I'm doing my master's thesis in a research group in Germany (experimental physics). The group is pretty big, there are multiple experimental setups at the moment, that are maintained by different people. The topic of my thesis needs me, together with a Ph.D. and a postdoc, to work mainly on one of the setups, that I am now familiar with. The 3 of us work as a team, the hierarchy is pretty low, and I actively contribute to the research. Our research predominantly aimed for a publication - It is clear to the other two that I also will write my master's thesis about this experiment, but in the team's decision-making and dynamics and our daily lab work, despite sometimes mentioned, the fact that I will write a thesis doesn't take up much space.

My team is however also expected to work on other tasks, that somehow are related to the setup I am working on: One is the follow-up experiment that is supposed to succeed the current setup, the other is a software project related to the setup, and such tasks.

The key point is that none of these tasks will have an effect on the current experiment during the remaining time period of my thesis, some even are "support work" for other setups. Despite this, I am expected to take part in those tasks, which use up a good amount of time.

The problem for me is, that, different from my team, I am not receiving any funding/payment. I am contributing to our research topic, which is beneficial to the group, and I understand that my incentive to do so is to be able to write a thesis and have an academic degree. Of course, I am not as experienced as the rest of my team, and that's why I am fine not being paid. However, the fact that during this 1-year research, I essentially have to live from saved money leaves a sour taste in my mouth, when the work I do unpaid then benefits other experiments/setups.

Now I'd like to know if is this a usual thing, and simply regarded the "part of the deal" that I have to accept, or if this is something that I should try to stop.

  • 1
    I can't say whether this is usual in German physics. It sounds to me like there should at least be a contract and payment as a Wissenschaftliche Hilfskraft for this. You may want to talk to your Fachschaft, and afterwards to the professor and the postdoc. One thing to have in the back of your head: do you plan on staying in academia? If so, additional experience (and potentially another coauthorship) could be a valuable consideration. If not, much less so. Aug 8, 2023 at 7:21
  • @StephanKolassa The additional experience is of course a valuable consideration, thank you. I explicitly talked about the possibility of a "Wissenschaftliche Hilfskraft"-contract, but it is stated by my group that since the tasks are either thematically similar, or are carried out by the same team, they are too close to my master thesis to be paid for (in germany, a university is not allowed to pay students for the master thesis). Aug 8, 2023 at 7:25
  • I would have a chat with the team and state that you need to focus more on getting your thesis work done since you have a time limit. Hopefully they should understand. But bravo for being able to integrate tightly into a research group.
    – Jon Custer
    Aug 8, 2023 at 14:15
  • Perhaps your thesis also benefits from work others coming before you have done, and you are expected to "pay forward" some of this effort. But of course this is all a balance, and if the side work prevents you from completing your project that's a problem.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 8, 2023 at 15:51

1 Answer 1


The problem with your question is that the answer really depends on the culture of your lab. In some labs, everybody is expected to "pay their dues" by for example, taking care of long-term experiments, performing maintenance tasks, and buying milk for the coffee machine. I've worked in a couple of labs with a strong culture of paying your dues and in both instances the rewards were totally worth it, in terms of the feeling of belonging, help received from others when I needed it, experience in project management, etc. In other labs, the whole thing of paying your dues is just an excuse for senior members of the lab to exploit those under them, in a sort of hazing ritual.

So the answer to

Now I'd like to know if is this a usual thing, and simply regarded the "part of the deal" that I have to accept, or if this is something that I should try to stop.

is "it depends".

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