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Are undergraduate research positions typically funded? If yes, why so - given that undergraduates do not have a lot to offer in terms of research outcomes? Also, which type of research positions are funded?

I ask this because, one wouldn't expect mathematics research opportunities (other than REUs, I guess) for undergraduates to be funded, right? Undergrads do not put a lot on the table, and more than adding any substantial value to the field via research, it is about gaining useful experience and making connections with professors in order to secure future LoRs. Do I have the right idea here, or am I missing something?

If we think specifically about pure mathematics, then quite a bit of the initial process before even trying to do any research is essentially directed reading. I wouldn't expect being paid for that either, just doesn't make sense. For computer science, though, (eg. machine learning), one can ask undergrads to do coding jobs and perhaps pay them for that.

To summarize:
Which undergraduate research positions are typically funded? How about pure math, applied math, and computer science (theoretical or applied) fields in particular? Why (and also which) should undergraduate research positions be funded in the first place, if at all?

Thanks for your valuable insights, in advance!

Clarification: By funded, I meant that the student researcher receives a monthly salary or stipend of some sort. Apologies if that wasn't the right term to use, but I hope that it's clearer now.

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All undergraduate research positions should be funded. Most currently aren't.

The children of families who can afford to have their kids not work aren't smarter than the children of families who can't. Spending $60 billion a year on government supported research in the US and nickel and dimeing the next generation of scientists so 75% of them have to give up science is a real stupid way to invest in the future.

As for mechanisms, the NSF and NIH already have them and they work. I write NIH student supplements every year.

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    If it's worth my time to train you it's worth the money to pay you. Also if you want to stop paying people who aren't doing useful work I can point you toward an administrative building.
    – user133933
    Mar 19, 2021 at 3:46
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    It's very valuable to have an undergraduate research experience and you should do it if you are able. Unpaid undergraduate research positions are the fault of the institution and professor offering them - your only responsibility is to remember how much this sucks and try to fix it if you end up in a position to have some influence.
    – user133933
    Mar 19, 2021 at 3:59
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    A lot of UK universities now have requirements not to offer unpaid interships for exactly that reason - only sufficiently wealthy students can 'volunteer' to forego wages. Mar 19, 2021 at 15:32
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    The US Department of Labor is (or was) cracking down on unpaid internships where the intern got nothing from the position. If they get course credit, that may pass muster now, but it's borderline to illegal. Better to write an REU supplement and pay them or rustle up some local funds.
    – Bill Barth
    Mar 19, 2021 at 15:51
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    All research is funded. Some (most) is underfunded. I imagine most undergraduate research is funded by student loans.
    – emory
    Mar 19, 2021 at 19:27
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If by "funded" direct payments (wages) are meant, then my experience at US universities (science/engineering departments) is that they are typically not during the semester. The mindset goes something like this:

  • The positions are effectively unpaid internships that will provide the students with experience and skills, which are a form of compensation in applying for jobs, grad school, etc.
  • The positions are "entry level" and there is high turnover, so the students are expected to first demonstrate competence in the lab and long(er)-term interest in working there before payment becomes an option
  • Alternative to cash payment, many US schools reward students with course credit for research, which, at a private school in the US, works out to better than minimum wage (and an an hourly basis better than the what the doctoral students are getting...)

Summer undergraduate research is typically paid, but for my labs, the "interning" during the semester is the gatekeeping - we would never hire a total unknown to work full-time in the lab over the summer and potentially do more harm than good. Such students then are usually elevated to acknowledgements and authorship on published research work, because they're making significant contributions.

The system in Germany, where I currently work, is worth considering for contrast: we have extensive formal, paid undergraduate labor ("HiWis"), but the students are formally employees with work contracts. They do contract work - all the repetitive, grunt tasks (lots of cleaning, in particular). This is also often perceived as a kind of gatekeeping to joining a research group as a master's student, but I am unaware of HiWis being considered for real research, like the summer programs in the US or being added to papers as authors or contributors.

The preceding all addresses the factual part of the question (even if lacking hard facts), but as for the normative question, I believe student researchers should be compensated and that depending not only on the student's financial situation, but also career goals, compensation in the form of wages, experience, course credits, and research credit (e.g. authorship) all have different kinds of value and should continue to be options.

Finally, from the perspective of someone managing research, funding is often tight. Being able to offer non-cash compensation to get students into the lab and started on work has a potential to be a win-win - this is exactly my experience from my doctorate: new lab, not a lot of money, eager student. Two semesters of unpaid assistance in the lab and we wrote a proposal for summer funding (accepted) and then we were able to do it again the next year plus get the student on both conference and peer-reviewed publications as an author.

