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I am currently an undergraduate student interested in gaining research experience. I recently asked the research coordinator of our faculty if there were any opportunities to conduct research over the holidays, in preparation for graduate studies. I was told that there were no available summer research programs at the moment, and that I should approach individual faculty members and ask them. They also told me something about them themselves not being able to support any research students over the summer because they don't "have the funds". I'm not sure if I'm misunderstanding what this means, but I'm actually not interested at all in getting paid; I just want to gain research experience. Is this what the individual meant, or does it mean something else?

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    Someone who is able to pay you might be someone who does a better job. Other factors could be more important, though. – Anonymous Physicist Sep 1 at 8:40
  • @AnonymousPhysicist Hmm, why is that? Because having funding available would imply that they might also have more time to invest in you? – The Pointer Sep 1 at 8:41
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    Funding is usually obtained through competition. Skilled faculty are more likely to get it. Also, people who are spending money are more motivated to use it well. – Anonymous Physicist Sep 1 at 9:06
  • @AnonymousPhysicist Interesting. Thanks for the information. – The Pointer Sep 1 at 9:13
  • The holidays are a terrible time to do research - people are not working as frequently, and it's short. If someone asked me to do research over the holidays, I would chuckle to myself and tell them no. It's their holidays too! – Azor Ahai -him- Sep 1 at 15:23
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You've been told by faculty members that they don't have the funds [to pay you]. Since you aren't interested in getting paid, you could approach faculty members again. Explain you're willing to work for free. Whether that's possible depends on the country's employment law.

Another answer discusses the ethics of working for free and argues that it benefits the privileged who can support themselves. Some good points are raised and I've upvoted that answer. I don't entirely agree though: Sure the privileged benefit, but the unprivileged do to. Only they do so at greater cost. Perhaps working two jobs, minimising expenditure, or racking up some debt. Ultimately, refusing unpaid interns deprives the unprivileged of a levelling-up opportunity.

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  • Wait, this is considered employment? Can't I just get research experience as a student without having to be "employed"? – The Pointer Sep 1 at 8:25
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    That depends on the country's law: Some countries prohibit working for free. – user2768 Sep 1 at 8:28
  • -1 I don't think any answer on this site should include the words "explain you're willing to work for free." – Azor Ahai -him- Sep 1 at 15:24
  • @AzorAhai--hehim You have of course taken the sentence out of context. I'll note that being paid a stipend is pretty much equivalent to nothing (in many countries), that privileged senior academics aren't helping juniors, and that (like many) I've suffered under the system. I certainly advocate changing the current system, but until it does, it'll continue to cause hardship. – user2768 Sep 1 at 16:32
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    @AzorAhai--hehim I've done just that (worked for free). Sure that created hardship. But, I believe my career benefited. – user2768 Sep 1 at 16:50
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There are two things that require funds for a summer studentship:

  • Paying the student living costs
  • The cost of the research materials themselves (which might be more or less important depending on the subject, but in my field we budget about £10,000 (~$15,000) a for a full time year per researcher.

As has been pointed out it depending on the local laws, you might legally count as an employee. I would expect that to be the case in many european countries. In fact its a big grey area in UK law, and working out if you an employee, a trainee or a volunteer is complicated.

But the law aside, I personally do not take unfunded summer students because the privilege those that have the means to support themselves without income for several months over those who can't. The system of unpaid internships in law, media, politics etc, has long been seen as a source of the unrepresentativeness of those professions and research is no different. There is a big move to here outlaw unpaid internships explicitly. I do not want to be part of that system and mine is not an uncommon position here.

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  • This is mathematics research, so no materials are necessary. Also, I live here, so no living costs are necessary. – The Pointer Sep 1 at 8:42
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    What do you mean, you have no living costs? Do you live on the streets? Eat only food from dumpsters? Someone is paying for your upkeep. Not everyone has that. The UK law on internships is laid out here: targetjobs.co.uk/internships/advice/… . Although this is UK specific, I would expect the rules are similar in other EU countries. Although the US is different, I wouldn't be surprised if many prof acted as though it were the same. – Ian Sudbery Sep 1 at 8:51
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    So you have parents that can afford to keep you. In fact, this is explicitly the complaint that people against unpaid internships make: those with parents that can afford to support them without an extra income, particularly in the expensive cities where such opportunities often arise, get an advantage over those whose parents need them to work to afford rent, or don't live in the expensive, but opportunity filled big cities. – Ian Sudbery Sep 1 at 8:55
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    Yes. I won't pretend the answer is obvious or cut and dried, and I came to this decision after a lot of consideration. I think others have too. – Ian Sudbery Sep 1 at 11:11
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    I've never been faced with the dilemma myself; I've always acquired funds. I appreciate your answer, you raise valid points. I'd need to grapple with those points should I be in a position where I can't acquire funds. I find it difficult because I fear that I'd be depriving someone of an opportunity (especially someone without privilege). I suppose I could always acquire funds in such cases. Many countries pay awful stipends (another problem), so funds are easy to come by. – user2768 Sep 1 at 16:45

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