I am an undergraduate student who has a federal work study job as a "lab tech", but my actual job involves more of setting up intro biology labs and autoclaving biohazard waste, refilling carboys, etc...

I am allotted $600 per semester to be paid, but since my boss, the head lab instructor, was injured, I have been doing more hours to help keep things smooth.

This resulted in me getting in all my allotted money early for this semester, with 2-3 weeks left.

Should I continue to do work for the department, if they ran out of money to pay me for this semester?

I do not want to cause bad blood for "quitting", but I also don't want to be seen as a push over, but also the people I assist are my professors who could give me strong recommendations or research opportunities if I am of use to them.

EDIT below (more context):

My schools general hiring procedure policy was and I paraphrase (hypothetically), "Students must cease working when their allocation runs out" And also stated (hypothetically paraphrased), "If student works more then award permits, then department is responsible for transferring the worker to a student assistantship position and will fund the extra hours using departmental funds."

And also before knowing this, I had (hypothetically) spoken to the department secretary about me running out of allotted money, and she stated (paraphrased), "You should still fill in your time sheets, and I am not sure if you should still be working".

And I had said in response: "Nah its ok, Ill just volunteer my time, because stuff should be getting down around here."

And she didn't really give me much of a reply back (all hypothetical).


I guess I should also mention that (hypothetically) according to our school's general hiring procedures, I am considered for my work study a "hard to fill" position, and therefore am allotted near the maximum rate ($8.75 being the lowest and $10.00 being the highest).

And also that our school is not doing well financially and that in a sense compels me to want to work for free as a well of helping, even though I know I could be doing harm as I have read in certain posts.

It would be cool to be hired as a student assistant, but I know of a girl who was hired for just that, and she is also being slightly undervalued (pay-wise), since I assume the budget lacks the funds.

  • 41
    You should go to your boss (or whoever is responsible if your direct boss is on sick leave) and tell them about the problem and demand money for the remaining time. It is an absolutely reasonable request. Considering that we might talk about maybe $300 and the already special circumstance of your boss being sick, I doubt anyone would even raise an eyebrow. You should keep in mind that a few hundred dollars is basically nothing for a faculty or lab budget.
    – dirkk
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 10:46
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    What makes you think that they are running out of money? Maybe you are imagining a problem where there is none?
    – Brandin
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 11:52
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    @Brandin The OP is on a federal work study. The federal government has agreed to pay for up to a certain number of the OPs hours at a specified rate. It is not the university's money. For all we know, it is make work that does not need to get done but the university does not want to leave any federal money on the table. What makes you think the university cares whether the work gets done or not?
    – emory
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 14:03
  • 1
    @emory True, but it's also possible they do need the work done and that they want to renew the work/study contract for another semester. No need to "demand" anything at this point. Just inquire on the possibility of continuing the work/study and go from there.
    – Brandin
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 14:16
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    Question: Were you asked to fill in, or did you just take on the additional responsibilities? Also, have you been filing time sheets showing the additional hours worked? (It is possible that the lab would have had others do more of their own cleanup in preference to losing the OP early; I'm trying to establish that they knew and decided the longer hours were ok.) (Darned touch-keyboard...)
    – keshlam
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 14:27

8 Answers 8


As you are working/studying in the US and currently being paid hourly for real work it would be illegal for your employer to not pay you and you are legally unable to work for free by volunteering your time. US labor laws have strict requirements for unpaid work which you will not meet.

Contact your manager, HR, student services, interim lab supervisor or whoever is most suitable for this discussion and open with the following:

As X is out of commission I've already used up the monthly budget estimate by doing so many hours. I don't mind pitching in but I wanted to make sure that the budget will cover any additional hours I'm working or if you want me to cut back on my hours.

If they respond with anything even remotely indicating that they want you to keep working but won't pay you for your time, respond with:

Actually, I've looked this up and while I wouldn't mind volunteering, federal (/state) labor laws prohibit me from volunteering my time unpaid for real work. I don't feel comfortable violating those regulations and would either need to be paid for my time or stop working until there is room in the budget.

The only alternative I see is to establish a new, lower hourly wage going forward to spread out the budget but that's definitely not something I'd recommend (or would accept) and you'd still need to be paid minimum wage.

