Pay to play: should trainees be compensated for extracurricular service?

Graduate students and postdocs participate in various service activities throughout their training. Service occurs in the form of outreach, teaching, advocacy, education, communication, professional development, community building, and administrative work. When I say service, I mean long-term commitments. We’re talking above and beyond, often dozens of hours of work per semester, including administrative and creative labor that could, in theory, be an entire position on the payroll. At times, it can also be taxing emotional labor. There is a big debate on whether these trainees should be paid for their work outside of the hours they spend in the lab. A select few are recognized with awards after the fact, but many are not recognized at all. Service is seen as a good line to have on your CV, but it’s possible to make it so much more.

In the past year have I been paid a small stipend from the graduate school for my service activities in professional development and advocacy. It’s not a lot by any means, just a guaranteed amount in return for my work. Additionally, ASCB provides a travel award to COMPASS (Committee for Postdocs and Students) members attending the Annual Meeting. Although I would do the work for free, I’m thankful for the compensation. Even more so, I am grateful for the gesture. For me, the quality of work and motivation didn’t change when I started getting paid, but I felt more supported. I hadn’t walked off the street and proclaimed to help someone’s cause; I applied and was accepted because I had the credentials to contribute in meaningful ways. And these contributions have a tangible value. From my experiences, there are several reasons trainees should be paid for the service they provide:

  1. Institutional buy-in. When people give you money, they care about the outcomes. By attaching stipend to service, it’s likely that funders will want to see positive outcomes and justification. This means better tracking of service activities such as needs assessment, outcomes and feedback, and a detailed history of past events. With trainees leaving every few years, the institutional memory would help groups maintain and grow stronger over time. Moreover, if institutions formally encouraged and supported work that serves the communities that trainees care about, it could be a positive and needed message about diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  2. Change the culture. If you think service is a required part of training, then it should be a requirement for graduation, promotion, or grant applications. In some ways, service should not be required—not everyone can commit those hours. Yet, currently, there are no formal ways to reward, value, or prioritize service work from trainees. Adding a stipend, a commitment to pay trainees for work they will do protects this time and labor. The personal and professional development benefits of service should be encouraged early in training and career, not allowed only after someone achieves tenure. Yet, without formally encouraging service, it can be hard for trainees to justify the time away from the lab (depending on the work environment). Encouraging participation in service could help trainees, regardless of career path, to understand their strengths, passions, and roles as professionals moving forward.
  3. Train and innovate. Most service work from trainees requires collaborations with professionals that are outside of their field and outside of tenure-track faculty positions. Formalizing service roles could help highlight these students and encourage faculty and staff to take a more active role in mentoring. Since many trainees use extracurricular service to transition away from academic research careers, building that network would greatly help career transitions. Service work often produces the most creative ideas from the most energized groups. Trainees are the best liaisons and advocates for needs assessment of their communities, be it career level, social identity, or technical field. Increasing communication between trainees and faculty/staff in formalized ways can lead to creating better programs that adapt to trainee needs. With trainees already looking for side jobs, it helps to incentivize efforts where they can contribute directly to the university, a unique and valuable role that trainees can fill.
  4. Recruit the best. Committed service work takes enough effort that there probably won’t be people signing up just for the money; those who do will drop out quickly. On the other hand, giving a small stipend for service could potentially increase quantity, quality, and diversity of trainee-led service. Trainees gravitate toward organizations that are doing the best work, would give them the biggest career boost, and seem the most worthwhile. Providing a stipend shows trainees that their success is a priority and thus encourages them to participate.

In truth, whether or not trainees should be compensated for service is going to vary for each department and for each activity. I encourage trainees to determine for themselves what would be appropriate. Personally, I appreciate compensation for organizing and running a workshop, but would not want anything in return for serving as a peer mentor. I also encourage institutions to assess these trainee-set boundaries. Many believe that all service work is part of the deal, part of being a good human. Yes, it is. We should all contribute to our communities in altruistic ways. In the end, trainees will serve whether or not they are paid. But I encourage everyone to think of the different ways we could support and encourage service and the training of well-rounded scientists. A good pilot experiment is to somehow compensate leadership roles, giving a few trainees the option of committing to more intensive work. That small change could make a huge difference. Would it make a difference for you? Have you received a stipend for service? Do you wish you had? What other incentives encourage service at your institution?

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.


About the Author:

Sara Wong earned her PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology from the University of Michigan, where she studied organelle transport. She is currently a postdoc at the University of Utah, where she studies mitochondria. Email:; Twitter: @sarajwong