Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Free Labor

Every once in a while, a non-student will send me an email asking if they can do part-time work with my research group, not for money but just for the experience. In some cases these 'volunteers' are people who have an undergrad science degree and who took a job in the area and are now thinking about applying to grad schools. In some cases they have been scientists who move to the area for family reasons and want to stay involved in research somehow.

In the past I have agreed to this type of arrangement. In the case of volunteers with a B.S. or M.S. degree, my thought was that it was a chance to encourage someone with an interest in science and it was a chance to check out a prospective grad student. I tried to find projects that didn't require constant close supervision over long periods of time and that would be cool to do, but that weren't essential to do. That is, if the project got done, that's great and the results could be interesting, but if the project didn't get done (or didn't get done well), it wasn't a disaster. A good volunteer project also should not involve anything too sophisticated in the way of technique or equipment, or the training (including safety training) becomes much too involved. In the case of more senior scientists, I have suggested projects that were part of a larger, ongoing investigation but that could lead to publications and/or proposals for taking the research in new directions.

It can be hard to find projects that fit those criteria, no matter what the experience level of the volunteer, but it is not impossible.

The concept of a volunteer researcher might sound nice in the abstract, but I have found that it is not worth it to have research volunteers, and I am no longer agreeing to these arrangements. The cost-benefit analysis (in which 'cost' also involves time spent helping the volunteer) is different than for an official student or postdoc, and I have found that the time, expense, and aggravation involved has not been worth it compared to the supposed benefits for the volunteer and my research group.

In addition, my mistake in the past was assuming that someone who was willing to volunteer must have a deep desire to be immersed in research and an academic environment and must also be someone who is motivated and sincere. Perhaps I have just been unlucky and there are others out there who have heart-warming stories about a volunteer who used the experience to do interesting research and launched into further successful scientific study or work. Surely there are motivated high school students who want to do research, or retired Nobel Prize laureates who want to stay involved in science by volunteering their expertise to various research groups. OK, maybe not, but I hope that there are positive examples even though that has not been my experience.

I realize that by refusing to take on volunteers I might be passing up a chance to help someone who really does have a sincere interest in research and just needs a bit of experience and encouragement. That may be so, but my most recent negative experience with a volunteer is still too recent for me to want to become involved in such an arrangement any time soon.

I still get email from time to time from potential volunteers, and it always seems slightly crazy to me that I am turning down 'free labor', but I have to remind myself that it isn't really free and that the labor in many cases is mostly my own.


Squeaky_Brakes said...

Interesting post.

I volunteered a lot as a lab slave for post-docs during my undergrad years. Mostly for the brownie points and potential reference letters. Despite my volunteer status, I was a registered student at the school. I could see how someone already with a degree and no substantial ties to the institution could potentially create drama.

Cori said...

Working in primatology often forces you to rely on volunteer labor--there's not a lot of money, but there are lots of people who will put in the time for minimal compensation. It's definitely an advantage that going to the field always requires a lot of initial work for the volunteer--inability to deal with getting permits from third world bureaucracies filters out a lot of folks who probably won't work hard/deal with the field well. In general, most primatologists wind up working for free to prove their field chops at some point before going to grad school--it's almost a rite of passage.

Of course, there are also tons of horror stories like people who bring only clothes that can't be ironed to places with bott flies (ironing kills their bott fly eggs, otherwise the larvae hatch and burrow into your skin, eating their way out when full grown) and refuse to eat the bland food or call their mothers every night on five dollar a minute sat phones. Funny thing about spending your time watching cute monkeys/apes is that a lot of the people who want to do it are downright NUTS.

fruchtzwerg said...

i'm sorry to read that you had bad experiences with volunteers. i volunteered after my degree which led to a several months paid work at that lab, me doing a phd now, and further collaboration resulting in three publications (one first-authored by me, second author on the others). without the experience of the science i was offered there i don't think i would be in science and so in love with my field.

Anonymous said...

I was once speaking to someone who was considering that type of job. He was a few years out of undergrad and trying to figure out his interests.

He said he'd done volunteer jobs before and would never do it again. For him, "free labor" meant that neither side took the job seriously. The professor wouldn't give him a serious project or give enough time to make sure the person learned what he wanted to learn and the stakes for completing a project were too low.

He insisted on at least getting a token payment (i.e. a low $/hour income for someone with B.S. from a very good program) for his time because that brought the relationship to a point where everyone gave it some amount of seriousness. He's now finishing a rather successful time in grad school

Anonymous said...

My experience is that people who already have bachelor's degrees who "volunteer" to work part-time are looking to do jack shit and add something to their CV. We have a large number of post-graduate trainees in my lab--recent college graduates who seek a year or two of research experience before medical or graduate school. But these people are paid a full stipend, and only work full-time. They are some of the most productive members of my lab.

Shriram Krishnamurthi said...

I've had multiple not-so-positive experiences with high-school
students who have wanted to be volunteers, mentorees, helpers,
observers, etc. Sometimes it has just been their lack of motivation
(summer's here...who'd want to be stuck in a lab?), but at other time
I've felt I was being used to create another resume item. Being at an
Ivy League school I've become more and more conscious of the latter,
and now I'm very suspicious of volunteers. I'm sure there are good
ones out there but, as for you, since costs have thusfar greatly
outweight benefits, and since the potential for exploitation is high,
my first reaction now is one of disinclination and even suspicion.

Anonymous said...

