard-working and smart students who have chosen to come to Dominguez Hills?

If this campus not good enough for you in two years, how is it good enough for you now? Why don’t you want to come to this university?

I have scant tolerance for people who think that prep school students can slum around my low-income university to get free research credentials, as a way to further their access to elite institutions that my students are unable to access. Moreover, these people wanting a spot in my lab expect that it’s somehow part of my job to provide this training for free to students who have already chosen to opt out of the state university system.

This particular form of entitlement is offensive to my values and to my students. Even asking for the opportunity to join my lab as a high school student, while simultaneously ruling out the possibility joining as an undergraduate, shows how little these students and their families value education as a public good. I refuse to be their tool.

While not in my lab, in labs all around the country, wealthy high school students are getting high quality research training at universities while the majority of the nation’s public school children are now living in poverty and qualify for subsidized school meals. If I were to use my lab at CSU Dominguez Hills to provide research opportunities to the 1%, I’d only worsen this tragic failure of our nation.

I’m not inherently opposed to taking on a high school student, but I’ll be damned if I take an opportunity away from an low-income student who truly needs it and transfer it to one who comes from a position of privilege.

I’m not going to be an instrument of the upper class by perpetuating the heritability of educational and economic disparities.

Of course, if some parents of a high school student pony up the $2 million for an endowed chair at my university, I’d be pleased to reopen a conversation on the topic.

62 thoughts on “Why I don’t take high school students into my lab

  1. Similar requests occur semi-regularly in my lab. I have allowed it once, because it was a good opportunity for one of my UG research student to mentor a student (for pay), and because that high school student was part of a program that recruited from the normal pool of schools that our students come from. In other words, it was providing opportunities for people who needed them, not denying opportunities to deserving undergrads.. Still and all, it slowed down my (undergraduate) research student’s progress on his multi-summer project, and retrospectively it was not probably a great idea to have a minor child in the lab when I wasn’t, which happens all the time for all the normal reasons. So, given the opportunity to repeat that experiment, I passed. And since then, my lab is for my students.

    And I fully agree that any student who wants a ‘drive by’ lab experience (from high school through non-thesis Master’s students) is not going to do well, and so I try to weed out anyone showing that kind of not-even-skin-deep careerism prior to welcoming them on board. Failures will still happen, because not all well-meaning students are cut out to do serious research, but I do my best to prevent setups are obviously not meant to push forth science or junior scientists.

  2. Would it change the calculation if the high school student was volunteering to act as an assistant to an undergraduate or graduate student pursuing research in your lab? Once or twice I’ve had high school students volunteer in my lab in this fashion. They’ve been happy to assist with routine, repetitive tasks like counting easily identified organisms and washing glassware, never for more than a few hours per week. Thereby freeing up a bit of time for my grad students, who otherwise would have to perform these tasks themselves.

    The tasks the high school students are performing are ones that require very little training, and aren’t the sort that students at my university would themselves volunteer to perform (at least I don’t think so). And frankly, I don’t quite see what the high school students get out of the experience (and I’m up-front with them about what sort of work they’ll be doing, so it’s not like they’re under any illusions when they decide to volunteer in my lab). I guess maybe they think that volunteering in a university lab in any capacity is a signal of their keenness and so will look good on a college application? (which I guess it might, though I can’t imagine it would make much difference at the margin) Or they just like the chance to chat a bit with current university students while they’re washing glassware or counting beetles?

    I’m curious whether this would change the calculation for you because on the one hand, high school volunteers of the sort I’ve had actually help my students (a little bit) rather than taking opportunities or resources away from them or from any other student at my university. But on the other hand, the few high school students who’ve volunteered in my lab have been upper middle class students who already have a lot of advantages. Insofar as they get any benefit at all from the time in my lab (and as I said, I’m not sure that they do), that arguably still perpetuates the heritability of privilege in some small way.

    • I would be inclined to take on a volunteer who does routine labor without any real research project, maybe, but that’s not what these students want. They are always about doing research, for science fair or for their college application. If they were in the lab to wash dishes, then their college application will say that they were volunteer research technicians in my lab. I don’t want to be a party of abetting rich kids getting into the Ivies on the backs of California taxpayers and my students. Also, I don’t think they’d take well to being a mentee of one of my undergrads, though if they did, I’m not sure it would be the best use of everybody’s time (as Joe wrote above). I think the upper class students could gain a lot from hanging around my super-motivated and smart students low-income and minority backgrounds with which they aren’t familiar, but it would be a net drain on the lab.

    • I don’t think it’s okay to take on volunteer students. This gives students a leg up, and only students who are relatively affluent can afford to do that.

  3. What I have been wondering is how to recruit high school students who could really benefit from the experience, and aren’t doing it just for the resume-padding. I had no idea what research was in high school, or college, for that matter, until I was admitted to an REU after my junior year. I’m glad someone gave me a chance (with no previous experience, no AP courses, from the middle of nowhere Nebraska) to get into research. Just not sure how to reach outside of the college setting to those who don’t already know about research.

    • I think you need to call up the principal of a local high school and ask them for referrals. They’ll probably have specific teachers or students in mind right away. I could fill my lab with awesome high school students like this right away, but I already have my hands full with my undergrads. I do spend a lot of my time – 50% of my teaching load at the moment – working with K-12 science teachers and future teachers, including research in the summer with a few. This should have positive effects, or so the theory goes.

  4. I agree with your point about it not being the best use of your or CSU Dominguez Hills’ resources to train high school students over your undergrads. But what is the point of chastising students for trying to get experience? I don’t think most high school students would know that volunteering to work in your lab would necessarily be taking away something from other students. And as Jeremy pointed out there can be scenarios where high school students can actually enhance the experience of undergrads by freeing up their time from busy work. How would a high school student know this?

    Although there is some truth to “High school students want to look awesome so that they can get into a fancy university”, isn’t it a bit cynical to assume that is all? In that case don’t undergrads just want to look awesome to get into fancy grad school or get fancy jobs? Or PhDs just want to look awesome to get fancy postdocs or TT positions?

    Are students not supposed to be proactive in trying to get the best possible learning and training they can? You are faulting the students because for this particular experience your interests and those of your students are not compatible with theirs. Wouldn’t it be better just to politely tell them this, but also tell them to keep being proactive about their education because they are certainly going to need to be if they would like a career in science?

    • Because people – including teenagers – who are select members of the financial elite in this country need to recognize that fact, and behave in a socially responsible fashion. These rich kids – and their parents – probably have no idea of the social context of what they’re requesting. They don’t see that the steps that they are taking to join elite institutions, themselves, can be exploitative and they don’t understand how the system is constructed to allow elites to pass on their elite status by birthright. This is an opportunity to use my bit of authority, as a member of the dying middle class, to make this point crystal clear to them.

    • They wouldn’t know, but now they will, because Prof. McGlynn is being kind enough to take time out of his day to educate them. LOVE this post! A bright spot within the academy.

  5. “I’ll be damned if I take an opportunity away from an underprivileged student who truly needs it and transfer it to one who comes from a position of privilege.” I’d love to know if you have some good strategies or things that have been effective for you personally to recruit and mentor underprivileged students! I think this is a big issue in science, and I feel like many labs pay “lip service” to “broader impacts” without really enacting it.

  6. I can’t really disagree with you too much.

    I know some students who apply to a certain fancy-pants university. Many have worked briefly in a lab at the local university. I’ll ask how that came about and you know what the typical answer is? Family connection. Dad is a prof. Mom is the dean. Etc. To me it is unimpressive resume padding and overkill at that. I am more interested in the student who does stuff on his own in his basement.

    • Agree. I am research faculty at a R1 university and I remember several years ago when our department chair asked if I could let his son – then a high school senior- do an “internship” in the lab over the summer. The kid was very bright and was a pleasure to have around but still the fact is he ended up winning all these science fairs and competitions in large part because he had access to fancy state of the art scientific instruments and had the help of grad students and postdocs to troubleshoot his project. When I was his age I worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant.

  7. Surely a simple “no, sorry” would suffice? I have taught at both a name brand place and a large public university and I get these requests at both places. But greeting an enthusiastic and ambitious student (no matter how privileged) with this sort of response is obnoxious and counterproductive. (I also decline them, and occasionally had particularly persistent customers who needed a firmer brush-off.)

  8. In the words of a famous Emperor: “Good. Use your aggressive feelings, boy. Let the hate flow through you.”

    So yeah. Income inequality sucks and all, but I don’t see how your windmill-tilting attitude is going to help. Treat people with respect. You don’t have to allow a rich kid to work in your lab, but that in no way justifies you getting “visibly perturbed” so that the child “knows that [you’re] offended”.

    You’re capable of discussing these issues with the teenagers politely, and your message might actually get across if you did so.

    • It’s impolite to ask me to take publicly provided resources away from my students and give them to a person who has opted out of public higher education. It’s offensive. You can make references to Star Wars and Cervantes to try to explain how my approach is either irrational or misdirected, but you haven’t rebutted the substance of my argument.

      • I don’t want to rebut the substance of your argument. The substance is fine.

        Your approach isn’t. Getting all righteous in a teenager’s face? You think that works? I’m sure it makes you feel better, but I don’t think you’re changing how people think (except maybe their opinion’s of you).

        And asking to volunteer in someone’s lab is nowhere near the kind of offense that should anger you so much that you’re unable to remain polite and professional.

        • Until we call out the mechanisms by which the elite propagate themselves on the backs of the underpriveliged, they’ll continue to abuse people like my students.

        • Sorry I was unclear – when I said “how people think” I meant the teenagers themselves. Your blog audience is another matter (rant away!). How do you know that your confrontational approach is changing how these kids view their own privilege in a positive way? A negative way? A neutral way? Is it better than discussing the issues politely and professionally, as commenter Lirael below suggests?

          What purpose does the tone you take with these teenagers serve?

        • Someone wrote privately to me, “You’re probably giving those kids great ‘educational experience’ about the world that exists outside their bubble, and how their (often praised) actions and well-intentioned ambition have dark sides.”

          Their behavior is offensive, morally bankrupt and outlandishly selfish. If I told them this in a matter-of-fact civics lesson, it would be not only ignored but unheard. The ruling class doesn’t value civic lessons from their subjects.

          These rich kids honestly think that they’re offering me a favor because they seriously think that they’re higher quality than my low income minority undergrads. Some have even said that they thought my lab would be better off because they could offer things I couldn’t get from my own students. And they weren’t talking about time or money. No joke. These kids, who have come to me, think they’re better than my school and my students. I know this from their exact words. It’s not hyperbole or accusation. It’s fact.

          Spend a whole day at a $30,000 per year prep school in LA, and then spend a whole day on my campus, and I think you might change your mind. The situation is flat out outrageous. The best response is outrage.

