I have some undergraduate students doing research in my lab, and I pay them by the hours. I've observed that the students usually do what I tell them and don't go beyond that (as we usually expect from research) even though I encourage them to do so. They also work exactly the assigned hours (says 10 hours/week). You know, like the regular employees in a company, not like a researcher in academia.

I discussed this with other faculty members in my department, and some of them told me that I have been doing it wrong. That I should not pay the students (except during the summer) as this job is for them to have research experience and learn research skills. Only the students who are really interested in doing and learning research will volunteer to work in the lab for free, and these are the students we want in the lab, not the students who (mainly / only) work for the compensation. And my colleagues told me that they had very few undergraduate students working in their labs for free, but those have been very good students who would co-author papers and continue to graduate schools (Master or PhD).

On the other hand, I've heard from some good undergraduate students (in terms of GPA and technical skills) that they would never work an unpaid position.

I've been thinking about this lately. Am I doing it wrong? I'm not cheap, but if paying the students to do research results in wrong motivation and expectation for them, and if not paying them is a good filtering mechanism to select good students, maybe I should do that.

What do you think? Do you have any good strategy to have good undergraduate students doing research in your lab?

Btw, I'm in the US.

Updates: I was not clear in my original post, so here are some clarifications.

  • My expectation: the research tasks for my students require them to get familiar with a programming language and learn to use some special software before they can do the research. These skills are not taught in the formal course of study, so I can't find any undergraduate students who posses these skills. These are very valuable skills in my field, especially in industry. If I were them, I would spend my personal time to learn these skills as fast as I can, and, in parallel, spend most of my paid time in the lab to use these skills to do the actual research tasks. I would do that because I am excited about doing good research work. That's my expectation. My current students have spent almost all their paid time in the lab to learn, rather than to do. And they only learn during the exact assigned work hours. Two months in, and they are still mostly in the learning / training mode.
  • One might say that companies pay new employees to learn / train / retrain before they can actually do useful work. But a professor / university lab is not a company. Compared to a company, even a small startup, I have very limited funding and resources (not to mention the retaining rate of undergraduate students after training is much lower than at a company). I must figure out the best way to spend my fund.
  • Purely from the productivity point of view, paying undergraduate students to do my research seems to be the worst way to spend my research funds and my time. A skilled PhD student or part-time contractor can finish the tasks much much faster and likely at higher quality than my group of undergraduate students can finish in 3+ months. I know that because during my postdoc, I mentored a number of good PhD students. The total cost would be similar in the end. Given that, why did I hire them and agree to mentor them? Because I liked that they seemed to be interested in research, and I wanted to give them opportunities to gain such skills and experience.
  • However, if their cost is eating too much into my limited funding with a minimal return, I should have a second thought about it because in the end, no one but I must take care of my own business (my research, and eventually my tenure). Getting research funding has become increasingly difficult.
  • Do I care about disadvantaged students and want to give them opportunities? My colleagues and I are going to organize STEM camps for many underrepresented students in the area, free of charge (of course with external funding). But I think this should be separate from my research career, for now.
  • 21
    Usually credits/remuneration are mutually exclusive. – Azor Ahai May 17 at 0:07
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    You don't eat with credits, you don't pay rent with published papers collaboration, and you don't pay tuition fees with sense of accomplishment. bear that in mind always when considering having someone work for free. I can't see what's wrong with working the exact assigned hours or doing the exact assigned tasks, what makes you feel that removing retribution would increase and not lower that desire? unless you held only one payable spot and unfairly make them compete with their research to obtain it, which would be despicable. – CptEric May 17 at 6:41
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    Your students work the hours that you ask, and do the tasks that you assign them. If that is not what you want, maybe you should ask them to work more hours, and assign them different tasks... – Pakk May 17 at 8:04
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    "They also work exactly the assigned hours (says 10 hours/week). You know, like the regular employees in a company, not like a researcher in academia." Grad students (and undergrads, new profs etc) are not indentured servants and should not be expected to act as such. – iammax May 17 at 19:04
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    Not paying them is "a good filtering mechanism" to select wealthy students. – henning May 17 at 19:28

11 Answers 11

up vote 21 down vote accepted

It's unfair to take valuable labor from anyone, including students, without compensation. On the other hand, new undergraduates just starting in a research lab are often 90% training and 10% productivity (*). For new graduate students, it might be 75%/25%. So the training alone might be pay enough when a student is first starting out.