My own experience mirrors yours. Our University has an excellent honors research program that allows students to do research for credit. In addition, I hire students for pay to do lab maintenance work. In both situations, the constraints of these formal relationships make the responsibilities of BOTH parties clear. I can have expectations of what they will do, and they can have corresponding expectations of what I will do. This is useful in situations where those expectations are NOT met; it simply means the arrangement can be terminated with cause, and thus with less (not none) pain and suffering. If someone is "volunteering", however, how can I have expectations? They are doing this "out of the goodness of their heart". Nice idea, but the lack of a professional relationship with clear parameters has caused porblems I would prefer to avoid. In addition, even in successful volunteer situations I am uncomfortable having people work side by side, doing exactly the same sort of research, one compensated with credit or money and the other not.

The one exception I make is for a student who has already been working with us for sometime and wants to continue research over the summer without paying tuition; however, in these cases I have also usually but not always been able to pay the person a stipend for their work.

Mark P

Anonymous said...

One of my friends, a brand-new professor without a lot of startup, was approached by a more mature person (he wanted science to be his 3rd career) to be a volunteer technician in her lab. Despite this unorthodox arrangement and my friend's initial concerns, it has worked out extremely well, and after a volunteer year, he is now a paid member of the lab. This person has been invaluable in helping my friend get the data she needs for papers for tenure, and for grant applications. He is also a really, really nice guy, and he's the heart of the new lab.

But there aren't many stories like this one.

Anonymous said...

It can work quite well. After college in the US, I went home, then worked as a full-time volunteer in a lab for several months. I did work half time for a month, having an interesting half time temp job. I ended up signing up for the masters program so I could continue working in that lab, since they couldn't pay me. It worked out well, although I already had decided to go to grad school in the long run, just wanted to do other stuff in the mean time, and decide whether or not to return to the US. I ended up applying for PhD programs back in the US, deferring entrance in order to really experience life out of the lab for 1 year. Then I went to grad school for real. I am quite grateful to have been able to "volunteer"" in the lab. I was already mostly trained and worked full time for free, so she had little to loose in taking me on!

Anonymous said...

Just one more example of how this kind of arrangement can work out well: I was a chemistry undergrad major, but was planning on teaching high school so I did research in education instead of chemistry. I ended up getting a job as a computer programmed because it was the dot-com boom and all my friends were CS geeks. After about 5 years of that I decided to get back in to science, but needed some lab experience before I applied to grad schools. I basically went door-to-door to the 5 profs at my undergrad school whose research was related to the kind of work I wanted to do and asked if I could volunteer 20 hours per week. A couple told me they had policies against volunteers (possibly for the same reasons as you), and a couple just weren't interested for other reasons. Finally, one took me in and put me on a computational project that a postdoc was interested in but hadn't had time to work on.

I ended up volunteering there for a year, and the work was published (with the postdoc as justified first author since he planned the project and expanded it a bit after I left). I got into good grad schools and got an NSF fellowship, and am currently having a lot of fun as a 4th-year grad student.

So, I completely understand why you would be hesitant about this kind of arrangement, but in some cases it can work out very well for everyone involved.

Anonymous said...

I will take on volunteers, but only if they come from my university and are outstanding students. Usually they want to volunteer because they do not have many free credit hours open in their schedules.

If the students are from a different university, I don't feel like I can hold them appropriately accountable if something goes wrong. What if a student walked out with a computer, or sabotaged a data set?

Anonymous said...

Oh, that is so true!

I decided not to teach this summer to have time for my research (and live on husband's money) and suddenly my work is stuck.

I spend 3/4 of my time supervising a fresh graduate and undergraduate students helping them with all sorts of things - starting from proper glassware washing to experiment design to software use to data interpretation. And that doesn't include instrument training - we have a paid technician to do this job.

But the worst thing is that I'm raising my competitors for my own expense!

Ms.PhD said...

I think the key is that you don't have to hire everybody, and even with volunteers you have to screen them the way you would an employee. Just like with grad students, at the beginning all the time and labor invested is yours, but the trick is to find ones that will mature quickly into independence and you'll get a big return on your investment.

Otherwise your criteria are exactly right, pick projects that are suitable.

I started out as a lab volunteer and was only paid sporadically (like in the summers) for several years as a student. The experience was invaluable to me and some of my work was published, so I think it was helpful to the grad students and postdocs who trained me to do small parts of their projects.

Another part of the equation is always going to be whether you have plenty of paid, already-trained labor. In that case it makes perfect sense to skip the volunteers.

In science as in haircuts, you pay for what you get, and you get what you pay for.

Anonymous said...

If I had a volunteer, then I would teach it how to cut hundreds of little pure copper blocks so I wouldn't be stuck here on second shift hours killing 10 minutes at a time.

Part of me is tempted to dip into my life-savings and just buy a cutter to keep in my apartment.

Anonymous said...

Hahaha... Having read the comments, the rest of the audience appears to be much more "generous" in what they'd use free labor to accomplish. I think the most helpful thing that a volunteer (or an undergraduate) would be to do the monkey-jobs like cutting, dish-washing or reorganizing the chemical cabinet. These are all essential parts of a lab, but are also huge time-sinks for a grad student. I literally have nothing I can do unless I have a ready supply of copper blocks--which I have to share with 2 others. I need someone else to spend their evenings cutting for three! That way I can actually run tests, analyze data sets, study for exams...

I can understand why a PI would be unwilling to assign someone to just do grunt-work, but to me, that's the most helpful thing that non-GRA could be doing.

EliRabett said...

How about a retired Ph.D. from a neighboring field.