Are Unpaid Postdocs the Next Trend in Biomedical Research?

San Diego radio station KPBS reported last year that a local lab was looking for a PhD to work for free. The “Unpaid Volunteer in a Basic Science Research Laboratory” ad (chemjobber) on Craigslist requested a PhD and 2-3 years of postdoc experience to work on methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) research. The ad quickly disappeared, but now a lab in Hackensack, NJ is offering a similar arrangement.

On July 9, a “Cancer Research Volunteer” position was posted on LinkedIn through VolunteerMatch, a service designed to “connect good people to good causes.” The description calls for post-college/masters degrees, PhDs, and MDs who must work at least 20 hours a week for one year. Unpaid.

unpaid research position

unpaid research position

A source associated with this unpaid internship program, who asked to remain anonymous, said “the internship program is very intensive, proactive and systematically designed.” According to this source, most of the unpaid interns who have joined this program have MD or college degrees from foreign universities and are trying to gain cancer research experience to improve their resume. “All interns that finished the one-year program successfully find jobs that they want and get into grad/professional schools of their first/second choice,” stated this source. When asked who trains the interns, the source said that postdocs train the interns, supervised by the professor. “Typically three to four interns per postdoc, one per tech. Toward the fifth year… [postdocs] can normally handle up to five interns. This is a great supervising experience for postdocs.” According to this source, the lab typically consists of “three postdocs, one clinical staff, two technicians, 12 interns/volunteers,” and the PI.

With the economic difficulties many labs are facing due to the lack of appropriate funding for research and the increasing competition for research jobs, it might be tempting for group leaders to consider offering unpaid internships. However, this is a decision that should not be considered lightly. For starters, there is a lot of debate on whether unpaid internships are even lawful. The U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division has a list of six requirements that must be met for an unpaid internship to be legal. These include “the intern does not displace regular employees” and “the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern.” These criteria are very vague and difficult to assess, and have led to a wave of lawsuits.

The value of unpaid internships has been questioned from many different angles. In their Policy Memo #160 the Economic Policy Institute points out that the lack of regulation over unpaid internships leaves interns unprotected against workplace discrimination, leads to replacement of regular workers with unpaid interns, and fosters socioeconomic disparities, because only those who can afford to work without compensation can take advantage of these opportunities.

Perhaps the scientific community should have a thorough debate on the advantages and disadvantages of unpaid research internships before they become a trend. And the debate MUST include the voice of those who will likely be most affected by this trend: grad students and postdocs.

About the Author:

Laura Diaz-Martinez is Associate Director of the Campus Office of Undergraduate Research Initiatives and Research Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at The University of Texas at El Paso. She is also an active ASCB member and former member of ASCB’s COMPASS.