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I contacted a group leader, and he strongly liked my CV. He encouraged me to join his group as a postdoc fellow, but he mentioned that the position he may offer is unpaid (so, I must cover my living expenses).

He mentioned that I can publish good papers in his group following my previous works. Then, I can get a good paid job. So, it is worth of accepting an unpaid job.

I'm wondering if it is common for postdoc fellows to accept unpaid positions?

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This is definitely not common. – Austin Henley Feb 19 at 17:41
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Can you please say what country you are in? – jakebeal Feb 19 at 18:02
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In the UK and, I believe, the USA, this would violate minimum wage law. So, in those two countries, it should be very uncommon. – David Richerby Feb 19 at 22:25
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Also, what field is this? Maybe if you're doing piano performance, you go and live near your role model so you can attend his master classes. But you do not expect to be paid while you do it. – GEdgar Feb 20 at 0:04
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I did some work for two different people to get preliminary data for grants. Once paid, once promised to be paid, but unpaid. So my personal experience says 50% of the time. Regarding the lack of pay in the UK, one is not an employee, but an external consultant of sorts pro bono, which is legal. – Matteo Ferla Feb 20 at 19:41

What the group leader should have said is that s/he has no money, but you can join the lab if you have your own funding (i.e., a fellowship). For them to dangle papers in exchange for free work is unethical and potentially illegal, depending on where they are.

Edit: What follows is entirely my personal opinion. I am no lawyer so no idea about legality; feel free to let me know if you think my opinion is too harsh/wrong.

Any kind of free labour in a lab is unfair and discriminatory. It locks out those in society who aren't lucky enough to be able to give their time away for free. This includes undergraduate internships. If you're working for someone, then you should be paid for your time. Even if you are receiving training.

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Are you saying that it is illegal to have volunteers in your lab? – StrongBad Feb 19 at 18:19
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@StrongBad, I would say that about the US labor market, absolutely. They have to at least get course credit or something of demonstrable value if not money. – Bill Barth Feb 19 at 18:33
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@StrongBad, I think that having unpaid volunteers work for you is unfair and discriminatory. I have no idea as to the legality of these things as this will vary quite a bit from country to country and state to state, and I am no lawyer. – stjep Feb 19 at 19:33
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@StrongBad, just my opinion, but discriminatory in that it shuts out lower SES who can't afford to work for free. – stjep Feb 19 at 19:45
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@StrongBad it depends on the jurisdiction, but yes, in many places having volunteers work in your institution would be illegal unless some specific circumstances are met (e.g. registered charities, internship trainee conditions, part of a study course program, etc) that wouldn't apply for a postdoc working at a university. In your lab it might be legal, but in other places you'd have to pay at least the legal minimum salary or, e.g. with some collective bargaining rules, a standard postdoc salary but maybe as half-time or quarter-time position so that they're hired for a low number of hours. – Peteris Feb 19 at 19:47

That would be illegal (for the supervisor/university) in the US.

Edited by popular request to say that like an unpaid internship the US Department of Labor has some pretty strict rules for when an "employer" is allowed to not pay someone who works for them. At my university, postdocing is work, so I think that role should comply with the same rules. At my university a postdoc wouldn't fit either, so in my experience, unpaid postdocs are extremely uncommon.

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Aren't people on sabbaticals usually still paid by their home university? If they are truly unpaid, then yes, I'm saying they're illegal just like the DoL is starting to crack down on unpaid internships. – Bill Barth Feb 19 at 18:20
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@StrongBad: One difference is that sabbatical visitors typically are not required to do any work by the host institution. If they ask you to teach or work in someone's lab under their direction, then yes, they should pay you. But if they just give you an office and let you do whatever you want, then they aren't making you work for them. – Anonymous Mathematician Feb 19 at 19:11
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@AnonymousMathematician in my field sitting in an office and doing whatever you want is essentially what a postdoc does (especially one who is not funded by a grant). – StrongBad Feb 19 at 19:40
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@BillBarth: Please elaborate. Do you mean illegal as in criminal law? Illegal as in making you liable for a civil suit? Labor relations suit? Also - what level legislation? University bylaws? State laws? Federal laws? ... Finally, you did not actually say whether this is common, as opposed to legal :-( – einpoklum Feb 19 at 21:20
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It's US federal admin law illegal (PDF warning), though the second circuit has rejected this test. As a result, I believe but do not know that it's uncommon in US practice. – Bill Barth Feb 19 at 22:08

In the United States, the Supreme Court has stated criteria for when unpaid training or internships are acceptable (quoted from that site):

  1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school;

  2. The training is for the benefit of the trainee;

  3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation;

  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded;

  5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period; and

  6. The employer and the trainee understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.

In particular, someone can let you do unpaid work for them only when it is for your benefit, not for theirs. I don't know offhand of precedents involving postdoctoral positions, but these criteria seem to me to rule out most forms of unpaid postdocs in the U.S. (Of course, the legal situation could be completely different in other countries.)

