Well, it wasn’t a joke. But it wasn’t exactly straight-forward, either.
The job listing was vague from the get-go. Who exactly was hiring? The only details given were “lab in La Jolla.”
Well, there are lots of labs in La Jolla. So I had to do some digging to find out which one posted this, and I found out that the listing was posted by a researcher named Laura Crotty Alexander. She’s a physician at the VA San Diego Healthcare System who doubles as a UCSD faculty member. I couldn’t reach her for comment.
If Alexander’s listing looked like a terrible opportunity, that’s by design, according to VA chief of staff Robert Smith.
“Frankly, what she was trying to do was make it look unappealing,” Smith said. “Because she was trying to create an advertisement that nobody would apply to.”
You see, the VA lab already had someone in mind for the position: a postdoc from Egypt who actually volunteered to work for free.
The reporter further specified:
which in my view is a far from uncommon situation. I’ve received inquiries about working in my lab under similar circumstances.
It is wrong because it is labor exploitation. We dealt with that over 100 years ago in the US. Yes, exploitation always continues and is resisted in fits and starts by unions, regulation and competitive pressures. But the arguments remain the same, the benefits of exploiting labor are tempting and the excuses are no better in the scientific context. I don’t care that the candidate “volunteers”. I don’t care that the candidate is getting authorship or keeping her hand in the game of science or whatever excuse you want to advance. This is the case for all postdocs. Should we refuse to pay all of them? Heck no. Just like we stopped letting companies demand their employees worked in the mines for 14 hr shifts, 7 days a week with no breaks. Just like we discouraged and restricted company-store, company-town scams which ended up reducing real wages. Just like we established a minimum wage. Etc. Just like modern jurisprudence is rejecting free intern scams.
If this post-doc is doing the work, then she needs to be paid–and not just for her sake, but everyone’s.