  • 1
    Good answer, particularly for pointing out that working for free may be illegal (though I believe it is only illegal for the employer, not for the employee). Similar laws exist in many countries.
    – sleske
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 12:40
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    Note that this is in an academic context. There are programs on some campuses that "pay" in credit hours (though usually for work that exercises the student's academic skills); there are others which are pure volunteer work. But your existing contract was for a specified number of hours and has run out. You can walk away, or you can reach a new agreement.
    – keshlam
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 14:22
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    I guess my point with the previous comment was that while an employee may think they are being helpful by "working for free", in actuality they could unwittingly cause serious damage to their company (or university).
    – Dunk
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 15:18
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    @DavidK Salaried employees usually don't get overtime but the problem is when non-exempt employees are treated as exempt or other such mistakes. It's rarely intentional but can cause huge problems. Check the first section of my answer here for some more details on that.
    – Lilienthal
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 17:33
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    It is unfortunate that a side-effect of the no-volunteer laws is that good hearted people are legally unable to help where they might like. But in the vast majority of cases, without these laws it would simply be (usually large) companies taking advantage of free labor and bullying employees into "Well, if you want your regular, 40 hour a week job, you should 'consider' volunteering an extra 20 or 30 to get these projects done". It's a necessary evil.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 19:36

I would like to point out something other answers have missed - which is how "federal work study" actually works. The world of employment in academia can be a bit unusual for those who aren't familiar with it, so I hope I can shed some light on the issue.

How Work Study Works

"Work study" money is a grant that the government provides a student such as yourself to help them gain employment experience and useful skills. However, it is also provided as a grant to schools such as your University to help defray the costs of employing students like you. Sometimes this is just free money to employ students who need to be hired anyway, and sometimes this is used to fund jobs that wouldn't otherwise be available (very volunteer-like positions that aren't strictly necessary to the institution).

Once you have worked enough to get all of your work study benefits, and thus that account is exhausted, that means that the government is no longer paying the school to employ you. That does not mean you are no longer paid!

Some "work study eligible" jobs have no budget to employ students other than work study, and so once the aid money runs out then you just can't work any more that semester due to a lack of budget. However, many jobs - especially in the sciences and IT, including lab techs and assistants especially - typically do have money to pay students above and beyond their work study, or can even employ a student who does not receive work study.

Other than asking directly, one easy way to tell the difference in the jobs is if the job listed work study as a strict requirement, or if it just said it was "work study eligible". When I worked for a nature park on my campus, that job was work study required; that meant that only students with work study could work there, and once the aid money ran out they weren't allowed to continue working. On the other hand, when working for IT they couldn't care less how much work study I received or if I had any at all - the department would foot the bill for any non-overtime hours I could manage to work (often limited to 20 hours per work while classes were in session, 40 hours over the summer and breaks).

What To Do Now

Talk with whatever person in charge you can contact. You may need to do some asking around if you can't talk with the head of the lab you had been dealing with, but there is usually a supervisor in charge of student employment for your department/school/University. While in the business world this is usually a Human Resources position, in academia it often isn't listed as such - they are just a supervisor/manager level employee working in the department or in Administration. Human Resources in Universities is usually tasked primarily with full time non-student employees - as a student employee I only ever talk with them regarding things like tax withholding and insurance, etc.

Once you've found someone you can ask, let them know you have nearly exhausted all of your work study due to increased work load from the injured professor, but also express your desire to continue working in the lab. Then just ask if you are allowed to keep working past then end of your work study budget.

They'll pay you no matter what - they are legally bound to, anyway - but you are doing them a favor of keeping them out of trouble with their bosses for going over their budget without realizing, and this is always welcomed from a student. They may indeed have a budget to pay you and you can keep working, or they might not and they will just ask you to work up until the money runs out and then stop, +/- an hour of work.

What you should not do is simply keep working without saying anything, or worse yet keep working but not filling out a time sheet. That's the kind of thing that can get people fired, as it's both illegal and a huge legal liability. If you get hurt while illegally off the clock there are a lot of people who could get into big trouble!

If they let you keep working (for pay!), great! If they don't, no one is going to blame you for quitting or anything like that. Make sure you email everyone you directly interact with to make sure they know you won't be working more due to running out of work study so they don't think you just walked off.

