I'm about a junior-senior in college and got the chance for an interesting lab that's conducting research information theory, where the role would be to help write ML model code. This is an area of interest for me and I think I could learn a lot from it.

I want to know if it's reasonable to expect to be paid, because this position doesn't compensate. I've heard of some positions that are and some that aren't. Money isn't that big of an issue but it's a nice to have. There are part time jobs I've been considering and admit that if I were to receive payment, I would probably spend more time doing research on this than working on my own projects. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn, disclaimer, I know I'm not entitled to anything.

I know it's related to and I don't want to open up the argument for should interns be paid. But are undergraduate researchers normally paid?

  • Should note I don't really have a desire to go into graduate school, I just thought I'd get a computer job after graduation and hack away. A little bit of ivory tower academics would be fun though. Nov 3, 2018 at 3:52

3 Answers 3


Usually, undergraduate research assistant positions are compensated in two ways: 1) academic credit or 2) hourly wage.

From my own personal experiences, paid undergraduate research assistantships are hard to come by. In the United States, a lot of these positions are considered "work studies" where it's considered an on-campus, part-time employment. However, even then, a lot of these positions were restricted to lower-income students who were able to document financial need. Usually, the research labs would be using their research grants to fund these paid positions. As many people in academia may know, research funds are also hard to come by. A lot of labs may have limited funds that they prioritize for hiring more important positions like Graduate Research Assistants/Associates or Lab/Project Managers.

Undergraduate Research Assistant positions compensated via academic credit are much more common since they allow for students to take fewer classes (and also saves the lab's funds).

However, when neither options are given, then it's ultimately just a volunteer position where the undergraduate may take on the position for intrinsic value or to gain experience.

Ultimately, a lot of professors and researchers may agree that it makes sense to compensate undergrads for hourly wage if possible (especially if they're putting in significant amount of work every week!), but a lot of times, it's really just the fact that the labs do not have the adequate funds to do so.

  • I may have to ask about academic credit because I hadn't known about that part. Thank you. Nov 3, 2018 at 3:55
  • I've never understood why students would want academic credit for undergraduate research. It makes sense if you need the credits for graduation, but assuming you are already on track to graduate, it seems like "academic credit" means you're paying them for the privilege of working for them. Anyway, I mostly agree with this answer -- my experience is that undergrad researchers are generally only paid if they are (a) in STEM, (b) at a large university, and (c) doing something useful for the lab, not just a learning project (which for undergrads usually means something boring, at least at first).
    – cag51
    Nov 3, 2018 at 4:00
  • 1
    @cag51 Having some research credit on your transcript also serves as evidence of you working in a research lab. Some universities or departments offer different credit courses to signify whether that time was in research, independent study, field work, etc.
    – ssjjaca
    Nov 3, 2018 at 4:04

Not all undergraduate research has any source of funding other than the salaries paid to professors. This varies widely by field and by place, of course, but math in the US typically has little outside funding, though it can have. If a project is externally funded it will likely have a provision for student researchers being paid. But otherwise there is no way to really do it.

Almost all colleges and universities in the US require research of their professors, but not all require that it be funded externally. Again this differs by field. All universities love external funding, of course, and top universities require it. In those places, funding for students would be common.

Some universities have a senior level course in which students do research and write a paper, though it may not be intended, necessarily, for publication. Such research may or may not contribute to the research of the professor who guides the research, and may just be used to give a bit of experience in working independently. In my own case, I was in a special Honors Program, that required a senior thesis, guided by a professor. Mine was never published (and was pretty awful, as I look back). But it gave me some experience, which was the goal. There was no payment (and no funding) other than that it "counted" as two normal courses - 6 total credits out of around 150 total.

  • He has other PhD students on his team and I think it's funded by the ECE dept. Credit hours would probably save me 5 hours of electives to get my degree Nov 5, 2018 at 0:33

It depends on the field. If you're doing something that is valuable in the job market, like programming, then you should be able to find a research assistant job that pays. Particularly as you near graduation and have useful skills to offer.

At engineering schools for example, even when an internship which earns academic credit is a required part of the curriculum, the internships generally also pays a salary. Hence an internship as part of the program will be a big draw for applicants, as it implies you must be able to get these jobs for students. Unpaid research projects are sometimes called "capstones" instead.

In other fields (like journalism perhaps) which are not high-paying professions with constant demand, it can be a different story.

  • Professor is dealing with stats/information theory, but the position was for ML programming. But good answer Nov 4, 2018 at 23:50

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