          I don’t know how much you’ve read on this site, but I’m an even-keeled guy who values respect and civility, and this comes through. I’m in the business of blogging not for kicks or clicks, I’m here to change minds. I have opinions, but I value all well-reasoned perspectives. In this situation, considering the disparity of resources and the overt desire for exploitation, anything less than umbrage is immoral.

        • Well how do they react when you do this? If the harsh approach works, I guess it works and I’m just wrong. After all I’m only speculating based on what (I think) I know about rich teenagers. I called your approach “windmill-tilting” because I can’t imagine that you’re actually shocking the entitlement out of their systems (perhaps you’re making a dent?).

          In the end, the difference between us is an empirical question which has no definitive answer: how do you get an entitled rich teenager to act humbly and view the world honestly? My hypothesis is that gently opening their eyes and getting them to interrogate their own beliefs is more effective than harsh reproach.

        • These rich kids honestly think that they’re offering me a favor because they seriously think that they’re higher quality than my low income minority undergrads. Some have even said that they thought my lab would be better off because they could offer things I couldn’t get from my own students.

          Oh ew. That is way worse, and way more intentional, than what I was imagining. I was picturing some slightly oblivious kid who has no idea whatsoever how higher ed funding or science funding work (I certainly didn’t at that age) and is pumped up about the idea of working on Real Scientific Research and has not considered (or ever been taught to consider) how socioeconomic class would even be relevant. A well-meaning but naive nerd. Not some overtly racist classist twit who openly insults your trainees.

          I amend my earlier comment. Someone who insults members of your lab that way should expect you to take offense, and it’s good on you to defend your lab members.

  9. Thanks Terry for sharing your experience.

    I’d like to share a few of my own observations on this topic. What Terry is describing, I think, is the symptomatic of the idea that you aren’t really working for “free” if you are getting something out of it. This is the same issue that Danielle Lee ran into (initially) and has been well documented in the media (e.g. with unpaid university internships at major corporations, etc.). Now, as someone who had a lot of help getting through college and has never lived in poverty it has taken me a long time to “get it” when it comes to these sort of things.

    What bothers me about “working for free” and “unpaid internships” is that EVEN IF a student from a economically disadvantaged background KNOWS about it, WANTS it, and is SMART enough to do it, there is a very good chance that they simply cannot AFFORD to do it. Ironically this is often because they are WORKING their way through school. I’ve seen enough upper middle class students climb the latter from five rungs up and later claim to have done it all themselves to know the type of student Terry is describing. I was lucky enough to benefit from family support and landing a couple paid research positions early on that helped me cobble my first research experiences together to get the ball rolling. I sometimes wonder where I would be if my parents hadn’t been able to pay for part of my schooling.

    Maybe it is a bit rude of Terry to get in the face of these kids; honestly I don’t know if I could do it. There are going to be a lot of students that think, “What crawled up that guy’s backside?” I’ve definitely had a few Terry’s in my life. But as uncomfortable as it was at the time, I’ve come to recognize how valuable these scoldings can be. Some will stick to the “She’s a nut, I don’t have to listen to her” mentality and go ignorantly on. But others will resolve the conflict by internalizing the truth of the matter; that they are privileged and others are not.

    If we agree that diversity in education, backgrounds, gender, sexual orientation, place of birth, etc. is important, then we need to recognize and counteract some of the mechanisms that prevent it from being realized. Part of that is understanding what a big difference even a little bit of affluence can make.

  10. The anger is entirely justified, but I wonder if it would be better directed at the kids’ parents and prep schools, which are presumably where they are picking up the mentality that this is a thing they should do. Certainly the kids need to learn why what they’re asking is a problem and I have no problem with making that clear to them, but I worry a little about the power dynamics of an experienced adult chewing out a high schooler (there might be other power dynamics at play as well, since society assigns different meaning to tone and body language depending on things like gender and body size). It’s not quite the same as calling out an approximate equal.

    In the same situation, I think I would ask similar questions but without the change in tone and facial expression (it is also possible that I am overinterpreting your description of what you do to indicate offense). Not because the anger is wrong but because I don’t want to punch downward, and even a wildly class-privileged kid is at a strong disadvantage to me in terms of life experience, education, certain kinds of social status. I might give them some data about economic inequality and the state of public education funding. If I felt safe doing so from a career/political perspective (which presumably depends on tenure, etc), I might contact some of these schools that are sending these kids to do this, and chew them out. Where do they get off sending their students to beg for research positions at schools where their guidance counselors would be horrified to send anyone? Where do the parents, who are my equals or above in terms of life experience and probably in the same ballpark in terms of education, get off not teaching their kids about the implications of their class privilege?

  11. I’m astonished that anyone is criticizing you for confronting the students with the reality of what they’re trying to do. High school students are perfectly capable of understanding privilege and power dynamics, once their eyes are opened. You’re an educator and you are educating them. Seriously, standing and clapping.

  12. Interesting post. I enjoyed it and the comments.

    While I understand you get angry in order to open their eyes to the injustices they are perpetuating through their resume-padding efforts, I don’t see why the undergrad would necessarily know that he or she is taking a spot from another, more deserving student. You mention that they are being impolite by even asking for the position but impoliteness hinges in part on the knowledge that you are offending somebody.