If you really value the experience and enjoy working at the lab, and they won't pay you, inquire of other professors or labs as to what you can do. They might have a position, or they might even have research projects you can join and get to both help at the lab and get extra items on your resume/CV! This might be volunteer (no pay), but that's a completely different thing than working at a job and effectively committing fraud by falsifying a time sheet (not filling one out properly).

Failing to ask and follow your employers (lawful) requests could cost you future work, valuable reference letters from faculty, etc. Don't do it! Ask and you'll be just fine!

  • I did ask and I edited it into the original question above since it was too long to include. I just dont want to get anyone fired, my intention was to help our department. Given I hear times are tough in our school due to large debts, I figured by working for free I could reduce costs, but that was before I realized how work study worked I guess.
    – Ro Siv
    Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 5:04

No you shouldn't work for free. It's up to the lab to pay you for your time. The fact that the Lab Instructor is hurt does not factor into you being recompensed for your time and effort. Lab budgets are usually not inflexible in these sorts of situations and your pay does not seem like a big amount in any case.

  • If the Lab Instructor never comes back will you do this forever? If he retires, will they employ someone else? You may not need the money but there are people who would be glad of the job.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 9:40

No, you should not work for free. It is against the law in the US (and probably many other jurisdictions).

Instead, you should make sure that the people in your department are aware of this problem.

How they solve the problem is up to them:

  • Find some money to pay you. If you are a student, can you afford the time? You can say no.
  • Hire someone else to take your place.
  • Cancel the class.
  • Does the work really need to be done? (I don't know.)

If you want a career in academic research, the two most important skills (way more important than setting up biology labs, autoclaving, or refilling) is managing federal money and complying with federal funding agency mandates. This is your first test. If you work for free you have failed.

  • 3
    It is not against the law to work for free. It is against the law for an employer to require or demand that you work for free. That is not the case here.
    – Ross Drew
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 10:37
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    @emory thats dependant on a lot of things. A lot of people work entirely for free, untaxed, they are called volunteers.
    – Magisch
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 10:46
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    @Magisch I don't know what "autoclaving biohazard waste" means, but it sounds dangerous to me. If OP is truly a volunteer and gets injured does the university have an liability? Alternatively, maybe incorrect autoclaving poses a risk to others. Can the university impose best practices on a volunteer?
    – emory
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 11:05
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    @RossDrew Yes, it is illegal. OP is in the US where labor laws prevent exactly this sort of situation. Certain requirements need to be met for someone to qualify as a volunteer or unpaid intern and the very fact that the OP is currently being paid is enough proof that he's doing actual work for which he has to be paid. Regardless, this answer is too short to be of any real use to the OP and should be expanded.
    – Lilienthal
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 12:17
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    @R_Kapp I think you'll find that the more you read up on particular legal/government-regulated topic, especially labor law, the more you start to realise that none of it makes sense. I should also point out that while it is illegal, it's not all that uncommon. Large corporations, including universities, are very unlikely to skirt the law on this though as they're prime targets for lawsuits or fines from the state's Department of Labor. IIRC, fines for pay-related violations are actually common because it's fairly trivial to prove them and as a result they're also effective.
    – Lilienthal
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 14:23

NEVER work for free. The school is not going to go bankrupt over a few hundred dollars. Never never never work for free. Free work is never appreciated. And you will NOT get better recommendations because you saved the department 500 bucks. The professor doe not care, it does not come out of his pocket or his paycheck.

_ Research Scientist at UChicago who has been in your situation many times


Should I continue to do work for the department, if they ran out of money to pay me for this semester?

You could easily say NO as you aren't getting money for the work you are putting in.

But, if you do a profit-loss analysis, you are indeed getting benefitted if you prefer the other option.

You would have a very nice impression on your professors and others in the department which would help you in your career progress and/or further studies.

So, some hundred dollars or a couple of nice and sincere recommendation letter?

I would prefer the latter, as it is a win-win situation for both you and the department(and the prof.)

