how much does your job in college matter?

A reader writes:

I am a senior undergrad at a state college in a science major. I have been working for a year as a research assistant for a professor I very much admire. This professor has exposed me to many opportunities for travel and study that I otherwise wouldn’t have known about, and she has been a true role model to me. We are both women in a male-dominated field, if that matters.

The work I do for her is interesting, if somewhat repetitive. I have picked up lots of tech skills I otherwise would not have had much experience in. The trouble is that it pays very poorly — less than minimum wage (being a student employee, they can get away with that). I’ve made it work for now, but it’s getting tough. We are grant funded, and raises are not possible.

Before deciding to go back to school, I made a good wage at a specialty grocery store. The work was uninspiring and physical, but paid 40% better than my gig at school. A market near me is hiring, and on impulse I put in an application, but now I am full of doubt.

Is it better to make peanuts working in a field I would love to work in after graduation? When applying for jobs after graduation, will employers care if my most recent job was in a grocery store, as opposed to something related to my field?

I am so tired of being contantly broke. I can cover the bills, but barely. Is it worth living on ramen and mac n cheese for now if it increases my odds for a better job in a year?

I would love to tell you your jobs in college don’t matter … but they do.

Most employers hiring recent college grads will heavily favor candidates who have relevant work experience over those who don’t. It will help you hugely to have work experience in your field, or adjacent to your field.

It’s not that other types of jobs don’t matter. They do, and they often give you transferable skills that aren’t immediately obvious. And certainly unrelated work experience is better than no work experience! But work experience related to the field you want to work in is by far the most compelling to employers (plus, it’ll build the most useful contacts).

So, what does the rest of your resume look like? Do you have other jobs that relate to the work you want to do once you graduate? If you have a lot of them, in most fields you’d probably be fine spending the rest of your senior year doing a better paid but unrelated job — because your resume already has the work experience that will draw in employers. (A caveat: That’s true generally. But for science in particular, and especially for the specific type of science work you want to do, make sure you’re verifying that with people in your field.)

But if you just have this one year of relevant experience, I wouldn’t stop there. Two years of work relevant to your field will serve you better than one year when you’re looking for your first post-graduation job. (That assumes you can swing it financially, of course. If you can’t, you can’t. But if you have options, this is the significantly more helpful one professionally.)

Any chance, though, that you can keep the research assistant job but for fewer hours and then do the grocery job as well? That might not work out with the amount of hours they’d each want versus the amount of hours you’re available to work, but you might be able to thread the needle by combining the two.

{ 255 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymouse*

    I can’t comment on OP’s difficult choice, but can I express appalled astonishment that the work study job pays less than minimum wage? I don’t think that’s legal in my state for good reason!

    1. House Tyrell*

      My on campus job (which I ended in December 2018 when I graduated, so it’s recent data at least) paid $1 above minimum wage at $8.25/hour, and I got a raise to $10/hour after a promotion, but we could only work for 19 hours a week, so barely part time. And you weren’t allowed to have more than one on campus job at a time, so if you needed more money it’d have to be off campus somewhere less likely to care about your class schedule.

      1. Kiwiii*

        Mine was the same from 2013-2016 (in a state with $8.25 as the minimum, I was paid $8.25), only the raises didn’t come with promotions, but every certain amount of hours worked (My first couple years we could work up to 35 hrs/week, but the last year or two it dropped to 20). I had been promoted twice but my final wage was $8.95 I think?

      2. Andytron*

        My experience is much more dated, but the same. Work study paid “ok”, but hours were capped. It was meant to (lightly) supplement a financial aid package and provide experience, not cover your expenses. Which, if you didn’t have a great package means it doesn’t really cover much of anything.

        1. Hills to Die on*

          This is exactly why I had at least 2 jobs in college – one that paid in cash, one that paid in wages. They both were invaluable and totally worth it.

        2. AnnaBananna*

          Yep, I was there in the early aughts. Which is why I specifically got a waitressing job my last summer before college so that I would -always- be able to fall back on that skill throughout college. And believe me, it has saved my behind, even in my adult years when I really needed to save up for something.

          OP, if you can swing it, I would definitely try and see if you can have her talk to her dean about turning the one headcount into two. It will take time (I work for a university as staff, been through this myself), but can be accomplished with a thoughtful justification. Sounds like your mentor might actually do what she can to keep you, even if it’s to split the job into two parts.

          Then I would get whatever fast but plentiful job you can get. Personally, I love that I can leave a serving job with cash in hand each night (the restaurant hours would be outside of the lab’s business hours). I always made WAY more than what my on-campus jobs paid, but those roles also helped feed my resume’s “prestige” so I kept at them. It meant that when I graduated I already had a degree + 4 years of experience in my field. Talk about salary negotiating power when it really counts! ;)

          Good luck! And please update when you can – I’m really interested how things work out!

          1. AnnaBananna*

            ps. Depending on your grant, splitting the role into two parts might be tough if you’re personally named on the grant app. Though usually lab assistants aren’t, just specialized employees like analysts, statiticians, etc.

        3. Laura*

          Hours were capped at my university to 20 a week. I can’t speak to whether or not it “supplemented” a financial aid package, as both a scholarship and parents covered tuition.

      3. TooTiredToThink*

        Its been 20 years for me but I was paid min wage – and in fact had one job where I got a raise. I also wasn’t limited to only one job – and often had 2. IIRC there was a Federal law (maybe it was school policy) of 20 hours per week during the school year; but I worked 40 hours/week during the summer between the summer jobs.

