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The Case Of The San Diego PhD Asked To Work For Free

The career path for many budding scientists goes something like this: First you get your Ph. D. Then, before achieving your dream of a faculty position, you work your way through a postdoc in a research lab. But with science funding in decline, securing a postdoc position can be pretty tough. Competition is high, and pay isn't.

Aired 10/25/13 on KPBS News.

A San Diego researcher recently discovered a surefire way to elicit heated reactions from Ph. D.s: Just ask them to work for free.

So when a lab in La Jolla recently advertised an unpaid position requiring a Ph. D. and additional postdoctoral experience, young researchers like Aarti Ruparelia were outraged.

Don't get Ruparelia wrong, she loves her job. She's researching Down syndrome and how it can often lead to early onset of Alzheimer's disease. After getting her Ph. D. in neuroscience from University College of London, she was excited to arrive at UC San Diego in July and start her postdoc.

Still, Ruparelia can't ignore how grim the outlook for postdocs seems sometimes. Especially last week, when an unusual job listing came to her attention.

Aarti Ruparelia says there's no way she could afford to live in San Diego as a postdoc without pay.

"When it was first pointed out to me, I was extremely infuriated," she said.

She was upset because the job required a Ph. D. plus two to three years of additional lab experience. It called for someone to help conduct research involving the antibiotic-resistant bacteria MRSA, recently spotlighted by Frontline. For Ruparelia, it was infuriating to see what someone with all this experience and education would earn— namely, nothing.

"It's titled 'Unpaid Volunteer in a Basic Science Research Laboratory,'" Ruparelia said, reading from the job listing in question. "Having a Ph. D. and another postdoc to then do a postdoc free of charge? That's insane."

Antonio Gisbert — vice president of the union representing postdocs within the University of California system —agrees. "There's a reason why this caught fire on the Internet," he said. "Because it is just crazy."

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The Job Listing That Must Have Been A Joke... But Wasn't

He's not kidding when he says it caught fire online. Scientists who found this listing on social media were left dumbfounded. To see a few typical reactions on Twitter, check out this Storify. Common responses included, "Sad sign of the times," "WTF," and "This is a joke, right?"

Well, it wasn't a joke. But it wasn't exactly straight-forward, either.

The job listing was vague from the get-go. Who exactly was hiring? The only details given were "lab in La Jolla."

Well, there are lots of labs in La Jolla. So I had to do some digging to find out which one posted this, and I found out that the listing was posted by a researcher named Laura Crotty Alexander. She's a physician at the VA San Diego Healthcare System who doubles as a UCSD faculty member. I couldn't reach her for comment.

If Alexander's listing looked like a terrible opportunity, that's by design, according to VA chief of staff Robert Smith.

"Frankly, what she was trying to do was make it look unappealing," Smith said. "Because she was trying to create an advertisement that nobody would apply to."

You see, the VA lab already had someone in mind for the position: a postdoc from Egypt who actually volunteered to work for free. But to take on a non-citizen, even as a volunteer, Alexander felt she had to advertise the job to citizens first. So she posted an off-putting ad to Craigslist and hoped no one would apply.

Smith said, "This whole convoluted series of things gave what I think is a very misleading appearance of what she wanted, and what the VA — and for that matter, almost anybody — does."

When online outrage turned into a roar, the VA's human resources department told Alexander to take down the listing. However, the ad did describe a position the VA intended to fill.

That doesn't sit well with Belinda Huang, executive director of the National Postdoctoral Association.

Antonio Gisbert works for a union representing the University of California's 6,000 postdocs. Around ten percent of postdocs working in the United States work within UC.

"Postdocs are paid positions," she makes clear. "They're not compensated a lot of money. But they are compensated."

Huang said labs should follow the postdoc stipend guidelines laid out by the National Institutes of Health. According to those guidelines, the kind of person sought by the VA should be paid at least $44,340 per year.

Huang said that asking someone with this level of education and experience to work for free just isn't done.

"If people think that they have to sacrifice their wages and benefits to get ahead so they can get these positions, that's problematic," she said.

Antonio Gisbert said it's a problem that could easily emerge from the currently lopsided academic job market.

"Science is structured quite a bit like a pyramid," he said, drawing on his own experience as a VA postdoc. "There's very few tenured faculty members now. And, if you will, below them are armies of postdocs and graduate students."

The VA San Diego Healthcare System is still determining whether or not to fill an unpaid position requiring prior postdoctoral experience.

As one of those postdocs, Aarti Ruparelia said cuts in funding have been hard on everyone. But that doesn't mean postdocs should be taken advantage of.

If Ruparelia got a chance to meet the researcher who posted this ad, she would want to ask her this:

"You've clearly gone through this path on your own. You've probably done a postdoc yourself. You then had to fight to become a faculty member. Do you really think it's O.K. to turn around and then say, 'I'd like a postdoc to work for me free of charge'?"

The VA said it's still considering whether or not to fill the position as advertised.

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Avatar for user 'bikemonk'

bikemonk | October 25, 2013 at 11:47 a.m. ― 3 years, 3 months ago

Thanks for following up on this story and getting the details straight. While there are reasons for both the lab head and the prospective postdoc to see this as a simple win-win, the implications for the scientific industry are very bad. The recent decision in NY on Fox Searchlight Pictures interns is relevant. Valuable work needs to result in salary compensation.

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Avatar for user 'GB'

GB | October 25, 2013 at 5:19 p.m. ― 3 years, 3 months ago

I find a lot more than the position "off-putting." I realize the VA is underfunded, but "offering" a volunteer position or accepting a volunteer at this level still makes me queasy. I knew businesses advertised for unusual people so they can hire a particular candidate or outsource, but it makes me angry when a tax-payer supported one plays those games. And given their limited resources, why is the VA researching MRSA? One might think their research would focus on veteran-specific or prevalent issues. What are the lines of responsibility etc. when someone is a volunteer at the VA? Are there other volunteers doing traditionally paid work there? How did it come about that this person offered himself or herself? Gee, why does he/she want to leave Egypt? :-p
Aside from that last question, I hope Dr. Crotty will make herself available for an interview.
I don't usually react to a story with such a rant. Perhaps I've applied to too many overly-specific job advertisements in my own industry.

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Avatar for user 'bdunn'

bdunn | November 1, 2013 at 1:54 p.m. ― 3 years, 3 months ago

I recommend that all readers be very cautious about anyone who states that they are willing to work for free, especially someone from another country. First of all, it is impossible to get a visa to come to the US without a job and most countries will expect a minimum salary to cover expenses. And if someone were able to get the San Diego (for example), they might also arrive with family, which could include parents, spouse, and children. Then the employer will be hit with requests/demands for help with living expenses. This will get very sticky very quickly.
This sort of situation might be part of the reason why we have 90,000 postdocs in the USA, many of whom will not be able to get jobs in science, but who are going to clog up the employment system (such as it is) for all the other people.

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