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I’ve read that PhDs are almost always funded, and being accepted into a PhD program without funding is equivalent to a polite rejection.

Is this also true for undergraduate research? For example, many universities have a fund for undergrads to do one or two semesters of paid research, but students must look for other funding sources after that.

Is it wise for undergrads to offer to do research work for free, or does it devalue the undergrad’s work in the eyes of a PI?

This question assumes the setting as an R1 university in the United States, for a student in a STEM field like computer science, mathematics, or electrical engineering.

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    The premise is country-dependant. Studying in a PhD programme by itself is not funded in my experience.
    – Miguel
    Sep 17, 2017 at 6:57
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    At least in theoretical fields, the undergraduate student may be getting more out of such an arrangement than the mentor. You say, "offer to work". But are you at this moment able to do work that would be truly useful to a research lab? You probably need to be trained and learn a lot first. In some other fields, the situation may be different. I can easily imagine a biology lab having enough drudge work available that requires relatively little training.
    – Szabolcs
    Sep 17, 2017 at 10:55
  • There is a certain type of people you will sooner or later in life run into who would sadly think of you as an easy-to-trick loser if you do that ("who the heck works for free?"). That being said, you may however learn things which will bring you happiness later in life. Sep 17, 2017 at 12:04

2 Answers 2

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If you are a student who is getting something of (educational) value out of your research, and don't need the money, it's not necessarily a bad idea to do undergrad research without getting paid for it. (If you weren't a student, this would probably be a very bad idea, though.)

Personally, however, I will only supervise students who are either getting paid or getting some kind of independent study credit. (I'm not the only supervisor I know with this policy.) I don't want to put time and effort into supervising a student who is only very loosely committed to the research project.

I encourage you to consider that option - independent study or thesis credit - for undergraduate research.

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  • how would you mention this free work on curricilum vitae
    – fouad_shoz
    Mar 19, 2021 at 18:05
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It would have to really be worth it; here are some examples of what I think would be worth doing unpaid research work for a semester / summer / or even longer:

1) if the lab is prestigious and you otherwise couldn't join them because there's no funding for you,

2) the research goals coming from your advisor are clear, and you are really interested in achieving those goals,

3) your advisor's going to steer you in directions that you wouldn't be able to do on your own, and he / she could do that probably better than most other professors at your university, because perhaps you have heard from others that he's great at teaching, research, mentorship, etc

4) he hands you a research paper or two that much of your unpaid work will be based on, and there's little chance you would have known about this paper on your own, and this paper genuinely excites you and is published in a good journal,

5) you get to join weekly group meetings that would otherwise be private from you, and in these meetings there are superstar researchers that you would likely otherwise never get a chance to even say hello to, let alone discuss research work with in a small, intimate, casual group meeting.

So ... be honest with yourself and do be careful about what you're getting into. Don't be a monkey coder for a professor. If much of what I listed above applies to your current R1 research setting, I would say go for it; it could be a life-changing experience, regardless of whether you stay in academia.

A meeting or two with your potential advisor will be a great chance for you to list the pros and cons of working for them for free. You know what you are offering - free labor - now see what they are offering.

Lastly, you should be aware that the advisor is likely to be just as skeptical as you are; he/she would worry that you will quit in the middle of the project, or not be as committed as they are, and this wastes everyone's time. It's your job to convince him / her to take you on as a student researcher.

(If you can't afford to do this, disregard all of the above and get something that is funded.)

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