        The only thing I can think of is that they aren’t paying OP hourly – that’s she’s getting either a stipend or *forgot word* – I saw that with RAs and others in positions like that where they received something like $2000 a semester but with all of their duties; etc… it definitely came out to less than min wage.

    2. Zephy*

      Generally speaking, federal work-study jobs do pay at least state minimum wage (the department offering the position can offer more than that), it’s just that the student is working 10, maybe 15 hours per week.

    3. Bertha*

      I didn’t think it was possible, myself, but I googled it and apparently Teen Vogue just did an article on how it’s legal in “many” states, including Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Virginia, and New York! What! (Also, thank you Teen Vogue for the excellent timing …)

    4. Oldster*

      Research assistant would not normally be a work study job. Emphasis would be on educational benefits and usually only available for those in the major. Work study are more office related that any one could do and could be a regular staff job.

      1. RabbitRabbit*

        It depends. I did work-study as a lab assistant and then as a research assistant, but they were definitely part-time positions.

      2. workstudynerd*

        This is the comment that inspired me to make my first response! This is a common misconception about work-study. Work-study is actually just related to the way the student is being paid/funded for their wages, not related to the work. At most campuses, any job on campus can use a student’s work-study funds.

        1. PlainJane*

          Yeah… I did office work (answering phones), but others worked in the dining halls and really all kinds of menial tasks. W-S isn’t an academic thing; like the grocery job, it’s a money thing.

          And of course, over the summer, you have to work for money, unless you already have it, in which case you can take prestigious internships. As a system, it SUCKS.

        2. Old Biddy*

          This! I was on work study when I was in college. The first 3 years I worked in the cafeteria. Junior year I was doing research (for credit) and still working in the cafeteria. My advisor eventually started paying me for work study for part of the time I was in the lab, and I still got credit for the rest. I was in lab a lot so it worked out.
          At the time work-study paid more than minimum wage ($5.50 vs $3.35) – the university subsidized it a bit.

        3. Sarah N.*

          Yes — I was a research assistant on work-study funding as an undergrad. It’s just where the money is coming from. This student is not in a work-study job, though, since the job is grant-funded.

      3. Sarah*

        Not true, at least in my experience 15 yrs ago. Work-study is a set amount of financial aid that you earn at an hourly rate by working on campus. For 3 of my 4 years in undergrad, my work-study position was undergraduate research assistant in a lab. I got that position by speaking with the professor, that was it. Year 1 was somewhat automatically assigned as a general stockroom helper, and I could have kept that position if I hadn’t made the other arrangements.

        To the LW – yes, in the sciences undergraduate lab experience does matter! But I agree with the idea of trying to do both jobs if you need the money. Having the job duration and the prof’s recommendation is more important than the number of hours per week.

    5. fposte*

      I don’t think these are work-study jobs, because those do require minimum wage; I think that this is the subminimum wage exception for student learners.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Yup, this. I was lucky to be in a state that didn’t allow sub-minimum wage for students, but there was a lot of pressure to “volunteer” as an RA if you couldn’t secure a paid position. Work-study jobs ran the gamut and were always super competitive, but they all paid the state minimum wage.

        1. fposte*

          I think that if the subminimum wage for student learners has to exist, the way it gets used at non-vocational schools can be a painful stretch of the loophole.

    6. College Career Counselor*

      I suspect that it’s the loophole that nonprofit universities can exploit to pay less than the prevailing state (or even Federal) minimum wage. It’s because the job is VERY part time (usually 15 hours/week or less) because
      1) the student is full-time
      2) the job is on-campus (and they wouldn’t have anyone but a student do it)

      It’s crappy, but a lot of higher ed work is done on the backs of (often) underpaid students. Add in the grant-funded nature of the work the student is doing (where X amount is budgeted for student work and no more), and it’s not good.

      However, I might quibble with Alison that leaving this job after a year will disadvantage the student. If the rest of the student’s resume is strong (and assuming the student wants to do the kind of work that her mentor does), a full year is better than most entry-level applicants who might only have a summer or two of relevant experience. Would two years be more advantageous? Perhaps, if the student could also demonstrate that she had advanced to higher level work, more responsibility, etc. The most recent job being grocery is not a disqualifier, especially if the student constructs her resume with “relevant experience” and “additional experience” categories that allow her to showcase the work with the professor.

      Here is what I suggest: if possible, the student should explore dropping down the # of hours that she works for the grant-funded project and put the same number of hours into the specialty grocery store. Assuming the prof is willing, the student gets to keep the research grant job current on her resume AND gets additional hours elsewhere at higher pay. Granted, it may be an either/or situation, but it’s worth checking into.

      1. TL -*

        It’s more complicated than that. Two years might mean a paper (with good authorship, depending on friend), a poster or two, or a competed individual project.
        Spending a year in a lab, you’re learning skills, you probably have a project, but you’re not very independent – the second year can really improve how competitive you are in the job/grad school market.

      2. TL -*

        It’s more complicated than that. Two years might mean a paper (with good authorship, depending on friend), a poster or two, or a competed individual project.
        Spending a year in a lab, you’re learning skills, you probably have a project, but you’re not very independent – the second year can *really* improve how competitive you are in the job/grad school market.

        Especially if you want to go to get grad school, stay.

    7. anongradstudent*

      Came here to say that. I’m in the middle of getting a phd and have seen/submitted grant applications. You ask for money in the grant to pay an assistant, and it’s more than doable to ask for at least minimum wage (usually I would say at least $10 an hour). So it’s kind of BS they asked for less than minimum wage (or are stretching funds somehow). That doesn’t sound kosher and I’d be interested to know if that’s what they actually indicated would happen in the grant application.

      1. fposte*

        As long as the funding authority doesn’t object, it’s probably kosher. Our grant-funded pay scales for students come from the university, not the funder, at least not with the grants I’ve worked on; I’ve definitely used cheaper students (master’s vs. PhD) for more hours than initially requested in a grant without issue. As long as the pay scale is legal and there’s nothing specifically in the funding program, I doubt this would be a concern.

        1. Sarah*

          Echoing this! At my university (not a scientist, but I write grants and do administrative support for them), I was trying to track down a minimum grad student salary and the answer: “between 5k and 100k.” It really depends on the individual PI’s stance on paying grad students, what the grant needs, and how much the funding agency is willing to give. One thing I’m still a little amazed by is how TIGHT the grant budgets are. They’re difficult as hell to get, often don’t pay enough to fully compensate most people for their labor, and they’re utterly essential. I do feel like a responsible PI pays grad students fairly if they can—I’m not impressed by PIs who put in lots of salary for themselves but pays a pittance to their students.

          1. Pommette!*

            Pay scales are subject to surprising amounts of variation between universities and funders.
            In working at a couple of institutions over the years, and on cross-institutional studies, I’ve encountered everything from the very wide ranges you describe, to much narrower pay bands and clear guidance about what kinds of employees (undergrad students vs PhD candidates, etc.) should be hired to do different kinds of work.

            Of course, accademia is weird in that regard, because there is almost always the possibility of getting the work done for free by having students do it as part of their course or thesis work.

    8. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      They have loopholes like this.

      It feels disgusting like how they used to be able to pay develop mentally delayed people less than minimum wage. Which is why I boycotted Goodwill for so many years. They recently did away with that BS.

      1. Fikly*

        Used to? Developmentally delayed people are still being paid less than minimum wage. It’s still legal.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          Gdammit. It must have been state level then. Which makes sense because we’re always ahead of the curve in that aspect.

        2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          Here’s the release about it being stopped.

          1. fposte*

            The headline is misleading there, though; the Raise the Wage Act is still just a bill, not a passed law. And in August the Senate killed it, so that’s that.

      2. I work for a disability org, can you tell?*

        Complicated. Sub-minimum wage jobs for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) aren’t inherently a bad thing. Sub-minimum wage jobs are usually in center-based environment where their support staff can assist them. They usually do project-based – or “per piece” – work. For many people with larger support needs, these kinds of jobs allow them to work when they might not be able to otherwise. Most reputable disability service providers with sub-minimum wage certificates from the Department of Labor work with support staff, work with assistive technologists, and with other stakeholders to increase the hourly wage of “per piece” labor. At my organization, the hourly wage for our center-based employees is above the federal minimum wage.

        For people with IDD, there are two major issues at play here: 1) choice and 2) job security. While community-based employment is considered the gold standard in the disability rights movement, informed choice is still paramount. People with IDD should get to choose where they work, and many do choose center-based employment for a variety reasons. Some people “retire” from their community-based jobs into center-based work. Some people don’t want the stress of a community-based job. As long as they have the choice (and the supports to ensure their choices are honored), then that’s what matters.

        Second is security. During a Recession or when an organization downsizes, the first employees to be laid off are people with disabilities. Center-based employment allows for people with disabilities to work even during a Recession, still make a wage, still be able to leave their house or group home, and still spend time with their friends. Many center-based employers have life enrichment activities as well.

        Where the problem arises (as in the case of Goodwill) is when organizations have a sub-minimum wage certificate and use it to pay people with disabilities who are essentially working community-based jobs. If a person with a disability can sort clothes or run a cash register at a thrift store, they should 100% be paid at least minimum wage. It’s gross when employers do this.

        1. Texan In Exile*

          Yes, my memory of it is from years ago in Austin, where my company would have MHMR (?? is it even called that anymore?) people assemble manuals and benefits packets. I don’t know the details, but I think the idea was we paid by packet, possibly paying about the same amount (maybe a little less?) as we would elsewhere but it taking a lot longer than it would otherwise.

          1. I work for a disability org, can you tell?*

            Disability supports are state-regulated, so I cannot speak to what happens in Texas. I will say that Texas is generally terrible in its supports for people with disabilities. They have 13 different sequestered institutions (that aren’t even full) for people with IDD, which is totally against the preferred service delivery model. There is a huuuge waitlist instead for community-based supports (that is, supports outside of a sequestered institution) because Texas refuses to offer them for some fucked up reason related to fiscal and political conservatism. And ableism, obviously. (I’m a former Texas resident).

            I live in a state with some of the best disability support funding in the country, so it’s a totally different landscape.

        2. AthenaC*

          Yes – thank you. One of my brothers is severely disabled, but he was able to experience what Mom called “the dignity of work” for as long as his sub-minimum wage job was in existence. But the state they live in made some changes and now he doesn’t have a job anymore.

          Let’s be blunt – the type of people that sub-minimum wage was designed for are those people who: 1) are simply not ever going to be worth minimum wage from an economic standpoint; and 2) are not ever going to need a “living wage” simply because they cannot live independently. So for those folks, it’s not about earning money to live – it’s about the dignity of contributing and being paid for your work to the extent that you are able.

    9. Qwerty*

      Many of the research assistant positions at my college had a stipend rather than an hourly wage. Usually it was quoted as a per-month or per-semester amount. This usually allowed for flexibility – students would work more hours during slower parts of the semester and less hours during midterms or final exam weeks, so over the course of the semester it evens out. But I could see how a lab might be requiring too many hours so that the hourly calculation comes out to less than minimum wage.

      OP, can you talk to your adviser about adjusting your hours so that you aren’t working below minimum wage? Or talk to the department at your college that manages student workers? They still should be paying you minimum wage.

    10. OP - Starving Student*

      Thank you everyone for all your replies. I am in one of those sneaky states where it is perfectly legal to pay a student less than minimum wage. My otherwise lovely boss-professor once expressed glee that she could hire me and the other assistant so cheaply, as to make the grant stretch a little further. I am capped at 19 hours a week, which is honestly the most I could do while keeping up with my classwork.

      I don’t know if it matters, but I don’t work in a lab. I play with data on Excel, manage a database, read academic journals and papers, do glorified data entry sometimes, and train other assistants. I have learned so much doing this, it’s just tough seeing such small paychecks after working so hard.

      1. TreeSilver*

        OP – depending on how your position is classified for the grant, you may be able to take these skills and look for comparable part-time positions at companies that have grant-funded opportunities themselves. (Eg program coordinator, research assistant, etc.) Student positions vs. employee-of-organization positions often have different salary and benefit structures for the same type of work.

      2. Another PhD student*

        Hi OP!

        I think it actually does matter a bit that it isn’t a lab, depending on your field – are you in a field where people do a lot of lab work? In my experience, if you want to get a job in either a lab research-based industry or go on for a PhD, lab experience is very important. I’m not sure if the sort of work you’re describing would be quite as important in a lab research-based field.

        It might be a bit late for this as I believe it’s generally a summer program, but you could look into doing an REU – basically, the NSF sponsors research opportunities for undergrads in STEM, including granting a stipend and assisting with housing and travel. If you google “NSF REU”, you should be able to find what I’m talking about. Otherwise, it might be worthwhile to see if any other professors in your department or at nearby institutions have actual funding for a research assistant (preferably in a lab if that’s relevant to your area) – hopefully your current boss will understand that you can’t afford to keep working like this.

        Finally, if you end up having trouble with getting the sort of employment/continuation into academia that you’re looking for after you graduate, you could try pursuing a postbaccalaureate program or even a master’s program that promises laboratory work. I’m sure this isn’t an exhaustive list of your options (and both these options of course would cost more money, which isn’t ideal), but it’s good to know there are options out there. It is extremely frustrating how higher education is set up for people with ready access to money and few obligations outside of school, and that it is very difficult at times to be a nonstandard student.

        1. OP - Starving Student*

          Hi Another PhD student- I don’t work in a lab, but I’m integued by the REU and will research it.

          The are a few other roles available in my department that pay a dollar more, but they are capped at 8-10 hours. I also really like the prof I work for.

          My plan is to take a few years before perusing a Masters. Ideally, I would like to find a workplace that can help with tuition.

          Thank you for your advice and kind words.

          1. R&D Manager*

            While you’re looking at REU programs, assuming you’re in the US, look at the post-baccalaureate programs at the Department of Energy’s national labs. Salary and benefits look like a “real” job, but we treat them as student positions with an expectation that post-baccs will be learning a lot, making some contributions to our work, and departing for grad school in a year or two. Doesn’t solve your immediate problem, but could be a good place after you finish this round of school.

            1. Nesprin*

              Yep- SULI (DOE) will take postbacs for lab positions for up 2 yrs and tends to pay pretty darn well. they tend to be a huge leg up for grownup science jobs or PhD/Ms programs as well.
              PS- PhD students are paid to study, MS students pay to study- why the choice to pursue an MS?

          2. janey-jane*

            Also, regard REU: they aren’t all “hard” or lab science. Our campus, for example, hosts REU’s in economics.

          3. Glitsy Gus*

            This may not be an option, but since you are doing what sounds like independent work outside of a lab, would it be possible to talk to your prof about possibly flexing how many hours you work and when you work them so you could take on a couple of shifts in retail? It may not be possible, but it couldn’t hurt to ask.

          4. JSPA*

            Lab jobs in academe commonly suck you in early and late and moments in between. The idea of progressing in science part-time is…not common. The first to publish gets the credit; there’s no way around that, and the pressure to produce is intense (even when self-applied).

            I do think you might be able to go semester-by-semester; you won’t be shamed if you announce that you simply can’t cover expenses in the job, and have to take a “real” job for a semester, but would love to come back in the summer (or if not taking classes in summer, you might be able to split a job then).

            Neither one will necessarily give you a better PAYING job in a year, though. Plenty of science jobs pay primarily in self-esteem and intrinsic interest. (If you’re not getting that from your science job, that’s a strike against staying with it.)

            I do think this is something you can come out and discuss with your P.I. in that there may be a modest grant or additional small pool of money they can access, if they know the strain is becoming prohibitive. Or they may have suggestions for a non-academic research opportunity that you don’t have to wait, to take.

          5. Sarah*

            OP – Depending on your field, it may be WAY smarter to enroll in a PhD program, even if you only want the masters. Most science PhD students not only don’t pay tuition, but get paid a stipend to live off of (for me it was ~24k/yr). Usually you are required to do some teaching (generally TA undergrad courses) and research. But most programs have a way to “master out” if you don’t want to stay for the full PhD. (Some Prof’s might consider this as ‘failing’ or ‘dropping out’ but but those profs also will tell you that the best students should be professors like them, as if an industry job is somehow less than theirs in terms of difficulty or prestige or rewards…so ignore that mentality)

            1. wittyrepartee*

              Seconding this. I even transfered to another masters program (different from my PhD) and got the school to pay for half of it.

      3. Nesprin*

        Also it’s worth checking if there’s research money on campus anywhere- some colleges have a “ugrad research” fund that one can ask for cash from, and if you qualify some minority serving programs have research stipends.

    11. PopJunkie42*

      I’m pretty sure in Arizona they are doing a slow roll-out of increasing minimum wage (over 5-10 years) and the universities got an exemption with extra time to catch up. It meant that our student workers could be paid at the “old” rate for an extra year or two while the university increased funding to catch up with everyone else. I don’t know all the financial details, just know about it because it was a problem when a lot of students decided to look elsewhere for work!

    12. That Girl from Quinn's House*

      A lot of research assistantship positions are unpaid, no class credit. I’m shocked she’s getting paid at all!

    13. Senor Montoya*

      I’m guessing the OP’s job is not actually work-study, but that she (and possibly her prof) are calling it that — kind of like xerox for photocopy or kleenex for facial tissue. Work-study jobs have to follow federal rules.

      OP says it’s paid with a grant, so I’m guessing the grant allows $X for the job, and the prof is not figuring out how many hours at federal minimum wage that would be. Possibly the OP is in a state or municipality with a higher min wage, but again, sounds like the prof is not dividing the total amount of $ available for the job by the min wage to get the hours the OP *should* be working.

      OP, you might calculate that for yourself. You will probably be shocked at how many more hours you are working than you should be, if you were being paid minimum wage. Now, you may be willing to do that for the experience, but understand that your prof has made a decision to do that, either intentionally or by not bothering to think it through.

      Or perhaps it’s an internship?? which unfortunately could legally be paying you crap. Or even nothing.

      1. OP - Starving Student*

        It’s not work study. Technically my role is a research assistant. My boss is a PI on an NSF funded study, I assist her by managing a database (similar to EarthChem or PetDB if you have ever used those). I fill out a timesheet every week, and my paycheck is issued by the university. My hours are capped by the university at 19 hours a week, which realistically is the max I can work, keep up with class work, and stay sane.

    14. Arts Akimbo*

      Haha, I remember my college workstudy experience (back in the late Paleolithic). I was being paid $3.25/hour for work that if I were *not* workstudy would have paid me $9/hour, and that I knew for a fact paid male workers $11/hour. It was so completely shady and illegal that the department chair called me into her office to discuss how completely NOT shady or illegal it was, lest I tell any more people about it.

      Ohhh, college. Wish I knew then what I know now.

    15. EddieSherbert*

      My college internships were unpaid and my work-study on-campus job was minimum wage (and considered part of my “scholarships/grants”!). I actually quit the work-study and gave up that “grant” after a couple years to work off-campus for more money (while also doing unpaid internships) the rest of my time at the university.

      We definitely do NOT have a good system for students in the US, unfortunately.

  2. Kate*

    Having come from a science background myself – it is *impossible* to get a lab job if you do not already have lab experience, which means you need as much of it in college as possible (because that’s the only place where they’ll start you without any work experience). As much as we hear “go into STEM, it’s a guaranteed job,” that’s not true AT ALL. There are MORE than enough people qualified for lab and research technicians, particularly if the field you’re describing is biology.

    1. Sister Spider*

      Cosigned. Additionally, although the pay sucks for this role, having a mentor in undergrad is something that you can’t put a monetary value on. If you decide to go on and get a graduate degree, the connections you have made working will be really important.

      Your lab experience will pay off exponentially long term, when you can command a higher value to employers due to your skills. Entry level jobs working in labs are generally trash and a lot of people expect to work entry level techs to burnout until they just move on since they’re low-skill positions. If you can afford to be a little more selective over jobs due to a wider application net, you will hopefully avoid working for abusive/exploitative employers.

    2. Flower*

      Yeah I went into grad school in a biomedical field with such limited lab experience… and I should have had more, it would have made my life sooooo much easier. Faculty I interviewed with were happy with some of my choices and life experiences that weren’t science related, but having had more actual research experience would have helped me a ton to get into more schools than I did (I only got accepted to one, which luckily was my first choice), to get going faster on my own research (still working on that), and frankly definitely would have been critical had I gone the lab tech route – i don’t know of any techs who didn’t do undergrad research. If you can even get on publications out of this, or even an acknowledgement in a publication, you’re in even better shape for all those things.

      Frankly, if I left grad school now I doubt I could get hired as a lab tech, and I can’t imagine anyone having been willing right after I got out of undergrad. I needed (and still need) a lot of training that they’re more willing to give grad students than lab techs.

      And having a good mentor is incredibly important. If your relationship with her is *really* good, talk with her and get her opinion of how best to approach the problem. She may be able to give you good insights and help you work it out.

    3. Keanu Reeves's Patchy Beard*

      The one possible exception to that is public health. I started out as a part-time lab tech at a state public health lab 10 years ago (yay recession!) and now I’m just below management.

    4. No Bees on Typhon*

      Yes, this. I had a little lab experience going into grad school, but more would have been so much better – beyond all the technical skills I had to learn basically from scratch, it took me several months to really just get into the rhythm of lab work, learning how to manage my time and plan/run multiple long-term experiments concurrently, so the more you can afford to do now, the better. This is especially true if you’re getting your name on publications and poster presentations; these are the currency of science, especially academic science, so they really and truly pay off big time over the long term.

      I would second Alison’s suggestion of trying to reduce your lab hours to take on some better paid work too, if that’s at all possible, but try to keep at least one foot in the lab if you can.

      Good luck, OP!

    5. Entry Level Marcus*

      When people talk about going into STEM, what they really mean ime is go into the “T” and “E” parts.

    6. Nesprin*

      Yep this. If you’ve got lab experience through your institution, lab jobs outside of your institution become possible. I’d look more carefully, as I think you’ve set up a false dichotomy of lab vs. grocery. There’s other work!

      1. Dr. Glowcat Twinklepuff*

        Yup, definitely. I am in physics and many of my colleagues worked as programmers before starting their PhD in space science. And I’m sure it paid for them, because programming is a very precious ability in this field. OP, there’s nothing wrong with wanting a better salary, but if you know you want to remain in academia you should look for a side job that teaches you some transferable skills. I know nothing about labs, but I’m sure there must be something! Good luck!

  3. Blessed with Flushable Turds*

    You wanna be an academic? Keep doing the academic work. You have to stay in a lab to stay employable. PIs won’t put any weight into your grocery store experience, especially if you could have been doing relevant research during the same time.

    Don’t want to be an academic? Choose whatever you want that pays well and gives you the opportunity to prove you can move up/be a leader/achieve goals.

    1. Salmon Dean*

      There are laboratory jobs in places other than academia. I have been in a state regulatory lab for 25 years and before that I worked for a pharmaceutical company.

      I am a hiring manager now and people with some lab experience do have an edge over people with none.

    2. MissGirl*

      Nope on your second point. Unfortunately I worked outside of academia and had a problem getting work after graduation. I had two relevant internships I squeezed in with my paying job, and I got beat out at position after position from people with more internships.

    3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Eh, that’s not an entirely accurate characterization.

      When I graduated I had no interest in being an academic or working for the academy. But having “academic-y” employment in the social sciences made me a much more competitive job candidate in my field. I also worked a number of jobs unrelated to my field to pay my bills, but the RA-ships, paid internship with a public policy think tank, etc., helped me gain practical experience and strong substantive references that made me more competitive when trying to secure non-academic jobs right out of college.

      1. Blessed with Flushable Turds*

        That’s not at all relevant to my comment or her question. You’re talking about law/social science, which is a very different animal from biology/lab science in what is considered practical experience.

        1. Nesprin*

          Yeah… but my bio ugrad research work opened doors into a couple company internships in bio type fields that paid a fair wage. Neither of those has held me back in my PhD work or career as a bio research scientist.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Sure, I understand that science and social science are different, and I should have been clearer in my original comment. At least according to my science friends who are not academics, were not interested in graduate education, and worked in labs during college, they felt more competitive as candidates because of their lab experience. I get the impression that that’s true for lots of science grads who are entering practice.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          For the follow-ups, which I removed: It’s not okay to bully a commenter here. There’s clearly a concerted campaign to harass her and I will not allow that here. Period. I don’t care what you think of her comments; I’m far more concerned with not allowing someone here to be repeatedly harassed. Stop.

      2. Irinam*

        The frustration comes from people making comments like this. It is misleading. A bs in science without the relevant work experience won’t get you a job. It’s true.
        There’s always someone who knows someone who did get a job in science or a lab who didn’t do it ‘that’ way. It messes with people who know otherwise.
        I know people who majored in business, accounting, something else that always say That’s Not True!

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I think my comment is being misread or misunderstood. I am not saying you can get a job in science without lab- or research-based work experience while in college. I agree that you have to have lab experience to get a lab job. BWFT wrote, “You wanna be an academic? Keep doing the academic work. You have to stay in a lab to stay employable.” I agree with that 100%, with the caveat that I am not a scientist and am only commenting based on observation and anecdotal experiences with scientists.

          What I disagree with is the second paragraph, which suggests that you don’t need lab/research experience for non-academic jobs. My point was that even “non-academic” jobs tend to prefer prior lab or research experience.

          1. Antilles*

            My point was that even “non-academic” jobs tend to prefer prior lab or research experience.
            Agreed. I can’t speak for OP’s specialty in particular, but I’m in the engineering part of the STEM and can confirm that even outside academia, people put much more weight on engineering experience than other jobs – even if we don’t have a lab or perform research ourselves, that experience tends to stand out from the page more immediately than unrelated experience.

    4. Jules the 3rd*

      No on your second point – I have multiple friends / family who are biology / chemistry lab techs. All of them have talked about how hard it is to start (or even switch to a different area / set of tools) without experience. If you want to go into industry in a STEM field, technical lab experience is golden.

      OP, go now and check job postings for jobs you’ll want after graduation. Compare their requirements to your experience; if you’re 75% of the way to meeting their requirements, take the higher paying job. If you’re only 50% there, stick with your current job. (example: ‘1 year experience with DataBase’ – if you have 9mo, go, if you have 6mo, stay.

      Your job *really* matters, but the bar is not super high for most fields.

      Good luck!

  4. M_Lynn_K*

    I 100% agree with this, AND also know that having some extra financial cushion at that stage of life is really important to your life, even if helping you less professionally. This tradeoff is really hard for a LOT of people, and this is exactly what people mean when they note that having parents who can pay your bills while in school mean that you can take unpaid internships (etc) and advance your career faster than those who don’t have that kind of support. It is designed to maintain the class inequalities that college is supposed to eliminate. It’s a hard decision, OP, and I really feel for you.

      1. OP - Starving Student*

        Thanks for your comment, M_Lynn_K. I am an older student and paying for my own education. Some of my classmates are lucky enough to not have to work at all during the academic year, and some don’t even need to take loans. We all have different paths in life and it does no good to be bitter… but dang, lucky them.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          OP, I’m so sympathetic. I was a kid who worked my way through college, and it was exhausting and hard. It didn’t happen often, but every now and again I would get so frustrated that other people had disposable income, no job pressure, and no loans. And they could “afford” to take free or low-paying “jobs” and internships, which when added to their pre-existing class privilege, made them more “employable.”

