There is a similar question here that asks about how to proposition a raise. However, I don't believe my question is a duplicate specifically because I'm working as a student employee at a university, and I feel that the work climate as such is very different from industry.

TL; DR (too long; didn't read)

My typical job duties as a laboratory assistant are simple, but I do software development and soon teaching, as 'extras' in my typical work day. I feel that I deserve higher pay for doing these extra things, but I am lost as to how to ask for a (significant) raise in a student employee environment at a university.

The whole story

I've been working as a laboratory assistant for our language department for 2 years now, making $10/hour currently, which is more than most other students here who make minimum wage. My job description basically entails watching over the lab, making sure that students aren't abusing the computers/printer, helping them when they have technical questions, and handling faculty requests (digitizing films, doing such and such small project, etc.).

Over these years, I have completely renovated what my job description actually is by going above and beyond to create utilities and various automations to the 'core' tasks that used to be part of the job by coding a fairly substantial amount of scripts that run primarily through Google Forms/Google Sheets.

I won't list out everything that I've automated, but the majority of faculty requests are now automatically handled, which constituted about 33% of our workload 2 years ago. Currently I'm in the process of writing a full-fledged website to further automate things, make the resources we offer more accessible, and to simplify faculty and student interaction with them.

Coding is not, and never was, part of the job description (I am the only person of 11 that does this). I don't mind doing it because it's giving me valuable experience and will be something fantastic to put on my CV. However, I am tasked with handling our regular responsibilities on top of the now expectation that I continue to code these utilities/website.

I don't want to stop doing this work, because it really will change how students and faculty appreciate our lab, what we do, and what we offer. However, I feel that I am underpaid for the work I'm doing.

The problem

I work as a student employee, so there's almost an expectation that I will be paid low wages due to the university environment, federal work-study-related issues, etc. I am paid nowhere near what I would be paid if I were working in industry (even as a freelancer) because of this. Given that I'm a student employee, I feel that my boss, as much as he appreciates me and the work that I do, would have serious problems with increasing my pay to even $11/hour, for what I suspect are the following reasons:

  1. The jobs we do as student employees are generally not difficult at all (developing this software isn't that difficult, just time-consuming and mentally-fatiguing at times)
  2. Most students earn minimum wage (at least at my university...); employees of the lab I work in make about $1 more than minimum wage, so he's already spoiling us
  3. All student workers at my lab already receive a per-semester raise of $0.25/hour
  4. If I did get a raise and my co-workers found out, they would likely be upset about it as it would deviate from the normal per-semester raise detailed in #3
  5. There are departmental budget contraints (I believe) that influence student hourly rates


I could register my own LLC (I already do contract Android development as my second job, so it would probably benefit me there too). With an LLC, I could tally the hours that I spend developing software and/or teaching at a higher rate for the LLC, and any other hours I worked not doing extra tasks would be logged as 'normal' work hours. This would allow me to maintain a very obvious separation of my lab duties from non-lab duties, and make the pay difference clear.

However, I'm not sure that my boss would go for this because I've kind of 'merged' coding into my normal work and trying to change that might not pan out well. Furthermore, hiring a contractor (especially a student contractor who already works for the department) might be difficult in terms of university politics and departmental rules. I'm not an administrator, so I don't know how that works, but I suspect it just wouldn't.

So, how can I go about obtaining higher pay as a student employee?

