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Unpaid Work in Academia.

9 April 2014

I currently have two interns. They’re undergraduates, and they’re getting ready to move on. I only have money to pay them through April. They knew that going in. Actually, going in, they thought it was only until last December, but I scrounged up a little extra dough. Right now we have a draft of the manuscript. I’m intending on submitting it as soon as we can, with them as co-first authors (a conversation for another day!). Will it be done by the end of April? I don’t know. Probably not. We need to really tighten it up a great deal, and then get edits from collaborators, and then send it off to this enormously famous dude whose clinic we modeled for his comments. That’s a courtesy, but it could have big dividends.

If we can’t submit it by the end of April, what expectations am I, as a PI, allowed to have from these interns? They did a lot of the work. The data collection. The simulation code. The data interpretation. I will certainly need to understand and examine these things to respond to review. Am I entitled to their labor in responding to review, or conducting new experiments, or revising the manuscript after they’ve moved on and I can no longer pay them?

Absolutely not. I have no right to expect them to work for free. Trainees in academia often continue to work long hours for former PIs to get out old papers. And if both parties treat that collegially and believe they have benefits to gain, then that’s wonderful. One of my interns has said she wants to continue the work if she can. One is going off to medical school. I’ll never hear from her again. And that’s fine. I am not entitled to her labor.

That’s the risk a PI takes when they bring on trainees: that they will move on with unfinished work. They have that right. And holding a recommendation hostage, or demanding they produce for free after everyone has agreed they’ve graduated, or after they’ve taken another position is exploitative. And this bizarre arrangement exists only in academia. In any other industry, whenever a person leaves a post, they leave unfinished work, and the people who remain suck it up and move on with their lives and jobs.

“But!”, academics argue, “This work is so important, and we invest so much! It must be completed and published! For the PI, and for the world!” Then pay for it. If you need additional work from a trainee after they leave, set aside some of your budget and pay them hourly as a contractor. I might be able to arrange for my undergraduate to receive credit towards her degree for continuing to work on this manuscript. But there needs to be a tangible, measurable benefit. The unquantifiable “value” of being an author on a paper isn’t enough.

Academia is an exploitation machine. Grad students, postdocs, undergrads, adjunct professors. All are asked to work for far too little, or for nothing, or for nebulous, vague rewards. And PIs who pressure ex-trainees to continue working, without pay, on projects after they’ve left are participating in the exploitation engine. The risk of taking on temporary workers and trainees is that they don’t finish. That’s the PI’s risk, from the outset. Own it. We can’t demand free labor.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. 9 April 2014 08:38

    I do see your point but you gave a caveat last night on Twitter that’s important: if the trainee sees the pub as enough payment then it’s not exploitation. Whether they *should* feel that way is what it seems like you’re getting at. Should they? Probably not. However, when I left my job in the non-profit sector to return to university full-time I still consulted with the person who took over on a non-paid, as needed basis. It wasn’t as many hours as writing a manuscript but it did happen.

  2. 9 April 2014 09:27

    I think my situation is a good example:

    I started a postdoc some years ago with a pretty good situation and an NIH-scale salary. My PI and I reached a agreement about how much time I’d spend on projects on her grant vs. expanding my “own” stuff. That worked ok for 3 years. At the end of 3 she ran low on funding and I had yet to land a job. My options were to either leave academia or try to cobble together funding from adjuncting & other sources to continue as a “postdoc”. That’s how I ended up where I am now. Doing the same work but getting paid less than I made as a 1rst year grad student.

    I’m a part time hourly worker with no health insurance, and somehow I feel lucky.

    It’s a frustrating situation, and yet I feel almost relieved that my PI was able to send any amount of $ my way. Even if it was $1 she wouldn’t feel like any less my boss. I guess that’s the issue with academia. Who your boss is doesn’t quite strictly correlate with who (if anyone) is paying you.

  3. 9 April 2014 10:43

    Your undergraduate trainees do still absolutely need to read over the final manuscript and make sure they agree with the data quality and conclusions drawn in it in order to be authors. I don’t know how I feel about getting paid for that time, but authorship on a manuscript has its own responsibilities.

