I met a professor last year through an online search and expressed my interests to his research and his advanced lab technique, in which I lack of experience.

I also asked for a PhD opportunity from him, he says that he has no money or limited funding now, so I agreed to work for 3 months for free. Would be practical that this volunteer experience could lead to a PhD after this 3 months? On one side I am not happy with working for free, as I had employment for 1 year as a research assistant. On the other side, this potential professor appears nice to employees around and keeps his words, and has good tracks of papers.

But am I just wasting of time, what actions should I take to figure this out before too late?

Supplementary information: He said that he was on travel, so I was off for a while. He did not contact me till I found him. Is this normal or just my altitude should be changed? I feel not well, maybe he does not really want me as a fellow at all?

I am really frustrated, should I go further or not, is he just being polite to accept me to practice the techniques in his lab for 3 months? Am I wasting of time to even practice these test methods?

  • 4
    "On one side i am not happy with work for free" rightly so: if it makes you unhappy even before you start, don't work for free. In some countries it's even illegal to do so.
    – Moriarty
    Commented Sep 29, 2014 at 21:01
  • 1
    Related: Nonpaid, volunteering position in a lab
    – ff524
    Commented Sep 30, 2014 at 7:27

4 Answers 4


If you WANT to volunteer in the lab as a learning opportunity, it can be a great practice.

If you don't want to, decline the offer and either look elsewhere or come back when his budget can handle bringing someone else in... and hope that he hasn't already found someone who was pleased to work as a volunteer and delighted to be paid.

The world is what it is, not what we wish it should be.

  • +1 for "If you WANT to volunteer in the lab as a learning opportunity, it can be a great practice." - it could also yield co-authorship of papers, but at the very least, exactly as keshlam said, it can be a great practice
    – user21984
    Commented Sep 30, 2014 at 6:04
  • It's a race to the bottom, like interns in (US and other) politics --- practically only middleclass background can afford it, and thus work themselves into networks (to which they were probably introduced via their parents/uncles/... anyway); then it becomes 'the norm' if such an easy source of free labour becomes generally available and you get all-too-samey people running academia as well. Like UK journalists. Agrh. The world is what it is indeed. Commented Nov 19, 2018 at 16:34

Ultimately, the decision is based on what you feel comfortable doing and at the same time, is consistent with what you want to achieve in research. The fact that you have mentioned that you are feeling frustrated and are having doubts that the volunteer work will even eventuate are not good signs at all - especially as you have indicated that you are not comfortable working for free.

So, some things to consider:

  • How important is learning and practicing this lab technique for your future goals?

  • Is it possible to ask to collaborate on any research that will also allow you to learn the test method?

  • Have you checked any other similar labs?

  • What is a new aspect of research that uses the test method that you could offer as a PhD project?

Some suggestions:

  • Look at other opportunities while you are waiting to hear back from the researcher (do not pester them).

  • Best not to second-guess the researcher's intentions, give them the benefit of the doubt.

  • Read the researcher's papers and at least master the theory.

Remember, to take on a volunteer may require permission from the researcher's Dean/Human Resources, and may involve aspects such as safety induction (for the lab) etc (and as Moriarty said in his comment, taking on a volunteer may be forbidden).

  • Thank you so much for tour answers.it is not favorable condition as i am a foreign professionals.this is not allowrd in terms of immigration...in the long term. I need to figure this out soon..hopefully i am not in a dead end?
    – user20582
    Commented Sep 30, 2014 at 6:37
  • @user20582 you are unlikely to be at a 'dead-end' at all. Never give up!
    – user21984
    Commented Sep 30, 2014 at 9:18

The most important thing I would work out is what do you want to gain for this opportunity? From your question it sounds like you would like to get a PhD afterwards.

You say the professor has no/little money at the moment. You need to work out if this is likely to change in 3 months. The best way to do this is probably just to ask him.

Such a role may still be useful even if it doesn't lead directly to a PhD position with this professor. He may provide a good reference or may result in a publication. However, you must way up these benefits against the cost of working for free for three months.

Things to consider are what is the reputation of the professor/how much do you want to work with him? What is the likelihood of you getting a similar (paid) role in reasonable amount of time.

Finally, before taking unpaid work it is important to consider how you will support yourself financially. If you can't afford to eat you may need to do something else.

  • he does have a very good reputation and appeared stick to his words...that's one factor that i consider to at least try 3 months with him...
    – user20582
    Commented Sep 30, 2014 at 19:32

Besides all that has been mentioned, the liability issues stand foremost. Imagine that you work for free and get injured while on that job. The university has no obligation to pay you any compensation. Imagine that you damage a major piece of research equipment. You and the faculty member could be personally sued by the university for the repair costs.

The other side is, what do you get from this? Sure, experience is a great thing, but it only goes so far. Suppose you work for free and have no achievement from the work. What exactly are you going to put on your CV? Do you believe that a future job interviewer will really care to discuss what you "experienced" in your own "free time" versus what you have a valid record of doing?

For the first reason, I do not accept students that offer to work for free in my labs. For the second reason, I always attach credit hours for either formal research or a special topics course to the transcript of students who work for me doing research.

  • 1
    Most universities I've encountered DO cover student volunteers as if they were student employees, and have a mechanism for registering a student as one. If yours doesn't, I'm a bit surprised.
    – keshlam
    Commented Sep 30, 2014 at 16:01
  • no, i am not a student. i am graduated and have worked for 2 years in this country. The work is relevant to my speciality. does unpaid=work is valuable for the senior? I doubt when the PI said no money,as getting funding is one of the capabilities of being a PI....now we start to work on a small project, i doubt what's next after the 3 months. So why these PIs asking us to work for free, what is their motivations? what do they want? just a cheap labor to perform their project or what?
    – user20582
    Commented Sep 30, 2014 at 19:10
  • @keshlam: That could be, and I admit to not having checked in to this option. My ignorance suggests that faculty who offer work for free need to be as diligent about their responsibilities. Thanks. Commented Oct 6, 2014 at 14:40

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