This happened a few months back. By that time I had just finished my masters and was looking for a research position.

I approached a professor who was working in a field in which I did my masters. After some initial conversation about my masters' work. He asked me if I will be ready to work for free. Puzzled by this, I asked him what he meant by that. He said that he had some projects down the line and will not have access to the funding for another 3 or 4 months. Then to clarify things I asked him if he will pay me for this 3 or 4 months once he has access to the funds. He simply smiled and shook his head implying 'no'. After that, I just took my resume and left his office.

TL;DR: I just want to know, is it very common in academia to ask people to work for free? If so, is it ethical?

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    In which country did this happen? I only know about cases where people continue to work after funding has ended, but usually very limited, usually in order to finish up a paper. – Mark Dec 24 '17 at 11:01
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    Academics regularly work for free, it is sometimes called "service," at others it is unpaid overtime (meaning any time worked outside of contractual hours). Starting-out researchers might-well work for free to get ahead. Your professor doesn't have the funds to pay you. If they did, then perhaps they would. Regardless, they probably think they're doing you a favour – user2768 Dec 24 '17 at 11:09
  • @Mark: This happened in India. – Rhinocerotidae Dec 24 '17 at 12:31
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    I don't think that this has anything to do with ethics. He is not asking you to work for free, he is saying that he is unwilling to fund you, and if you want to work with him, you should obtain your own funding. This is something different. – Bernie Dec 24 '17 at 14:13
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    In many locations, not only is this not ethical, it's not legal, either. – aeismail Dec 24 '17 at 23:09

In academia, it is not common to ask people to work for free. It is also not common to ask people to work, full stop. What is quite common, though, is to see people seeking work in academia. This include people looking for funding to help them developing their research ideas, and people looking for opportunities to join someone else's research projects.

You came to the professor seeking an opportunity to work with him. The professor did not offer to fund you, but instead offered you an opportunity to work without compensation for a period of time. You can take this opportunity or leave it. If you take it, the funding may or may not come in 3-4 months. You are free to quit this arrangement at any time, before or after the initially agreed period.

The professor did not want you to do his work. You wanted to do some work with him and he offered it. You also wanted some money and he did not offer it. You make the story look like you were deceived or forced into unfair relations - no you were not.

There is no insult in offering someone to work without payment. In some countries such an offer is illegal, and in some universities it is not permitted to work voluntary. This is done in order to comply with employment laws in a particular country. However, you seem to imply that this is somehow unethical or not normal in a weird way - no it is not.

BSc and MSc students often work on their own projects which contribute, sometimes significantly, to projects run by employed academics. Obviously, BSc and MSc students are not compensated financially (on the contrary, they sometimes have to pay tuition fee), but they use the feedback they receive in order to learn new skills. PhD students in some countries get a stipend, while in others they have to pay tuition out of pocket.

You have just completed your master, and have not yet got a PhD. From what I see, the opportunity to work on a project, receive a feedback and learn from it, with a chance of future employment, is not an unfair offer. Whether it is good enough for you to take it, you have to decide yourself.

  • @I agree, and would go even farther and say, it’s a standard part of my decision process to consider this option. Even if you might be in demand elsewhere, what if the opportunity came up to work on a high profile dream project or with a world class team? In my view it would be short sighted not to consider such options. – whitneyland Dec 26 '17 at 14:57

Whether asking someone to "work for free" is ethical or not is a complex question.

One of the first parameters is what "free" means. Being asked to work on an academic project without monetary pay is as many comments have pointed out -- a common occurrence. But usually there is some sort of compensation for this -- like progress towards a degree (either credits or progress in research or learning methods) or authorship of a publication. Slightly more questionable could be acceptance into graduate school.

A second parameter is the situation of the person being asked to work "for free." Asking someone otherwise gainfully employed who can count is as "service" or get a publication from it is not generally unethical. Offering little to a desperate student ("the chance at entry into a program") might be unethical if the person offering knows that it does not really affect their odds or that this is work one is normally paid for.

tl;dr -- define "free" very carefully and figure out whether the relation is such that the party with more power is abusing the party with less power in the non-monetary compensation situation.

Looking at your particular case, whether what's being offered is unethical would hinge greatly on whether the person offering it is sufficiently thinking of your long term benefit. So if you came saying "I want to be an expert in blue inks" and he offers something that gives you the experience you need to advance in blue inks, then great. If what he offers will not help you get into graduate school or develop relevant skills, then it can be abusive taking and unethical.