          Ultimately, this comes down to your feelings around economic security. I worked myself into the ground during college because I was ambitious but also terrified of not having enough money to live or being permanently indebted (it triggered some deep fears that were planted during a childhood spent dealing with poverty). I wish all employers paid their interns and RAs just wages. I wish all of this were a more level playing field. But in the absence of that fairness, you have to decide if it’s more important to you to have economic security now (which is valid!) or if you can tolerate feeling tapped out now if it means you’ll secure higher-paying and more interest-related employment post-college.

          I do want to say, though, that after 1-4 years out of college, none of this will matter. And if you’re an older student, you may have work experiences that pre-date your college life and that make you attractive to employers. There’s always a way to write about your experience in an interesting and engaging manner, even if your job was bagging groceries. But it’s a bit easier to pitch yourself when you have related work experience.

          1. Marja*

            I do want to say, though, that after 1-4 years out of college, none of this will matter.

            Eh, I’m not so sure. Good first jobs out of college tend to lead to good second jobs.

            1. CheeryO*

              Yeah, unfortunately I can’t agree with that at all. In my experience in STEM (well, the E in STEM), the folks who end up with the best jobs are the people who had the best internships in college, which directly led to the best jobs straight out of college. It’s totally possible to re-right yourself if you don’t end up on that narrow track, but it’s WAY easier if you stay on it.

              1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                That’s a totally fair critique—I shouldn’t have been so cavalier or totalistic in my comment. From what I’ve seen (which is of course limited and an outsider perspective), it’s WAY easier to get a STEM job if you do STEM internships/work in college, and in many cases, it’s required. Post-college, there are avenues to pursue that track, but it will be harder and there will be fewer opportunities if you opt out of related college jobs/internships. I think Mid’s advice, below, is really helpful and on point.

        2. wittyrepartee*

          Hey, so since you’re an older student… have you looked into eligibility for public aid? A lot of people who are eligible for SNAP benefits (food stamps) don’t know or apply for them. My dad and my boyfriend’s parents and siblings were supported by food stamps during grad school. If you can get the assistance, take it.

        3. Mid*

          I was in the same boat (finally graduated!) and it can be hard not to get frustrated. I worked 1-2 jobs that were relevant to my future career, and 3-4 other “side gigs” to actually pay the bills. It was hard, and I definitely didn’t do as well academically as I could have if I didn’t have to work.

          That said, if you can keep the resume-boosting job while working the bill-paying job as well, that’s probably your best bet. I did a lot of holiday retail during school breaks, which can add up to some pretty great pay (I usually ended up getting time and a half because of the hours I would work during breaks) and help ease the burden during the semester. Nannying/babysitting for local families can also be helpful because it tends to be flexible, pay $15++/hour, and you can do your homework after the kids are asleep/while they’re at sports practices. My career-related job boss also understood my financial situation and allowed me some extra flexibility (eg working less set hours, coming in during off hours to get things done)

          Depending on how close you are with your mentor, you could also talk with her about your options. Would she be okay with you cutting back hours? Working different hours? Does she know of any similar positions with better pay?

    1. ArtsNerd*

      I was someone whose parents supported me through school and could take below-wage internships. It’s the only reason I can work in my field and it’s total BS. I worked hard to earn my place in my field! But many other people are just as deserving and capable who can’t get into these jobs because of these class inequalities.

      I’ve quietly removed the college degree “requirement” in my department’s job listings as a small way to fight this.

      1. Nerfmobile*

        Our job listings always have an “or applicable experience” clause when stating a degree requirement. My field is one where a BA/BS + graduate work is very common, but people come into it with degrees in all sorts of different things and a decent amount of real-world experience in the field can often be as least as applicable as some of the degrees are.

  5. Donkey Hotey*

    Liberal Arts major here. I worked my way through college doing customer service because I liked eating and sleeping indoors. Now working in my chosen field because most employers I encounter totally understand working one’s way through school.
    That said, if the science majors say they will reject you for not having previous lab experience, I don’t know what to tell you, friend, except for good luck.

    1. Yellow*

      Same here. A lot of the skills I acquired in my college jobs were transferrable to various typical “office-type” jobs. But it sounds like that is not the case here. If this is what the OP really wants to do with their life, it sucks, but I think you need to stay in the lower paying job.
      Any chance you can pick up one day a week at the store? Plus, I know the grocery store I worked at in High School offered a discount, so if you could make a little extra $$ and get discounted food, it might be worth it for the next few months.

      1. OP - Starving Student*

        The store I used to work was just purchased by a very large internet store *coughcough* and hiring practices have changed dramatically. My department cannot hire anyone who can’t commit to less than three shifts a week, do not hire seasonally, etc, ect.

        1. ArtsNerd*

          I was so disappointed to hear about the change in benefits offerings, too.

          Best of luck to you, OP.

    2. Sloan Kittering*

      I’m also not sure how much *more* it matters if you worked for one year in a student lab versus four years. The jump between zero relevant experience and some relevant experience is huge and well worth throwing anything you’ve got at; however, the difference between some experience and a little more experience – especially if it’s the same job, same job skills – may provide diminished returns.

      1. TL -*

        Oh it can matter a lot. It really depends on what the OP wants to do afterwards, but in my field, diminished value doesn’t really hit until 3 years (maybe 4). That’s about how long it takes for someone to be able to handed an experiment and do it independently.

    3. CMart*

      Yep, I think this is field dependent.

      To a degree I think that’s okay. I don’t know about the sciences, but most college business internships pay pretty dang well so if you’re someone who needs to be making Real Money all the time it’s not too much of a hardship to take a hiatus from your serving or deli department job to spend the summer doing something relevant. That was an immense relief for me when I went back to school for accounting.

