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.