(*) 1 undergraduate summer = 1 graduate student month = 1.5 postdoc weeks = 1 professor week. That may sound harsh, but it's my own experience after 30 years spread across all four of those categories. It also varies by student.

A typical progression might look like this:

  1. Join the group for a month without pay or credit, and demonstrate that you can contribute and collaborate. Solve a simple technical problem or two.

  2. Get paid relatively low wages for a quarter/semester/summer to be a simple assistant to others in the group: an apprentice. Just do what needs to be done that day. Become an expert? Higher pay.

  3. Get research credit for a project that's actually yours. You're expected to produce publishable results, if not a full paper. Increased future career earnings are worth the cost of tuition.

  4. Get a summer or other research fellowship that combines the best of 2 (pay) and 3 (interesting project).

Those who want more pay or more freedom will work hard to earn it. Those who don't aren't rehired next term. I had one mentor tell me to "fire" one student each year. Looking back, I wish I had accepted that advice much earlier in my career. Be explicit from Day 1 what you expect so they're not surprised and you're not disappointed.

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    This is an odd utilitarian style of analysis. If you want to apply this style of analysis rigorously, then I would say that in the vast majority of cases, a summer undergrad has negative value to the research group. The time spent overseeing their work far exceeds the time that would have been required for a grad student, postdoc, or professor to simply do the work. (The cases where that's not true are probably ones in which the student is being used purely for repetitive grunt work such as cleaning rats' cages.) So by this analysis, students should pay for the privilege of working. – Ben Crowell May 19 at 19:53
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    Having training periods is not unique to academia. People working in private industry still get paid while they catch up to the group. In my state, you have to be paid for any training your employer makes you do (as it should be); including things like HIPAA or whatever. – Azor Ahai May 20 at 22:46
  • In industry there are unpaid internships and volunteer roles. They probably fit closer to the undergraduate researcher than on-the-job training would. – A Simple Algorithm May 21 at 0:59
  • @AzorAhai: "Having training periods is not unique to academia. People working in private industry still get paid while they catch up to the group" - go check lawyers. IIRC, trainees often have to pay the company for being allowed to be interns in the company/agency. But that probably depends on the country and "prestige level".. – quetzalcoatl May 21 at 7:02
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    @quet Well that's a garbage arrangement. Where is that allowed? Do you support that? – Azor Ahai May 21 at 14:15

Generally, yes undergraduates should be paid for their research. This is an equity issue. At many institutions, a large portion of the student body has to work while they study in order to survive. If student research is unpaid, those students will not be able to participate. Students who have to work are often also members of other underrepresented groups such as racial minorities.

It is also a justice issue. If students are doing valuable work, it is only fair to pay them. It is also unjust to expect students to work more than the assigned hours.

I should add that it is not appropriate to pay students for work that earns course credit.

If your research students are not achieving what you want them to do, you need to be sure you are setting clear expectations. You also need to be willing to part with under-achieving students.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – aeismail May 18 at 1:21
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    I should add also that there may be ethical implications to not paying people at least minimum wage for the time they conduct research for you, notwithstanding earning credits. These should be assessed by your ethics board prior to receiving approval for a study, and you may have to answer to them if someone complains. – Dan May 18 at 16:37
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    @aeismail Comments are for explaining downvotes though. – Konrad Rudolph May 20 at 12:37
  • @Dan really? I thought ethics boards (IRBs) were concerned with how subjects were paid, not with how researchers were paid. – Anonymous Physicist May 21 at 0:55
  • @AnonymousPhysicist I think that'll differ between institutions, but it's fair to expect a study plan to include detail of the minions you'll enlist to help with it. – Dan May 21 at 10:09

I was an undergraduate who was paid for his work (rather than receiving credit; I had the option of one or the other, but research credits in the department I worked in were useless to me). I worked at that lab throughout undergrad and am now a staff scientist in the same group.

