Ever since coming to Amherst, it had been my goal to do research with a professor. But everyone else wanted research positions too, and I wasn’t able to find one. In my first year, I made my tuition money by typing — on a typewriter — the spine labels for new books at the Jones Library in town. In my second year, I graded for the math department, finally landing a job related to my majors. Still, it wasn’t research, so when I managed to get into one of the few research colloquiums offered each spring semester to sophomores and juniors, I was extraordinarily excited.
That was the semester that Covid hit, but my little research team worked hundreds of remote hours over the summer to find out what nobody had found out before. I had a great time. I felt proud of what I was doing, happy with my team and grateful to the college’s summer research funding, which ensured that I could work on the project without the distraction of a summer job. Then, we found out that we wouldn’t be paid to continue our research during the semester — even though we had more work to do.
For a year now, I’ve continued to work on that research project for free. In order to do that, I had to turn back to grading for the math department, picking up extra hours as a tutor when I could. During the academic year, I was swamped; between classes, work, extracurriculars and my everyday obligations, I struggled to meet deadlines for what was now volunteer research. But this was what I had worked for the entire first half of my college experience, wasn’t it? A chance to share new knowledge with the world — and maybe even get my name on a paper. Plus, I enjoyed it. I couldn’t just quit.
My experiences with unpaid research aren’t unique. At Amherst, students do unpaid research for professors in every division and many departments. Anecdotes abound: I heard from students about professors who promise pay but don’t follow through, labs that require unpaid work before hiring students, professors that expect countless hours of unpaid overtime, and professors that present offers to do unpaid work as something to be grateful for.
Most of these students expressed gratitude for their research positions. None of them wanted their professors or labs mentioned in this column. They all enjoyed their jobs, just as I enjoy mine. But others were bitter about not being paid, especially when peers who worked for the same professors had paid positions. And it’s hard to take students’ gratitude towards — and reticence to expose — their bosses as a good sign rather than an indication of the absurd power differentials that make unpaid research so exploitative.
A graduate school application with bona fide research experience is a lot stronger than one without, and professors are the people on campus with the power to give you that experience. If you’re having trouble finding such a position and someone offers you unpaid work, what are you supposed to do? And if you’re halfway done with a paper that will list you as a co-author, can you really quit? When professors present us with unpaid research opportunities, they ask us to make an impossible choice between our future on the one hand and our mental health and self-worth on the other.
Everyone deserves to be paid for their labor. If professors value our work on their projects, then they should show that by paying us. And that payment is more than symbolic: it allows us to feed, clothe and shelter ourselves with our research work. Paid research allows us to quit that second, third or fourth job and take care of ourselves.
Moreover, unpaid research cultivates inequity on campus. It’s a lot easier for wealthy Amherst students to load up on unpaid research opportunities when they don’t have to work to pay the bills. To me and other students who work, unpaid research is a burden we feel compelled to take up for any number of reasons. To the Canada Goose demographic, unpaid research is a chance to skirt around the campus’s limited number of paid research positions.
Unpaid research also poisons our minds. While we’re at Amherst, we learn far more than the theorems and definitions from class. How professors and staff treat us informs how we will treat other people in our future workplaces. When professors ask us to perform unpaid labor, the implication is that unpaid labor is normal in the workplace. And so when Amherst students go on to be the next generation of executives, academics and parents, we will perpetuate those harmful norms.
I’ve focused a lot on professors, but the blame doesn’t stop with them. Professors obviously want more research assistants than they can pay under the current system, and students want the work. More funding needs to be set aside to provide for those additional positions. And academic departments and the administration often ask students to do unpaid labor, such as serving on search and advisory committees. Whose voices are heard in a system that privileges those with more free time? I bet it isn’t poor students of color. I bet it isn’t disabled students, or those with less institutional knowledge. I bet that it isn’t those working multiple jobs.
Unpaid research hurts everyone involved. Professors get overworked researchers able to commit less time to their projects. Students get cheated out of the value of our time. And Amherst College ends up elevating those with more — more resources, more privilege, more free time — over those with less.
A better system isn’t even hard to imagine. All it takes is a little more money, a little more care and a lot more willingness to accept that academia’s expectations are all out of whack.