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I received an offer to do a research fellowship at an EU research institute. The research institute is considered one of the most prominent R&D institute in the field I want to go into. 
My concern is that the position itself is unpaid/self-funded. As I am currently not affiliated with any university (gap year), I can not really apply for institutional funding. I will be trying to appeal if I can at least get housing covered by the host institute as I can fund pretty much everything else but the housing, or vice versa, with my dad advising me to request as much compensation the host institute is willing to provide. How should I proceed with this position if they deny my appeal or can not provide me some funding for the position?


Potentially other important information:

  1. The funding for the research itself is for four years, but I am opting to only really work with them for a maximum of one year as I do not have enough funds to self-support anything longer than that. I am from a non-EU country.
  2. The PIs I would be working with are postdocs. I was referred to their research work by two other separate PIs (senior scientists/group leads) in the same division because their labs are currently full.
  3. I was given direct recommendation and referral to this research institute by my current mentor, who is an [insert professional organisation name] Fellow. He was a visiting researcher at this institute during his sabbatical and was a visiting professor at a nearby partner university where one of the PIs is also affiliated.

PS I do not really know which tags to use.

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  • Can you clarify what your question is? It seems like if they do not offer you any funding then your choices are to either take the unpaid position or not. Many would consider an offer without funds to not be an offer at all, of course. There may also be a consideration of what work you are allowed to do without pay in the country you will be in.
    – Bryan Krause
    Sep 1 at 18:38
  • @BryanKrause I would say that my question is something along the lines of, (1) "Should I accept the position or not? If I accept it, how to get help covering costs?" I was initially advised by the PIs I would be working with that the position is typically not paid. My mentor learned about this and seems to have tried asking the research institute if they can provide me with some financial support. It seems like the "management" side of the institute is currently thinking about it, but in the event that I will not be given any monetary support, (1).
    – Jay
    Sep 1 at 18:53
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    We can't really make decisions for you about whether you should take a position or not. We can possibly help with specific questions you have that help you make the decision, but they have to be specific to some aspect rather than "should I or not".
    – Bryan Krause
    Sep 1 at 18:55
  • If the problem is that the color of money of their funds does not allow supporting a non-student, is there an easy way to become a student for the duration? (I'm just guessing at why they are not or cannot support you.)
    – Jon Custer
    Sep 1 at 19:02
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    For such a competitive institute it sure doesn't sound like a very good place to have a job.
    – Bryan Krause
    Sep 1 at 20:19

2 Answers 2

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Anyone offering a student an unpaid position will be understanding if that student asks for any financial help they can get -- in other words, it will not hurt to ask whether there is anything they can do beyond offering you a salary (say, a housing allowance, etc). The worst that can happen is that they say "no, sorry, there really isn't anything we can do for you", but they're unlikely to retract the offer if you ask nicely.

Now, whether or not you take the job is something we really can't tell you. The best we can do is provide you with a perspective. First, working for someone without being paid clearly sucks, and one could reasonably suggest that hiring someone without paying them is unethical. On the other hand, working for them is also a way for you to (i) learn something valuable for your future, (ii) build a professional network that might be useful, (iii) receive mentoring that can be helpful for your career. If you chose to see things this way, then an unpaid internship is, in essence, an "opportunity cost": It is money you pay in hopes of reaping rewards in the future.

Opportunity costs are all around us. For example, going to college is one (you could be working in industry and make money, but instead you choose to go to college, potentially pay tuition, because you think it is a good investment), playing the lottery (you pay for a lottery ticket in hopes of winning), you pay for a train ticket to a different city to go to a job interview in hopes of getting the job, and so on. Some of these have more certain outcomes than others, but at the core of your dilemma lies the question: "Is it worth paying the opportunity cost given what I think the benefits will likely be". This is a question that I don't think we can answer for you.

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  • I generally agree, but opportunity costs are a self-offered thing (ok, let's set aside that college make profit from students, that train companies are often for profit etcetc :D ), while here we are discussing a research fellowship, where OP would be putting not only his money, but OP will commit his time and brain, to support the production of scientific results for which other people are actually paid. At the worst OP can ask to work 100% remotely. The research institute can maybe provide OP travel refunds so OP can visit the institution every 3-6 months.
    – EarlGrey
    Sep 2 at 15:05
  • @EarlGrey I don't think we disagree. We agree that it is borderline unethical (though so are many unpaid internships). Offering your brain, time, and money to pay rent is still an opportunity cost, in the same way as taking the train to a job interview without getting reimbursed. There is no conceptual different between money and time/brain -- it's all a cost. And the fellowship is self-offered: OP is not forced to take the offer in the same way as nobody is forced to buy a lottery ticket when it is offered at the grocery store checkout line. Sep 2 at 15:37
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Now you do not have an affiliation, but in EU getting an affiliation is rather easy (and almost free). PhD programs aren't always rigid or very structured, what is important to have is a professor willing to be your (formal) advisor.

And it is not unheard of being student at university in country X while working in research institute in country Y (it is not easy, but it is not impossible either).

For example in Germany you may find a professor at the university that accept you as a PhD student (said professor does not need to provide you money or even a working space for you), but once you are accepted you will get the uni affiliation (you will enroll, paying your yearly tuition fees of ~400 € per year).

Be creative, take the position, sign the contract, so you get one working affiliation (the research institution) to use as a leverage with professors (ask your superior at the research institute for contacts, or do cold emailing sparingly from the research institution email) to be accepted as a PhD student somewhere. At the same time, do not compromise yourself financially, so do not embark in moving or renting a flat in the location of the research institution.

Maybe get to the place for the starting date, sign the papers and all the bureaucracy of the first 1 month and then go back home to work remotely ...

Good luck!

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