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Making the case for paying undergraduate researchers in STEM disciplines

A literature review and set of recommendations in support of paying undergraduate researchers for their contributions. For use by administrators, educators, faculty, non-faculty researchers, staff, management, and others who influence these decisions.

Published onSep 24, 2023
Making the case for paying undergraduate researchers in STEM disciplines


It is common for undergraduates majoring in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines to engage in technical, research, or field experiences, as part of their skill development and career exploration. Although some of these educational opportunities offer financial compensation to undergraduates, many do not. This study focused on the relationship between financial support and access to these opportunities, which are known to increase undergraduate confidence, skill development, academic success, and persistence in STEM. Informed by a review of the literature, this study presents a set of recommendations for those who have the power to contribute to providing fair compensation to undergraduate researchers, including administrators, educators, faculty, non-faculty researchers, staff, management, STEM departments, and institutions.


Undergraduate1 students enroll in higher education institutions to engage in learning and professional development that support their academic and career goals. Although there is a stereotype that “college students” are between the ages of 18 and 22, supported by their parents, and have recently moved out on their own for the first time, many are in their mid-20s or older, raising children, low-income, and/or employed during their studies [1][2][3]. As the characteristics of undergraduates in the U.S. change, so too should our perspectives about how to support their academic success and professional development.

Increasingly, students majoring in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines have opportunities to participate in learning experiences associated with their field of interest. Measures associated with “student success” (e.g., graduation rates, entry into graduate programs) are commonly used to determine the effectiveness of these types of opportunities in broadening participation in STEM. Although useful to studying overall impact, solely relying on these measures can place accountability on students for institutional outcomes, instead of examining how the activities of a particular institution contribute to the variance in representation, success, and happiness in STEM fields for people from different backgrounds and identities [4][5][6]. As compared to the large number of papers about research experiences and internships published each year, there are very few that investigate how financial compensation can impact the potential for these educational opportunities to benefit participants [7]. So, although there are many well-known barriers to accessing STEM careers, this study is focused on a topic that has been largely overlooked in the literature: the relationship between financial support and access to technical, research, and field experiences for undergraduates. Aptly stated by Fournier and Bond [8], despite the fact that “finances are often tight, and there is a long tradition of unpaid work … unpaid technicians and internships are bad for science.” 

Although agencies and organizations of many types provide funds to pay undergraduates participating in these educational opportunities, there are plenty of experiences in which undergraduates are not offered a stipend or other financial support. The goal of this study is to present “what is known” about the topic of paying undergraduates for their contributions as researchers2, regardless of their status (e.g., assistant, intern, volunteer) as part of a research team. This includes a review of the literature that addresses the following research questions:

  • What is known about the rationale behind paying undergraduate researchers?

  • What are the benefits to paying undergraduate researchers?

  • What are the drawbacks to not paying undergraduate researchers?

Financial support can be provided in many forms. Most commonly, students are offered a stipend, but they can also receive supplements or reimbursements to cover expenses such as books, food, housing, materials, travel, or tuition [9][10]. Although some of the findings in this study reference the fact that undergraduate researchers can be offered course credit in addition to or instead of financial support, the primary focus of this work is to investigate the impacts of paying (or not paying) them for their work.


The focus of this study – paying undergraduate researchers – has likely been a topic of conversation at any institution that collaborates with students on research projects. For decades students have been able to access training and professional development through internships, job shadowing, and working with research groups outside of the classroom3. Although these types of experiences are common, it is well-known that they are not equitably distributed nor compensated. Research teams may feel they are ill-equipped to address this issue, do not see it as a priority to address, or feel that students can “figure it out” on their own. Thus, this study includes a review of the literature, to illustrate the relationship between financial concerns, academic achievement, and access to educational opportunities that support persistence in STEM fields. Informed by this review, this study presents recommendations for administrators, educators, faculty, non-faculty researchers, staff, management, STEM departments, and institutions who are interested in working with or supporting the work of undergraduate researchers:

  • Get organized before recruiting undergraduate researchers

  • Consider collaborations between researchers and practitioners

  • Include funding for undergraduate researchers in grant proposal budgets

  • Provide details about financial compensation in papers and reports

  • Advertise resources to everyone

There are many initiatives and funding streams available to support the contributions of undergraduate researchers, some of which are featured in this study. I encourage you to use these ideas and resources to increase access to STEM careers, and advocate for equitable and inclusive working conditions at your institution.