  4. 9 April 2014 17:47

    As a researcher and now research administrator, I agree whole heartedly. Continuing as a volunteer IS the choice of the person, regardless of the position (i.e. trainee, post grad, post doc). Sounds like the trainees in this example have already contributed sufficiently to have their name on the publication … and yes Erin, reading and commenting on the final drafts that has ones name on it is a requirement of authorship.

  5. 9 April 2014 19:48

    I think it depends on their career aspirations. I am in the same boat, I have an undergrad finishing a couple of publications, and though I would like her to finish both that is unreasonable when we factor in the inevitable revisions. Based on this I expect to have her write as much as she can, then me finish it up. I cant imagine asking her to do any more than proofread/validate anything after she leaves.

    That being said, if it was a grad student or postdoc who had moved on to another lab, I wouldn’t feel bad at all asking her to work on it from her new place of employment, as I know my previous supervisors expected me to continue tying up loose ends when I moved on. I realize its a double-standard but writing is different from doing experiments in my subfield and I would never ask someone who was gone to do experiments, but I think its fine if they write.

    • 9 April 2014 19:53

      “I had to do it, so you have to do it” is how we perpetuate exploitative systems. I love you, Dave, but I think you’re wrong here.

      • davebridges1 permalink
        9 April 2014 20:33

        Is it exploitative if they want to ensure their voice (and author priority) is unchanged?

        I don’t feel exploited at all. I’m glad I could finish those papers.

      • 9 April 2014 20:36

        As long as everyone has agency and isn’t pressured, no problem! It’s when ex-trainees are pressured to finish that I have a problem. They serve at their own pleasure.

  6. 9 April 2014 23:54

    I am working on a blog post, but my general issue here is that I find it hard to imagine a scenario in which a former trainee: 1. doesn’t want to have a say in how the papers are written/published, but 2. the PI does want the trainee to write the papers, and 3. the PI actually has any leverage to “force” the trainee to do anything. Sure, PI can withhold LoRs, but if trainee isn’t interested in a career in academia (as is evidenced by not wanting to see the papers through), then a LoR from PI is greatly devalued. Putting pressure on trainees is a dick move regardless, but it isn’t exploitation unless the trainee caves against her will, which, why would she if the papers are irrelevant to her career and the PI has nothing to offer?

    • 10 April 2014 06:47

      I think a LoR from a previous boss is pretty darned important in academia and elsewhere. Unless the trainee has decided to leave the workforce, LoRs are critical. Beyond that, yes, the PI doesn’t have power to “force”. But all kinds of pressures are brought to bear, culturally. It’s a culture we have, where people are expected to do all kinds of work without being compensated.

      As for the likelihoods of 1. and 2.? I just honestly don’t know. I know I’ve lost papers because students decided they don’t care about following up. And that’s ok. They have the right to do that.

  7. 10 April 2014 18:11

    Something occurs to me when reading this, and some of the posts that follow it up: What sort of compensation do you expect for your time when you do work on behalf of intern 1 & intern 2? For the next few years, you may be called upon to write thoughtful (hopefully) recommendation letters, take phone calls on their behalf, etc.. Further, the more invested you were in their career (i.e. grad student or postdoc) you may be called upon to read their grants/drafts, etc.. How do you value your own time expended on their behalf?

    Mentors (can/may) do a fair bit of uncompensated work on behalf of their mentees in the years after they leave the lab. The expectation of a reference is there, at a minimum. Certainly, that work has tremendous value to the mentee. Have you thought about factoring this in at all when balancing the requests made of trainees that have left the lab?

  8. Syd permalink
    15 April 2014 10:41

    Years ago, I asked graduate students to submit their dissertation/thesis as a manuscript for publication. I realized later that was pretty ballsy. I remember getting ten publications from my dissertation. I thought it was what I was supposed to do and gladly submitted my manuscripts. Now I realize that some students don’t have that drive and that the world of publishing has changed over the last couple of decades. I would hope for students to want to have a publication, but I can’t make anyone do something they don’t have the desire to do.


  1. Does a “services rendered” model apply in academia? | Fumbling Towards Tenure Track

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