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.
10 years ago