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I have been applying for academic jobs which are admittedly a bit out of my league. I have a Bachelor degree from an elite (ie world top ~3, depending on ranking) university. My course had an interruption in it, which I spent working for an academic institution (and I got paid).

I have been finding academic jobs in the past by emailing professors if I can work for them. Most of the time the answer was no, but there were always at least 1 person who would give me a job in the past, when I was looking for one. I think this is probably because I was lucky enough to be enrolled to an elite university (yes, I think that is at least 90% luck, but that's another topic).

I know that people who work for research instituions have usually higher qualifications than only a Bachelor. However, when I was given a job, I was always paid.

Recently, I have encountered a new situation: the people I applied to were keen on giving me tasks, and they seemed to think I am qualified to do it, but they didn't think they need to pay me. They thought they are mentoring me maybe, or something like that. Ie their idea of my participation was that I work under their guidance: I get their guidance & the possibility to contribute to research papers, they get code I write.

While this would be perfectly ok for me if I was rich, I cannot afford to have a job which does not pay. (I don't mind if it pays badly, I am not looking for an extravagant lifestyle, but I do want to keep a roof over my head.)

Previously, I thought that this goes without saying: if you don't think I can do a good enough job for me to be paid, then just don't hire me. If I do work, I get paid.

Is this approach too arrogant? Is it normal for slightly underqualified people to be working for academic insitutions without being paid?

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    What kind of job and what area? It is very common for undergraduate and graduate students to work under a professor on a research project, and yes, that's a form of mentoring. The compensation students get from this is that it helps them for their graduate school or phd applications. Sometimes, they may get money (depending on the law of the country and the funding of the PI). All this is strictly organized by law to avoid abuse. Compare with "unpaid internship".
    – Taladris
    Aug 8, 2021 at 11:43
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    Are you including something like "I am looking for full-time employment?" Aug 9, 2021 at 1:32
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    "job without pay" is an oxymoron.
    – Roland
    Aug 9, 2021 at 6:15
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    If it is a "job", except mentioned it is a "voluntary" type, it should be legally be paid, based on most of the cases I have seen in different countries.
    – enthu
    Aug 9, 2021 at 9:56
  • If you are looking for a career in research, esp academic research, why do you stop at Bachelor's level. Even if I generously assume that your actual skills are much higher, the lack of education is explicitly forbidding you of many jobs, especially in academia.
    – Greg
    Aug 10, 2021 at 5:19

3 Answers 3

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No it would be illegal for them to hire you to work and not pay you regardless of your qualifications or the work you are doing.

But given your level of qualifications there may be some confusion with the people your contacting, who may think you are asking for a research project as part of your degree. Thus they are assuming you are already being paid by whatever funding model your country uses for degrees, so they don't need to pay you further. You, perhaps, need to make it clear to them what your are looking for is not a research project for your degree but instead an actual job.

That said you may find it hard to get an actual job, as they will have a large pool of people who will do the work for free (as part of their bachelors or masters degrees).

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    Quite brave to comment on employment law as per the first paragraph, without knowing what country OP is in. Aug 8, 2021 at 12:01
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    It's tagged Europe, ianal (and no one should be coming to a random website for actual legal advice). But I'm pretty sure all European countries ban unpaid labor. There may be some wiggle room with unpaid interns but for a job at a university I would be quite confident that they would not employ someone in a job without paying them.
    – Rob
    Aug 8, 2021 at 12:06
  • Even if not "illegal" it would be improper. But I agree with your interpretation that there may be a misunderstanding of intent here. They may well be thinking that they are making a contribution, rather than asking for unpaid work. The OP can/should explore that.
    – Buffy
    Aug 8, 2021 at 12:17
  • The last paragraph is probably field-specific. In my field, the kind of work a paid student researcher would do can be different from thesis work (for example, maintenance of software). Aug 8, 2021 at 21:09
  • (-1) The first sentence on employment law is overbroad and probably false. Do you have any legal argument to back up this claim (and are you trained as a lawyer out of interest)?
    – Ben
    Aug 10, 2021 at 5:44
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It is very likely a communication problem as Rob suggested.

If it is a full-time job, you should get paid. You will also have tasks that do not benefit you at all. Usually these jobs are advertised so if you made contact, this may not be the first thing the professors you contact think of, therefore you should clarify from the start that you are looking for this type of work.

