Labs Need to Step Up, A Call for Undergraduate Research Reform

OpinionStaff Op-Ed

Illustration of a student pipetting.
Kristina Stahl / The Triton

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Everyone wants to make their resume as strong as possible—at a STEM dominated school like UCSD, this means many undergraduates want to get experience working in a lab. Even though UCSD boasts high quality student research opportunities, STEM students are poorly compensated for competitive and time-intensive positions. Furthermore, low wages exclude students who cannot afford to prioritize experience over pay. Students who cannot participate in research jobs miss out on both the crucial skills and the resume boost needed to pursue graduate school and employment in research fields.

It is exactly the high interest in lab work which makes it so difficult to get a job. A longitudinal analysis of UCSD students conducted by the University of California on student satisfaction found that ~80% of students polled ranked being involved in research as at least somewhat important to them and around 30% of students ranked it as being very important or essential. This wide pool of applicants creates intense competition for few positions, allowing labs to be hyper-selective when filling their limited spots. On UCSD’s Research Experience & Applied Learning (REAL) portal, there are 33 STEM research positions currently hiring research assistant/lab technicians and Handshake has 30 on-campus research openings available — in total, the two portals presently have 63 openings, not counting possible overlap between the two. Compared to the amount of undergraduate students at UCSD that are interested in being involved in research (~12,443), it becomes clear how competitive it is to get a research position. This challenge is even more pronounced for first time applicants, as labs will favor students who have past lab experience.

Nora Lyang / The Triton

One way UCSD tries to alleviate the strain on students with minimal experience is with the Academic Internship Program (AIP). This program gives students access to an internship “trial period” after which they can be hired by the lab and allows students to gain research experience for academic credit. However, the majority of STEM opportunities on the AIP portal are located miles off campus with non-UCSD affiliated labs. The lack of reliable bus routes makes it difficult for students without cars to get to and from their lab. The lack of on-campus AIP internship opportunities pushes students to further compete for non-AIP affiliated on-campus positions.

The power labs hold over the hiring process not only impacts who gets hired, but also affects how students are compensated. A large majority of opportunities online specify that the position is volunteer only, or volunteer with the possibility of pay after a certain number of quarters. For the positions that do receive pay, the average salary of an undergraduate research position is usually minimum wage (13.00/hour) and pales in comparison to other jobs on UCSD campus such as an undergraduate physics tutor, which pays (15.00/hour) for single sessions and (17.95/hour) for group sessions or a database clerk (14.30/hour). The relative low pay for lab work creates a significant barrier to participation for students that need to work to support themselves, forcing many students to choose financial stability over research experience. This situation exacerbates the already difficult task of balancing school work and personal life for all but the most wealthy students who want to pursue undergraduate research.

Students are being forced to choose between a fair wage or getting an upper hand for future career opportunities. Worse, the current system ensures students cannot bargain for better wages and treatment because the supply of lab jobs is so low compared to the student demand for them. At the very least, research labs should increase the pay of already hired undergraduates in accordance with the increase in minimum wage that California has followed beginning in 2020 (now 13.00/hour) to alleviate some strain in current student technicians.UCSD’s student body has grown in size, but research labs have not evolved to complement the expansion. This unsympathetic attitude of labs towards students speaks to the lack of recognition for the role undergraduate work plays in UCSD’s STEM research.

Nora Lyang is a Staff Writer for The Triton.