  • 1
    I would have to concur with the statement about making good impressions. That is far more important than the rather small pay when you think of the long term future impact. If you want 300 dollars now, think about how much more dollars you get when your professor gives you a great recommendation on a great career. Isn't that far more important than a petty 300 dollars that barely pays a cable bill?
    – Dan
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 15:33
  • Exactly. A great recommendation letter would always outweigh a few hundred dollars. And if it is a sincerely written one, then nothing like it.
    – Dawny33
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 15:35
  • 1
    Yea that is why I continue to work, because someone needs to do the work, and the other work studies are not trained in autoclave use or calibrations, etc... It is not like I hate my job, and I get to learn a lot about office politics, troubleshooting, and just better techniques. Knowing my professors on a personal level adds a sense of humanity I never considered before. I always saw them as "above the rest" before seeing they have flaws just like the rest of us. Flaws I can hopefully assist with :D
    – Ro Siv
    Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 4:36
  • Great! Hope you'd take a sensible decision. Good Luck :)
    – Dawny33
    Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 5:50

It is probably advantageous for you to keep working.

Ask yourself this: "Are you doing this purely for the money?"

If your answer is no, then you are probably getting other benefits (experience, connections, goodwill of your professors) that are intangible. If you value these enough to keep working, you should keep working.

You stated yourself that you might get research opportunities or recommendations from your professors. What you are describing sounds more like a volunteering opportunity with added benefit of a little cash.

  • 13
    This would be a reasonable answer if the OP would be doing a research job or something related to his studies. Hoping to get a recommendation from a professor because he takes out the trash for free is not reasonable. Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 11:45
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    @EikePierstorff I agree but from my own experiences I can tell you that the professors will take notice and maybe he/she won't get a job in her field with the professors any time soon but they might take notice and they might help a lot more than they would some random student. There are no guarantees in life but one thing is guaranteed by shutting out your professors is that you won't get anything from them.
    – Dan
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 15:45
  • Lab Tech is a introductory position, certainly more than taking out trash, and if done well could lead to more interesting positions of greater responsibility. The attitude OP uses in asking for extra pay and response to the answer could easily determine future opportunities for work in the department which OP says is desired.
    – JayL
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 15:52
  • I think its safe to say that no one does $600 over 3 months "just for the money", can make more than that at a gas station. I'd be interested in knowing if taxes, fica and all that fun stuff is being taken out. Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 16:37
  • With work study the $600 is a total budget for pay, and has no relation to the rate of pay, which could be anywhere from ~$7.50 to $15+ per hour depending on institution (though it's probably $8-10). This being earned over 3 months indicates it's probably just a few hours a week position.
    – BrianH
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 19:50

Your professors didn't become professors by working for free. You have no duty to hold up the world because someone was injured. On top of that, the injured professor might actually have an income still coming in (disability insurance), and there you are, the ONLY (I have very strong, negative word here) showing up to a job and getting nothing about it.

Stop treating your professors like they're gods. Believe in your own capabilities.

  • 1
    I'm not an academic but that first sentence strikes me as more of a personal belief of yours than anything rooted in reality. Then, "...and getting nothing about (sic) it". As others have mentioned, there are many intangibles that could have value for the OP beyond money. It's up to him/her to ponder those and come up with his own EV calc. Finally, your last line sounds extremely confused to me; I'm not sure what believing in your own capabilities has to do with trying to gauge whether or not there's sufficient value for you to remain in the OP's current situation. Wish I could downvote... Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 16:20
  • 1
    Do you know how many college graduates there are out there, working at Starbucks, still trying to unwind their heads around putting their faith in their professors' and advisors' words? It's astonishing.
    – Xavier J
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 16:59
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    I agree with some of your sentiments, but I'm afraid that many (most?) professors did get where they were not only by working very hard for little to no pay for long stretches of time, but early in their careers they often paid for the privilege of being allowed to do work - often in the hopes of one day being a professor. Sometimes that investment/gamble pays off, sometimes it doesn't. Academia - especially in the US - is based more strongly on the apprentice system than modern companies, and that's just how that system works.
    – BrianH
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 19:19
  • @codenoire well I guess i do look up to all of my professors. I always assumed they were suppose to be "gods" ( in a very very VERY loose sense) , in that they are a standard a student is to aspire to be like. I see how they work, and I know I have so much to learn it makes me feel inept but glad they are their to guide me.
    – Ro Siv
    Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 5:09
  • Right but yours isn't there to guide you. Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 16:49

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