  • 1
    Actually it is similar to industry. You need to make a case as to why you are worth more money, by highlighting exactly what you do that is more than you were asked to and how it adds value to the faculty.
    – Jane S
    Jun 29, 2015 at 21:38
  • @JaneS Well, not having had a 'typical' job in industry (only working as a freelancer), I don't know all the gritty details of HR, management, and how payroll works. I do, however, know the university environment pretty well and no undergraduate student I've ever heard of has made anywhere near $15/hour. Students can only work part-time, and are often expected to be temporary employees that are replaced next semester. I am fortunate enough to work in a lab that likes to keep employees until graduation, but that doesn't change the low-wage university politics associated with student work. Jun 29, 2015 at 21:42
  • @JaneS For example, our department chair may downright refuse to pay more than $12/hour ever because the work we do just isn't worth that much, and would cause too much strain on the department's budget, despite my boss saying "oh yes, Chris is worth $20/hour!". I suppose that could be similar to industry, but we're student workers, not professionals (at least, stigmatically). Are we worth that much? Probably not, in the eyes of university administrators. Jun 29, 2015 at 21:45
  • Go to the student employment office and see if you're classified incorrectly. Based on this document maybe you could convince your boss (or the office can) that you should be given a higher classification and pay scale.
    – mkennedy
    Jun 30, 2015 at 17:19
  • I was in your shoes. As appreciated as it is for you to set up things that will make your job and others' easier, that's not what you were hired to do and you don't have a clear career path. I mean, they literally hire for your position for only a few years at a time. That's just a general fact, disregard the tax laws around work-studies.
    – 2rs2ts
    Jul 1, 2015 at 2:12

3 Answers 3


I have some bad news for you:

You're really not going to make any headway if this is a work-study program. The amount of regulations and budgeting that go into that is mind-boggling. Plus, there's a limited budget, so a "raise" for you (likely) means someone else loses an opportunity entirely.

As for contracting to the university: You're right - that budget is completely separate. Capitalism and the University culture don't usually mix well.

You have two real options:

  1. Accept your fate, complete your degree, and leave with one heck of a resume with your experience and accomplishments, hopefully backed up by a letter of recommendation from this professor.
  2. Drop your job and find higher-paying work as a contract or part-time software developer.

FWIW: I had almost exactly your job when I was in college, except that there wasn't much software to be done, but I did a lot of equipment maintenance and repair that was outside of my work-study job responsibility. It made me a much stronger candidate when I started looking for jobs. I know that doesn't pay the dorm bill, but this is the world you're in when you're in college.

  • 1
    It's such a sad thing, university bureaucracy. I love my job at the lab, I just do so much extra that I wanted to start making more, as both my jobs together barely pay the bills. I'm going to ask my boss about subcontracting me as an LLC owner for the software development, because he has done this in the past with a previous lab assistant who graduated. I don't know how viable it is, but there's a possibility that it would work out. Thanks for your answer! Jun 30, 2015 at 12:44

Your job position is likely designed by the university to meet the IRS's requirements for FICA student exemption - basically meaning that you do not have to pay Social Security or Medicare if your position at your educational institution meets a somewhat ambiguous but thorough set of rules, which basically boil down to: You must be a student first, and an employee second. Although no part of these rules specifically address pay, they do require that your job may not be construed to be professional or career in any way. This may be interpreted to mean that you may not be paid in accordance with a professional employee; as such, some universities or university systems may formally place a (rather low) cap on pay for student positions.

As a result, your university's Human Resources may prevent any attempts for you to make substantially more money while serving in a student position.

You may also refer to:


You had the good sense to research whether getting better pay is even possible given your work/study setup - There are just too many on this site who ask "How do I negotiate ..." without bothering to do the due diligence you did.

Having said that, I see your only option as accumulating the skills set and the experience to the point where you can compete in a different job classification at the university, or you go for a job outside the university. In which case, you are going to have to start poring over the 'help wanted' ads and make sure that you have piled up most of the qualifications they are looking for

If an organization is very bureaucratic, the job descriptions are explicitly laid out and the salary bands are cast in stone. If you want significantly more money within a bureaucratic organization, you don't really another option to going for a job with a different classification. Universities are typically VERY bureaucratic.

In a startup situation, the setup is more informal and your salary is pretty much what you and your employer agree upon, although I do expect that such an employer will still strive to maintain a degree of consistency on how they compensate their employees. You have a bit more negotiating room there.

  • You're right in saying that looking for another job outside of the university bureaucracy is basically my only real option to make more money. However, I've worked in this lab for 2 years and love it, I was just looking for a way to be paid more for all the extra work I do for the department. I'm going to talk with my mother who owns a business in order to get everything I need for a good proposition to my boss for contracting me. Hopefully it'll pan out as my other contract job has :) Jun 30, 2015 at 12:48

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