You really should give your students one or the other, or both, if your university allows it. It seems to me fairly unethical to have someone do work for you without compensating them. Of course, there are realities of budgets, but you really should strive to pay people for work they do.

(Honestly, it's ridiculous that you have to pay to take research credits, but that's a different post.)

They also work exactly the assigned hours (says 10 hours/week). You know, like the regular employees in a company, not like a researcher in academia.

Well, yeah. Before I was hired, we set an expectation that I would work 10 hours a week in my mentor's lab. (In fact there may be a limit on students' working hours, my university's was 19.) I don't understand why you think anyone would work hours for free when they are paid hourly. If you need more than 10 hours/week out of them, then hire them for more hours.

Even if you had volunteers; you should set some sort of expectation with them for how many hours (on average) they should put in. Yes, some weeks will be more, some weeks less, but a volunteer should know how much work you want out of them.

Only the students who are really interested in doing and learning research will volunteer to work in the lab for free

This is not true; let me be a counterpoint. Only the students who can afford to will volunteer to work in your lab for free. That is, students who have support from their parents, or who don't already work a job for money will work for you for free. I am sure that the best undergraduate research assistants do not come solely from the pool of people with wealthier parents.

Am I doing it wrong? I'm not cheap, but if paying the students to do research results in wrong motivation and expectation for them, and if not paying them is a good filtering mechanism to select good students, maybe I should do that.

No, not paying them is not "a good filtering mechanism to select good students." You sound like a new professor, and I think your own "filtering mechanisms" will improve as you interview and hire more undergrads over the years. At my lab, we went through about three for a position over three quarters before settling on a good, motivated undergraduate.


Edit:

After thinking about this for a few days, I would also point out that some types of relationships don't need to be paid. For example, students at my university can do honors projects in their department. Supervising these students is more of a service from professors than an employer/employee relationship, and undergrads seek out professors to supervise them, rather than professors recruiting students.

I assumed from your description of your students having been hired for 10 hours/week that this isn't the relationship you have with them. To put it another way, if you are getting value out of them that either you or a graduate student would have had to perform (e.g. feeding rats, interviewing human subjects) you should pay them. If you put out an ad looking for undergraduates, you should pay them.

In terms of equity, you should always be trying to pay your undergraduates, but I don't want to deny the existence of some relationships where not paying them may not be unethical.

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    "If you need more than 10 hours/week out of them, then hire them for more hours." There is often a regulatory limit on the hours, for good reason. – Anonymous Physicist May 17 at 10:55
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    @Anonymous I mentioned that in my answer - at my university, they could have been hired for almost twice that many hours if that's what they actually need done. – Azor Ahai May 17 at 14:20
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    @AnonymousPhysicist ...but apparently some professors are expecting researchers to go against reason and law and work more hours pro bon.... sorry, I meant... for "passion and motivation and sugar and spice and everything nice" – xDaizu May 17 at 15:49
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    @xDaizu If you need 40 hours of work every week; hire four undergraduates ... it's not a complicated calculus. – Azor Ahai May 17 at 16:27
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    @jkreft I think the only thing I criticized the OP for was his frustration with his hourly workers not working extra hours for free. Consider my frustrated tone annoyance at his coworkers. – Azor Ahai May 20 at 19:07

You may be assuming that the students who only work the minimum time required are motivated only to get the paycheck. I would speculate that students actually work the minimum time required to keep you happy. Dedicated, high-achieving students know that they need both research and grades to get into grad school -- keeping you happy achieves the first, and maximizing their time studying achieves the second.

