February 19, 2010

Research assistance

The University should level the playing field for research positions

Entering the part-time job market on campus can be kind of exhilarating, in a nerdy way. Through research assistantships, the U of C enables students to work with hospital patients, conduct psychology experiments, and aid professors in writing books. There’s one problem though: A large fraction of students don’t even qualify for these positions. Currently, research assistantships are limited by and large to students who qualify for work-study funds. The University should recognize this inequality and provide funding to make research assistantships competitive for all students.

The near-exclusion of non-work-study students from research jobs is an unintended consequence of how the Federal Work-Study Program operates. The program provides funding for students with financial need to take part-time jobs, particularly in areas related to the recipient’s course of study. As a result, professors wishing to make frugal use of their research budgets have a strong incentive to hire work-study eligible students. Even jobs that accept both categories of students often bear the words “work-study preferred” somewhere in the job description.

Research assistantships are among the most valuable jobs a student can get at the University. They give students hands-on experience in their fields, as well as exposure to cutting-edge work by eminent scholars. So while enterprising students have plenty of ways to earn extra cash on campus, it’s unfortunate that those who wish to gain research experience and be compensated for it are largely out of luck if they don’t qualify for federal funding.

An influx of non-work-study funds will also give professors the opportunity to hire students from a larger pool of applicants; by no longer discriminating among applicants based on their financial aid status, the quality of professors’ assistants would likely increase, and research may be more fruitful. A University-created fund could at least partially cover the wages of non-work-study students. Professors on a budget might choose to pay these students less compared to their work-study counterparts; the important thing is that all students have a chance at part-time research jobs, and receive some level of pay for it.

The University states on its research Web page that “we take seriously our part in the enormous task of generating new knowledge for the benefit of present and future generations. . . . In this spirit of discovery, we train future generations of scholars, scientists, educators, and world leaders.” If the University truly honors this claim, it will take steps to make sure students have a fair chance at participating in its research culture. Expanding research opportunities to all students will grant professors more flexibility in their research and will increase the quality of scholarship at the University, two benefits well worth the additional investment they require.

— The Maroon Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief, Viewpoints Editors, and three Editorial Board members.