    BTW, I used to mentor many high school students in my lab and came to the same conclusion as you, though for different reasons. They were from all walks of life and they all went somewhere else, either top schools or the big state schools. Most didn’t attend my university just because they wanted to move away from home. Regardless, all but a few were a drain or even a waste of my time. I do see the value in helping keep students interested in science but, when it came down to helping with science fair research or writing a grant, it was clear which was going to win out.

    • I don’t get angry in order to open their eyes. It’s not a manufactured show. I get angry because their offensiveness and elitist entitlement makes me goddamn angry.

      It’s like someone punching you in the face, and asking for a band-aid for their knuckle. It’s like someone grabbing the sandwich you put in the office fridge and then dropping by to ask if you have any mustard. It’s like a banking executive getting wealthy by manipulating the housing market with bad loans, while your neighbors go bankrupt because their home values collapse.

      I just choose to not mask the anger because I think it’s more productive to express it.

      I suppose if I was more composed, I’d tell them that their time would be better spent volunteering to do science projects at the local public elementary school. Next time it happens, I’ll try to have the presence of mind to do so.

      • If you have the composure/presence of mind to do so, you might also consider pointing them at Resource Generation, which teaches rich adolescents and young adults about class privilege and organizes them for economic and racial justice.

  13. Dear Terry,

    Your concern about how to best allocate your university’s and your lab’s limited resources, particularly since they are derived from public money and therefore carry certain obligations, is well-taken. It is a shame that scientists, who rely so heavily on public support, don’t discuss responsible use of those resources more often. But your post sounds as if research experience should be categorically denied to high school students or undergrads not preparing specifically for research careers, and it is this point I disagree with.

    Let me describe my personal experience with this issue. I am a Ph.D. student in physics at Rutgers (a large public research university), and I have mentored three high school students during my time here, one per year over the past three years. We have never actively recruited any high school students; these three each somehow found my advisor, who in turn alerted me to their requests, and I agreed to mentor them. (Note that my advisor most definitely did not just dump this responsibility on me — I could have easily said no and that would’ve been the end of it. I eagerly seized the opportunity because I am interested in teaching and mentoring.)

    In our case, having them work with us has been a win-win situation. We don’t pay them, so they don’t cost money (we don’t have the money to pay them, anyway), and as a theoretical/computational group, they don’t cost us materials or take up time on equipment. They also don’t cost us in terms of projects that would otherwise go to undergraduate or graduate students officially enrolled in the university; in general, we have far more interesting projects than people to do them. I can see how these circumstances could be very different in other labs such as yours, where there may be more scarcity of projects, materials, and time.

    But in our case, the only real cost associated with them is my time, and I considered it well worth my while. They have pursued side projects I simply didn’t have time to do myself, and as someone hoping to have an academic career, the experience of learning to mentor is quite valuable. So I think having these students still clearly supports the university’s missions: (1) they are advancing the research goals of the university; (2) they are supporting my graduate education by giving me mentoring opportunities I wouldn’t otherwise have; and (3) they are still New Jersey residents with taxpayer parents, and Rutgers generally serves all residents of the state, not just the students who choose to enroll here as undergraduate or graduate students.

    Of course, the students benefit from it as well. While it is true these students, like ones that have contacted you, have been motivated by big science competitions and the obvious boosts to college applications, I don’t see anything wrong with that. I certainly don’t see anything wrong with providing research experience to people who may not necessarily become professional scientists like us. Maybe they will become engineers or doctors or someone else that’s not a research scientist, but having some exposure to genuine scientific research is a pretty useful experience that ideally would be more widespread in our society. Here I can’t help but compare the desire to get research experience to the desire of young people to be involved in music or sports. Even if you’re not going to pursue it as a career, it can be enriching in lots of other ways. I have been a serious amateur trombonist for a long time, especially in high school and college when I played in lots of school groups. I was never really interested in being a professional musician; I just loved playing trombone. But my college orchestra didn’t exclude people like me just because we wanted “musical experience” and weren’t planning to become professional musicians.

    Anyway, I wholly agree there are students out there who “deserve” the opportunity more than these kids do, at least if we define “deserving” as the long-term gains in their economic or educational status. If my students didn’t do these research projects, their lives probably wouldn’t be affected all that negatively. But I think stereotyping these students all as entitled “rich prep school kids” is really unfair. The three I’ve worked with have been exceedingly grateful for the experience they’ve had, without a trace of entitlement or arrogance. (Also, the ones I’ve worked with have attended public schools not prep schools, and also wouldn’t identify as rich, although wealth can be in the eye of the beholder.)

    If we made a deliberate effort to focus on this as an outreach activity, we should certainly made a concerted effort to recruit students from groups underrepresented in the sciences. Of course this would be ideal. But like I said, so far we haven’t been actively recruiting anyone — these students just fell in our lap. And in that case, it seems unnecessary for us to intentionally withhold an experience we have the means to provide (and which benefits us and the university, too, in the aforementioned ways). Again, if they really detracted from our ability to serve enrolled undergrads or grad students, this would be different, but in our case they don’t.