The primary motivations for this review of the literature were to a) investigate the relationship between STEM majors’ financial concerns, academic success, and professional development, and b) provide research teams with some reference material to guide their decision-making regarding compensation for undergraduate researchers. Although it is common knowledge that STEM technical and research experiences offer different forms of compensation (e.g., course credit, hourly pay, stipends, tuition waivers), the topic of compensation (and how it impacts participants) is often not addressed in published studies about these opportunities. To fill this gap in knowledge, the literature review completed for this study focused on financial issues that impact undergraduates, and educational opportunities designed to provide professional development and training to undergraduates majoring in STEM disciplines.  

Using the Google Scholar and Web of Science search engines, I used the following terms in various combinations to generate a list of publications that might be relevant for this study: “compensation,” “employee,” “employed,” “employment,” “faculty lab,” “full-time,” “income,” “internship,” “job,” “field,” “finances,” “financial,” “research experience,” “paid,” “part-time,” “pay,” “REU,” “summer research,” “stipend,” “STEM,” “technical,” “undergraduate,” “undergraduate research,” “URE,” “unpaid,” “volunteer, and “work.” This process generated more than 100 papers. From this group, papers were excluded if they were deemed irrelevant based on their title. To select papers to be summarized as part of the literature review, I read through the abstracts to sort the papers into groups. For example, some papers illustrated the connection between student employment and academic success, while others focused on specific STEM technical or research experiences. For papers in the latter category, reading the abstract alone was often not sufficient to reveal if the full paper addressed the impacts of financial compensation on participants. To further reduce the list of papers about STEM technical,  research, or field experiences, I prioritized papers that were published in recent years, to increase the likelihood of presenting information about current practices and perspectives. Most of the papers about these educational opportunities were excluded from this study because they: a) included only a general description of the program, b) did not present information or data about the impacts of structural features (e.g., orientation, time commitment, stipend, training, meetings), or c) did not present information or data about the perspectives of participants [5][11]. Similarly, in the literature about internships, most studies do not specify if the opportunity was “paid or unpaid,” or include commentary about this topic in their findings or conclusions [7].

To supplement the information found in published papers, I also conducted an internet search for language about unpaid opportunities for undergraduate researchers hosted on college or university websites. Using the Google search engine, I conducted searches using the following terms: “college,” “faculty,” “intern,” “internship,” “laboratory,” “research,” “undergraduate,” “university,” “unpaid,” “volunteer.” Summarized in Table 1, this search generated information about how faculty and staff should recruit undergraduates for a variety of unpaid roles, information for undergraduates about this process, and the potential benefits of these roles.

Although a systematic search was used to identify relevant papers and online information, this study is not meant to be an exhaustive review, nor have I summarized every resource identified. Instead, the findings of this study are intended to provide administrators, educators, faculty, non-faculty researchers, staff, management, STEM departments, and institutions with a research-informed “starting point,” to support their plans to work with undergraduate researchers.


Connections between academic achievement and financial concerns

Parental wealth is associated with opportunities for students to have experiences that support their academic success (e.g., museum visits), professional success (e.g., volunteering), and increased rates of college attendance [12][13][14]. As compared to students with at least one “college-educated” parent, first-generation college students – many of whom are low-income – are less likely to stay in school after the first year of their undergraduate studies or to graduate with a bachelor’s degree [1][15][16]. Additionally, first-generation college students generally have less access to graduate programs (and thus earn lower salaries on average) than students with college-educated parents [1].

In the U.S., undergraduates who feel that their financial situation requires them to work during their undergraduate studies – defined as “financial strain” – report negative impacts on sleep and mental wellness when they work longer hours [17][18]. Multiple studies have shown that many Black, Hispanic/Latinx, Native American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and first-generation college students need to work during their undergraduate studies and experience familial pressure and emotional stress associated with this responsibility [19][20][21][22][23]. As a result of the numerous impacts of working during their undergraduate studies, these “working students” take longer to graduate and are less likely to complete their degree, as compared to those who do not work [24].  

