I had an oral agreement with a supervisor that I was to complete research work for him. We established how many hours I was to work, and my hourly rate, when the work was to be done, etc. I completed the work, sent it off to him, he gave me some feedback and asked me to correct some citations and so, I incorporated the feedback, made fixes to my citations and then never heard back from him.

I recently emailed him about not being paid; he told me that he was not able to use the work and instead offered to find me alternative funding opportunities in the future. When I insisted that I did the work and deserved to get paid for my time, he threatened to report me for academic integrity issues. I'm only a Master's student, and this is my first research assistant position. Is this normal? Who should I speak to about this?

I am not part of a union, and my supervisor approached me to do this work. I do have email correspondence that confirms we have an agreement, but not confirming the specific terms (e.g. he wrote emails where he told me, submit your work and your time/hour log and I will pay you). He later revealed he had used the grant money to pay a different student to do different work.

The oral contract was made in front of others. It was in a lab setting, so others definitely overheard. Another clarification was that another student was to take over the work I began because I was going on an exchange to a different school. So there is more proof of a contract existing between my supervisor and me. My #1 concern is the threat of reporting me for academic integrity. My #2 concern is getting paid. I've contacted my faculty and was advised to report this to the dean of my faculty, which I'll be doing shortly.

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    Which country is this in?
    – Tommi
    Jun 24, 2020 at 9:34
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    @Scared-scarecrow And you still have the time log, and record of submitting it? How much are we talking about here? Not to say you aren't owed it no matter how much, but approaching getting $400 is very different than $5000 Jun 24, 2020 at 17:06
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    On a related note, what did we learn about oral contracts?
    – Valorum
    Jun 25, 2020 at 23:38
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    I recommend getting hard copies (i.e. print-outs) of all of the e-mail correspondence (in case your e-mails disappear from their servers - not likely, but possible). Jun 25, 2020 at 23:41
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    Do you have any idea what sort of "academic integrity issues" he's threatening to report you for?
    – Chris H
    Jun 26, 2020 at 10:05

4 Answers 4


Is this normal?

No. In most places, wage theft is a serious crime.

Who should I speak to about this?

The HR department. Possibly also the department chair. Provide a detailed written statement of what happened and when.

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    +1 for going to the institution's HR department. It's a chronic problem that academics and researchers will make ad-hoc hires without going through proper process, and HR will have people whose whole jobs are to sort out the messes that they create. You may end up being owed benefits because the nature of your work falls into a category which they've already categorized. Best case for you (worst ever for the supervisor) is if your tasks fell into a category within the scope of a contract of an existing union.
    – CCTO
    Jun 25, 2020 at 2:40
  • Good point, if there's a union you might speak to them too. Though you might need to pay a membership fee. Jun 25, 2020 at 2:49
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    Also contact student support, the person in charge of your masters, and any personal tutor that you may have. The PI, in addition to acting appallingly unethically by not paying you and by threatening you, may well have broken the University's own rules by employing you without contract and proper process. Jun 25, 2020 at 6:38
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    Should contact both parties mentioned in the order mentioned. Talking to the student union would probably also be beneficial. Once HR is involved the chair won't have option but to investigate. However, keep in mind that HR is NOT your friend.
    – user347489
    Jun 25, 2020 at 8:46
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    I was in a similar situation (1 month's coding work for a professor of a different university with a view for a grant together down the line), but HR, not the professor, was the issue. HR was definitely not my friend. The verbal contract was in conflict with all sorts rules and regulations so they could not pay and the professor was too busy to fight it —so I politely declined to submit the grant and cut my losses. Jun 25, 2020 at 10:15

No, this is not normal. If an agreement about number of working hours and an hourly salary is made, the salary is normally supposed to be paid according to that agreement.

It is not clear to me if a contract was written up, or if everything was oral agreements. If there is no contract, and no written correspondence to confirm the agreement, you will unfortunately have a hard time lifting this case. But in any case, the correct person to contact (which is your question), is your union, or a local union representative at your institution - that is, if unions are common in your country, which you don't mention.

If you are not a member of a union, you should become so if that is a possibility.

You should also start looking for another supervisor, as this person clearly don't have your best interest in mind.


You should report this to a some authority.

The chances are good (but we do not know this) that the person has done this before and will do it again. Ethically if you have evidence enough to make a formal complaint you should to prevent them exploiting people. Ethically and practically are, however, two different things - you will have to make the decision yourself.

he wrote emails where he told me, submit your work and your time/hour log and I will pay you

That is sufficient grounds to take a complaint case. It is borderline whether it is enough to successfully take a legal case for failing to pay against them. It is not quite a contract (IANAL) I think, as the terms would be explicit (e.g. how much per hour or in total) for a contract. If you have corresponding emails now saying he will not pay that would be much stronger.

Strictly speaking you need legal advice specific to you country from your own lawyer.

Do not expect to ever get paid. You can possibly put an end to this person's behavior (by maybe getting them fired), but getting paid is not so easy.

I recently emailed him about not being paid;

Email is your friend here. Hopefully the replies were in email.

Make records of any emails, e.g. print them, copy them to disk. Get copies of texts by phone or whatsapp fs whatever if possible and try and get recordings of any phone messages left for you.