    As someone alluded to on Twitter, I actually think the biggest potential problem here is not giving something to someone who doesn’t deserve it, but rather it is the volunteer aspect of it, which favors people who can afford to not get paid. This is the same debate people are having about the scourge of unpaid internships in the business world: getting an internship has become an important experience for getting a real job, but when more and more companies are offering only unpaid internships, only the students from affluent backgrounds can afford to take such opportunities. I think this is a major problem, but I think for-profit companies aggressively recruiting volunteers and non-profit universities passively accepting (not actively recruiting) volunteers are two very different animals. In any case, I don’t think it translates to saying the high school students who CAN afford to take a volunteer opportunity shouldn’t be allowed to. If they want to, and there’s a place to support it, then why not? The real lesson, I would argue, is not that we should stop affluent students from doing extra things (like research, music, sports, etc.), but that we shouldn’t reward those extra things so much when affluent students do them, and we shouldn’t penalize the absence of those extra things when less affluent students don’t have them. But that onus falls on college admissions, employers, and the like.

    So to conclude, I think this debate brings up a lot of valuable issues regarding responsible use of public resources. Most scientists, even at private institutions, rely heavily on public money, and we really should think harder about how to most responsibly use that support. But I think there is a lot more nuance and context-dependence to whether university research groups should take on high school students.


    • You wrote: “your post sounds as if research experience should be categorically denied to high school students or undergrads not preparing specifically for research careers”

      You might want to read more carefully. I wrote, “I’m not inherently opposed to taking on a high school student.” I also wrote, “The primary purposes of my research lab are to get research done and to train scientists.”

      If working with a high school students helps you get stuff done, and it’s done in a way that is socially equitable, great! Go for it! Training scientists typically involves giving great opportunities to people who don’t yet know that they want to become scientists, at any level. It’s great for high school students to have research experiences. At a public university, funded by the public, those should be targeted at those who are in the greatest need of those opportunities.

      It doesn’t sound like the situation you’ve been involved in is socially equitable. Because even the thought of seeking out access to university labs is mostly the province of the elite.

      I encourage you, when you think and write about kids to deserve things, to not put quotation marks around the word: deserve. Underserved kids DESERVE access to opportunities that are readily available to rich kids. Nothing to pussyfoot about. Let’s not just say it. Let’s shout it: THEY DESERVE ACCESS TO OPPORTUNITIES!

      You want to put the responsibility for social equity on the shoulders of admissions counselors, for-profit corporations, and the like. They’re not the ones working for the public good, so it’s not going to happen in their hands. It’s up to the scientific community to build an inclusive environment and provide access to all. We are the gatekeepers, and we have to not just regulate the gate in a fair manner but also make sure that everybody has a genuine opportunity to approach the gate.

  14. I don’t take high-school students who volunteer to work in my lab, either. But then, I don’t take volunteers of any kind to work in my lab, for several reasons.

    One reason is bad past experiences. Back when I was an idealistic and far too eager-to-please and untenured Accursed Visiting Assistant Professor, I took everything that came through the door. I quickly learned to stop this, because research is demanding and often quite tedious work. It didn’t take much to make volunteers get tired and quit abruptly. Invariably this would happen after I’d sunk significant time into training them. I therefore accept research students only if they work for academic credit, by signing up for independent study or thesis projects. This means they must be registered undergraduates or grad students at my university, Middlin’ State (a place much like CSU Dominguez Hills). If these students do well for at least a semester, I’ll consider paying them from a grant.

    Another reason is, as Peter Feibelman points out in “A Ph.D. is Not Enough,” “Only some of your…students will really contribute to your research. Others will break your equipment, contaminate your samples, and install bugs in your computer programs.” I get far more than enough of this even with my undergraduate and graduate students. High-school students are even more unskilled, and none of them who ever came to me pulled their own weight, to justify the time I’d put into training them.

    Another reason is that there are other research programs available for high-school students. They’re funded to do this kind of work: I’m not. Some will accept paying students: I don’t have the resources to run a program like that. But then, the high-school volunteers probably know about these programs. Have you noticed that nearly always, high-school volunteers approach you in May or June?

    I rarely have contact with high-school students these days, though. For the past several years, it’s almost always been their parents who call or e-mail me, or contact me through a university administrator. They usually say something like, “I have a bright, hard-working high-school student who can be free labor for your lab!” I reply that they’re not really free, since I’ll need to spend considerable time training them to become productive. Of course these students NEVER intend to attend Middlin’ State as undergraduates: PERISH the thought!

    I don’t get in their faces, though. One reason is that I have yet to get a case as obnoxious as Prof. McGlynn reports. Another reason is that, these days, if I so much as tell a high-school student who e-mails to “Do your own homework,” I will get yelled at and accused of damaging the student for life: good thing I have tenure. Another reason is that, if we’re working through a university administrator, I take the opportunity to ask for some release time or other resource that my lab needs. When I get the inevitable answer “No,” I tell them I’m sorry, but I just won’t have the time to do it. If we’re not working through a university administrator, I tell them sorry, but I won’t have the time to do it, considering the current budget situation here at Middlin’ State. I am paid by taxpayer’s dollars, but my first allegiance must be to my own students. I can’t be anyone’s free tutor: I simply can’t afford the time or other resources for it.

    • And another thing: whenever I get a high-school student, or more likely one of their parents, ask me if they can have an “experience” in my lab, I tell them about the superb amateur astronomy club in my city. One of my favorite aspects of my field, astronomy, is that good amateurs with a scientific approach who take careful notes can contribute to the science: When was the last time you ever heard of an amateur brain surgeon, or airline pilot? So, one might think that any high-schooler interested in astronomy would come to these meetings? Never once have I seen a one of them there.

