I have been given a great opportunity to work as a research assistant. I will be working under this researcher (and her team) for about 5 months. I was only suppose to start in mid-January. But she said she would like to hire me as a research assistant for the next few weeks (full-time). She said she will be paying me (and the rate /hr is surprisingly high). Come mid-January (when I was suppose to start) I will not be allowed to be payed for my work (school rules).

Anyways, this work can be done anywhere (I do not need to be in a specific location to do it). Thus, she told me to track all of my hours and then send her a bill in January. I guess, sort of like what contractors do. I have never had a paid job before, let alone a research position. I am wondering, is this usual?

I could potentially earn 2 000 dollars over the next couple weeks. However, I feel like this is too much money. I feel as though I should understate the hours I worked. However, at the same time if I did that she would know I didn't work "full-time". This is all new to me so it would be great if someone with experience can make sense of this for me.

  • 6
    Did you discuss expected hours with her? For example, at my university, research assistants were expected to work 20 hrs/week. She may have offered you the job on the expectation it would cost her x hours/week, and may not have funding for you to work more than that.
    – user812786
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 18:29
  • 1
    I'd advice to make it a habit to always track your work hours together with the broad task you are working on (e.g. giving classes, laboratory, communication, organization, writing paper, analyzing data). It takes me about 5 minutes daily and it has served me on various occasions in different jobs: for example one employer messed up my holidays, another paid slightly too little because he forgot to include some hours one day. But the largest benefit that I see is that you actually get to know how much time you spend on which task.
    – Stockfisch
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 19:59
  • 1
    You don't mention where you are, but if you're in the USA and a part-time worker, schools I've been to limit your work to 20 hrs/week for legal reasons (after that, Obamacare says they need to provide benefits or something).
    – apnorton
    Commented Dec 16, 2016 at 4:04
  • the very same policy is applied in two more universities i know. i do not know the details e contract, but it usually states an upper bound of working hours
    – padawan
    Commented Dec 16, 2016 at 13:32

3 Answers 3


From my experience doing research assistant work at a state university in the US, and from speaking with peers in both "hard" and "human" sciences this is par for the course. A tiny bit of paperwork (a signature or two), and away you go. Though I'm assuming by "she will be paying me" it will be through the university rather than out of her own pocket.

Do the work (well), do not understate your hours, and enjoy the paycheck when it arrives. I can almost guarantee the researcher is concerned about getting things accomplished in a timely manner, and that the cost of your time is minimal compared to theirs and the other costs associated with the research.

  • 25
    There are often limits as to the number of hours the student can work per week, either due to visa or other factors - it's worth checking to make sure.
    – ff524
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 15:23

Working with her is a contract as any other contract. You should make sure that the full terms of this agreement are fully understood by both parts. Try to have everything written (not necessarily formally, but still written), at least on email, to avoid future frustration. For a beginner, as you, it is not at all uncommon that you misunderstood something, and because of shyness, you agree with something that you would have not agreed, if everything would have been made clear from the beginning.

For example, maybe the payment is only meant for "successful" working hours, or it doesn't include taxes, or you're supposed to cover some spendings for the project you're working on. If this is not made perfectly clear before you start, in written, you'll find yourself cheated when you'll get 700$ for what you considered to be 2000$ worth of work.

Never lie in these circumstances (Yes, there are rare circumstances where lying is a good option). There's no point to it. Both of you have the exact same goal, you want to finish this partnership successfully and nobody has anything to gain if you understate your working hours.

If it eases your stress, I have many friends working as research assistant, and they make about 2000$ per month, but this depends a lot on the country.

Also, read this. Imposter syndrome is very common in academia, and it looks like you have it. You feel like you don't deserve this money, because you're a beginner, etc., while you are deserving it, and the only needed proof for this is that someone is willing to give it to you.

  • 3
    I like this answer more as it stresses the understanding and mutual agreement more than just what to do, i.e. create a bill - a bill that surprises one party is not a good idea, even if your not getting paid immediately still log & send the hours (and preferably a task worked on for each block of hours) on a routine basis Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 18:12

I am very concerned about this part:

I will not be allowed to be payed for my work (school rules)

What rules are these? This isn't an idle question - what rules prevent you from being paid determine the possible penalties for violation.

If you are, for instance, in a foreign country on a visa that limits your payment or employment, working as a contractor in violation of those rules could have some very serious consequences. Depending on your country and the specific policies, this could go all the way up to cancelling your visa and deportation. This is certainly true in the US, and comes with other requirements:

Students and Exchange Visitors

Students and exchange visitors may, under certain circumstances, be allowed to work in the United States. They must obtain permission from an authorized official at their school. The authorized official is known as a Designed School Official (DSO) for students and the Responsible Officer (RO) for exchange visitors.

Unless the professor (or you) commits tax fraud, the government would have ample opportunity to find out - so certainly don't chalk it up to "they probably won't find out" if this is your situation.

There are other possibilities, including being prohibited from working due to scholarship/fellowship/assistantship. Violating those rules could mean anything from being required to return the money, to having your agreement cancelled quite suddenly.

The other possibility is that as an employee of the school you are limited to a certain number of hours, such as under insurance restrictions (Obamacare in the US). Going over this amount means the school is fined quite heavily (a few thousand I believe is the minimum fine), and violating such a rule could land both you and the professor in trouble.

Another possibility is the program prohibits you from unapproved employment outside the program (pretty common with PhD programs in the US). Violation of this without permission could be something the program turns a blind eye towards - or it could give them full authority to dismiss you as a student and/or cancel your funding.

It's not clear from your question if the professor knows or understands why you are being prohibited from receiving payment, but I would urge you to make sure you understand what the rules are and communicate them to this professor as well. Regardless, remember that you are ultimately responsible for following the rules that apply to you, and "the professor said it was ok" may not be sufficient to protect you from negative outcomes in any way.

This arrangement ultimately could be acceptable, but please find out the potential risks in advance!

  • By the first part, I mean that this project will be used for course credit. In order to obtain course credit I am unable to be paid for my work during the semester. The PI knows this. However, I will be paid for my work prior to when the semester begins (I haven't even registered the project as a course yet). I am not on a student Visa of any sort and do not live or go to school in the U.S. I am also not on any scholarship or assistanship. I am an undergraduate student.
    – aspire94
    Commented Dec 16, 2016 at 19:12
  • @aspire94 I see - so kind of an 'independent study'? Do the work, get paid, then take a course where the work you already did is the work for the course and get a grade for it. Is the person giving you the grade the same professor as the one paying you? It sounds like it is clearly prohibited, so you'll have to decide if the risk of breaking the rule is worthwhile. You could just switch the course to something else, the rule would no longer apply, and then you can get paid and no rules need be broken. Ultimately, you'll have to decide what you are comfortable with.
    – BrianH
    Commented Dec 16, 2016 at 19:19

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .