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It's been almost a year now that I've been working as an intern in a research institution. I've worked on several research projects in the institution now and some of them are already published. However, the only benefit that I get out of the internship is network, publications, and promises, without getting paid. At first I was excited and was enthusiastic in working with them, but now I feel burned out.

My questions are:

  1. Is it normal for research interns to not get paid?
  2. What are the benefits that research interns usually get?
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    What country, what state if you have them?
    – Bill Barth
    Jun 2 at 17:25
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    Are you getting authorship on these papers? Acknowledgement? Jun 2 at 18:05
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    Why do you call yourself an "intern"? At least in my field, we don't really have "interns" and even then internships tend to last like a summer, not a year. So an "internship" to me implies you were placed there by an academic program, which may explain why you aren't getting paid. However, if this is e.g. a translation issue or a label you've applied yourself, we may need more information from you. Jun 2 at 18:14
  • I think you won't get a good answer without knowing your country - no one is going to track you down. It's easy to say as an American yeah you should just get paid but I don't know what the reality is in a lot of countries. Jun 3 at 21:35
  • Definitely needs a country/region tag, and also what sort of organization the research institute is- private lab, national lab, think-tank etc. Jun 4 at 17:44

3 Answers 3

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No, it is not normal to be unpaid for the kind of work your describe, though sometimes students will work on research projects for credit rather than pay (which, in fact, they may pay for), and sometimes students may opt to volunteer to work on research for free. However, there are both legal and ethical guidelines for when this volunteer work is okay. Generally, if the person is taking a place of a paid employee while going unpaid, it's not ethical (and often not legal). However, sometimes a student takes more work to supervise than the value that they provide. For example, if all of their tasks have to be done under the observation of someone who could otherwise be doing those same tasks instead of supervising, it may be justifiable that the position is unpaid. That does not sound like it describes your circumstances.

"Benefits" includes both the tangible ones associated with employment and some less-tangible ones. The tangible ones depend a lot on the country you work in. Less-tangible benefits should indeed include building relationships that allow you to get recommendations for future positions, and importantly learning: about the field, about research, etc.

If you're not being paid, you don't really have to do anything but stop working. It would be polite to let someone know, of course. You may also have legal recourse, but you'd really want to speak to a lawyer to know your position.

I'm not sure how best to handle the costs you've already sunk into this position... you have no guarantee of the recommendation you seek, and your time is being abused in the meantime. It doesn't seem that they have a reasonable valuation of your efforts, so I would not trust them for a good recommendation. It may be time to cut losses and find someone else to work for that respects you.

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    Wouldn't this depend on the country? Especially the legal and ethical guidelines? In many Asian countries, it is normal to do research for no payment or college credit.
    – justauser
    Jun 4 at 2:52
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Depends on your short and long term career goals.

Some people take unpaid internships because of local culture. However, in some countries unpaid internships are frown upon as the society is capitalist. For example: in America, it's uncommon to take unpaid roles. However, most internships paid near or below poverty levels.

Therefore, you must evaluate life reality (your livelihood) often when working as an intern as you cannot be a student or intern forever. This means that at one point in the future you have to take earning professional grade salary seriously in order to survive. Professional grade salaries vary depending on geographic location.

If you're interning at a university, YOU MUST put a deadline on yourself on when you'll decide to leave or apply to a professional (paid) level job within the institution or outside.

If you are working at a private organization, you must decide what direction to take with your career, This follows a very similar path as if you were working at a university.

Here are the types of jobs in the world:

  1. Public organization (e.g. listed on the stock market)
  2. Private company
  3. Government agency (local, state, or federal)
  4. Academia (e.g. administrator, professor, scientist (non-faculty), research assistant, or leadership)
  5. Independent Research labs (may be located outside or inside universities, hospitals, or government agencies but operate independently)
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Is it normal for research interns to not get paid?

No. If they do useful work, it is wrong not to pay them.

What are the benefits that research interns usually get?

Low pay and reference letters, plus whatever is required by law.

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