Medical students should be paid for summer research work

It’s summertime once again, which for many medical students means helping out with a research project over the next 8 weeks.

Participating in the design, execution and presentation of medical research is an invaluable learning experience for medical students. The growth of evidence based medicine means current and future physicians need to know how evidence is generated in order to effectively evaluate it and judiciously apply it to their practice.

Participating in research projects is the most efficient way to learn the strengths and weaknesses of many different types of medical research. Medical students who materially contribute to research projects should be compensated at fair market value for their work.

Unfortunately, researchers commonly exploit the low status of medical students and use them as free labor. Without the help of medical students, researchers would either have to do this work themselves (for which they are compensated in the form of a salary) or hire a research assistant (who are also compensated monetarily). Medical students should not be treated any differently in terms of compensation simply because of their status as a “student.” If anything, institutions should have specific protections for medical students in such situations.

The status divide between a researcher (who are often professors also) and a medical student precludes the student from demanding fair compensation. Students who do so run the risk (perceived or real) of alienating themselves and losing out on a valuable learning experience. Moreover, research experience looks very good on residency applications, forcing medical students to do whatever it takes (e.g.–work for free) to get such experience.

In these scenarios, medical students should be considered a vulnerable population and fall under specific policies to protect their rights to fair compensation. More specifically, the opportunity for co-authorship on any presentation of research work should not be considered fair compensation.

Students should be included as co-authors if their contribution to the work meets the guidelines set forth by the American Medical Association and other relevant organizations, but this is not sufficient. Monetary compensation for work must also be rendered, as it would be if the assistant was a non-student.

Josh Herigon is a medical student who blogs a Number Needed to Treat.

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  • PhD not MD

    This student has a very narrow view of academic research life. First, to assume that a student’s skills are as valuable as a research technician’s, who has been trained extensively in the techniques used in the lab and has experience is a fallacy. Most labs I know who take medical students in over the summer due it because they believe it will be good for the student, not because of the good it will do for the lab. Students are there for 8 short weeks and during that time they require significant training and constant oversight. If anything, they often slow the other PhD students, Post Docs, or the PI herself down from getting work done efficiently because of the training they require. To suggest that they be monetarily compensated does not make sense–they get what they need out of the experience, something to put on their resume, perhaps a publication, and training in lab skills that may help them later down the road.

  • Dan

    @PhD: To assume all research done by medical students is basic science is a fallacy. Plus, unpaid labor is illegal. To medical students, I would say this: find some funding. It’s out there.

  • http://www.healthtrain.blogspot.com Gary Levin

    When I was a pre-med I spent 8 weeks working with a biochemist and was paid for 8 weeks via a NSF (National Science Foundation) grant. In medical school I spent one summer working on public health risk factors with the USPHS and that was funded by a special COSTEP program. Have these programs disappeared?

  • J Boyd

    Students do not get paid. And believe me, the medical students who show up in our labs for a few weeks worth of research are just that – students. Undergraduates in the lab doing research are not paid. Graduate students doing research in the lab are not paid (they get a stipend, but it is not a salary). The medical students come in for a very limited amount of time, and with very little in the way of useful laboratory skills. They’re often more trouble than their (free) labor is worth. They suck up laboratory resources, including the time and energy of senior researchers who must teach, direct, and supervise them – and provide very little of value in return.

    Just saying.

  • http://www.dsllp.com/bios/duval.shtml Duval & Stachenfeld

    Most labs I know who take medical students in over the summer due it because they believe it will be good for the student, not because of the good it will do for the lab. Students are there for 8 short weeks and during that time they require significant training and constant oversight. If anything, they often slow the other PhD students, Post Docs, or the PI herself down from getting work done efficiently because of the training they require.

  • joe

    Josh:
    Sorry to rain on your parade, but the student enters the association with a lab knowing full well what resources are and are not available. Ideally, stipend money would be available but given budgetary constraints in research this may not be the case. It is a very easy choice, if you want to get paid and no money is available, say no. I spent the better part of a decade in bench research before going to med school so i feel I have a pretty good handle on both sides of the equation. 8 weeks to a researcher on a project is nothing but a drop in the bucket. 8 weeks is nothing but part of the training/lit research portion of a project. I have trained many med students over my years in benchwork and can honestly say that from my standpoint they slowed me down. But the reason for bringing them on board was for academic educational reasons not for my speed in completing a research project. I understood my role as a teacher. If it came down to paying someone from scarce grant resources, I would take a junior research tech who actually was trained in benchwork or an undergrad who will be around for a year or two before a med student. Frankly a finishing 1st year med student has little understanding of lab research unless they picked up up elsewhere. Don’t kid yourself, med school teaches one to be a clinician not a scientist. That is the fact from one who has done both. The choice is yours as to whether to do unpaid research during your 8 week vacation between first and second year. You do realize that the majority of grad students from the “soft” (I hate that term) sciences get paid based on TA’s. That is, their research projects are essentially done for “free”.

  • http://abovethelaw.com/duval-stachenfeld Bruce Stachenfeld

    Yeah they should be paid for what they work. Summer is the bad season to work in any field.

  • David

    Honestly as a dual degree student I don’t think it should be mandatory that students working in a lab get paid. Usually they are brought in because 1) it’s good to expose the student to basic research 2) mandated by the school and 3) sometimes they can actually contribute. Usually the students are highly supervised and don’t contribute in any meaningful way to the research. Often they sit around and don’t do very much in the way of research although they think that they do :p It does pay off eventually as it looks good on your CV.

  • Ericka

    I am a postdoc and have supervised many students including medical and undergraduate students. Based on my experience, I have to help them to their work and then try to do mine as well. Medical students do not have the knowledge to be given a task and have them do it, they have to be supervised that adds more work to everyone else in the lab. Sometimes it even costs the lab more in resources and time to have them there. They are coming for learning experience which is what they get. They don’t get paid to go to medical school to learn, why should it be different in a lab?