Is it right to work unpaid for the benefit of your research career?

Rob Hardwick (02 July 2012)

Postdoctoral salaries and PhD stipends have undoubtedly improved considerably in recent years, but a culture of acceptance of voluntary research work persists across UK institutions.

is it right to work unpaid for the benefit of your research career?

Anecdotally, postdocs and PhD students are likely to have spent time on their research projects beyond the limits of their fixed-term contracts or PhD studentships for no extra financial gain, and if they haven’t done this personally, they will probably know a colleague who has. This is often justified by the researcher involved on the grounds that this additional, unpaid work is necessary to finalise material for publication and whence the advancement of their research career, and this is not to mention the additional unpaid overtime that has become the norm amongst early career researchers. So in a culture that accepts and permits unpaid research work and demands outstanding publications, and in a climate of ever tightening research budgets, how long will it be until Voluntary Postdoctoral positions are advertised?

Well, if a recent ‘job’ advert picked up on is anything to go by, then perhaps it will be very soon.

The ‘job’ in question was for an Honorary Research Assistant in the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham. It asked for “excellent graduates” to work “on a voluntary basis”, and even required them to have advanced CRB clearance and “access to a motor vehicle to drive to assessments”. This advert was swiftly removed after pressure from UCU and other academics ( and

This advert is a worrying development and begs the question: is it right to work unpaid for the benefit of your research career?


Daniel Weekes
Thanks for highlighting this Rob it's a really interesting one, I'd be interested to hear if anyone else has experience of similar posts and also thoughts on the value of positions like this. It may be something that RSAs at a local level and UKRSA ( could look at nationally.

Sandrine Berges
Thanks for alerting us to this potentially worrying development! Of course, young postgrads often do research for free, thanks to the 5 or 9 months jobs that have been on the market for well over ten years. The deal is that your first few jobs are going to be temporary, and you're expected to produce research as well as teach, but you're only paid during the months you teach. Given that in philosophy, at any rate, one can reasonably expect to do a few years like this in order stand a chance of getting a full time job as a teacher / researcher, people end up having to rely on state benefits during the summer months in order to do the research they desperately need to do in order to secure the next job. For no one stands a chance of getting even these measly jobs if they don't have good research credentials which bolster up the departments ratings. Then, when that next job comes, they have new courses to prepare and so no time to do research. So the employers basically rely on unemployment benefit to pay for the research of the people they employ.

Rachel Talbot
There does seem to be an expectiation that publishing in particular is done in your own time both because of funding and time.

Simon Smith
I suppose we shouldn't be surprised, with unpaid internships getting more and more common in other employment sectors. In the cultural industries there's always been a lot of unpaid labour demanded of those just starting out on a career, and academia isn't that far removed. As others have said, it goes on in a covert way in most departments. So the only thing that shocks me is that this was advertised!

Blanka Sengerová
I think you raise an important question, Rob.

I'm a little shocked that this was actually advertised!

My answer to the title of your post is a categorical "no", yet I am just as guilty as anyone for not sticking to that because I had 3 years of PhD funding and overran by 4 months (which is a lot less than many  of my colleagues), which were unpaid. I knew that 3 years to have a complete PhD were unrealistic, so I'd saved some of my stipend to make sure I had enough money to live off in the 4th year. However, there did seem to be (and maybe still is) a general feeling that supervisors expected the 3 years to be 3 years of labwork and expect you to write up after that in your own time. Since then, science PhD funding is generally available for 4 years, but maybe that means that supervisors expect you to do 4 years of labwork and then write up? In the case of the PhD you will almost certainly do it, whether money is available to fund you or not, because otherwise the whole 3 or 4 years of PhD work would be wasted, you have to finish your thesis.

I certainly know plenty of people who have worked for free beyond the end of their postdoc (and PhD) contracts because they wanted to finish off papers and were worried that if they left, the work would just disappear under the carpet (which appears to be the worry of many PhD students I'd met at conferences), which I suppose is most likely to happen in large labs. And a PI I know was adamant that if people want to get on in science, they (eg those waiting to get Masters or PhD funding) have to be willing to work for free because "they cost the lab money" (when I countered with the fact that their time is actually very valuable and should be paid, I got the impression that the reagents were put above [wo]man hours as something not to be wasted).

But isn't the crux of the situation that whilst there are people willing to work for free, why should anyone do anything about it?

PS. Like Simon, I'm a little shocked that this was actually advertised!