  15. This is a perfectly good policy to have for many reasons, and I completely understand chewing out students who make obnoxious, offensive, arrogant comments about how they’re better than your own college students. I don’t know if all your high school would-be volunteers fall into that category, or if, like many would-be volunteers I’ve met, a few of them might just be clueless and under a lot of pressure from their parents and guidance counselors to “be proactive” in seeking out prestigious opportunities. It never occurred to them to apply to CSU Dominguez Hills because none of their parents or mentors ever treated it as a legitimate option. I know parents who think that “only” going to UC Berkeley instead of an Ivy League constitutes some kind of shameful failure. I know high school teachers who made fun of their students by predicting that they would go to the local community college, and when a student protested, “[Local Community College] is a good school,” the teacher replied, “Okay, you’ll go to the University of Sarah Palin.” Chewing out a kid terrified of making their families ashamed of them may or may not do them some good, but there will be no lasting change until we address the underlying disease at its root: the adults who use fear and shame as the tools to produce their ideal trophy children.

  16. So I really like your post especially about not taking away opportunities for low income students. Is there maybe a way to let the rich kids get their ‘experience’ while also getting more resources to help get low income and minority students in your lab? I have no idea if it’s even possible but I’m thinking something like if a HS student approaches you about volunteering in your lab you can take them but if and only if they essentially pay you (or the school, or put money into some sort of scholarship fund) and then that money can go to freeing up more of your time to mentor your undergrads or low income high school students who get suggested to you by their teachers. Again I have no idea if that would work but it seems like a possibility to help with the real goal of getting low income and minority students into labs doing research.

    • Let me make this clear:

      The research opportunities designed for my disadvantaged students are not for sale to the wealthy.

      Affluent high schoolers giving me money will not give me more hours in the day to mentor my undergraduates.

      One thing that privilege can’t buy is a spot in my lab.

  17. I agree that you have a right to be indignant, but to chew up someone with significantly less life experience than you is not fair. I think it is absolutely reasonable that you inform them of socioeconomic inequalities in research, and cite that as your reason for declining their proposition. However, simply scolding these rich, or perhaps genuinely intelligent and curious, high school students will have no direct impact in helping those who deserve opportunity. I applaud your efforts to give underrepresented minorities to pursue research, but as a professor and as a professional, you should treat students with respect. As a representative of a University you are clearly proud of, is this unwelcoming, bitter persona what you want to present? You should consider having the integrity to avoid personal attacks when these mentalities are ultimately the result of the flawed system you are trying to fix. These privileged students are just as indoctrinated by these social constructs as the underprivilged. By making an enemy of the privileged, I don’t think you are maximizing the opportunity to facilitate social change. In short, I don’t agree with your entitlement to being rude to these students. You use your position as justification for abrasive and abusive responses, but If you truly against abuse of power, perhaps you should stop abusing your own.

    • You must be new here. Welcome! Respect for students is a theme in this site.

      If you look who holds more power, I’d say it’s the high schoolers that come to me.

      Their tremendous wealth buys all kinds of things, including influence, that I lack. These people enter the transaction thinking that they are powerful and doing me a favor, and they can offer me things in my lab that I don’t have.

      I know some untenured colleagues whose supervisors forced them to take on the high school students of wealthy donors.

      Who has the power, indeed?

      These kids have everything they need and most of what they want. They have received plenty of education about economic disparities and are taught all the time to not abuse their privilege. Gosh forbid I have the temerity to be uncivil with the ruling class!

      By the way, anonymity has the power to be shrill and chide without the personal consequences of being seen for negativity. Perhaps you could use your power to be persuasive in trying to convince me to change my ways.

  18. I am the parent of a high school student whose Chemistry teacher just put her in touch with a professor at a local private university to do summer research. I guess a girl interested in science shouldn’t bother to ask to volunteer in a lab since we can’t afford the $6000 to do research at Cornell University this summer, or Smith, or Georgetown or Johns Hopkins. I will just tell her that she would better serve society by staying home and learning to sew. Clearly, other kids are more deserving than a girl interested in science. Don’t bother to even ask, kiddo, because some professor might respond rudely that you don’t belong…

    Hell no! I’m going to tell her to keep on marching out there and ask away even if she gets a rude response because the rude response is not a reflection of her, it is a reflection on the type of human being the rude person is. She knows to “lean in” and be bossy because the meek girl doesn’t get to the top. She knows to ask someone else who has the balls to take on a smart and mature (teacher’s comments, not just mine) teenager who might not go to your school but might one day add something to your field or later join your faculty.

    I will tell her to go ahead and ask away. Go ahead and say no. Go ahead and give all your reasons. Like many smart kids these days, she will see right through you for who you really are, anyway. She wants to a career in science and can’t wait to get started. If you have a problem with that, then you really have a much bigger problem than just high school students in your lab.

    • I have no idea how this post could have been construed to be about gender.

      Right, if she’s not going to my school, as you say, I’ll save spots for my own students whose public high school teachers didn’t hook them up with professors.

  19. Hello, I am currently a high school student researching for a UTD cancer lab. As a high school student who fits the categories you have described, I find your anger justifiable and partly agree with your treatment of entitled teenagers who expect to be accepted into a lab position.

    However, I find your generalization of ALL upper-class, prep school high school students as “entitled” and assumption that their only motive is to “resume stack” and be accepted into a top tier university is both unfounded and offensive. Although this description may apply to some high school students, there are some students who are legitimately motived and excited about learning, and by berating all students who politely ask for an opportunity to be both discouraging for the student. As an educator, discouraging willing-to-learn students should be directly antithetical to your purpose. Rather than trying to force your ideology onto a teenager much younger than you are, a more appropriate response would be to politely explain the situation and why it would not be possible for the high schooler to research.