Some undergraduates have responsibilities to contribute to their families by working jobs, and therefore cannot afford to dedicate their attention to educational experiences (e.g., faculty office hours) or professional development opportunities that do not pay well [20][22][25]. A study by Pratt and colleagues [23] found that undergraduates at the highest risk for leaving school before completing their degree are less confident in their academic ability and have financial concerns about being able to afford their college education. For these students, paid opportunities to engage in professional development aligned with their academic major might increase the chances that they complete their studies and do so with skills needed to be competitive as an applicant for jobs or graduate programs.

Financial barriers to participation in unpaid technical, research, and field experiences

As compared to their peers, low-income undergraduates are less likely to graduate with a bachelor’s degree and participate in research experiences, professional development opportunities which increase their chances of graduating [24][26].  When asked why they had not participated in research experiences, field experiences, or other creative projects, undergraduates who “need to” earn money during the school year explain that it is challenging to engage in these opportunities when they are unpaid [27][28][29]. Reports about the barriers to persistence in STEM have found that many Black, Hispanic/Latinx, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander students experience financial stress during their undergraduate studies, which prevents them from gaining internship or research experiences aligned with their academic major [19][20][21][30]. Although all full-time undergraduates are required to adhere to a weekly schedule to be successful in their classes, “working students” have additional time constraints which could prevent them from participating in unpaid professional development opportunities [18].

In STEM disciplines, opportunities to gain technical, research, or field experience are not available to all students at equal rates. It is well-documented that many institutions offer more opportunities to undergraduates who can afford to work without pay [8][31][32]. For example, a study by Dahl and colleagues [32] found that more than half of undergraduates “assisting faculty” on research projects were doing so without compensation through pay or course credit. As compared to those attending private schools, undergraduates attending public schools are more likely to leave their research experience because of financial concerns [33]. Opportunities to conduct field work are important to entering some environmental science career pathways. However, field experiences are not accessible to all, because they may offer little to no pay and require a large time commitment, extensive training, specific physical requirements, or relocation [8][27].

At the time of this writing, many U.S. colleges and universities host web pages that provide faculty with rationale for and/or guidance to recruit undergraduates as unpaid volunteers for their projects [34][35][36][37]. Other schools provide information to undergraduates about the benefits of volunteering with a research team; one web page explained that tasks for volunteers “are generally more menial,” but most focus on advertising unpaid opportunities as ways to gain “additional experience,” knowledge, and skills [38][39].

These unpaid roles often require “volunteers'' to dedicate so many hours each week that they are unable to work at another job to support themselves financially [8]. Additionally, dedicating multiple hours each week for no pay, especially when others on the research team are being paid, “can be mentally and emotionally taxing” [40]. A study by McHugh [7] suggests that participants from low-income backgrounds experience less satisfaction from internships when they are unpaid.  In many cases, volunteers are “paying to work” in a position if they have costs associated with childcare, commuting, parking, meals, or other expenses during their work hours, which results in financial compensation “below $0 per hour” [27]. Although these volunteer positions may involve engagement in intellectually stimulating activities or the development of useful skills, they are not guaranteed to offer future employment opportunities [35][40][41][42].

Impacts of paid research experiences and internships

Although financial support is not a primary motivator to participate in technical, research, or field experiences for undergraduates, being paid contributes to their confidence, dedication, self-efficacy, self-esteem, and/or feeling valued as part of the academic or professional community [27][33][40][43][44][45]. As compared to undergraduates who participated in unpaid internships, those who completed paid internships reported higher levels of supervisor mentoring, satisfaction with the experience, and interest in working for the host institution again in the future [7].

Participants in the EUR𝑒̅CA! Program expressed that being paid “improved the quality of the experience,” because they were able to spend more time conducting research, which led to increased feelings of accountability for the work and the development of meaningful working relationships with others [40]. One study about the S-STEM program found that the support provided made the largest impacts on those with the “greatest financial need,” including first-generation to college and non-traditional students [46]. In a summer research program hosted by a community college, Latinx participants with financial strain reported that receiving a stipend was “essential” to their participation in summer research [47]. One student explained simply: “even though I really love science …  I still have to eat” [47]. Although they are equally as likely to be paid, first-generation college students are more likely than continuing-generation college students to stay in research if they were being paid for their work [43]. Some studies have documented how paid undergraduate researchers were able to reduce the number of hours they worked at an outside job, and experienced less stress overall [40][45].

Some stipends are not high enough to relieve financial strain

Many participants in paid research or technical experiences still need to work an outside job to support themselves, and it can be challenging to “engage in research while trying to balance [outside] jobs and classes” [8][19][20][48]. Jensen and colleagues examined more than 800 environmental and natural resources job postings in 2019, and calculated hourly rates of pay after taking housing and travel costs into account [27]. They found that jobs available to undergraduates would pay an average of $9.86 per hour [27]. Additionally, they found that undergraduates with a lower annual income were less willing to accept a lower amount of financial compensation for field experiences than higher-income earners [27].

Some undergraduates who are admitted into summer research programs decline to participate because the stipend offered is less than what they could earn from a full-time job elsewhere [25][49]. The stipend (amount not specified in the paper) provided to transfer students during a research-based summer bridge program was not sufficient to address the financial stressors for all participants [50]. One of these participants explained their own situation: “If the stipends were a little bit more then it would be great, because it was really hard to budget during the summer with our stipends” [50]. A study about the S-STEM program at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi found that the financial support provided was not high enough to relieve the financial strain for program participants who still needed to work additional jobs to support themselves [21]. In a study about a partnership program between a community college and a baccalaureate granting institution, both undergraduates and faculty reported that the stipend offered to participate in a research experience was too low to justify the time commitment [25]. Some undergraduates chose not to commit to the research experience because the stipend “does not equal what they could earn at other jobs” [25]. Faculty members also observed lower “research productivity” in those undergraduates who held additional jobs, in part due to their rigid schedules [25].


Get organized before recruiting undergraduate researchers

“Volunteer” research and technical opportunities disproportionately benefit those students who have enough financial support that they do not need to work during their studies [8][12]. In other words, offering unpaid research positions excludes students from low-income backgrounds, and perpetuates existing gaps in access to STEM careers and student success [6][9][51][52].

Institutions can take action by training and supporting employees to obtain grant funding for technical, research, and field opportunities for every person who works on the project [53]. Additionally, institutions may consider ways to reward faculty and staff for their participation in these types of educational experiences for undergraduates, in decisions about promotion, compensation, or other mechanisms of interest to employees [54]. Departments should designate one or more individuals to answer questions about the start date, pay schedule, tax implications, and method for distributing funds; vague or incorrect information about these topics can create additional stress for undergraduates already experiencing financial strain [18][49]. Research teams should secure funding to pay undergraduate researchers before recruiting for open positions, and disclose the pay rate when advertising to potential applicants [51][55]. This will allow the team to select an undergraduate researcher who would be well-served by the opportunity, and will remove the risk of hiring an undergraduate only to reveal to them later that, in fact, there are no funds to pay them.

Consider collaborations between researchers and practitioners

There is widespread consensus that technical, research, and field opportunities have the potential to produce positive outcomes for undergraduates, but only if these experiences are positive for participants. For example, a research experience that provides participants with the opportunity to collaborate and learn from STEM professionals can make a positive impact on an undergraduate, if there is adequate support from team members and some connection to their academic or career interests [5][44]. Thus, partnering with others who have experience with providing high-quality learning experiences to undergraduates will increase the likelihood that a new project will be impactful to participants. 

While planning new projects, research teams with expertise in biology, physics, engineering, etc. should explore collaborations with experts in higher education, including STEM education, program development, or student support. In addition to designing programs to achieve desired outcomes, STEM education researchers and practitioners may have experience collecting data about program participants, connecting outcomes to previous literature in the field, and writing about “lessons learned” in reports for funding agencies. It is common for researchers across disciplines to collaborate with each other to gain access to new ideas, resources (e.g., samples from a specific field site), and specialized equipment (e.g., electron microscopes). Likewise, a chemist could partner with an educator or program specialist to bring similar benefits to a new research project [56]. For example, a study about STEM education programs funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) identified barriers to the effective collection and reporting of participant data [57]. They found that, although research teams with backgrounds in biotechnology, engineering, manufacturing, etc. were willing to collect this data, they often lacked the experience, knowledge, and time required to do so [57].

Institutions can create opportunities and incentives for collaborations across disciplines, positioning practitioners and researchers in higher education or STEM education as principal investigators, in addition to researchers in chemistry, data science, mathematics, etc. Additionally, giving credit to others with expertise in participant data collection and educational data analysis by developing programs together from the beginning of a project positions research teams to be competitive for a wider range of grants, and promotes equity across leadership teams [56][57]

Include funding for undergraduate researchers in grant proposal budgets

When deciding whether or not to fund a large project, funding agencies review proposals to determine the likelihood that the work can be completed by the staff paid from the budget. If a project has been funded to pay research assistants, recruiting students for additional unpaid positions is inequitable [8]. For example, the NSF encourages grant applicants to support the work of “undergraduate students involved in carrying out research under NSF awards” as part of their primary grant proposal budget [58]. The Department of Energy Office of Science states that students working on funded projects should be “paid a fair and equitable wage sufficient to allow a reasonable standard of living” [59].                                  

When research teams are applying for grants to support their projects, they should make it a habit to identify and apply for internal and external sources of funding to support undergraduate researchers [19][22][54][60]. For example, in 2022 the Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI) implemented a new policy that required all undergraduates working on IGI-funded projects to be paid for their contributions (unless they explicitly requested to receive course credit instead), and new grant proposals to include undergraduate labor in the budget [61]. The IGI also committed to identifying financial support to begin paying any undergraduates that were unpaid at the time of the announcement [61].

Departments and research teams can also look for opportunities to fund undergraduate participation in conferences, summer internships, and/or travel costs to interviews for graduate programs and jobs; all of which support undergraduate STEM identity development [19]. As mentioned earlier in this study, many paid opportunities do not provide enough financial support to ensure undergraduate success, so research teams should consider what amount of support will allow full participation from individuals with financial strain. Out of respect for students as “professional trainees,” the amount of funding that students receive should be high enough to relieve pressure off of students to hold another job while engaged in research or field experiences and enrolled in classes [27][48][49][59]

Provide details about financial compensation in papers and reports

Aligned with the findings from previous literature reviews, I found that most published papers about paid technical, research, and field experiences did not specify the amount of financial compensation provided to undergraduates, and/or the time commitment required for full participation [5][7][11]. However, some papers did provide readers with insights about the institutional or departmental barriers and/or challenges with obtaining funding to support stipends or other types of compensation to undergraduate researchers. For example, a paper about NSURP at Arizona State University described how the team was unable to provide financial compensation to undergraduates when the program was first launched during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) crisis, and how they have since obtained funding from the NSF to do so [62]. In a study about undergraduate research experiences in statistics, faculty and staff identified the lack of financial compensation (for undergraduates and faculty) as a barrier [54]. In the same study, some reported their belief that their institutions do not take faculty participation in undergraduate research into consideration during promotion and tenure review, disincentivizing their engagement in these activities [54]

While writing grant proposals, summary reports, and research papers about educational opportunities, STEM education researchers, practitioners, and research team members should include detailed information about compensation and other benefits provided to participants. In addition to describing the structural features of the opportunity, specify the following, as applicable:

  • the amount of financial compensation provided (e.g., $700 per week);

  • how the amount of financial compensation provided to each undergraduate was determined (i.e., did all participants receive the same amount, and why?);

  • the type(s) of financial compensation provided (e.g., scholarship, tuition waiver, paycheck);

  • the other forms of compensation provided (e.g., books, travel, food, computer equipment, conference fees, printing costs, travel); and

  • the activities undergraduates were required or encouraged to complete, to receive the compensation (e.g., working 15 hours per week, presenting a poster at a culminating event, submitting written deliverables).

Just as a geologist or astronomer would write a methods section that is detailed enough to support replication of the study, a paper about an educational opportunity should provide readers with the information needed to replicate a program and/or compare the details between different programs to make claims about which features produce certain outcomes for participants. If, for example, your program is uniquely suited to producing certain outcomes, this is valuable information that is likely to support community-wide goals to support learning and professional development for STEM majors. Similarly, if you have encountered barriers to implementing your project goals, this information would be helpful to share with others who may be writing grants or papers about similar programs. 