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My read of the rules is the opposite. I think everything but point 4 is covered by the fact that the NIH F32/T32 postdoc fellowships are considered a "training" position. As for point 4, the immediate advantage a PI gets is co-authored publications, but since gift authorship is unethical, the co-authorship must be a result of the work the PI put into the research. – StrongBad Feb 19 at 19:35
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I would say this is mostly a political/class-struggle question.. The US has seen doctoral researchers try to unionize, and conflicting NLRB rulings based on the composition of judges, in 2000 (more progressive) then in 2004 (more conservative). Cf. NLRB 332-111 NYU vs UAW and NLRB 342-42 Brown U vs UAW. Sorry, I don't have links for those. – einpoklum Feb 19 at 20:33
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@einpoklum If you're going to use the term "class struggle" for the interaction between one group of people with PhDs and another group of people with PhDs, you obviously understand the concept of "class" in a very different way to me. – David Richerby Feb 20 at 18:02
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@DavidRicherby: The struggle is typically between junior/untenured academic staff unions and university managements (as in those cases). And the PhD's are not the point, it's a question of the position within the industrial relations. The question could have been about some kind of internship program which doesn't pay and the issue would be mostly similar. – einpoklum Feb 20 at 19:02
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@Benjamin And your name has "jam" in it. What's your point? PhD students and postdocs come from all walks of life but somehow people further into their careers don't? – David Richerby Feb 21 at 3:14

I disagree with the other answers. In my field, PIs offer postdocs space in their labs even when they have no money for salary. In my field staff is the biggest cost so providing space and consumables and access to equipment is not a problem. During this time, the PI and postdoc might work on grant applications together, but this depends on the situation.

My research is fairly interdisciplinary (probably best described as cognitive neuroscience) and I have seen unpaid post docs in every department I have been affliaited with, including the Electrical Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, and Psychology (both in the US and UK). I also have colleagues who have been unpaid poatdocs in Neuroscience and Physics departments. My wife is in the humanities and from her colleagues I am aware of unpaid post docs in Art History, English, and History departments (again US and UK).

From the comments, maybe I am overstating what a post doc is. None of the unpaid positions I am aware of had any teaching or supervisory requirements. Nor did they have any binding contracts. What they did is provide the individual with access to an office/lab, library, and internet. In the sciences they often provided access to consumables, IRB/ethics review and approval, and money to run human subjects (when needed). The positions were all "supervised" since someone needed to sign off on them but the postdoc was basically free to do what they wanted.

I do not know of anyone who stayed in the unpaid post for more than 6 months (they usually either got a grant to stay or a paid position someplace else). Most of the people were straight out of their PhD and were in the process of applying for funding. They tended to have strong ties to the city of the post doc.

There seems to be variation in policies regarding unpaid postdocs. Yale explicitly says that unpaid and volunteer researchers are not allowed and from what I can find, they do not allow any unpaid visiting researchers. UPENN does not allow unpaid post docs, but they do allow unpaid visiting scholars which appear to be very similar to postdocs. MIT also does not allow unpaid postdocs, but does allow unpaid visiting positions. Harvard SEAS is the only university in my quick search that allows unpaid "postdocs".

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How do these people eat and where do they sleep? – Bill Barth Feb 19 at 18:38
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The question of legality is not field-dependent, but probably country-dependent. – Dmitry Savostyanov Feb 19 at 20:03
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@StrongBad: If they weren't working the post-doc, they would find another job and get a salary. It could well be an engineering or a teaching position somewhere - which may not be much less rewarding experience-wise, but would pay a decent salary. Hopefully anyway. – einpoklum Feb 19 at 20:58
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@StrongBad, please state your field and country. – Bill Barth Feb 19 at 22:10
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Moreover, the Harvard SEAS link describes this kind of postdoc as "Includes postdoctoral fellows with fellowships that are paid directly to the fellow and postdoctoral fellows on the payroll of another institution." So what they mean is that the salary does not come from Harvard. That's not the same thing at all as being "unpaid"! I also agree with other commenters that saying "in my field" rather than listing the field makes a potentially useful answer of very little use to anyone. – Pete L. Clark Feb 20 at 20:33

In the Netherlands, postdoctoral researchers are considered employees, plain and simple. Such a PI is unlikely to be able to sneak this under the radar, and even if he did - the position is paid, regardless of whether he would like it to be - he's just not making the payments.

It would not be unheard of (although maybe not in the Netherlands) for you do accept this postdoc then sue the guy or the research institute for back-pay - with a good chance of winning... Of course, I wouldn't recommend this strategy if you have a less, shall we say, adventurous opportunity.

From an ethical/moral perspective, I'd also say that PI is acting reprehensibely. Research is important and hard work; true, it benefits the researcher himself as well - but so does almost any professional position where you build a reputation, whether you're a carpenter, or a plumber, or what-not. What's more, the lab or research group benefits from your achievements just as well - you're are fulfilling its goals directly; and your PI benefits also, since his direction of interest in research is being taken further (and that's not to mention partial credit for your work, authorship on papers etc.) ... honestly, if he really "doesn't have the money" - then let all the lab workers, him first, chip in from their own salary so that you all have the same missing fraction of your pay overall.