    Moreover, a student who took the steps to personally ask you for a position is generally way out of his or her comfort zone and a polite response is only appropriate. As a high schooler myself, I had a very difficult time attempting to contact and talk with professors who, to me and possibly other high schoolers, possess high social status. Receiving a scathing lecture from one of those idols of the educational world would have completely discouraged me from trying to research for the rest of my high school career.

    I definitely agree with your unwillingness to use taxpayer dollars to get a high school student into a top college and understand your preference of undergraduates over high school students. However, I believe it is inappropriate and immature to berate a high school student, who generally has no clear idea of the inner workings of a lab and educational institution and may just be wanting to learn, out of pure anger. If I may be so bold, your anger at mere high school students, regardless of socio-economic class, and your “rage against the system” come off as immature, and by attempting to reprimand students, you stoop down to their level.

    Moreover, if you truly feel an injustice and feel the need to enact change, as you seem to be from your impassioned response, it would be much more effective to speak with the parents or teachers of students who have utilized their wealth and influence to attempt to land a research spot.

    All in all, I think some of your points are valid and that privilege should not be a determiner of opportunity. However, as a member of the category you have so eloquently generalized to be selfish and self-serving, I believe it is wrong to assume that all wealthy students behave as such (from your probably small sample of students that have asked, it would be inaccurate to draw such a broad and encompassing conclusion anyway) and that a polite explanation and denial would be much more appropriate for a mature, educated man.

    I hope you reconsider your approach and don’t find too much offense to this.
    Quot homines tot sententiae.

    • I’m sorry, Josh. I didn’t think I generalized to all people of your social class. My regrets. I look forward to seeing you in our intro classes next year at CSUDH.

  20. Thanks for your prompt reply and apology. I will definitely consider CSUDH during the college application process.

  21. I’m curious if you would take a high school student from a poor district that said yes to going to CSUDH? From your post, it appears that you universally say no to any high school student.

    As a teacher, I’ve had to ask for resources beyond the meager means of my school. I’ve had students who, admittedly for a science fair, were excited about their project. And, I never try to squash excitement. Unfortunately, in their case, their project also required access to a mass spectrometer. Fortunately, the college that I got my teaching degree from was 1) close, 2) had a mass spectrometer, and 3) had a chemistry dean that said yes. I work(ed) in a magnet school in an urban district, so I wouldn’t say my students were rich. Some were, most weren’t. Would I recommend that college to my students? Not really. I have gotten other degrees from other institutions, and I think the quality of my education from those other institutions was better. But, there are many reasons for choosing colleges besides quality of education (e.g. proximity, cost). I can’t speak for CSUDH as I’m on the east coast, but I’m reading between the lines that it’s probably similar to the university I got my teaching degree from.

    I support your righteous indignation over spoiled rich kids, but I worry that you let your righteous indignation get in the way of actually helping someone who might be truly excited. Since, again, reading between the lines, it seems that you actually want to help the downtrodden, don’t let your own anger blind you.

  22. Hello all. I am a high schooler, not rich by any means, and I found this page by accident. Naturally, its title was intriguing because most labs don’t take high schoolers in. It was interesting to read these comments and the post, because they are from an entirely different perspective. Fortunately, in my state, there is a university that offers a bioscience program, teaches students lab techniques for 2 weeks and then sends them off to a lab of their choice for another 6 weeks. Students who are then considered “desirable” are given internships, all before entrance to college. Unlike the students some of you mention, working in a lab would allow me to “taste” what real researchers do etc, something that is impossible to get in the school atmosphere – even in biotechnology class (I am excited to participate in the program mentioned after my junior year). It is true that many science fair winners have had lab access, but the grand-prize winners I have seen have come up with their own work, and are persistent in their efforts. The ones I have talked to needed some kind of equipment only available in labs and haven’t “gotten in the way” of researchers. I guess my point is, is that not all students are rich kids trying to look good for their college applications.

    Just a few thoughts,

  23. Your response to the students is both HIGHLY appropriate and EDUCATIONAL. The responders that see you as a bully or inappropriate are the very same parents that hover over their children and bully teachers to hand out A’s and allow retakes until grades are so inflated that a high school GPA of 4.4 is a dubious honor. These are the same people that protect their children from the reality of their privileged circumstance and allow their children to believe that “they earned it” , “they are so smart” and that they deserve privileges and access simply because they are hard-workers, just like every other person living the American dream.


    They want you to help keep the wool over their privileged children’s eyes and to never bruise their precious, sensitive feel-goods, because stress, worry, feelings of inadequacy or reprimand are NEVER to cross paths with these tender, privileged beings.


    Your response may be the best education they receive as a high school student. A lesson that teachers at their fancy-schmancy private schools are prevented from imparting, if they want to keep their job. Perhaps the people that disagree with your approach are just angry because they cannot dangle your livelihood over your head to keep you quiet like they do to the teachers in their children’s schools.

    Nobody can pick their parents, so don’t raise your privileged kids without a good dose of reality as to their spot in life. If they are taught Dr. McGlynn’s lesson often, perhaps they wouldn’t be so damn entitled, ungrateful, rude and dismissive. If they clearly understood their circumstance, compared to the rest of us, they might possibly be grateful, humble, kind and generous in life.

