I am an undergraduate student being paid a (relatively speaking) hefty monthly research stipend. I need only some of this money to pay off my university fees and living costs, since I have wonderfully generous parents.

The research projects I work on officially revolve around applied problems in math biology. Lately, I have been interested in Baez's work on "network theory", but because of full course load, along with the research project I am responsible for, I don't have the time to explore these ideas as I'd like to.

I have some ideas for pure math projects that involve extending Baez's nascent network theory ideas to problems in biology. I also have some ideas for tools that could be made in order to help a researcher formally analyze interaction systems.

These ideas are completely tangential to my own work (for the moment), although if I were able to set up the groundwork for them to the point where I am able to see that they do have potential, I'd love to bring it up with my professor.

One idea I have had recently is that I could hire my own "research assistants" out of my stipend (I am allowed to spend it as I like, right)? I could provide them with my motivations, and give them "guidance" (I don't know how capable I would be of this) through ongoing communication. This way, I would be able to explore my ideas, even if I don't personally have the energy and time to see them through right now. The alternative of course, is that I buckle up and find time from somewhere (e.g. by not writing this post) to work on the ideas, or put them away for a later date when I do have time.

So, is hiring my own research assistants at this time ethically questionable?

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    You may not realize this, but supervising and training research assistants from scratch often requires more time and effort than actually doing the research yourself.
    – ff524
    Oct 23, 2014 at 3:24
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    @ff524 Yeah, the fact that I was entertaining that idea is probably born out of a good deal of inexperience :/
    – bzm3r
    Oct 23, 2014 at 3:28
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    Why don't you just make a friend in the math department and discuss your fun ideas over some lunch and see if that inspires some collaborative work.
    – bdeonovic
    Oct 23, 2014 at 12:19
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    Why pay them? Maybe you can make a connection with a professor or student from your university or another that would be interested in this tangential (for you) project. Spark their interest! If it interests you so much that you'd pay someone to do it, there is someone who will be interested enough to do it by themselves free-of-charge.
    – Lan
    Oct 23, 2014 at 13:10
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    Be very careful. Someone might come along who'd love to be your research assistant. You explain your ideas to them, give them money, and have them go off and do the research - and then publish it as their own work, since that's what it is. You apparently have no degree and no academic standing. You might fund the work - but you're not doing the actual work. If this is really an idea worth pursuing I'd say you'd be a class A fool to hand it over to someone else. YMMV... Oct 23, 2014 at 23:30

4 Answers 4


All that jumps out at me is that you won't be able to find and supervise someone capable enough for the amount of money you have, which I assume is on the order of tuition or less. You know research is really, really expensive right? People like Ph.D. students - and yourself - do it for cheap out of extreme valuing of their own educational and research experience.

You can't provide a six figure salary (what an industry researcher costs), you can't hire out your own research passions to someone; you have no play.

This, in theory, comes up in the professional world too. As a rule you can't really hire someone better than you to solve your problems... you'll run out of budget for them as they bleed your personal checkbook, or they'll get hired and take over your work (which is probably very bad for you). There's no "ethics", it stops at the pragmatics.

I think the ethics of this are kind of a moot point because there's cultural reasons this can't really come up. A more practical ethical question might be if you can hire researchers to work on parts of your project for you. That's a pretty different question, but I'm pretty sure the answer is yes, that's what a research budget is for (and your undergraduate underlings would of course appear as co-authors, which is a big part of why they took the opportunity).

