I am working as a research fellow to a professor in a college. This is my first time as a research fellow. I was working as a software engineer before this. I want to apply for grad schools, and to gain research experience I decided to work for this professor.

The professor has his own startup that is in very early stage. He already has a product that he is trying to sell. I don't really like the work with the professor that much. It has been two months and I worked mostly on operations work for his startup (like converting the monolith server to microservices..) and not much research. Even the research work is not interesting because we are not trying to solve a problem but just trying to get a good accuracy score (trying to hack the existing solution here and there to get a better score), that will help to publish a paper. As I am planning to apply to graduate schools, I have to start application by this October. So I don't think I will able to do anything substantial in the meantime.

Until now I was a staff in the same college where he is a professor and was designated as a research fellow. Now I want to work remotely because of my health condition and the college is not okay with it. So I have to quit working for the college and work for him alone remotely. The college is paying me, but if quit working for the college, I will not be paid by the professor.

So is it worthwhile to work for free, when I do not like the work just so that I will get a letter of recommendation. How much of an impact will the LOR generate in my graduate school application?

  • 1
    If you don't have an agreement in writing, you have no agreement. I can guarantee you he will not put this agreement in writing as it sounds very close to Quid Pro Quo, which can be illegal. Working for free is for charities and personal passions, not for someone else's pocketbook.
    – David S
    May 23, 2023 at 22:42

2 Answers 2


Graduate schools are going to want to know that you have good potential to succeed in research. One way to show that is by having research experience and having someone that can talk positively about your research experience.

It doesn't sound like you're getting research experience. It does sound like your boss is abusing a research position for his own financial gain. If it's for his financial benefit, he should be able to pay you himself and the university shouldn't enter in to the situation at all. He's not, though, he just wants you to work for free or work with someone else paying you, for his benefit.

The "research" component you describe sounds fraudulent. Perhaps this sort of fraud is common in the area you are working in and other professors will be excited to hire someone familiar with this sort of fraud, but hopefully not.

This all sounds like a terrible arrangement for you. I don't know what benefit a recommendation letter from this person will hold. Maybe he will never give you such a letter because he'd like to keep getting more free work, and can only get more free work with the promise of some future letter.

  • Yeah he might never give a letter even if i work for free also. Thank you for your inputs. i will think about it.
    – Ajax Banu
    May 24, 2023 at 7:18

I am struggling to think of an upside for you. It sounds like a terrible idea from all angles.

  1. If you are working for free in the hopes of a good letter of reference, he will not give you a letter, because you will then get the only thing that's keeping you there working for free.
  2. Forget about putting this deal (free work for letter) in writing. He won't put this illegal arrangement in writing, and if he does it won't be enforceable. Like someone once told me: the best contract is dealing with honest people in the first place. No amount of paperwork is going to make an unethical person behave.
  3. If he does give you a letter of reference, it might not be worth much coming from him.
  4. Even if he were to write the letter, he can't speak about your research abilities, since you are doing no research.

There's nothing in this deal for you.

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