Institutions, departments, and research teams can share information about funding from professional societies designed to support a particular group (e.g., low-income students; students majoring in physics), in the form of microgrants, scholarships, or conference travel grants [55]. Additionally, research teams can offer support to undergraduates applying for these opportunities, by offering to write recommendation letters and providing assistance with completing application essays or other written materials [55]. Although this study is primarily focused on the experiences of undergraduates, financial and personal stressors impact everyone in the STEM community. Many people struggle more with mental health and physical wellness when faced with financial stressors, and so institutions, department, and research teams should advertise local or campus-based resources to support the well-being of all members of their academic or professional community [17][18][19][22][23].


Although many efforts to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in STEM fields measure their success by quantifying the number of participants based on socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, gender identity, or other personal characteristics, this data is not descriptive enough to determine what aspects of a program, initiative, or institutional effort support the success of participants. Beyond reporting on demographic categories, many “diversity-focused” efforts and messaging in STEM fields are vague about their strategies to uphold this value [63]. How a person is treated, supported, and communicated with during a STEM professional development opportunity will impact their confidence, identity development, and relationship with the STEM community as a whole [19][64]. Recruiting a diverse team is only one step in accomplishing DEI-related goals in STEM. Retaining team members through the creation and maintenance of academic and professional environments in which all people can succeed and thrive is a strategy that everyone can contribute to; fair compensation is just one aspect of such an environment.

Positive experiences during one’s academic and professional development will influence their relationship to their field of study and the institutions where they studied and/or trained. As identified by the literature review for this study, those who need to work during their undergraduate studies may be impacted academically, emotionally, and physically by this experience. Although undergraduates, like other team members, deserve to be compensated fairly for their efforts, they do not all receive this benefit during their STEM training. Yet.

It is now well-established that participation in research experiences has the potential to provide undergraduates with academic, intellectual, personal, and professional benefits [11][65][66][67]. However, if we limit who has access to these opportunities to only those without financial strain, we are also limiting who receives additional training, recognition, recommendation letters, and future employment in the STEM workforce [12][47][64]. There are already structures in place to obtain funding to pay undergraduates for their work outside of class, so faculty, researchers, staff, and practitioners should leverage these resources to allow people from all backgrounds to access collaborations with their team. Just as a scientist might prioritize learning technical skills to answer research questions in their discipline, they could also develop expertise in obtaining these funds to support the undergraduates they work with. 

There is a wealth of knowledge in the higher education and STEM education communities about how to support STEM learning, career exploration, and professional development through high-quality technical, research, and field experiences. If you are not already doing so, consider engaging in collaborations that bring researchers and educational practitioners together to produce impactful experiences for the undergraduates who will receive training and support from your team in the future.


This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.


Special thanks to Ellen Dow, Julio Jaramillo Salcido, Jane Liu, Andy Murdock, Brad Ringeisen, Rachel Woods-Robinson, and Seth Van Doren for providing feedback, information, or resources to support the completion of this study.


Address correspondence to Laleh E. Coté at [email protected].

Table 1

Guidance provided to undergraduates, faculty, and/or staff by colleges and universities about making arrangements for unpaid technical or research positions, internships, and other similar opportunities. This language was posted online, publicly available (not behind a paywall or password-protected web page), and accessed by the author on August 26, 2023. Grammatical errors have not been corrected.

Guidance type


Benefits, rationale

[A] Student Intern is a student seeking to enhance their academic and career goals by gaining supervised practical experience and applying classroom theory to real world situations [36].

Tasks are generally more menial, but it is a good way to assess whether "research is for you". Also the skills that you acquire will help with your professional development portfolio [38].

Volunteering in a research laboratory is an excellent way to gain additional experience in the field. You can volunteer in labs at any point in your undergraduate career. You are encouraged to get involved as early as possible. Many labs do not take students who ask to start volunteering in their senior years [39].

Whether you are conducting experiments, running analyses or helping keep the lab clean and organized, volunteering in an academic biology lab is an invaluable experience. Students who form relationships with graduate students and faculty early on in their academic career will have greater opportunities to learn advanced research skills, explore new fields and deepen the knowledge gained in the classroom [68].

WHY URV [Undergraduate Research Volunteers]? Explore research as a potential career path in both industry and academia, often after Masters and PhD Programs; Gain valuable experience, which includes for learning and real contributions to research; Build a network of peers and mentors with both research and industry experience [69].