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    US schools reward students with course credit for research I have never worked at a school which had any mechanism to cover or defray the cost for course credits. It's not much of a reward if you have to drop $8k on tuition to get credit for the job you aren't being paid to do.
    – user133933
    Mar 19, 2021 at 16:10
  • First, I said that many US schools offer course credit for research, not all. I have seen both and I have worked at both. I do not fully understand what you're trying to say about the cost of credits as there's a unit price (let's pretend it's $1k/credit) and there's the number of credits needed to graduate (pretend 120). So one credit awarded for "unpaid" research lowers the overall tuition paid to graduate in that scheme, which is not universal.
    – DoctorSoup
    Mar 19, 2021 at 18:26
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    There's a unit price for credit and my experience has been that students have to pay full tuition for 'research credits'. Same as outside internships for credit, which is another big giant scam imo.
    – user133933
    Mar 19, 2021 at 18:52
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    German chemist here. We distinguish between the paid HiWi (where the student is expected to produce a net output of work, i.e. receives less/no training and does the grunt work) vs. unpaid research internships which are prescribed by the curriculum. Those are clearly a teaching activity (at least if not abused). With such a research student, I'd typically expect that I could do the research work in a fraction of the time I spend on teaching the student. Students have to do them as prescribed for their studies, and I've never heard of anyone doing more than prescribed (both sides). Mar 20, 2021 at 13:42
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    (Another alternative over here are Werkstudenten, which are students working e.g. a paid summer job in industry that corresponds to their field and level of studies. ) Mar 20, 2021 at 13:50
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Mine were. In the late '90s. At UT Austin's Aerospace Engineering department and at the no longer extant Institute for Advanced Technology. They were both jobs that paid hourly. I didn't publish anything related to my work there, but the latter job did lead to a couple of technical reports. The former was open and kind of exploratory work for a professor in fluid dynamics whose class I had just taken, and the latter was some MATLAB programming for a full-time researcher.

They were jobs, and US law requires them to be paid. They didn't pay a lot, but I kept them going as long as I could since they covered my rent until I graduated and went to grad school at UT. At the time they had no benefits (health care, retirement, etc.), which I think is wrong, but that's the way it was then. I think that these two positions gave me a good start on applications to grad school and kept me interested in research as well as two good letters from people known to the department I applied to and getting a PhD from (also Aerospace at UT).

I don't know how either of them was funded. I think the prof I worked for may have had some departmental money and some NSF money, but he just asked me to do some little projects that seemed to only be of interest to himself and maybe part of his personal experimental interests. At IAT, they had Army and Navy funding that probably had room in the budget for a couple of undergrads, but we weren't required to know that.

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  • I had a similar experience. A professor had a funded research project and found himself with too much on his plate during one particular summer. He outsourced to me some of the time-consuming grunt work that didn't require much in-depth knowledge of the topic. His grant didn't include funding for that, but the department paid me (thus freeing up the professor's much more valuable time to do higher priority things).
    – bta
    Mar 19, 2021 at 23:14
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In STEM fields in Canada, UG summer research is paid like a summer job, usually from research grants. Particularly strong students can obtain NSERC USRA awards. The downside to this is that there are far fewer jobs than applicants. This is compounded by the fact that a 3-month summer students costs a researcher nearly as much as a full-year graduate student, since the latter are also funded by the university for TAing and through fellowships. There is always a balance to be found between hiring more productive graduate students, and training the next generation as summer students. Occasionally, students volunteer to work for free during the summer, but I avoid this as they would be working alongside students getting paid to do the same job, and for the reasons other posters have mentioned. Lastly, in my experience, it is not unusual for summer students to qualify for publications.

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They should but in my experience too many aren’t or aren’t paying enough. With limited exceptions, all work should be paid, and especially student work as students will likely face tuition fees, which are NOT unsubstantial in many cases.

Personally, the idea that this is an internship and thus could go unpaid is simply a problem with internships, which should also (with limited exceptions) be paid: I do not hire students or interns unless I can pay them properly.

Hiring students for free is IMO an abuse of power, and creates situations where the student is working for favours rather than a wage, and working for favours can definitely take you in the wrong direction. If the researchers is not satisfied with the work (rightly or claims not to), he or she can refuse the favour and then the student will have spent time for nothing.

My own time is precious so I don’t see why the time of others isn’t.

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