Three scientists, one man and two women, in a laboratory with microscopes and other research equipment.
Image: © Gorodenkoff/

Why is unpaid work rife in the world of science?

19 Jul 2019

Auriel Fournier’s own experience of encountering unpaid positions when beginning her science career inspired her to research the topic later.

“I’ve been interested in the natural world, especially birds, since I was very young and once I learned that you could have a job of asking questions about birds and getting to be the one to answer them, I set that as my goal.”

Auriel Fournier is a quantitative field ecologist whose work primarily focuses on wetland birds. She currently serves as the director of Forbes Biological Station, which is part of the Illinois Natural History Survey and the University of Illinois.

Much of her work focuses on how to better manage the wetlands that the birds she studies inhabit. In the central US, she explains, most of the wetlands have been lost – more than 75pc in some states. “[This] makes the remaining wetlands very important, not only for the birds but for the flood control and water quality control that they provide for humans as well.

“So, I study a particular group of birds – the rails – and how wetland management impacts them, so that public and private land managers can make better decisions about how to manage their wetlands for a wide suite of wildlife and human needs.”

Yet some of her most recent research isn’t necessarily about winged creatures – it’s actually about the harsh realities of the issue of unpaid work in the scientific community.

Being a person who works within the broader field of ecology led me to regularly encounter unpaid and pay-to-work ‘jobs’ on job boards, which I and many of my peers were unable to take as we could not go months without a paycheck.

“Once I was in graduate school, I realised this was a wider issue than just me and my peers, and I suspected it could have implications for who is able to get a foot in the door into the next stages along the ecology career path.”

Diving in with research

Fournier, along with a number of peers, published research in which they compared the success of UK science graduates who took paid or unpaid work within six months of completing their STEM studies, and looked at how they fared some years after.

The research found, among other things, that women with high socioeconomic status and a ‘good’ degree were much more likely to end up in unpaid work six months after graduation. A greater share of unpaid workers, regardless of gender and other factors, reported finding their position through personal connections than those in paid work.

Though it may appear that taking unpaid work could lead to a ‘foot in the door’ that could set one up for a lengthy and illustrious career, by salary measures it actually can have the opposite effect. Graduates who had taken unpaid work had a 22.5pc lower gross salary compared with graduates who had initially taken a paid position.

Those who took unpaid work were generally less likely to end up continuing in STEM fields, though this does not apply in the case of men of high socioeconomic status who found the work through personal connections.

 While this evidence failed to support the hypothesis that unpaid work plays a prominent role in securing high-paying positions for recent graduates, it suggests that taking unpaid work in a STEM position can act as a stepping stone towards accessing future paid STEM professions,” the research explains.

“For recent science graduates who do not secure paid work in STEM and face a choice between staying in science and working for free, or leaving science and taking a paid position, doing the former is a rational decision for those who have the resources or (especially) connections to do so, and who wish to remain in STEM.”

One of the starkest figures in the research arises when results are broken down by gender – men earn 17.5pc higher salaries than women and are 13.6pc more likely to still be working in STEM three and a half years after graduating. This accords with with a lot of other research about pay disparities in STEM fields and beyond.

Finding a solution

Fournier wants the STEM community to address the issue of unpaid work. On an individual level, the first port of call would be for people to allocate money to pay all their staff. Fournier also advocates that individuals in STEM rethink how projects are structured so that they can be achieved without relying on any unpaid labour.

Yet the burden cannot be put solely at the feet of individual project leaders. In Fournier’s view, there are many institutional factors that also need to be addressed.

 “Many granting agencies do not allow for temporary or seasonal staff time, or any staff time, to be put into grant budgets. If those granting agencies truly care about diversity and inclusion in STEM careers, they need to change that requirement.

“Professional societies also have a role to play in making sure that their requirements for any grants do not prohibit paying people for their work, and also in advocating to granting/funding bodies to ensure that their policies are the same.”

Overall, she concludes, there needs to be a conceptual shift in how we view unpaid work. “Everyone can help, regardless of how big their budgets are, in changing the narrative that working unpaid is a sign of dedication. There are many, many dedicated people who want to use their drive and dedication to advance science.

“Not all of them can do that work unpaid for a wide variety of socioeconomic reasons, and we need to rebuild our system to welcome and include them, and not say that they are ‘less dedicated’ because they have bills to pay or families to feed.” 

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Eva Short
By Eva Short

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic, specialising in the areas of tech, data privacy, business, cybersecurity, AI, automation and future of work, among others.

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