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    I am an upper year undergraduate, and I think I could guide someone who either feels "lost" (i.e. wants to get into research, but doesn't know how to) or someone who wants to have a productive hobby/project, but doesn't really know what to work on. Obviously, they'd be taking a huge risk working with me, because I myself am not well qualified to pick good research problems. Anyway, my point is that I expect to get help from people who'd like to work on a project, but don't know what to work on. Not well qualified, "fully fledged" researchers.
    – bzm3r
    Oct 23, 2014 at 3:23
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    "You can't provide a six figure salary (what a professional researcher costs)" That's a citation needed if ever I saw one. You do know that most non-teaching postdocs (a relatively high class of "professional researchers") make less than $50K, right? Oct 23, 2014 at 4:16
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    @PeteL.Clark changed "professional" to "industry." postdocs are addressed in the previous sentence.
    – user18072
    Oct 23, 2014 at 11:28
  • Re: hiring someone better than you to solve your problems -- It isn't academic research, but an American software developer was found to be subcontracting his own job to a Chinese firm willing to work at 20% of his salary. You don't necessarily need someone better than you, just someone around the same level with more economic incentive. ref: BBC Oct 24, 2014 at 14:08
  • @JonathanOverholt that's a good enough example it's really just worth posting as its own answer. It's not that different from hiring someone poorer than you to be a landscaper, and the ethics thereof certainly are out of scope of academia.
    – user18072
    Oct 24, 2014 at 21:08

No, there are no ethical concerns, as long as whoever you hire is given the appropriate credit for the work she/he did.

There are economic reasons why this situation is unlikely to be fruitful, but that is another question.

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    I would add, "and you are honest with them upfront about your lack of experience in supervising research and the high probability that you will not be an effective supervisor at first."
    – ff524
    Oct 23, 2014 at 3:26
  • @ff524 agreed, though the person hired is not necessarily looking for supervision, but might simply be interested in the pay.
    – Cape Code
    Oct 23, 2014 at 14:31

If you are doing this for course credit or if this is part of your undergraduate thesis, you should ask your academic advisor or director of undergraduate studies. The assumption is that all work that you hand is is your own.

Many students have writing or math tutors to help them with basics or fix errors, but the underlying principle is that you did the work.

The question is what your 'staff' will be doing for you. If it is similar to what a writing tutor or math tutor is doing (checking for errors, helping you with argumentation, etc.) then it is likely kosher. However, if it is tending towards what a paper-writing service is doing (you provide the topic and money, they provide the paper) then it is likely illegal and will get you in trouble.

Again, if what you are doing is kosher then you should have no concerns in being open about this with your faculty advisers. It behooves you to clarify this now as you don't want to be accused of plagiarism or fraud (presenting work that is not your own as your own) later on.

If this is for a project that has nothing to do with school, then: 1) you're posting in the wrong stackexchange; 2) you have nothing to worry about as long as you don't try to present it as connected to your school work.

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    The question explains that the OP is looking to hire sometime to do research in an area separate from his/her current official responsibilities (i.e. to do some independent research)
    – ff524
    Oct 23, 2014 at 5:24
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    Independent research at a university follows the same expectations as coursework. If a student does an independent project with me, I expect them to not have disallowed outside assistance. If the project is truly independent from academics (i.e., they are not submitting it to their university in any shape or form), then this isn't a question for a.se but for math.se or some other area.
    – RoboKaren
    Oct 23, 2014 at 6:05
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    If he's never going to submit it to the university for credit, then he can do whatever the heck he wants. If he does submit it for credit, then he should be absolutely clear as to what help and support he received (and/or paid for).
    – RoboKaren
    Oct 23, 2014 at 6:09
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    Ps If he's using university funds (as intimated) that were given to him for his research, he needs to be extra careful. In this case, only his advisor would be able to say the correct answer.
    – RoboKaren
    Oct 23, 2014 at 6:41
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    @ff524: It boils down to whether that "research stipend" has been granted for conducting a particular type of research or a particular research project, or as a blanket financial support for whichever expenses the OP might have during the time while they are working on a particular type of research or research project. Oct 23, 2014 at 10:19

This is a very good moral question. It addresses the authority of an undergraduate researcher with respect to other students.

In my experience, as an undergraduate researcher, I found that there were times that I would have appreciated outside help that I would pay out of pocket for. Something along the lines of a consultant with regards to certain technical aspects.

I like Bob Jarvis' comment that you put your own idea at risk and someone run with it. Also take into account that instead of focusing purely on the task, you have to manage someone which is a heftier plate to be responsible for —and it already seems you have a sizeable amount.

Perhaps, as a compromise, if your advisor can promote you to a role that would take into account another researcher, e.g. senior undergraduate researcher, then probably this would work well.

To reiterate: paying someone out of pocket leaves many questions to interpretation, as far as roles and responsibilities go.

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