Student researchers deserve payment

Without pay, participating in research is costly to students who struggle to make ends meet.

Anant Naik

Imagine for a moment that you are a student in the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota. You’re also working a job at a local store or restaurant to pay for your college loans and other weekly expenses. You’re even a high achiever, aspiring to go to graduate school so you can make important contributions to science.
 
But wait. In order to be a competitive applicant to a well-respected graduate program, you probably have to do research. How can you find the time if you’re working 20 to 30 hours a week? 
 
At that point, you’re stuck between the following choices: take more student debt so you can afford to do research and hopefully get into graduate school, or forego your aspirations of going to graduate school so you can make sure your undergraduate education is affordable. 
 
I don’t see why this trade-off must exist at our college. 
 
I’m a second-year biomedical engineering major, and to my knowledge the University’s College of Science and Engineering currently doesn’t have a mandatory policy that pays undergraduate students for their research hours. 
 
I understand it should be considered honorable to work in a research laboratory and contribute to the advancement of science. However, for many students who are working hard jobs to pay off student loans, doing unpaid volunteer research in a lab creates a tremendous opportunity cost. 
 
To make matters worse, the University is currently considering a raise on out-of-state tuition for its students. Some likely impacts may be a reduction of out-of-state students or an increase in the number of students who take on student debt. Student debt is nationally at an all-time high. The average undergraduate at the University finishes school $27,578 in the hole. Nationwide, student debt is valued at $1.2 trillion. 
 
I understand there are programs at the University that essentially “pay” you for research. For instance, the UROP program gives students a stipend in the form of a scholarship whenever they complete a proposed project. But at most, this stipend is $1,400 for 120 hours of research — not nearly enough to let go of a job. Also, in my experience it’s not possible to renew UROP every semester if your research project doesn’t change. 
 
If we want to provide opportunities to contribute to research for students from all financial backgrounds, we need to start ensuring that their opportunity costs balance out in such a way that research is worthwhile for them. Right now, I don’t think this has happened. 
 
Students have financial commitments. Many of them who do research put in long hours in the lab. It’s unreasonable to say supposed honor and intangible benefits are proper compensation. 
 
Providing monetary compensation will not only improve the University’s stance on financial accessibility — in addition, it will almost certainly improve our students’ capacity to attend better graduate schools. Paying the rent and succeeding in higher education should not be mutually exclusive.