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.

Should we be using EdTech surveillance tools because of the pandemic?


When we made the switch to online because of the pandemic, I imagine we all were asking ourselves: “How can students learn under these circumstances, and how can I possibly teach well?” Now that we’ve adjusted somewhat, I think now is the time for us to consider another consequential question: Which technological tools might be harming the educational environment of our virtual classroom?” In particular, is it a good idea to implement automated electronic surveillance of our students in this time of crisis?

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Who can we trust?


A few weeks ago, I was hit by an unexpected gut punch. It was an email from a trusted colleague, obliterating trust to smithereens. It has taken me a while to recover my breath. I’ve been in the process of rethinking who and how I trust. What should it take for a person to be granted trust, and what does it take to maintain or lose that trust?

Shortly after news of the Pruitt affair broke last week, it didn’t take long for a lot of us to ask ourselves: Can we trust all of our peers to be ethical? When our professional success, and the success of our students, rides on successful collaborations, what is the pathway to building successful collaborations? As this worry has been occupying far too much of my mind for weeks now, and current events have triggered discipline-wide introspection into the same question, I don’t feel so alone.

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We need distributed power structures in grad school


For most grad students in the sciences, their doctoral advisor has an extraordinary level of power over their professional and personal life. This is long overdue for an overhaul. No single person should have that much power over another, particularly in academia where institutions chronically overlook and enable misconduct. Continue reading

The price of the Gender Tax at home


Since the news broke about the college admissions bribery sting by the FBI, I’ve had a lot of thoughts. And so has everybody else, it seems. (If you have not looked at media in the last 1.5 days, here’s the LA Times page that collects the many articles they’ve already assembled about it.)

This story is a singularity of problems in higher education in the United States, a convergence of drama into a single high-gravity point. Continue reading

We can create useful student evaluations of teaching. Here’s how.


Student evaluations are here to stay. And that’s the way it should be. I think universities owe it to students to provide a structured opportunity to provide feedback on classroom experiences. It’s not a matter of “customer service,” but instead, of respecting students and hearing what they have to say. But the way evaluations are typically structured, they facilitate inappropriate application and interpretation, and they don’t ask what we should be asking. Continue reading

What’s going to be on the exam?


Do you love it when students waste office hours with questions that don’t help them learn? Do you want to cultivate anxious emails from students sent at 3 in the morning? Do you want your students to wager their grades by guessing what you think is the most important material?

Then don’t tell your students what is going to be on the exam.

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The deficit model of STEM recruitment


As we train the next generation of STEM professionals, we use a filter that selects against marginalized folks, on account of their ethnicity, income, gender, and other aspects of identity. This, I hope you realize, is an ethical and pragmatic problem, and constrains a national imperative to maintain competitiveness in STEM.

When we are working for equity, this usually involves working to remediate perceived deficiencies relative to the template of a well-prepared student — filling in gaps that naturally co-occur with the well-established inequalities that are not going away anytime soon. These efforts at mitigation are bound to come up short, as long as they’re based on our current Deficit Model of STEM Recruitment. Continue reading

Negotiate authorship before collecting data


Authorship disputes are not uncommon. Even when there are no actual disputes over who did what on a project, there may be lots of authorship resentments. That’s because a lot of folks — by no mere coincidence, junior scientists more often — end up not getting as much credit as they think they deserve when a paper comes out. Continue reading

Bias in graduate admissions


Yesterday, I received an epic comment on a recent post of mine about minority recruitment. I want to share it:

This fits my experience so so well. I am first gen American, started at community college, transferred to a good public university and struggled but ultimately graduated with a 3.2 GPA and did OK on GREs. Had zero “social capital” (and had no idea what that was). I was lucky to have a TA (PhD student) who took me under her wing and had me volunteer in her lab a few hours a week and an excellent professor in my last quarter who informed me about internships and helped me secure one specifically targeting minority students (and it was paid!). Anyhow, after gaining a lot of experience though field jobs , I applied and was rejected from many PhD programs and ended up going to a small CSU, racking up student loans and working full time while getting my Master’s. I then applied to one of the better ecology programs with excellent letters of reference and was flatly denied. Again, luckily I had a greater supervisor at a govt agency who was very supportive and together we published a couple of manuscripts. I re-applied to that same ecology programs and was offered a multi-year fellowship (no TAing, no RAing). The only difference in my application was the publications. Now that I am in the program, I look around at a sea of white faces and most of them I have come to find out are straight out of undergrad, no pubs, very little experience, just great grades and test scores and a lot of social capital and opportunity (paid internships, semester at a field station, paid field methods courses, etc) . What a load of crap.