Whether you should pay them or not is maybe opinion based. Here are a few points:

  • Many schools have too many students and too few research spots; taking only those willing to work for free seems like a decent way to thin the pack
  • But, many students require a paying job; by not paying the students, you may inadvertently advantage wealthier students.
  • A successful arrangement I've seen is that the professor pays for "useful work" (usually manual labor, or maybe work from a senior student who has learned something) and only offer unpaid positions for other work. But, in the US, "unpaid" is often not an option -- students either have to get credit or pay -- and since students have to pay for credits, this means they are actually paying for the privilege of working.
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    Well, I didn't fault the students. I want to find a way to motivate them to be interested in research. It seems suggested to me that, by paying them (instead of giving them credits or requiring them to vonlunteer), I put them in the state of mind that they just need to finish the X hours/week satisfactorily and I will be happy and will tell them "good job." They won't immerse themselves in the research and learn more to win my approval and confidence in them, because they don't think it's necessary for fulfilling the contract and get the paycheck. The unpaid students may be more motivated. – Tim May 16 at 23:58
  • Fair enough, updated my answer. I'm just trying to point out that the students may well be interested in the work and wish they could do more, but realistically find getting great grades to be higher priority. – cag51 May 17 at 0:07

Yes! When I was an undergrad, I worked in a lab starting my freshman year and my PI paid me $3 over minimum wage and gave me research credit. The university could only pay me for 20 hours/week max since I was a full time student but by the end of my senior year, I was probably working 40 hours/week and did not care that I was not getting compensated. By being paid for those 20 hours/week I could focus my time on research instead of having to get another job to pay for my expenses. My PI even paid us more during the summer for staying on and because he truly believed that we should not have to worry about money during the school year. Now of course, not every student worked as much as me, but the lab recruited really great undergrads who were very dedicated to their work. Like others have commented, this culture of having "free interns" has already become illegal in many industries, science is just lagging behind.

I think payment should depend on the type of work being done.

If an undergraduate student is doing menial work with limited training value, they should definitely be paid. I would include cleaning lab equipment/dishes, running very simple experiments, animal husbandry, filing paperwork, etc.

If an undergraduate student is mostly learning techniques and applying them to their own research project, or a shared project where they can be considered an author then they can be paid or compensated with course credit. However, if such a student continues in their work to the point that they are no longer mostly learning, the lab should definitely consider offering to switch them to a paid position.

If an undergraduate student is bringing existing skills or training to the job then they should definitely be paid.


I think, in an ideal world, all undergraduates should be paid for their work, but in many cases it is actually a cost to a lab to take on undergraduates. They take a lot of time and resources from the other people in the lab.

In my experience, many professors are willing to take on this additional burden for the benefit of the university and the next generation of researchers. However, budgets are limited, and compensation with credits is often the only way a lab can afford to have students work there.

  • There may be a cost in taking undergraduates, but without labs taking undergrads, labs wouldn't get trained undergrads and grads... so I'd say in this world, not just in an ideal world, all undergrads doing lab work should be paid. – einpoklum May 18 at 20:48
  • @einpoklum I think your argument is actually the argument against requiring paying undergraduates. It would be great if there was special funding set aside, but there isn't. If labs were required to pay undergraduates, but could not afford to do so or felt like the funds were better spent towards other things like graduate students and supplies, then there wouldn't be trained undergrads available. – Bryan Krause May 18 at 21:06
  • If there isn't, then the university/research institute staff should demand it from management and/or the funding entity, and if it's not received, take collective industrial action. – einpoklum May 18 at 21:09
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    Collective industrial action isn't that effective when the political parties in power are actively against funding increases for your industry and would jump at any chance to reduce funding or prevent academic research. @einpoklum – Bryan Krause May 18 at 21:18
  • (sigh) that's sad to hear... – einpoklum May 18 at 21:28
  • A student doing their prescribed research practicum, i.e. as part of their studies, should receive appropriate teaching and their credits and marks as detailed by the course they're enrolled in.
    This is part of their studies, and they should not be paid (by you) - If they find someone to pay them for studying [military, scholarship], that's fine - but IMHO there should be no other money involved in the purely study-related relationship between you as examiner and them, just like you don't pay them for listening to your lecture.
  • Students working for you should be paid for the number of hours they actually work. IMHO this is also important to ensure a clean professional relationship when you meet them again not as employee but as students in a lecture/prescribed practicum/exam.

  • To me, such a clean relationship is a matter of personal integrity and honesty. Both are IMHO important in research.
    I don't want to work with people who cheat, and I don't cheat neither.


