Undergraduate research: course credit vs. getting paid


Undergraduate labor powers many university laboratories. Many of us faculty in primarily undergraduate institutions simply would not be shipping much product without this source of labor. And even in PhD-granting institutions, undergrads are often the labor that makes dissertations possible.

Oftentimes, this is unpaid labor. But in the eyes of many, this form of unpaid labor is not uncompensated. You see, the students doing this work are getting “paid” with course credit.

The financial magic of this arrangement, in which faculty wave a curricular wand want to convert graduation requirements into research effort, is deeply embedded among our accepted traditions. It’s the way the world works. Students and faculty just acknowledge that this is the way things have been, and the way they are.

Some folks make a distinction between the responsibilities of students and faculty, depending on whether it’s a credit or a paycheck situation. If a student is getting paid to work in the lab , then the idea is that we can have this student doing any or all kinds of work at long as it’s safe and reasonable. They could be simply washing dishes, or running samples through machines, or doing basic paperwork or data processing, without being asked or expected to make an intellectual contribution to the work. If they’re getting paid, then the people running the lab don’t necessarily have to feel obligated to provide a high quality intellectual experience.

But if a student is getting credit, then there’s the impression (and often paperwork to back it up) that the credit is associated with a learning experience. So students getting credit are typically getting a mentored experience where they are learning about the process of research, not just washing dishes or making media or whatever. They’re supposed to be growing as scientists, beyond appreciating the reality that replication can be extremely boring.

Here’s another feature of this accepted common practice that admit that I have never fully understood: When students are doing research in your lab and are getting a credit-worthy educational experience, we should not be paying them because it’s “double-dipping.” The idea, I suppose, is that if a student is getting credit for learning, it would somehow be unfair for them to also get paid for the effort the time and effort that they re putting into the process.

I’ve heard this ‘double-dipping’ argument from several institutions over several decades. But I never really bought the logic behind it, even when my lab was benefiting from it. I think I understand where this interpretation of fairness comes from, but I don’t think this idea holds rhetorical water, considering that we compensate students for educational experiences in so many other ways across higher education. For example, when student is receives a scholarship from the university to pay for their living expenses while attending school, they’re enrolled in a full course load while receiving money to go to school! Oh my gosh, is that double dipping? We have students in our department who go on paid internships, but also sign up to get credit for those internships. Oh my gosh, is that double-dipping! So, then, what’s the problem with paying a student who is doing actual work in your lab, while also making sure that they receive academic credit for this learning experience associated with this actual work?

So now that we accept the reality that students are regularly receiving compensation for their effort while also doing academic work for credit, what’s the problem with doing this in our own research labs using research funding and our departmental curriculum?

I do get how this makes things smoother for faculty. If we explain to students that they can get either pay or credit, then that looks straightforward on the face of it. But what we are doing is legitimizing the idea of gaining labor from students and giving them course credit as a form of compensation, even though that course credit costs us no money. While our time precious and there’s not enough of it, and we spend plenty of that time mentoring students who are receiving credit, it’s also a reality that funding for student labor is also sometimes hard to come by. Other than a thousand bucks here or there, I haven’t had funding for undergrads to work in my lab for several years. Which means that I could, in theory, recruit students and just ask them to sign up for credit instead of paying them. Which would make things easier for me. I mean, whether I pay students in my lab or not, it’s a lot of my time (well spent, but a lot of it) working with them. But if I don’t have to struggle as much to land the external funds to keep them on the payroll (and gosh, it is often a struggle), then that would be a plus.

I mean, really, what is wrong — what is bad — what is improper or illegal or unfair — about paying students while they’re earning credit for research?

Who is being harmed by paying students while doing research for credit? The only perceived harm, I suppose, is that some students are doing the same work without getting paid. I’m not sure how choosing to pay some of these students does a harm to students who are not being harmed. This isn’t treating the unpaid students more unfairly than they were being treated before. You’d just be doing what you can to reduce the number of people who are doing work without pay. I suppose it’s weird in a lab to have second-class citizens, some of whom are getting credit and pay, and some who are getting just credit, and also those who are just getting pay. But that’s not the worst thing in the world. And it’s better than having ones who are just getting credit or pay when some could be having both.

Some folks might say, “Well, your university is different than mine. Because most of your students simply can’t afford to volunteer 10-20 hours per week, it makes sense that you feel like you should pay the students who are working in your lab. But at my university, students are a lot more wealthy and don’t have to work jobs off campus, so they can afford to volunteer just fine.” But that, dear colleagues, is where I see the huge problem. Because whether you appreciate this or not, every university has students who are struggling financially. This is especially true at prestigious and wealthy institutions! And when we make a point of making opportunities in our labs accessible only to students who are available to volunteer, what we are doing is perpetuating the inaccessibility of research training that is experienced students who have the greatest need for support. This dynamic of expecting students to provide academic labor for free, which also gives them access to further opportunities in the field, is one of the major mechanisms that prevents equitable access. When you’re wondering how it is that NSF, NIH, and other agencies have been investing heavily into broadening participation but the needle has barely moved, it’s because of cultural norms like this — that think it’s okay to provide more opportunities to those who have the resources and the awareness to volunteer in order to get ahead.

Even though I had long been a willing participant in this system, I’ve never been quite comfortable with it. And at some point several years ago, I chose to principally opt out. (Note also that I’ve advanced to a position where choosing to opt out doesn’t really hurt me that much, so it’s a lot easier of for me to do this than other people.) By this I mean, I’m not bringing students into my lab and expecting them to do work that isn’t compensated with pay. If a student comes to me and really wants to work on something for credit even though I don’t have the funding for that, then I’ve supported that, but I’m not out there recruiting students and then asking them to make the choice between money or units.

I do think that it’s not horrible to run a lab on a ‘credit or pay’ policy. But I do suggest to you that it might be worth reconsidering and there’s no harm in getting rid of that policy, except perhaps to your budget. I also would like you to consider that actively running a lab of students who are mostly unpaid is an equity issue.