Why Volunteer? Establish community relationships with many organizations; Make a difference in your community; Have hours recorded on your transcripts for future employers, and/or professional or graduate school applications; Meet new people; Explore Careers; Gain experience in your career field; Become eligible for nationwide scholarships and on-campus awards; Create memories with friends and make someone happy [70].

Definitions, characteristics

Volunteers are persons performing official university activities while under the direction and control of an ASU-authorized official and are not paid [34].

Volunteers are uncompensated and provide services without the expectation of pay from the volunteer activity and have no assurance or reason to expect that Duke will offer employment following the volunteer period. Volunteers are not eligible for any Duke benefits, including unemployment or workers' compensation benefits. … Examples: … A college student who volunteers their time to increase their knowledge and skills through hands-on training when a part-time paid position or independent study (for credit) are not options [41].

Unpaid Internship and Volunteer Policy … The determination of whether an Internship (including Research Affiliations) is not an employment relationship and may be unpaid depends upon the facts and circumstances of each opportunity. The following criteria shall be considered when determining whether the proposed opportunity qualifies as an unpaid internship: … The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern; … The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; Training is general, and qualifies interns to work in any similar business …[35].

All unpaid student intern volunteers who are performing service solely for their personal educational goals unrelated to the pursuit of their academic degree should be appointed as a Staff Intern … [36].

Undergraduate research assistants work in a professor's lab, typically for course credit … Students can also volunteer in a professor's laboratory. These are unpaid positions and do not have course credit. The time commitment as a volunteer is generally more flexible and less demanding than other research activities [38].

It is rare for students to do research for pay during the academic year, but many labs do employ students to help with routine lab support tasks. During the academic year, students generally volunteer and/or receive course credit for their research [71].

While a Research Intern does not receive wages or academic credit for their involvement and does not provide this involvement as part of a requirement for a degree or a course, Internships under this Policy must be for the primary benefit of the Research Intern. This benefit must come in the form of hands-on or other training in an educational environment.” ANY student who is participating in research activities (other than as a research subject) and who is not receiving some form of compensation, such as academic credit, Honors points, or pay, is an Unpaid Research Intern [72].

The great majority of our undergraduate volunteers come from local institutions and commute from nearby locations. Some undergraduate volunteers this summer will be students from more distant universities around the country [73].

Duties, tasks

… undergraduates [can] assist with laboratory work (washing dishware, making solutions, caring for animals), library work (finding and copying articles, filing) or other tasks (entering data into a spreadsheet, indexing a book manuscript) [37].

[Undergraduate Research Volunteers (URV) Program] Expectations: Commit to the entire program; Contribute 5-10 hours/week to your research assignments including reading and summarizing research papers, collecting & analyzing data, coding, shadowing PhD work [69].

Undergraduate students generally start by assisting a senior graduate student or postdoctoral fellow in an ongoing research project. As they develop skills and sophistication, undergraduates are given increasing independence. Students who show exceptional initiative and engagement may ultimately earn co-authorships on publications and present their research at conferences outside the UO. Undergraduate researchers are generally expected to attend weekly lab meetings [71].

Under the supervision of a Supervising University Employee, Research Interns may conduct research and perform research-related tasks, including laboratory and field work, where such experience is consistent with ongoing training under appropriate supervision and where such experience is for the primary benefit of the Research Intern [72].

There are multiple research volunteer opportunities at the SSIHI. Volunteers can gain experience in conducting literature reviews, participant recruitment, REDCap development and management, research procedures and protocols, and research deliverables (abstracts, posters, publications) [74].

Research assistants can expect to participate in recruiting and scheduling child participants and their families; assist with data collection in the lab and at local preschools, daycares, and museums in the San Diego Area; enter and code data; design stimuli for new projects; and participate in weekly lab meetings … we ask that summer interns commit to a minimum of 20-40 hours per week. At this time, we are not able to offer pay, though you will have the opportunity to be heavily involved in all aspects of research in the lab [75].

Institutional statement

Duke University appreciates the contributions of Volunteers and Unpaid Interns in fulfilling its mission of education and research [41].

Undergraduate volunteers and other visiting students and scholars make important contributions to our research community, and they have been allowed in campus research laboratories and other research locations since early in our research reopening process [73].

Recruitment, application

The following criteria shall be considered when determining whether the proposed opportunity qualifies as an unpaid internship: … Advertisements, postings, or solicitations for any internship opportunity clearly discuss education or training, rather than employment.  (Note: Any advertisements for an Internship (or Volunteer opportunity) must be approved in advance by the respective Coordinator.) [35].