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I did an unpaid postdoc in Japan, as my wife was staying there anyway, and I was both young and desperate. I knew of 3 or 4 other people like me, also motivated by a desire to stay in Tokyo at "all cost". I wouldn't say they were common, but they weren't unheard of either.

The rationale was that I would get to publish and given the prestige of the university and the lab I was with, it would be beneficial for my career in the long run, even if I wasn't paid. I signed on as an unpaid postdoc and I made ends meet by teaching English, French and translating technical papers and documents.

My experience was overall negative. Despite being reassured otherwise - I was told I would be treated just like any junior faculty/researcher - people just don't take you seriously if they know you are not paid, and it will be very hard to keep it a secret. The psychological effect became very difficult after a while. I expected most people to admire my perseverance and dedication to my research, by willing to work for free. Instead most people were looking at me as some sort of charity case - "he's working here for free because he can't get a real job". There were several conflicts between my research (what I wanted to be doing), and the part time jobs I was doing. It was very hard to focus on my research, when I was constantly being pulled into some task or event because of my other jobs.

If you are a foreign national in the host country you want to do a postdoc in, you will most likely run into visa issues if you are not paid, and you will run into employment authorization issues for whatever part-time work you want to do to make ends meet. In my case I had to switch from a visiting scholar visa to a dependent visa, then wait a long time to get a part-time work authorization. I've seen foreign researchers in the US (where I live now) face similar problems.

In the US, some states don't allow unpaid post-docs for labor law reasons, and even when it is allowed by local laws, the university itself might have rules against it for security, insurance and liability reasons. The 3 places I am familiar with in the US, Georgia Tech, Emory, and MIT, don't allow unpaid post docs.

Back to my experience in Japan, none of the unpaid post-docs I knew of materialized into real academic positions. They all eventually gave up, and either went back to their hometowns/countries and got low-level teaching positions there or they left academia for the industry - and when you join the industry you find yourself having lost 3 or 4 years compared to other people with your age and skill set.

Conclusion: Don't go for an unpaid post-doc, it's very taxing and it's not worth it at all. There's a world beyond academia.

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I have never heard of an unpaid postdoc position, unless you're talking about having some external funding so that no money is going out of your supervisor's pockets.

But maybe you need to provide more information. I think that depending on your country and your area of expertise, it may not be as uncommon as people here think.

I advise strongly against such positions, for multiple reasons.

  • By now, you are old enough to have to fend for yourself. The fact that your supervisor knows this, and still encourages to join his/her lab without any pay seems extremely unethical on the supervisor's part (unless the lab is world-famous, and a couple years there is enough to guarantee fantastic prospects). I think it seems likely that there are other unethical practices going on in that lab, based on this information.
  • Being a postdoc allows you to build your CV so that you can try for a professorship soon after you finish your position. Many of these CV components come from the lab, but you can also get some of the experience through the university, possibly from teaching, or other services to the department. Will you be treated as a member of the university, or are you expected to just show up to the lab, without getting access to any of these other components?
  • Do you have any plans on how you are going to take care of other benefits that come with being employed with the university? Health care and pension are important benefits that you probably will not have access to. Even trivial things like journal access might become irritating unless you get a regular position through the university.
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I am a Principal Investigator at a Swiss University.

In my view, postdocs are experienced scientists who should know how to write a passable project description and application for funding. Therefore I expect all my postdocs to help contributing to the expenses of the lab, e.g. by acquiring competitive fellowships (e.g. HFSP, EMBO, DFG, Marie-Curie).

You may, however, try all of the above - and still fail, for reasons that are out of your control. In that case, I will give you a "safety net" by paying your salary through my core funding. But if you feel that the financial health of my lab is none of your business, and you are not even prepared to try and get some funds, then please do not apply to my lab.

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It's a deal. I will not apply to your lab. – Dmitry Savostyanov Feb 20 at 17:43
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That's more than fair! It may be worth saying, however, that 11 of my former postdocs (over the past 20 years) have attained a tenured full professorship in the meantime. Evidently, my deal was not such a bad one for them. – aag Feb 20 at 21:13
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I have a feeling more people are voting on your answer as a form of moral judgement rather than whether or not it answers the question. ... and in fact, you do not directly address OP's question. Consider editing please. – einpoklum Feb 22 at 0:22
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This doesn't seem to answer the question. – user2390246 Feb 22 at 9:19
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not directly, but it does (at least that's what I think), by providing a possible explanation for the scenario described by OP. Principal Investigator (PI) is impressed by OP and wants to hire him/her, but has no funds for the salary. Hence PI asks OP to come up with his own salary (which is not exactly the same as an unpaid position, but may be perceived by OP as such). For highly productive labs which have lots of applicants, I'd say that this is a common situation. And from a moral viewpoint, frankly I do not see anything wrong with it. – aag Feb 22 at 14:58

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