Let me answer also from a German perspective (chemistry).

  • What I've seen so far are rather different the tasks for student employees vs. students doing the research practicum they are required to do for their studies.

    • The research practica prescribed by my studies were rather like tiny theses. You got/chose a project, went for literature, developed something (e.g. I implemented a new experimental setup for the 1st year practicum), discussed this with your supervisor and in the end handed in a report. Expectation was that the supervisor spends more time in supervising/teaching them than they'd need to produce the work output of the student.
      These students would typically work roughly the prescribed number of hours - partly because these practica also happen during the semester so they are restricted in time by the lectures they attend (though they'd also try to make sure they hand in a good and finished project)

    • In contrast to that, students employed for helping were there to actually help their supervisors, i.e. a clear net gain in work done. E.g. not a literature survey for their own research but running an errand to the library. Not developing a new experiment, but just making sure all solutions are ready for the next batch of 1st-year-students. No measuring for their own project, but maybe working as "autosampler" for the supervisor. All in all, rather comparable to a technician job. (Which doesn't mean that the student cannot learn anything, but the amount of learning is more like the expected gain in experience with any kind of job rather than at a university course.)
      Time are kept on a schedule or time sheet, I've never seen a discussion about asking more than the agreed hours without compensation in that context.

  • The German university system (i.e. the corresponding law) is very sensitive on possible pressure/abuse of power in the surroundings of exams. Our professors are public officials. Mixing money and exams is a big no-no (although the other direction is of course worse).

    • A professor asking a student to work without compensation for anything but the official courses the student is enrolled for and who is or will be involved in examining the student would get close to "acceptance of benefits by a public official" i.e. corruption (in relation to importance and vicinity of the exam).
      In other words, the practice you describe from your colleagues would be considered illegal over here.
    • If a student is employed, certain IP (exploitation) rights go automatically to the employer here - whereas a student explicitly holds all IP rights to the work done during their studies, including the thesis. Students are typically not aware of this. Both you and the student may be thinking you paying the student for a compulsory course is just nice. But particularly with a good student in a STEM lab (high chance of producing something relevant in terms of IP rights) this may be considered taking an unfair advantage of the student. And again, we're getting close to questionable behavior of a public official - now even without intent.
  • Some courses prescribe or allow that the students do some of their practica outside university. These practica can be paid (but often/typically? are not employment). Even a thesis can be done in industry this way. However, the official construction is that the marks are given by the professor (who is not part of the contract between student and company), and, particularly for external theses, the professor has a duty to make sure the conditions are not unfair against the student.
    In my studies, external prescribed practica were in research institutes rather than in companies and we were not paid (just like our fellow students who did the same practicum at university). Voluntary longer practica (e.g. during semester break) were not called practicum but student summer jobs (Werkstudent), typically had regular employment contracts and like the student helpers you were expected to actually work, i.e. produce a net output.

  • if paying the students to do research results in wrong motivation and expectation for them

    I'd say on the contrary: as a professional, I expect to be paid for my work, and this is what the students should expect and learn to expect as well. More precisely, I expect to be paid for signing/handing over my work. If the work stays my own, and I am the one to decide what to do, that's a different proposition. I'm also happy to negotiate the exact terms. I've happily been doing research where we found a good balance with comparably low wages - and I quit a research position where I decided the balance was not OK.

  • and you mention that unpaid work/over-hours are usually expected in research.
    In addition to the non-monetary considerations above, over here the concept is that there are certain levels of salary that already include all necessary over-hours. This is clearly true for professors, and equally clearly not the case for student helper hourly wages.