  24. Unlike either of your two common denominators, I was neither close to rich nor looking for an upscale university to attend to. My parents are refugees, and they lost all their credentials the moment they entered the country. If I hadn’t gotten an opportunity to have an early experience at a lab as a high school student, then I never would have pursued a graduate program. Before you overgeneralize and put a significant number of students in to a narrow box of loathing – have you ever considered that some of these students might have a genuine hope to contribute to their field of interest, and one day publish? Next time you rattle off about kids being too entitled to work in your lab on a blog – how about looking for a genuine interest in a topic of research? If I hadn’t had that first hand experience in a lab (granted, starting off with washing dishes) in my junior year of high school, I never would have published two papers by my sophomore year of college. Most kids aren’t rich. They just want to find an unorthodox method of learning, that is not available to them at their current school. My biology teacher in high school thought diatoms were bacteria, for example. I knew there was something better at UCSB for me to experience, and that if given the chance, I could contribute something back.

    If this is how you treat high school students. I can only imagine how you treat your undergrads.

    Next time you write a kid off for being a high school student, just remember that your research interests had to start somewhere. And that you developed a specialization in research, that was once under the mentorship of a generous and awesome P.I. at some point in your life. Maybe many points in your life.

    Stop writing people off, and start doing what California taxpayers hope you will do as a professor: provide mentorship for students and good research.

  25. Hi. I’m a sophomore in high school, and I’m sure if I told you my school and where I live you would decide that I am also another entitled rich kid. I’m not going to try and convince you to allow high school students into your lab; I understand why having them around would disrupt your work with your undergraduate students. However, I would like to disagree with your assessment of why high school students would ask you to allow them to work in your lab. I can only speak for myself,of course, but I am sure that there are plenty of other people who would reach out to researchers for the same reasons that I will. I don’t care about resume padding. There are plenty of others who do, but I am not one of them. I most likely will attend community college first after I graduate high school. You’re right, I want to volunteer at a lab to gain experience. I do realize the effort it would cost a researcher to deal with my inexperience, but despite that I was planning on contacting a few. Why? Because some are willing to allow me to. They don’t find it a huge problem to allow me into their labs, and that is an opportunity that I am willing to take. If I ever am allowed to volunteer, I will try my hardest to not be such a burden. I’m not sure what you would have me do; reject the opportunities around me with the assumption that low-income students would receive them? How could that possibly be guaranteed?

    I come from an upper-middle class family, it’s true. But we aren’t old money. I know exactly how hard my parents had to work to get where they are and I am not about to forget how many people are still in the situations that they managed to get out of. I am also not going to forget how lucky I am not to grow up like they did.

    • I’m not telling you what to do Melissa, I’m just saying that there isn’t space in my lab for students with your background, because the mission of my lab and my institution wouldn’t be served by providing you with an opportunity. Don’t worry, though, the higher education system is designed to provide opportunities from upper-middle class backgrounds such as yourself. You might have to wait until you get into college, or maybe not, if you’re persistent in finding someone whose priorities matches your personal interests.

  26. They’ll do the drudge-work for you in your lab without expecting a penny. They fund your research so that you can teach them. They are not taking anything away from others. The fact that they are learning to be researchers and being inspired by you will lead them to make greater discoveries down the road. If they’re pre-med, even better. They’ll save lives because of the inspiration, training and qualifications you gave them as high school students. Later, they might even support your institution. There’s no point in chastising these students. If you don’t have space for them, that’s okay but why would you discourage them from pursuing research? Doesn’t the world have enough investment bankers and lawyers? They’re only applying to your lab because they want to go into science and assist the world in doing so.

    • I don’t think you actually read this post, Maria, if you imagine that you’re actually rebutting what is written here. I’m not discouraging anybody from doing research! I’m saying that my publicly-funded lab isn’t here to train high school students who aren’t willing or interested in attending the university that runs the lab.

  27. I totally agree with you that it would be unfair to take opportunities away from low-income students who are genuinely motivated to conduct research in your lab for a financially luckier high school kid who is aiming to get into an elite institution, but would the anger towards these naive students really be necessary? I am a sophomore in high school myself, and yes, I am interested in working in a lab, but it is not solely for the purpose of getting into an Ivy League or MIT or Stanford. It would be unfair to generalize all high school students who ask to be in your lab as pretentious, rich children who are forced by parents and counselors to seek resume fillers. There are some students who may just be clueless about the financial backings of research labs, but are still genuinely interested in science and are intensely curious about the lab environment; to chastise these students would be discouraging and rude. Yes, I may fit into the “rich kid who goes to a nice public school and lives in a multimillion dollar home” category, and that may or may not influence my opinion, but my main point here is that your anger towards these students comes across as hurtful and offensive, especially if the students’ motives are different than what you think. Remember, we have less experience than you do, less knowledge, and less accomplishments. I completely agree with some of the points you have in this article, but you don’t have to scold all your high school research finders because among them are students who just want to pursue science for itself.

  28. It is amazing how high schoolers, themselves are responding to the original written piece. “I come from an upper-middle class family, it’s true. But we aren’t old money.” I think this is Melissa’s way of saying she’s not privileged. And to show solidarity, sophomore Laura admits: “I may fit into the ‘rich kid who goes to a nice public school and lives in a multimillion dollar home’ category,” but emphasizes that she “completely agree[s] with some of the points you have in this article.” Whatcha gonna do, eh? Falsus in unum, falsus in omnibus, right Josh?

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