It is also common, especially if you contact the professors and do not apply for an advertised RA job, that they offer you affiliation and a project but you work as much or as little as you want and only on your own project, and it is unpaid. Mostly students choose this option who want better chances to apply for PhD positions or who want to do their thesis project.

Our group has both kinds of research assistants. It is always discussed before they join the group what they want and what we can offer so there are no misunderstandings.


Edit: added very likely to first sentence.

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    I don't think you can say definitively that it's a communication problem. It may be or there may be unscrupulous people trying to take advantage of the OP - we don't have enough information to say.
    – Rdd
    Aug 9, 2021 at 8:35
  • @Rdd True, it is possible. But I would start with the assumption it is. First, it is more likely. Second, assuming the worst of people may be prudent but makes one rather lonely and sad, no? You are right, though, I should have expressed some uncertainty. Edited.
    – Aolon
    Aug 10, 2021 at 5:03
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    Totally agree. Nowadays that everyone and his cat has a PhD, if someone with any formal degree would reach out to me for research, I would assume that she/he is a student or someone who is working on getting into grad school. In those scenarios, a "I do not have money, but I am willing to share resources so you can improve your chances to build a portfolio" is actually an attempt to giving a favor.
    – Greg
    Aug 10, 2021 at 5:23
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Whether student work is paid or unpaid generally depends on the type of work and the rewards it gives to the student. It is not particularly unusual for academics to offer to do joint research projects with students where the only consideration offered to the student is experience/credit on the project. In some cases the student contribution might be sufficient for co-authorship or acknowledgment in a paper, and for lesser contributions it might just give the student some experience and a useful academic reference. Unless the contrary has been agreed, this is not so much "hiring you for work" as it is "offering to let you participate in a research project".

Academics usually have plenty of students willing to work with them for free (including PhD candidates with more experience than it sounds like you have) so cases where the student is unpaid are common. Indeed, some students may wish to participate in a research project as a way to get experience to apply for a PhD candidacy or a paid research position, particularly if they are able to get co-authorship on a paper. Within employment law, such arrangements are often considered to be a type of "volunteer work", or "vocational placement", or an informal "joint venture", rather than an employer/employee relationship. (Contrary to another answer here, failure to make payment for work of this kind is usually not illegal, so long as it meets the requirements that put it outside the scope of an employer/employee relationship.)

There is nothing wrong (or arrogant) with you wanting only paid employment, but because unpaid work in this area is common you should be up-front about your desire for paid positions when you email academic researchers about work of this kind. From a practical perspective, it is also worth asking yourself whether you will get any success seeking paid employment of this kind ---i.e., are you easily replaceable by an unpaid volunteer with the same skills. Given your (relatively) low qualifications you will probably find that there are other students with the same or better qualifications willing to work for free on research projects. Still, if the academic in question considers your work sufficiently good you might be offered a paid position.

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  • "failure to make payment for work of this kind is usually not illegal" Do you have any legal argument to back up this claim? I work for a research institute in Germany. It's impossible to do an unpaid internship with us unless you are still at school or enrolled at a university (which proves that the internship is a "vocational placement"). I don't think the legal situation is very different in other European countries.
    – Roland
    Aug 10, 2021 at 8:10
  • The specific legal argument would depend on the jurisdiction (which is not specified in the question). The category of volunteer work is broader than vocational placements, and joint ventures fall outside the employer/employee relationship in any case. (The onus is on the person asserting illegality to demonstrate this; there is no onus to prove the negative.)
    – Ben
    Aug 10, 2021 at 8:21
  • The question specifies a European jurisdiction. I disagree with your statement in parenthesis. In employment law a proof that something is legal is required if there is any reasonable doubt.
    – Roland
    Aug 10, 2021 at 8:27
  • "A European jurisdiction" is not helpful in identifying the legal jurisdiction at issue (and therefore the applicable law). I am not sure where you are getting your second idea; reasonable doubt by whom as to what, in what forum, under what action? Out of interest, do you have any legal training?
    – Ben
    Aug 10, 2021 at 8:45
  • Most of European employment laws need to adhere to EU directives. Non-EU countries in Europe generally have even stricter laws (this might change for the UK). I don't need legal training if I don't make legal statements. Generally, I rely on HR to tell me what is allowed and what isn't. Do you have legal training?
    – Roland
    Aug 10, 2021 at 10:55

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