When NOT to work for free while building a career in research and academia


A bit of advice from someone who has been on both sides of this

Back in 2015, I wrote an entry for my Grotesque Stone Idols blog (which I reposted here) about working for free in academia as I wrestled with the idea of having students “volunteer” on my various small projects despite there being no money to pay them. This topic comes up often in my discussions with students and other early career researchers and my thinking on the matter has evolved. Working for free is still incredibly complicated a topic and I am sure in another 3 years time, I’ll have more to say about it. For now though, I’ve got some thoughts. This may morph into a multi-part blog series, but for now let’s start with the start:

When not to work for free in academia and research

I think that the absolute most important skill that any researcher/academic/person must develop is the ability to say no. The pathway forward is littered with opportunities that aren’t really opportunities, that don’t get you anywhere, that suck your time without providing anything for you in return. Nearly all of those false opportunities will involve you working for free, since money is a return of course. Not all free work is bad, much of it is important as I will discuss in later blog posts. But a good amount of it is a time and energy sink that will get you nowhere or worse. How, then, should one separate the time sinks from the genuinely positive experiences? I can’t say I have all the answers, but I do have some questions for you to consider.

1. Goals: Who are you working for, yourself or someone else?

Many of the people who contact me about volunteering on my research projects say that they are looking for “experience”. In most circumstances, that idea of “experience” is vague and the person discussing this with me indicates that they are willing to do “whatever”, perhaps under the flawed notion that anything is valuable experience. In such a situation, a more unscrupulous person or organisation can harness the volunteer’s time to serve only their own goals, without the volunteer truly developing in any way. For example, I’d would very much like for someone who isn’t me to:

  • Make PDF backups of the slides from every presentation I have ever given
  • Manually enter all of the bibliographies for everything I’ve ever written into Zotero
  • Other things that are menial and time consuming which is why I don’t want to do them myself

But doing that for me is unlikely to get that poor person anywhere. If you’re getting paid, sure, but if you’re doing it for free, that isn’t marketable experience.

The issue here is that many of the people seeking “experience” broadly have not developed their own specific goals. You shouldn’t be taking on any free work unless you can identify exactly what you expect to get out of it and exactly how it fits into your greater plan for the future. If you aren’t clear on your plan and your goals, you need to spend your free time clarifying that, not simply facilitating the goals of others.

2. Money: Who is making it, yourself or someone else?

From about 2012 until quite recently, I would get about one email per month from some sort of media production company wanting to produce a documentary about antiquities trafficking. Like vultures circling, these folks were attracted to the media explosion and human tragedy of conflict in West Asia mixed with the visuals of heritage destruction. 99.9% of them had exactly the same impossible show pitch. 100% of them wanted me to work for them for free in various ways. These include:

  • I’d like to call you and pick your brain for an hour or two (read I want to gain the knowledge that you’ve worked long and hard to develop by draining your time and without having to read your published work)
  • It would be great if you could help us develop this pitch (read we don’t really know what we are talking about but we’d like you to do research, writing, and generate ideas for this thing so that we can sell it)
  • We’d like to film you as an expert (read but not pay you for your time or expertise)

I would respond with a standard “Alright, my consulting rates are…” and the responses ranged from “We’d expect you to be doing this for exposure” to silence.

To put it bluntly, these production companies were attempting to benefit monetarily from my hard-earned, expensive, expertise without paying me for it. This isn’t like an interview or quick chat with a journalist for a media story. Rather these companies felt that the contents of my mind were free to pillage in order to sell a pitch to a television station. They believed that as an academic, I somehow owed this service to them. The fact that I got absolutely nothing in return for my time and effort was immaterial. My guess is that other academics are suckered by this. This is a trap.

If someone else stands to gain financially from your hard work, expertise, or creativity, this is likely a time to not work for free. If the work is good enough to generate income, you should be getting a cut and that cut should be upfront: “no budget yet” means no money for you ever. The same goes for you doing a package of work that someone else is paid to do. If, for example, I asked you as a volunteer do a core duty of my job while I continued to pocket my full salary, you’d be getting used.

If your work is generating money, you should be seeing that money.

3. Credit: Who is getting it, yourself or someone else?

Except in limited situations where you learn a practical skill that you wish to utilise later, the “experience” you gain is useless unless your work and contributions are acknowledged and/or demonstrable. No matter how hard you work on a website, research paper, or really any output, if someone else is going to get sole credit for your free hard work, you’ve not gained anything.

It’s easy to Stockholm Syndrome here or to defer to authority. At junior stages of your career it may feel “right” for the person who had the idea to tell you to do something to get all the credit for it, especially if the credit-taker takes with no discussion whatsoever. You may feel that your contribution is minor in the scheme of things, or that this is just how its done, and so on. This is all false. You should get visible credit for all of the free work you do for someone else. All of it. Without it your CV is light, your portfolio is empty, you get no external reputation, and the credit-taker will likely see you as a pushover and keep taking.

There are a number of ways that credit can be given. Due to the nature of some free volunteer work, there might be no signpost with your name in neon lights pointing to a job well done. In those cases the person or organisation that you are working for free for should be committed to talking you up within the field as well as writing glowing and detailed recommendation letters for you. Often that is the only thing I can give for some projects, but I give it liberally.

4. Network: Are you developing a useful one?

So many people work for free to “get a foot in the door” only to find themselves in situations where they either remain largely anonymous to the rest of the field (see number 3, credit) and end up meeting all the wrong people for where they want to end up (see number 1, goals). It is extremely important that you are devoting your free work to an organisation or project that moves and shakes in the field that you want to be in and, critically, is well respected in that field. The latter is difficult to judge from the outside as so much of reputation is unsaid and only quietly shared, but the risks of being forever associated with someone or something that seemed good but turned out to not be are real.

It is worth taking time to evaluate the goals, reach, and whatever else you can drum up on the entity that you are considering working for free for. Do YOU respect their work? Why? Is it something that you can clearly articulate like research vigour, development of useful tools, or clear policy influence? Is there someone more senior, a mentor figure, who you can discreetly ask, and are you prepared to either ‘catch their drift’ if they speak cryptically or never repeat what they might say to you?

If you find yourself in the wrong place with the wrong people gaining the wrong reputation and working for free to do this, stop. Quit. They aren’t paying you and you don’t want their recommendation letter anyway. You may not even want to put that blip on your CV, depending.

What’s next?

I know what some of you out there are thinking: it’s rough out there, job-wise, and you can’t afford to be picky. That there’s competition for “work for free” places and if there’s any chance that something will give you a leg up, you’re going to take it. Okay, fair, I get you. I was spit out of my PhD programme in middle of the social backlash from the financial crisis: I know exactly what it is like to apply for 100 jobs, get no response for any of them, and apply for food stamps. What I want to emphasise is that if your “possible leg up” free work opportunity fails any of the above, it isn’t going to help you get anywhere. There isn’t a chance it will help. It won’t help. Let someone else make the mistake and save yourself for another opportunity, even if you have to manufacture that opportunity yourself.

That’s what I’ve got for when NOT to work for free. Sometime in the near future I hope to write some more posts on this topic, including:

  • When to work for free
  • How to approach projects/organisations/researchers you’d like to volunteer with
  • What can I, the project/organisation/researcher, give to volunteers who work for free

Have any suggestions, either about when NOT to work for free or about other topics for this series? Get in touch.