I was an international student and graduated 3 years ago. Now I want to continue my research career instead of working in the industry. I worked for free for a professor for one month last year. It was a good experience and we had a good impression to each other. I approach her again and asked to get back to her lab, she said that she could consider to work together on a project for 1 year, but she has no money. On one side, I was always excited about to be back to a lab to do more researches, and expecting to extend it to a PhD study; on the other side, I couldn't be glad and work well without enough money. I am going to meet this professor soon, I was wondering:

  1. Why did she asked me to work for free?

  2. How to negotiate or should I just give it up?

  • Who knows why did she asked you to work for free? Ask herself.
    – enthu
    Commented Aug 10, 2014 at 9:51
  • If this is in the united states, you can look into the J-1 visa Commented Aug 10, 2014 at 10:58
  • working for free, if this is a common practice in the academic world?
    – jojo
    Commented Aug 10, 2014 at 11:11
  • 2
    What country is this position in? In many countries what she has asked you to do is outright illegal and in others is in a legal gray area. The US Dept of Labor, for example, has been warning employers that it will soon start cracking down on unpaid internships and other similar positions.
    – Bill Barth
    Commented Aug 10, 2014 at 14:23
  • @jojo in some places, it is. But I think Academia is just another career, and so unpaid labor should be erradicated. A master's is fine, but then...
    – Davidmh
    Commented Aug 10, 2014 at 15:41

4 Answers 4


The question you have to answer is:

Can you go for one year without eating and living under a bridge?

As I assume the answer is no, you simply tell her you cannot work without getting paid. She shouldn't be offended by this.

Even if she has no money, she may know other labs that have, and can recommend you My master's advisor came one day with a friend of his and said "this is Prof. Smith, and he is looking for a PhD student in a project I think will interest you".

Lastly, depending on the country, working for free may be illegal. In Spain it is common to do PhDs unfunded, in Sweden it is considered slavery.


You need to be clear what you wish to achieve. Working "for free" is never great, but it might be tolerable if it helps you to get somewhere you want to be. Once you've decided what you want to get from this, then discuss this with the professor and ask how she can help you get there. For example, it might be possible to write a grant application to fund you for a PhD, if that is what you want. Be prepared to walk away if the prospects don't seem worth the risk.

You might also ask whether there is scope for earning money from other sources - say, from teaching. Be cautious about vague promises that don't ever materialise into anything concrete.

Above all, decide what this is worth to you, and what your exit strategy is going to be if things don't work out according to plan. Once you've worked for free for several months, it's easy to think "well, just another month... perhaps something will come along". This is unlikely to be a good situation to be in...

  • i have financial issues, as i am not earing high salary yet, but then i have to work for free here. being foreign, poor and career jet. i am struggling for the money issue as well. i don't think that anyone will be glad to work for free for several months even. what does that mean? my value is invalid and rejected. if i am wrong just correct me here
    – jojo
    Commented Aug 10, 2014 at 11:10
  • @jojo, it means that the prof values you as a researcher and would like you to work in her lab but she can't pay you simply because there are no funds available to her, not because she thinks you have no value. You approached her ans ask to work in the lab, that is what she can offer, you have no reason to be offended. Find a paid PhD advert somewhere else and ask your prof for a reference. Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 16:09

I see two questions here, one is what Davidmh clearly mentioned. The other is

If it is a common practice to do so?

To this second question, I will say it depends on the student's aims and advisor's funds.

I know one of my friend doing the same in KTH, Sweden. Another friend of mine did a research for 2 months in a UK university after her masters for free. The value you get is recognition for working in a good lab and may be some research papers if you can manage.

I assume your professor recommended so thinking you are enthusiastic about research and may do so even if she could not provide you with some money. If this is not the case, you can tell her politely, it is not considered offensive at all. I also guess here that you have not told her about your intentions to extend this research to a PhD later. If you do so, she may tell you later if she gets funds or may direct you to another lab if you discuss with her.

  • i did found her for the phd at the first time. now it ends as i was asked to work for free. I was recommended to her network, but i am still unemployed as competitions were high.
    – jojo
    Commented Aug 10, 2014 at 10:58
  • how many has succeed by working for free for a while? and what is their intention to ask us to work for free?
    – jojo
    Commented Aug 10, 2014 at 10:58
  • The friend in Sweden got a PhD offer in US later because of working with this professor on certain topic, and other friend in UK published a paper for her work, if you think this is accomplishment. Commented Aug 10, 2014 at 11:00
  • i already had a paper, but i am still unemployed at this moment. I am seeking a long-term stable career, not a so called honor. This senior seems respectful and profound in the area, but i can't afford to work for free the whole year.
    – jojo
    Commented Aug 10, 2014 at 11:05
  • 1
    no, discuss it before accepting offer. Otherwise it is not good ethics to leave. Commented Aug 10, 2014 at 17:00

If you demonstrate value you should be compensated for value-added that you bring to her project. If she really wanted to pay you then she'd find a way.

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