All this refers to students up to Master thesis. PhD "students" are not considered students in Germany, and there things work completely differently.
<rant> In particular, the rules to avoid abuse of power are somehow systematically suspended. </rant>

  • Re your final paragraph: the laws are changing fast in Germany; as I've heard, there are plans to start awarding PhD students credit for their work in research labs that might make it illegal to pay them a salary for it. After all the efforts by PhD representatives to ensure normal working contracts for all PhD students of the Max Planck Society, it may now turn out that they will have to go back to stipends to financially support them. – LLlAMnYP May 18 at 14:11
  • @LLlAMnYP: that's interesting to hear. Could you post a link to that discussion. As you probably gathered, I find the current situation of signing away all IP rights for half a wage deeply troubling - I've seen perfectly legal but IMHO decidedly unfair treatment in that respect. Scholarships could solve a lot of trouble - but the funding agencies would need to pay out the equivalent to employer's gross wage as the scholarship holder has to fully take care of their social insurance: the 1450 €/month (Studienstiftung including 100 € health care allowance) correponds to about 30 % TVL E13 II. – cbeleites May 20 at 11:06
  • Or, the other way round: 50 % TVL E13 II (i.e. 1360 €/month net) corresponds to about 2300 €/month scholarship, 65 % (net 1680 €/month) to about 2950 €/month scholarship. – cbeleites May 20 at 11:30
  • I'm afraid I cannot link anything as that is hearsay from my colleagues. What I know is what I relayed. – LLlAMnYP May 21 at 13:26

Would the same students that do good work when not paid do bad work when paid?

If the answer is no, would all students that do good work also work for free?

If the answer is also no, the only reason to not pay would be to have a way to filter out unmotivated students. But let's be honest, that can't be the correct way.

I've observed that the students usually do what I tell them and don't go beyond that (as we usually expect from research) even though I encourage them to do so. They also work exactly the assigned hours (says 10 hours/week).

I think your expectations are based on an incorrect perception of the reasons why this type of undergrad summer research job exists. They have existed for at least a hundred years -- e.g., G.I. Taylor did a foundational experiment in quantum physics in 1909, while he was an undergrad at Cambridge. But until ca. 2000, they were seen as exceptional things that only the most exceptional undergrads would do. As late as ca. 1980, there were no formal REU programs. At the school where I got my undergrad degree in physics (UC Berkeley), I think there were roughly 100 physics majors graduating per year, and of those my impression was that maybe 1 or 2 were involved in research. (No, I wasn't one of them.)

Over the last 20-30 years, credential creep has led to a situation in which many mediocre STEM students are expected to do an REU, simply because if you want to go to grad school, it's perceived as a box that you have to check on your application. I'm at a community college, so we don't do research, but our students often do summer REUs. I often talk to these students in September, and when I ask them what they worked on, I pretty uniformly find that they can't describe the science. At all. Not even at a basic level, like "we were trying to find cancer genes in rats," or "we were analyzing gravitational waves."

If you look at it in this way, it absolutely makes sense that your REU students don't act like researchers. They aren't researchers. They don't have the exceptionally precocious level of knowledge and ability that would allow an undergrad to do research. They are doing this thing because they see it as yet another hoop to jump through, and they don't really understand what they're doing or why.

While I was studying I was a paid research student at my university (in Germany if it matters). While I was only paid for a certain amount of hours, there was one thing that greatly motivated me to put that extra bit of work in above my contract:

Working towards my thesis. While it was officially not allowed to start on the thesis project early (check your departments rules on that, yours may very well differ), doing work on a project and using said work as a foundation to do more interesting research during the thesis was perfectly acceptable. In short: I worked, did the 'boring' part of a thesis while I worked (learning the theoretical framework above courses, learning the laboratory procedures, doing preliminary experiments), and when I was ready to begin my thesis I could draw from a pool of prebuilt knowledge/data to accelerate my progress and do interesting experiments using advanced techniques.

So to sum it up: If possible, give an additional incentive, as in the possibility do link a thesis with the work the students are doing and they should be interested in putting extra hours in. Students are all about efficiency, managing university, job, socializing and spare time activities.Knowing they get a small head start on a thesis should (at least for the good students) be reason enough.

  • ... although this is of course borderline in terms of what is allowed. On the one hand, by the exam regulations which would frown very much on one student getting a head start another doesn't - and on the other hand, the possibility of power abuse and undue pressure in the context of an important exam by a public official. – cbeleites May 17 at 16:32

I don't think you should pay them regularly,but you can reward them when they reach some achievements in research.

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