Is it ethical for a psychology professor to expect volunteer work in the lab in exchange for a letter of recommendation? The rationale is that they are unable to judge a student's suitability for graduate school without evaluating their lab abilities. I can see the point, but it's difficult for a working student to volunteer for an entire four month long semester on the professor's schedule, which varies considerably.

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    No............no. Feb 18 '16 at 20:32
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    Your "rationale" seems perfectly plausible to me. What would the professor write in her/his letter if (s)he never worked with you? I understand that this makes things difficult in some cases, but what alternative is there, really (assuming that letters of recommendation are a useful device for evaluated students in the first place, which is a different story)?
    – xLeitix
    Feb 19 '16 at 15:25
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    @xLeitix: well, an alternative would be to write recommendations for students that were paid for their lab work Feb 19 '16 at 18:34
  • @cbeleites How would this change the OP's problem (that she is working and can't work in a lab, paid or otherwise)? Also, now the issue we are talking about are unpaid lab assistantships more than wether or not the OP gets a letter.
    – xLeitix
    Feb 20 '16 at 9:24
  • @xLeitix: it is kind of a non-solution, but for me a prof asking for voluntary (= free) work in their lab in exchange for the letter raises a red flag (see my answer), so there is no conflict of finding time to work there because I would not try to work there and instead think whether I could ask other profs who already know me well enough to write a letter of recommendation, either because I have been working in their lab already or because I was active enough in their lecture etc. Feb 20 '16 at 22:06

Yes. It would be unethical to trade lab work for a guaranteed good letter of recommendation, but I see nothing wrong with your scenario. I think it's acceptable for a professor to only write letters for students they've worked with if they has open lab positions. I also think it's good to require a student commit to at least one month of research at minimum.

It can be hard for many students to juggle/balance life, school, and work. Doubly so for those who need to work through college. But research is the backbone of many grad programs and it's important to get as much experience as possible. The research requirement can get in the way of everything else, but it's also a way for you to try research before applying to grad school.

EDIT: Another way of thinking about it: Would it be an issue if a professor required a student to take their course (or do research) before writing them a letter of recommendation? Of course not! Wanting a letter from such a professor would require you to spend time going to lecture and doing the course work. The only difference here is that one month of research is probably more beneficial and less work than taking a class.

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    I suppose in your first long sentence ("It would be unethical...") the operating word is "guaranteed"? Feb 18 '16 at 20:16
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    I don't find your other "way of thinking about it" very compelling. There are obvious differences between taking a professor's course and doing volunteer work in her lab: in the first case the professor is working for the student and getting paid to do so; in the second case the student is working for the professor and not getting paid to do so. Feb 19 '16 at 3:28

To me the proposal sounds a bit fishy. I'm assuming voluntary = unpaid, though!
So IMHO that would be rather on the unethical side: there's a substantial risk of a) the work not being that voluntary and b) the letter being influenced by

That being said, it is perfectly sensible and ethical that a professor should write letters of recommendation only for students they know well enough. But if the student is paid in the usual way for the lab work, any risk/suspicion of the volunteering being payment for a nice recommendation is immediately gone.

To put this in some context, I'm not from psychology. I'm from a field and a culture where students working in the lab are paid (not that much, but at least something), and where quite some part of the university regulations are making sure that professors cannot abuse their position.


I wouldn't ask "for work in exchange for a LoR", but I'd certainly not be writing a recommendation for a student that I don't know personally in some detail. I.e., they should at the very least have taken several classes with me, more probably have worked as TA a few terms or worked with me in another type of assistantship, or done a thesis with me (or which involved me in some way). I might make an exception for a student that came to my attention in some other way, but I can't really remember any case where that would have applied (and not one of the above reasons too).

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