But how can strangers on the internet make that judgment for you???

  • “how can strangers on the internet make that judgment for you?” Easily. By explaining what I inferred from your answer, do a simple cost/benefit analysis which would include estimating the long term benefit to your career. It’s also a matter of how determined you are, how bad do you want it? Are you willing to make serious personal sacrifices to get where you want to go? To some that’s a silly concept, others relish the opportunity. Add your viewpoint on that into your cost/benefit model. – whitneyland Dec 26 '17 at 15:07

The culture of academia is that non-financial compensation is worth as much, and sometimes more, than certain financial forms of compensation: papers, degrees, prestigious titles, intellectual satisfaction, etc.

So, while I know many people that have worked without pay, I don’t know anyone that works ‘for free’.

It’s ethical because those titles, papers and degrees are worth something to the individual, and the society at large.


It is common, because I have heard of many labs doing it. I would say it is ethical, since you don't have to do it. Many PIs expect this sort of "trial period" to suss out people who are not good. Since the professor's attitude bothers you right away I recommend not working in this lab. Depending on where you live these uncompensated work arrangements may not be legal, you would have to contact the Department of Labor to see.

To give the specific details Pete L. Clark asked for: In my time at "Big State School USA" my engineering lab PI always made undergrads take the first semester for formal "class credit" to see who was worth hiring over the summer. Even if they walked in and asked for a job the response would be "we always ask for prospective undergrad researchers to work a semester for class credit for training and evaluation before paying them over the summer" Seemed slimy but the people we hired over the summer were 100% trained and 100% good after that, so I can't say the process did not yield results. Bio dept was even worse - they had laypeople volunteering as unpaid pipetting robots to "fight cancer".

In my time at "Ivy League Uni" every year I had a new MSc students who were "interested in research" and wanted to work in the lab for class credit. I didn't take any of them on after the first because I realized that with unpaid MSc students, the return on the upfront training you had to provide for only a semester of work was not worth the investment.

In my time at "Big government USA" I was part of group where the individuals that controlled the hiring endeavored to bring in a team of unemployed BSc graduates on a volunteer basis to see who would "work out" and "earn" the 10 month contract position we already had funding for. Seems super depressing, all I could do in the situation was push for the one candidate that qualified and showed up to get leveled up as soon as possible. The candidate published a paper and is now in a PhD program so I guess it worked out for him/her.

Hope these are enough real examples that you would agree the practice would seem "common" to me ;)

  • "I would say it is ethical, since you don't have to do it." That is a horrible ethical argument. Have you not noticed the many recent instances of older, powerful people getting in ethical hot water because they asked younger, less powerful people to do various things? In the case at hand -- as you say, it may or may not be legal to work without pay. It is almost certainly inadvisable to take an unpaid research job, and I would like to hear more specifics from you as to where and in what academic field not paying researchers on a trial basis is common. – Pete L. Clark Dec 27 '17 at 18:01
  • I agree with you that unpaid research jobs are bad and exploitative. OP should apply to PhD programs and take an offer that provides a stipend and/or keep searching for a job to discourage the practice. The 3rd sentence in your comment is a strawman -- you are referring to criminal misconduct. – DBB Dec 27 '17 at 18:56
  • "The 3rd sentence in your comment is a strawman -- you are referring to criminal misconduct." That's not true -- most of the instances of sexual harassment currently in the news have not brought criminal charges, and some of the people involved have been fired/dropped way before the criminality of the actions has been investigated. I stand by my comment: "you don't have to do it" is by no means a valid test of whether a request is ethical. – Pete L. Clark Dec 27 '17 at 19:15
  • Sexual harassment and unpaid internships are two very different things, I think. The first could get the PI fired, the second could contribute to the PI being promoted. – DBB Dec 27 '17 at 19:18
  • Thank you for providing further information. Having a student do research for course credit is not the same thing as having someone with a graduate degree take a research job (the OP does not mention any student aspect to the job) without pay. Your other example takes place outside of academia. Do you have any reason to believe that what the OP is being asked to do -- i.e., work in academia as an unpaid, non-student researcher -- is common? – Pete L. Clark Dec 27 '17 at 19:18

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