The ‘Privilege’ of Unpaid Work in Academia: Friend or Foe

A job posting about an unpaid assistant adjunct professor position in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles caused a recent upheaval in the academic community. The position required applicants to have a PhD in chemistry or biochemistry, previous teaching experience at a university level, as well as three to five references.

Unpaid arrangements and positions are not uncommon in academia. Individuals who fulfill these roles are generally known as contingent faculty and they comprise a significant portion of the teaching faculty. These kinds of postings are promoted as an opportunity for professional development — in other words, “resume boosters” or “credential enhancers” — rather than advertised as unpaid services.

There is an unspoken understanding in academia that any opportunity is a privilege, and in fact, people who receive these opportunities should feel “lucky.” However, there shouldn’t be a trade-off between professional development and financial security.

Indeed, not everyone who fills these positions rely on teaching as their main source of income. It may be the case that these posted positions are meant to attract applicants with full funding or allow them to continue their work at a different institution.

However, this kind of culture, wherein compensation is a privilege rather than a part of the base package, does not foster an environment for healthy professional development and security. It should not be the case that academics are akin to precarious workers.

The department attempted to provide context to the job posting by sharing the following:

UCLA is committed to providing fair compensation to faculty across the institution. We recognize the language in this particular advertisement could have benefitted from additional context and we are committed to doing better in the future. In the spirit of providing additional context, arrangements such as these are common in academia and, in cases where formal classroom teaching is a component, compensation for these services is provided commensurate to experience and with an eye to equity within the unit. Some positions may be without salary when individuals are compensated by other sources and a formal affiliation with UCLA is necessary, which may be needed to apply for or maintain a grant or conduct research.

However, this statement only drummed up further conversation about the abuse of power and prestige that is pervasive in academia.

That’s not to say academia doesn’t come without its benefits and opportunities for intellectual growth; However, this kind of culture and mindset certainly creates a culture of burnout.

Why should it be the case that opportunities in academia are considered “unpaid internships” or on a volunteer basis rather than paid work opportunities. I’ve seen — and personally encountered — several posts targeted toward students that were volunteer-only work environments with long hours and little opportunity for upward movement. It’s also not uncommon to have certainly qualified graduate students struggle to secure a supervisor because they are not fully funded. Do we truly thrive in environments where privilege comes first and compensation comes last?

In the end, it costs to be unpaid.

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About Leanna Lui

Leanna MW Lui, HBSc, completed an HBSc global health specialist degree at the University of Toronto, where she is now an MSc candidate. Her interests include mood disorders, health economics, public health, and applications of artificial intelligence. In her spare time, she is a fencer with the University of Toronto Varsity Fencing team and the Canadian Fencing Federation.

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