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I was wondering if it is common for professors to ask a new international postdoc to work without compensation while waiting for paperwork to be completed.

I was in an interview and the professor hinted at something along this line, when I brought up the topic of the lengthy visa process to be expected.

A few notes:

  • The professor is not my PhD advisor. He's at a different university in a different country. So, my question is not similar to this one.
  • The whole visa process could take 3 months.
  • The work contract may include a start date that is earlier than the visa issuing date (in this case ≈ 3 months earlier) but the university cannot pay me for that period without a valid document/visa. That's why I mentioned 'without compensation'. Correct me if you think I am misunderstanding this aspect.
  • I understand that the scope of the postdoc's work is related to a project that has tight deadlines, which is why the professor wants work done as soon as possible. But, I find that the duration in which this situation would last is long. A maximum of 1 month may seem tolerable but not longer.

Is this common in academia for international hires? And would it be ethical?

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    In some jurisdictions, working without the appropriate type of visa may be illegal irrespective of whether or not you're being paid. I suggest seeking legal advice before trying it. – Daniel Hatton Sep 7 at 22:12
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    @JFabianMeier Please don't give such dangerous advice. Working without a visa does not end well if discovered. It might be good for you if you are a German citizen (and even then, you can get into trouble because it might be Schwarzarbeit). – Roland Sep 8 at 8:46
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    Where would you be during that period? Still at home (or wherever you have valid status to stay and work), or already in the target country? The latter may get you in quite a bit of trouble. Is the compensation adjustable? I.e. if the total engagement is 12 months, can they pay you the equivalent of 12 months over a 9 months period (i.e. at 133% the normal rate), or is the monthly amount fixed (and thus you would be losing 3 months of compensation)? – jcaron Sep 8 at 13:28
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    When I read only the subject line, I though maybe the payments would be made retroactively after the paperwork was complete. In that case I think there might be no problem other than that of proving without the paperwork that promises had been made. But if it's illegal for them to start paying you until you have your visa, maybe you should tell the professor about the legalities, which might not apply to other postdocs because they didn't come from another country. – Michael Hardy Sep 8 at 18:38
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    common?: I'm sure it is. Appropriate or legal?: of course not! – onurcanbkts Sep 9 at 3:09
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Asking someone to work without compensation is illegal in many jurisdictions. It is also hardly ethical. Unfortunately, it is also not uncommon in academia.

In modern "publish or perish" academia professors are often under a huge deal of pressure from university administration to produce countless high-quality papers and teach ever-growing number of courses. A significant proportion of academics feel that they are forced to work extra hours to meet the expectations of their universities. This draining and insecure work environment often impacts the judgement of academics when they manage the work of their PhD students and postdocs. Many sincerely believe that they should "prepare" their students/postdocs to the hard realities of academia and make them more competitive by demanding to produce results at a cost of personal life and well-being. This is wrong, but unfortunately, wrong things do happen in this world and in academia as well.

UPD: Answering some questions in comments, I feel that I have to explain why the PI's behaviour is wrong. I don't think it is a subjective judgement.

  1. Forcing someone to work without compensation and without contract is modern slavery. Slavery is wrong. Postdoc are employees, they have terminal education degrees, they are professionals and they do important research work, not some glorified "training". Forcing a postdoc to work without contract and compensation is wrong.
  2. But perhaps, the PI was not forcing the postdoc, but merely asked them nicely whether they would like to volunteer? Well, let's see. Postdoc does not know whether they can say "no" to their PI without risking their contract or compromising the work relations with their PI during their contract. There are so many ways in which postdoc's whole career depends on their PI's opinion (access to research resources, appraisals, extensions of contract, letters of recommendation, etc). In this situation postdocs are under a huge pressure to say "yes" to unfair and illegal proposals. That's why even proposing to work without contract is abusive, morally wrong and often illegal.
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    I think the spin in the second paragraph is unnecessarily negative. One's personal life and well-being does not necessarily hinge on a (forced) multi-month break between PhD and post-doc. Conversely, there is the potential for a "win-win" situation, in which the post-doc benefits by having better chances on a competitive job market. Whether one associates that with pressure and a hard reality is subjective. Some people blossom in competition. – lighthouse keeper Sep 8 at 7:12
  • Working without compensation is common for start-ups, where you in tern are given equity which, if the company is a success, will be worth more than your salary would have been (although tell that to the bank when they ask you to pay bills.) And you could definitely make the case that the project here is much the same - a start-up that is hoping to get funding in the near future. The equity here, clearly, is the ability publish the paper which you would expect to boost your career. – corsiKa Sep 8 at 17:20
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    @corsiKa I see no relation whatsoever between the two things you are talking about. – Morgan Rodgers Sep 8 at 19:02
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    @lighthousekeeper Requesting someone to work without compensation is wrong; I don't see anything subjective here. The situation in which highly educated people (such as professors) resort to such wrong and likely illegal practices is also wrong. It is true that competition is good for some people, but it does not make it right for everyone. There are clear legal and ethical boundaries here, and unfortunately people in modern academia do not always see or respect them, particularly under pressure. – Dmitry Savostyanov Sep 8 at 19:13
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    @corsiKa Freelancers are paid once when their project is completed. In contrast, academic staff are compensated for time spent on a particular project or task, or generally in employment. A person without visa can not legally work, hence can not normally be compensated. In extraordinary circumstances HRs and Finance may find a way of paying retrospectively, e.g. for famous professors or high-level admin like vice-chancellors and their teams. But for a poor postdoc? Never. – Dmitry Savostyanov Sep 9 at 21:57
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There is a difference between no compensation and delayed compensation. An important question is how routine this paperwork is. If it is merely a bureaucratic hold up and you are already in town, why not get a jump start on your research? It could make the research when you officially start easier, and could lead to a better overall research experience, which could help your long-term career.