Many students desire experience, and pay is not their top priority. Advertise using the methods listed above, and indicate that you need volunteers to help with a study. Detail the experiences and skills they will gain through participation [37].

Many professors require volunteer activity to show dedication and commitment before they will allow student[s] to take course credit or enter a paid position in their laboratory [38].

If you are interested in [volunteering], begin by reading about the faculty and the associated labs … After determining which labs are of most interest to you, reach out to the faculty member to ask whether they are currently accepting volunteers. The requirements for volunteering in a lab vary widely. For some labs, there are no specific requirements other than an interest in learning more about research. For other labs specific skills, course work, or experiences may be required … [39]

When selecting and engaging a Volunteer or Unpaid Intern, it is the department's responsibility to be certain the individual has adequate experience, qualifications, orientation, training and supervision appropriate to the volunteer or intern role or task they will be expected to perform [41].

When independently pursuing research projects, be sure to get in touch in a professional and respectful way to ask if they are willing to take on any new student researchers. Personalize each correspondence, and give them as much information as you can about your availability, type of position you are looking for (are you volunteering, seeking academic credit, or, on the rare occasion, looking for a paid assistantship), and your interest in their research. Think of this like a job interview - many students want these spots and you will make a bigger impression if you review the professor’s research so you are knowledgeable about their field [68].

To become a student volunteer in a research laboratory, you will need to … Find a Biological Sciences Faculty Member with research that interests you and get their approval to work in their lab. Submit your name, phone number, and email address to the chosen faculty advisor in order to complete a background check … [70].

If you are interested in volunteering for SSIHI research studies, please contact [us] with your information and why you think you will be an asset to our research team [74].

Students who have completed relevant coursework in psychology, cognitive science, or human development and who have experience working with children will be given priority. …  Interested applicants can apply for a research assistant position by filling out this form [75].

Be prepared to articulate why you want to work with the faculty mentor (research focus, work experience, mentoring, preparation for graduate/professional school, technical knowledge, cutting edge research, opportunity to figure out career opportunities, etc…) … Questions to ask during your interview: What are the faculty member’s expectations of work to be accomplished by student researchers? How many work hours per week are expected? … Does the professor have funding to support his/her research program? [76].

… freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors … may volunteer to work as research assistants in labs. A list of our faculty and their research interests is available here. If you are interested in volunteering in a lab, you should familiarize yourself with the faculty member’s research by reading the description of their interests. Then send an email to the faculty members with whom you would like to work to ask if they have availability in their labs. You should be sure to let them know you are asking about volunteering [77].


Building and lab keys are not issued to volunteers. Facility access for an approved volunteer is coordinated by the individual supervisor so that volunteers never work alone [34].

Each Department seeking to offer an Internship or Volunteer opportunity shall have at least one person designated to serve as an Internship and Volunteer Coordinator (the “Coordinator”).  In choosing a Coordinator, the Department must consult with, and receive approval from, the appropriate School or Unit Human Resources (HR) department [35].

The initial period for volunteering should be no longer than 6 months. The relationship may be extended for an additional 6 month terms with appropriate departmental review and approvals. … Volunteers and Unpaid Interns are subject to and must abide by all applicable University, School and department policies, procedures and rules, including but not limited to those relating to health and safety, confidentiality, intellectual property, protected health information, non-discrimination, computer use, ethics, conflict of interest, criminal background check, drug use and anti-violence. It is the responsibility of the sponsoring supervisor to review these policy and procedure details with the volunteer [41].


Training may be necessary prior to beginning work as an approved volunteer. Volunteers working in research labs are required to receive lab-specific training from their supervisors. Supervisors are responsible for ensuring all training is completed prior to the start of the volunteer’s duties [34].

Volunteers and Unpaid Interns must satisfactorily complete all applicable training and orientation appropriate to the role prior to commencing activities. Depending on the nature of the service, training may include HIPAA requirements, health and safety precautions, lab protocols, animal lab requirements, compliance or customer service requirements [41].

Like any other researcher, student volunteers must adhere to all UCSF laboratory and COVID-19 safety protocols, training, and lab occupancy regulations [73].

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