I am an unpaid research fellow in a mainly clinical research lab. One can call it a "volunteer research position".

I thought my goals prior to the fellowship were to write papers, help with clinical trials, but I am being asked to write a lot of grants by both my PI and his colleagues, colleagues I have never met and have never worked under. Is this normal? And not small grants, fairly big grants that take hours upon hours to write.

Is this ethical on the institution's part?

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    "Is it ethical?" is one of the most widely stretched questions on this site. Almost any proposed action is arguably unethical if you argue hard enough, but this is not very practical. Could you help us out by saying why you think the practice might be unethical? On a superficial reading, it sounds like you are saying "My volunteer job is turning out to be more work and different work from what I thought. What should I do?" It sure is tempting to say "Quit; it's a volunteer job." If there are reasons why this is not a good response, please tell us. – Pete L. Clark Mar 30 '17 at 0:45
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    Could you add to your question: Why did you accept the unpaid position in the first place? What are you hoping to do with this experience? Presumably, experience and concrete outputs with your name attached would be good. Presumably you would be a co-author on papers? Would you be a co-author on grants? How formalised was your agreement? If it's volunteer work, why not just quit or say that you don't want to work on the grants? – Jeromy Anglim Mar 30 '17 at 0:55
  • I wonder if your PI sees this as an investment in your future. Have you asked when you'll be able to turn your focus to the clinical trials and the papers? – aparente001 Mar 30 '17 at 4:27
  • If the grants are successful, will you get a paid position? There is always the option of just saying "no". In Germany, an unpaid position that is not focused on your education would be illegal. – Roland Mar 30 '17 at 7:12
  • @Roland "In Germany, an unpaid position that is not focused on your education would be illegal." Interesting - what law is that? For what kind of "position" does that apply? Is it specific for academia? – Dirk Mar 30 '17 at 12:06

I think the answer to this is pretty field and country dependent since there is variation on the frequency of unpaid post docs. In terms of ethics, I am going to ignore the big issue of whether it is ethical for you to be doing an unpaid post doc and focus on the grants/papers issue.

Despite how it may seem, most PIs do not go out of their way to take advantage of people. The PI probably thinks it is in your best interest to be writing grants and not running experiments or writing papers. One reason for this might be that getting if the PI, or one of the PIs collaborators, gets a grant, then they could pay you. There does not seem to be anything unethical about trying to get an unpaid person into a paid position as quickly as possible.

As for what you should do, you need to talk to the PI. Make sure he understands where you are trying to get to. Then work with him on an approach that gets you there. It might be writing more grants or maybe you need to switch to papers.

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