Hopefully the professor is enthusiastic about the research. From their point of view, this could be allowing you to start early rather than forcing you to do so. The only thing that would be a red-flag for me would be if you weren't given any choice. You should have the freedom to say something like "I would prefer to get settled while I'm waiting for the paperback. Can you suggest some background material that I might read in the meantime?" (or words to that effect, the business about reading at the end since you would still want to communicate a bit of enthusiasm for the project).

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  • +1 for the second paragraph, that's an important aspect. About the first paragraph I'm unsure. Unless the PI suggests that the postdoc can leave the job early and will still get paid, there will be a discrepancy between "time worked" and "time paid for", so indeed, some time without compensation. – lighthouse keeper Sep 8 at 10:57
  • "You should have the freedom to say something like "I would prefer to get settled while I'm waiting for the paperback. Can you suggest some background material that I might read in the meantime?" " Exactly, this sounds like something I would say indeed (maybe 1 month before the official start of the position and after an official offer has been made). However, I was surprised to see the professor say I could start working (on publications directly) and not even background material. As others have suggested above, this may be beneficial. But, I would've preferred to take the initiative myself. – acad-user Sep 8 at 11:11
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The underlying issue you're encountering here is that, generally speaking, a postdoc position is considered an education (albeit a paid one) for the position holder. As a consequence, telling a postdoc before they formally start their job that they might want to start reading some background material or working on the project (presumably while they have no other job because (i) they've graduated with their PhD and (ii) are waiting for their visa to process) is not so different from telling a student at the beginning of the summer break "Look, this is the material I'm going to cover in MATH 517, and here is the book we're going to use; why don't you start reading up on that material now already instead of waiting for the beginning of the fall semester?".

Strictly speaking, it might of course be illegal to have someone work for you while they are not paid. But graduate students are also not paid and still work on research projects -- the point simply being that it actually benefits both the graduate student and the future postdoc to already work on the project because they are also working for themselves (through publications or, more generally, for future job prospects).

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    I'm not sure about the extent to which a postdoc is always regarded as an education, but I'd certainly subscribe to the view that postdocs (and researchers in general) are to a significant extent working "for themselves" (i.e. in their own interests), and that that's what makes any unpaid work they might decide to do make sense. Note that: (i) it's quite common for research projects to persist across jobs, rather than being tied to them, (ii) it's quite common to evaluate researchers on their individual productivity, and (iii) your name's on your work. – Stuart Golodetz Sep 8 at 9:03
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    Given those considerations, only doing research when you're being paid for it seems self-defeating, because it's a reasonable bet that (i) you might want another research job in the future, and (ii) when you do, you're going to be evaluated based on your productivity, including during the times when you didn't have a job, and against people who were working that whole time. – Stuart Golodetz Sep 8 at 9:08
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    @StuartGolodetz , thanks, I haven't thought about it that way. I was mostly focusing on the length of the duration. – acad-user Sep 8 at 11:04
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    "generally speaking, a postdoc position is considered an education (albeit a paid one) for the position holder". This is simply not true. In most European countries a post-doc is a paid job with a FTE contract, and asking a post-doc to do free work is illegal. By those standards, every job is "education" in that the person gains experience, and thus people are "working for themselves for future job prospects". – Jorge Leitao Sep 8 at 12:34
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    @JorgeLeitao It isn't completely wrong to claim that in academia, in some sense every position you might ever hold is considered an education and that an application you send in for any job you apply isn't just evaluated by your "experience in a field" (as would often be the case in industry) but your cumulative output over years or decades. As such, unpaid work can often pay off later on. That's what makes people work on weekends and, at least in the US, during the summer when many of us are not actually paid (professors typically have 9-month contracts every year). – Wolfgang Bangerth Sep 9 at 3:15
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This might depend on the country you want to work in.

The work contract may include a start date that is earlier than the visa issuing date.

I doubt that you get such a work contract. A competent administration won't sign it.

I'm in Germany and I just hired an international PhD student (here they often are employees in the same way as post-docs). The process was as follows:

  1. They applied for a 90 day (work) visa at the embassy in their home country. For this our administration provided the necessary documents (most importantly confirming the job offer). It took about a month until the visa was issued.

  2. Once that visa had been issued, they got a signed contract for the time period covered by the visa. They came to Germany and started working.

The following step is what was supposed to happen. Unfortunately, in reality it became slightly more exciting because they came to Germany just when we went into the COVID lock-down. But everyone involved (our administration, the visa office) was very helpful and we successful sorted everything out.

  1. Once in Germany, you go to the immigration office and apply for a long-term work visa (once again, with documents from our administration). As soon as that is issued, the contract for the full time period is signed.

Don't work without having a work visa. If the authorities discover that somehow, you will be deported and will never get a visa again. In most cases it's not worth the risk. However, there are some special visa options for scientists (see there for some options in Germany). But in any case, you need to have a visa (and not a tourist visa) if you are not a EU citizen.

However, nothing prevents you from preparing by studying literature, attending online meetings, etc.

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  • Are you sure that a collaboration between two researchers (one of which will eventually hire the other as post-doc) would necessarily be considered as work in the sense of visa regulations? I'm not saying you're wrong, but to me, that seems a tricky legal question. – lighthouse keeper Sep 8 at 7:17
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    Yes, I'm sure that after they are "eventually hire[d]", the period preceding that will be considered work. Immigration authorities take a dim view of such shady practices. But since you would need a visa anyway, why not do it the proper way? It shouldn't even take more time. – Roland Sep 8 at 7:22
  • I think it's very unclear if this practice is indeed shady (see e.g., WolfgangBangerth's answer for a contrasting view), hence my question. Your answer could be strengthened by including evidence for your claim. – lighthouse keeper Sep 8 at 7:25
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    A post-doc is not considered a student in any way or form in Germany. Legally speaking, there is no such position as post-doc in Germany. As I write, this might be different in other countries. – Roland Sep 8 at 7:30
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    @acad-user Btw, my PhD student is from India: He managed to get a visa within 5 weeks after receiving the job offer. However, that certainly depends on the resources of the respective embassy. – Roland Sep 8 at 8:43
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You should encourage them to write a work contract that begins at a time when they will be allowed to pay you, and not before, unless they are agreeing to give back pay (I would be hesitant even in this case). You don't want any legal trouble for working when you are not legally allowed to work, this can be just as big a deal as hiring someone when you are not legally allowed to hire them.

As for whether this is common, it probably varies by country. In Germany, I'm sure this almost never happens; but very few countries are as structured in following rules as Germany. In other countries (not naming names) you might find that sketchy things can happen, like once you get there they write a new work contract that doesn't actually begin until your visa does, and you are left "working" the first 3 months without pay OR a contract (or so I hear, hahahahahaha :/ ). Or even if you refuse to work, you are already in the new country as a "visitor" with no income.

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    I worked at a German university as a bachelor student tutoring a small class. The job contract was delayed because the university messed something up, so it started one month later, two weeks later then the course was supposed to start. I was explicitly told by HR not to teach the course for the first two weeks and only start when the contract begins. Despite that they increased my pay for the next months in order to fully compensate for my financial loss in the first month. – TheoreticalMinimum Sep 8 at 13:04
  • @TheoreticalMinimum So who taught the course, then? – user151413 Sep 8 at 13:23
  • @user151413 first week didn't happen anyways (for all students, also in the other groups) and the second week was just some organization stuff so I just sent an email instead. – TheoreticalMinimum Sep 8 at 13:43
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    @TheoreticalMinimum That sounds like a very German way of handling things :D – Morgan Rodgers Sep 8 at 16:41
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    @cbeleitesunhappywithSX Yes, in Italy they are very good at dealing with things not happening as they are supposed to. They are all very well versed in the administrative process and the rules, and are excellent at using this knowledge to break rules when necessary/convenient. – Morgan Rodgers Sep 15 at 14:00

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