Courts and formal review processes will need evidence like this.

he told me that he was not able to use the work

This is rarely a legitimate complaint in a labor case (which is what you would probably have here - again IANAL). If your work was OK up until you asked for payment a court would typically take that as a demonstration your work was OK and without fundamental flaw. There would have to be a history of consistent complaint from the other person to justify not paying. They should also have stopped using you to assist them to be able to defend their position. Stopping after you ask for payment they refuse to make is too late.

and instead offered to find me alternative funding opportunities in the future.

That is known as "bait and switch", it's not considered reasonable. You expected to be paid, but unfortunately did not have an explicit agreement on the form of that payment, so it might be a slight weak point.

When I insisted that I did the work and deserved to get paid for my time, he threatened to report me for academic integrity issues.

If he was foolish enough to do that in email, you have an extremely serious case against him for abuse of power. He was acting an an employee of an institute and your supervisor so that is a case you can directly take against them. Typically you would make a formal complaint first via the institute's normal procedure. I would expect that to be enough to put this individual in danger of loosing their job - I'd personally fire someone for doing this (when good evidence existed), but your institute and country's normal practices are unknown to me.

Make sure you have good legal advice for this process. Join a union and request their help and advice - they typically have a legal representative they can at least put you in touch with, sometimes for reduced fees or free as an initial step. If that is not an opinion get your own lawyer.

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    I have to remind you that even VERBAL agreements are contracts - or contract-like .. unfortunately harder to prove than written contracts - except made in front of third parties
    – eagle275
    Jun 25, 2020 at 11:28
  • @eagle275 My understanding is that the OP has emails, so verbal contracts or agreements would have practically no significance here. Any written agreement will override a verbal one and you cannot amend a written agreement (or an agreement in a similar form) with a verbal one. So if we agreed by email to do X for Y, then later neither of us would be able to enforce a verbal change to that agreement - it would have to be by email or in writing. That's the law as I understand it, but IANAL. Jun 25, 2020 at 11:36
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    @IanSudbery If the contract is not valid for the reason you state, might the student have a case of fraud against the professor? He presented himself as a representative of the university with the power to hire and pay people. If the student does not in fact have a contract with the university, then it would seem that the professor's indication that he had the power to make that contract was fraudulent in the first place. I'd have no recourse against McDonald's for someone who pretends to enter into contracts on their behalf, but I'd expect to have recourse against that person. Jun 26, 2020 at 17:26
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    @NuclearWang - That would be hard to call fraud unless the professor explicitly said that the university would pay the student. In the absence of such an explicit statement it could also be interpreted as a private contract between the professor and student (outsourcing the work, essentially), forcing the professor to pay out of his own pocket.
    – bta
    Jun 26, 2020 at 22:09
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    @IanSudbery A professor can absolutely be an employer. The professor can have problems getting the university to pay his employee, which means he or she would have to pay the employee out of their own pocket. Most professors are wise enough to avoid that situation. And the way this particular contract is described, I see no indication that the university would be involved in any way.
    – gnasher729
    Jun 26, 2020 at 22:29

tl;dr: Try your local small claims court or arbitration service to claim your salary, and make a formal complaint to your university regarding the professor's threat.

Disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer, I'm an academic too. Try to look up guidelines specific to your jurisdiction. Don't worry about what may be common in academia. Pay disputes are very common in every field of life, and your situation isn't that different to if a car wash or a restaurant tried not to pay you for work already completed.

The full answer

There are two issues here - firstly getting the money you are owed, and secondly dealing with your professor's threat of retaliation.

Although the exact processed will vary from country to country, I would suggest this as a somewhat universal blueprint to get the money you are owed.

  1. Compile all evidence in writing. Make an annotated PDF of all the emails where your agreement is mentioned. Email people who were present at the meeting when you agreed the hourly rate, asking "Hey, just sorting out some project stuff. You were there when I set an hourly rate if X Euros with professor Y. Just wanted to check you remember that this was the amount we agreed on." From their replies, you now have evidence of the oral agreement in writing too.
  2. Email a formal final request for payment to your professor. Keep it brief (don't go into your whole dispute), and include payment details and a date by when you expect payment.
  3. If the professor still refuses to pay, file a claim with your local small claims court or arbitration service. Small pay disputes are very common, and these kinds of services are designed to be cheap and efficient to use. For example, in the UK the fee to submit a claim is ~20GBP. Evidence (i.e. your annotated set of emails) is submitted online to an arbiter who will try to reach an agreement between the parties. No need for lawyers, and most cases can be resolved online or by phone, with no need to go into a court. In general you won't have the opportunity to call witnesses in this kind of arbitration, so make sure you have all your evidence (including the emails from witnesses) in a PDF or on paper.

The threat of academic retaliation by your professor is another issue, and a very serious one. Was this threat made in writing? If so, I would immediately make a formal complaint to the university. This will pre-empt any possible retaliation on the professor's part. If the threat was not made in writing, you may not want to make a complaint at this stage - however by formally pursuing the money you are owed, you will have demonstrated that he has a conflict of interest if he ever does decide to make a complaint against you.

  • 2
    In the UK specifically, to initiate a case like this you must go through the ACAS service (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service). They have a very helpful phoneline you can phone to be guided through the process. They'll also be able to tell you exactly what the law is as it relates to the case. Jul 1, 2020 at 12:30

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