Does your campus allow Federal Work Study awards for undergraduate research?


I used to have Work-Study students doing research in my lab, when I was visiting faculty at Gettysburg College. Then I got a job somewhere else, and I couldn’t do that anymore.

The university where I now work does not assign Work-Study students to work with professors, just like my previous employer. There was a clear institutional policy that prohibited using Federal Work-Study awards to fill undergraduate research positions. The policy wasn’t written down anywhere, but when we as a department requested work-study students for our laboratories, the request was denied.

I see Work-Study students doing all kinds of things. They file paperwork, they serve food, and clean glassware. But, they don’t do research. Perhaps we should call them Menial Work Study awards.

It is 100% legal to use work-study awards to fund students working as researchers. For example, George Mason University flat out advertises these opportunities and even has its own 16-page manual for its Federal Work Study undergraduate research program.

What is not clear to me is how many campuses forbid the hiring of undergraduate employees under work study to conduct faculty-supervised research. Part of the cost of the wages must come from the employer, but why is it that faculty are not allowed to be that employer? I imagine that in environment where the administrators who make these decisions value student research, then Federal Work Study can be use for research-related employment. But in environments where research is not supported, then students may not do research with Work-Study.

It would help to know what kinds of schools allow undergraduate researchers to be paid with Work Study, and which ones don’t. (My personal N=3, but those are clearly outliers, as these campuses also do not use external review for tenure files.) Please leave a comment and let me know. Are you at a private or public, research institution, comprehensive or liberal arts college? (Note that anonymous comments are just fine.)

This post emerged from a helpful remark from Melissa Wilson-Sayres, to which I responded, and a conversation ensued.

8 thoughts on “Does your campus allow Federal Work Study awards for undergraduate research?

  1. I was paid $10/hr for lab work (40hr/wk in summer, 10 or 20 in semesters I don’t remember) through work-study in 2006-2008 at the University of Arizona. Not sure if work study covered the whole thing or what.

  2. I’m pretty sure some of our past undergrads in the lab at Louisiana State University have been work-study.

  3. I was able to hire work study students to do research in my lab on my NSF grants (when I had grants – they’ve all dried up) at UC Berkeley and Duke U. Don’t recall what the policies were at Wake Forest U and U Chicago.

  4. SLAC here in the Biology department. I have gotten about 50% of my research undergrads through work study. I could have gotten more if I didn’t have grants. Others in the department are almost 100% getting research done through work study. The one thing they don’t allow is summer work study to support research, but that might be a federal law? I’m not that familiar with it.

  5. N of 1 private research university: faculty could hire work study students, but the federal salary reimbursement was retained by the University. So, there was no difference to your grant budget for using work study vs. non-work study students.

  6. A number of my TAs are funded through federal work study.

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