The Exploitation of Human Labor in American Science (and Beyond)

By Eryn Slankster-Schmierer, PhD on April 2, 2021

The basis of this essay was originally written in January of 2020 as a proposal for the L’Oreal Women in Science Postdoctoral Fellowship.  In my application, I emphasized empowering women in Science by paying them. Apparently, they didn’t like my application.

Challenging the Hypocrisy of Free Labor in Science. Undergraduates are overburdened by having to balance education, jobs, family, and responsibilities. They seek experience to stand out for medical school, graduate programs, and on job applications, and academics respond by exploitation and devaluation of undergraduates by recruiting their labor and calling them “volunteers.” Meanwhile students are threatened that graduate degrees, medical school acceptance, and careers will reject them (and they do!)  if they don’t trade “free time” and mental health for “volunteer” work. This flawed system is inadvertently reinforced by elder and immigrant Principal Investigators, both who have reaped the benefit of education sans modern American academic inflation.

Universities even enforce hourly limits for paid student employment within their walls to emphasize the importance of full-time educational focus. Undergraduate and graduate students, including myself, were denied paid hours of labor to abide by university regulation, yet hypocritically, the same institutions prioritize applicants with a laundry list of volunteer experiences.

This exploitative culture camouflaged as “requirements” conveniently creates a positive feedback loop ensuring a constant supply of a universities own slave-labor. It is creating an environment where people like myself cannot succeed. Relying on part time work, low-income students do not have the luxury of time to “volunteer” through college.

Science is for the financially privileged. “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops” (Stephen Jay Gould).

Not everyone has the support, privilege, and resources that are required today to succeed. Every valedictorian, Oscar winner, or Olympic athlete’s speech will remind you how crucial their support system was to their success. But for me, I will never forget my father’s words at our first dinner together the year after I moved out of his house: “I’m glad I treated you like shit growing up. It made you move out of the house and do something with yourself.” In a single sentence he justified years of emotional abuse as a profound life lesson, while simultaneously shaming my brother for unemployment. Unintentionally, my father made me acutely aware of how fragile my path to science really was and how “lucky” I was to find it.

Because of this lack of knowledgeable mentorship, as well as a lack of financial support, things took me longer to figure out, I stumbled more often, and I accumulated a lot more debt than my scholastic counterparts. And admittingly, I got lucky. I didn’t collect volunteer experiences; instead, I begged for extra side jobs, and my resume suffered for it. Let’s be honest, “3.7 GPA and a part time job” doesn’t compare to a “4.0 Valedictorian.”  Experience like “filing for the academic advisor” and “grading papers” doesn’t stack up to “laboratory experience” or “clinical hours.” But somehow, I ended up at my destination, with $120,000 of debt in tow.

And my next step in academic science yielded a $47,476 (in 2016) a year postdoctoral fellowship. For a person with over 11 years of formal science education and $120,000 debt, I made less than a Starbucks manager (I say this with absolutely no disrespect to these jobs; you deserve the pay. But I also deserve to be able to pay for my own job training). To make it worse, I never received a mentionable raise. My contract was terminated after 4 years at $48,464, making $10,144 per year less than the NIH determined stipend for a year 4 postdoc.

By academia’s own rules, the exact community that created my problem has created an environment where I cannot succeed.

A Call to End Academic Slavery. Whether you are talking about an undergraduate washing graduated cylinders for a laboratory, a pre-med student volunteering as an anatomy lab teaching assistant, or a postdoctoral fellow with 11 years of science research experience making the legal minimum for salaried labor, these people are providing valuable services for academia that the universities literally could not function without. And universities support, encourage, and even MANDATE this slave labor.

If you’re a Principal Investigator and you don’t think someone’s labor is worthy of paying for, I propose you do the damn labor yourself.

By financially compensating a student for their career related experience, he or she can trade their stressful side job for mental clarity, focus, pride, and ownership as they produce quality science within a laboratory. It is up to this generation of scientists to raise awareness of this problem and establish an ethical baseline of financial compensation. I’m not asking for dramatic change, but providing undergraduate and graduate students adequate financial compensation (and maybe a little healthcare while we’re at it) is literally the fucking minimum we can do.  

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