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Recruiting underrepresented minority students


The last couple weeks have posed a challenge, as several people have contacted me (mostly out of the blue), asking me for ideas about specific steps they can take to improve the recruitment of minority students. This isn’t my field, but, I realize I’ve put myself in this position, because it’s a critical issue and I discuss it frequently. I’m just one of many who work in minority-serving institutions.

I realize that most of the suggestions I’ve given to people (but not advice) are generalized. If several folks are writing to me, I imagine there are many more of y’all out there who might be thinking the same thing but not writing. Hence this post. Just with my suggestions. Continue reading

Conference travel awards that you can’t apply for until after the travel is done are bad


I’m about to make some statements that I think should be obvious. In fact, everything I say in this post about travel awards will probably be obvious, but I feel moved to write about it since these obviously bad travel awards exist.

Grad students are typically on very tight budgets.

Grad students are expected to attend and present their work at conferences (usually at least one per year).

Departments or schools often have funds available (as conference travel grants or similar) to students to help cover the costs of attending conferences, which is good.

Some of these grants require students to wait until after the conference is over and include all receipts for their expenses before they can apply, which is bad. Continue reading

How can track record matter in double-blind grant reviews?


We should have double blind grant reviews. I made this argument a couple weeks ago, which was met with general agreement. Except for one thing, which I now address.

trouble coverSome readers said that double-blind reviews can’t work, or are inadvisable, because of the need to evaluate the PI’s track record. I disagree with my whole heart. I think we can make it work. If our community is going to make progress on diversity and equity like we keep trying to do, then we have to make it work.

We can’t just put up our hands and say, “We need to keep it the same because the alternative won’t work” because the status quo is clearly biased in a way that continues to damage our community. Continue reading

NSF’s Water Man award


When I was a tween, a cutsey feel-good book was a bestseller: All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. If we learn to solve problems as kids, that should help us solve similar problems as adults.

Let’s do a kindergarten-level exercise in math and pattern recognition. Can you figure out what shape comes next?seriesa

If you said star, you’re right! Congrats!

Let’s do another one. What shape do you expect to find next?


If you said star again, then that means you’re two for two. Good job!

Let’s look for another pattern:


What do you think comes next? If you guessed 2016, then you’re right! Your pattern recognition skills are fantastic! Continue reading

“Open Science” is not one thing


“Open Science” is an aggregation of many things. As a concept, it’s a single movement. The policy changes necessary for more Open Science, however, are a conglomerate of unrelated parts.

I appreciate, and support, the prevailing philosophy of Open Science: “the movement to make scientific research, data and dissemination accessible to all levels of an inquiring society.” Transparency is often, though not always, good. Continue reading

Do you write your recommendation letters?


This is a question for both the people requesting letters of recommendation, and those who are signing the letters of recommendation.

About a month ago, a blog post-ish thing was published in Science, that was griping about a not-rare phenomenon. Sometimes when junior scientists ask for letters of recommendation, they’re asked to write a first draft of the letter. This is, allegedly, “minor fraud.” Continue reading

Blurred lines in academia–what is work?


While navigating the unemployment system in Sweden, I’ve discovered that I need to report every month what I’ve been doing to find a job. It includes applying for jobs of course but also training. I should also include working on my CV, networking and other activities that improve my employability. I’ve also been warned that one shouldn’t “work” during this time and all work has to be reported (you can work for up to 75 days and keep your unemployment status).

All of this has me reflecting on what work is in academia.

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It seems to me that few other professions have the same structure as academic research. Continue reading

Public scientists, the twitterverse, thought police, feminism, and the fanatical mob


I’m on vacation. But while I was posting a few photos on social media (amazing National Parks and a wooden carving of bigfoot drinking a beer) I stumbled on some extended silliness among fellow scientists that I want to discuss. Luckily, I woke up early, my family is sleeping in, so here goes.

A very-routine event has somehow caused some a great worry: A famous person said something rather hideous. This hideous opinion was put in quotes and got circulated on twitter. A storm-of-righteous-indignation built on twitter, and spilled over onto facebook and other media outlets. Within a few days, this famous person got “in trouble,” insofar as a famous and powerful person can genuinely get in trouble for voicing a contemptuous opinion.

This is a very common story. It’s a little different because of the specifics: Continue reading