For this month’s column, those of us with labs of our own respond to a reader’s question about whether it is ethical to have students work on your research as unpaid volunteers. While only certain students can spend time working without pay, an under-resourced faculty member might experience a loss in their own research productivity if they don’t take unpaid volunteers. What can you do in this Catch-22?
Teceta: Your observation maps onto the reality of social class and the differential ability to take on nonpaying work, where people from higher resourced backgrounds have a higher ability to do so. If you are noticing inequities in who is able to volunteer, you may consider whether there are any departmental funds that might be directed this way, particularly if you can document a systematic disparity. Another factor to consider is whether all students feel included in the research process and feel as if your department is welcoming to them. There is work that shows that social class and race/ethnicity are important identities that shape whether students feel like they are welcomed and included in institutional spaces. You and your department can step up your outreach to students from underrepresented groups, to highlight that they are valued and welcomed and are included in the group of “researchers” too.
Jennifer: First, find out if there is a McNair Scholars Program or other Undergraduate Research Office that provides support for undergraduate research. These programs can be an amazing resource for students who are low-income and/or racially minoritized. Applying for internal and external grants is another way I have paid students for research work.
I specifically reach out to students who are underrepresented in clinical psychology to join my lab. If I find a student with potential, then I invite them to chat and discuss their future goals. I share the skills and strengths I see in them. When student goals and research opportunities in my lab align, this has created some beautiful collaborations and the mentorship of students into PhD and PsyD programs.
Summer virtual/hybrid research opportunities can also involve students who are traditionally unable to participate in research during the school year due to work and a full course load. As a result of one summer volunteer research experience, some of my undergraduate researchers engaged in a collaborative autoethnography that led to a conference presentation and a student-authored publication. Usually I try to obtain funding or offer course credit; however, there are also benefits to offering some volunteer opportunities: 1) I was able to provide a summer research experience to underrepresented students who could not commit time to research during the school year, 2) I was able to mentor more students at a time than I could have with grant-based work, and 3) we were able to divide the work to create a manageable workload for all.
Although volunteer research opportunities have the potential to increase inequities (as you mentioned), I have found they can also decrease inequities when being thoughtful and selective about building a diverse team.
Leslie: As a fully teaching-focused faculty member, I don’t have a lab of my own, so I’ll defer to others for more concrete tips that have worked for them in the past. While I’m sure it can be difficult to secure external funding to pay undergraduate RAs, I encourage you to look to whatever funding opportunities your school might provide. And if such opportunities are currently limited, you can be the person who helps create them! Many colleges and universities appear to be having A Moment™️ with respect to diversity, equity, and inclusion, so I’d argue that there’s no time like the present to ask for institutional support that can help rectify the inequities inherent in asking students to work for free. If we’re really serious about diversifying our Ph.D. programs and the professoriate at large, ensuring that undergraduate research experiences are as widely accessible as possible is a relatively easy place to start.
If there isn’t currently a McNair Scholars Program and/or dedicated undergraduate research funds at your institution, get some like-minded colleagues together (preferably from across departments) and push for these opportunities to be made available. At my institution, students who receive work-study funds as part of their financial aid package are able to receive those funds by working as research assistants. If that’s not the case at your school, ask why and then keep pushing until that happens. This appears to be a perfect opportunity for colleges and universities to put their money where their mouths are. As faculty members, we’re in a unique position to help effect change for the benefit of all our students, and that’s the approach that I tend to take when these kinds of tricky issues arise. Rather than focusing on whether you should or shouldn’t take unpaid RAs, ask how you can use your power to ensure that this specific question is not one that others need to ask themselves for much longer.