      But when I was in school for communications? No way I could afford to get a bunch of “relevant experience” because it was all unpaid. I had to pay for rent, tuition, food etc… and therefore wasn’t able to get all the cool, career launching internships. But it also mattered less, as the companies hiring for those kinds of positions weren’t nearly as rigid as employers looking for new accountants.

    4. seacow*

      Hi OP,

      I’m a physics post-doc, also a woman, and I’ve definitely been in the position you are now. First off, congrats on being hired in a lab as an undergrad!! It shows they value your work and that they’re willing to compensate you financially is also a good sign that you’re doing good work – I did many an unpaid internship over summer for lab experience at that stage in my career, so congrats on finding something that pays, albeit barely.

      For me, doing this in the UK and not having to pay for healthcare, I worked in a bar on evenings and weekends whilst working in a lab 8-6. I was super, super tired, it was awful. Not sure I’d recommend it. One of the students I’ve worked with recently here in the US works 3 days in a restaurant (a Saturday is part of that) and 3 in the lab each week. He’s there less often but he’s got some money. He’s also got limited free-time, another compromise you’ll have to figure out. There are various ways of doing this, but you;ll inevitably have to compromise on time, energy, or ‘relevant’ experience. There’s just not enough money in academia to pay interns more than the minimum. It totally blows. I plan to be better about this if I ever get to the stage in my career where I have a budget to hire people.
      As well meaning as the office-skills advice is on this thread, that’s unfortuntely a given in science and won’t impress an employee. That being said, no one (decent) is going to look down on you for non-academic work to pay the bills. Do as much as you can. Best of luck, I’m rooting for you!!

    5. Steve*

      There is a difference between the arts and STEM, based on gender.

      In my experience in the 00s, it was highly recommended to women in STEM that they avoid certain types of jobs, and be careful with others. Never ever admit to doing admin work, and try to avoid any non-STEM jobs. I agreed to do repetitive work that looked really good on paper because of the opportunities it gave me. It set me up with a unique final-year project, which led to a specific prof asking to do a master’s, which led to my current job. Life was sub-optimal for 8 months, but I don’t regret a moment and would do it again.

      If anything, the OP might put the prof’s work top on their resume and the job which pays better further down, but if the question is “Are my sacrifices worth it?” then my personal experience and that of others (women and poc friends) is “The world is biased, so very much so”

  6. Seifer*

    Oh, that sucks. When I was still in school, I once took overload credits while working two jobs because like the OP, I was sick of being broke all the time. Since I worked at two restaurants, I would spend time before and after my shifts at the bar glued to my textbooks. But if OP is just taking regular classes and can fit a part time job in around the related job and be okay, then I would definitely do it. I’m in my late twenties now, but in my early twenties (despite occasionally succumbing to a fit of fatigue that was so bad I would end up crying randomly) I could get by on five or six hours of sleep a night, probably due to sheer willpower and the burning desire to not be broke.

    1. EddieSherbert*

      Similar background and thought here – if possible, I’d try to follow Alison’s suggestion to try to do the lab work AND a part-time job. It sucks, but unfortunately, that might be the most realistic option :/

      But I’d recommend looking around for something that is super part-time, or has less normal hours, than a grocery store…. For exmaple, one of my jobs in college was supervising a before school program for kids at the local elementary – it paid decent and my shifts were 6AM-8AM, so I was done in time to get to classes or another job. That was one that was kind of easy to fit in and it brought in a extra hundred a week.

      1. Mid*

        I (among many many other part time jobs) did lunch-time dog walking.

        I set it up so I’d work 6am-10am, class 10-noon, walked dogs while listening to textbooks/lecture audio noon-2pm, class 2-4pm, homework time or more classes 4-6pm, then worked 6-10pm at a different job a few days a week. My school also had all classes in 2-hour blocks, 2x per week, so it was easy to stack my classes this way.

        I know some people who did Uber/food delivery things between classes, because you can choose your working hours, but the pay is not good and not consistent. And you’d need to have a car as well.

        But before- or after-school programs, or app-based jobs that let you pick your own hours might be helpful to close some of the financial gaps.

  7. Kiwiii*

    Relevant experience is everything as a new college grad and if you can figure out a way to make the experience there livable, I want to advocate for you to do that. Other options are seeing if there are other relevant opportunities that might pay a bit more or figuring out how the raise system works at your college.

    I know that I searched for a job in my field for a year and never was successful in finding anyone who wanted to take me on without experience. I eventually found work that values the degree I have, but I /know/ that if I’d had work experience in the field I studied, that I would have had much better luck.

    1. Kiwiii*

      FWIW, I graduated in 2016 and had worked at a gym near campus through college, worked temp positions for a year, retail for another year, a terribly paying but really interesting temp position for 6 months, an admin position for 9 months, and am now in a role i really do like making, finally, what I probably could have made coming out of college with relevant experience in my field.

      1. Pennalynn Lott*

        This happened to friends of mine. I had three internships the last year and a half of my Bachelor’s/Master’s accounting program and I stepped immediately into a job paying at the high end of staff positions for my field (internal audit). My friends who worked full-time in retail or waiting tables continued in those jobs for 1.5 – 2.0 years post-graduation before they could get anyone to hire them. And, even then, they started at below-average wages (i.e., at the lowest end of the salary spectrum for accounting positions in my area).

        Also, every single person in my cohort who had so much as a single internship walked straight into a well-paying job immediately after graduation. But it was hit-or-miss for the non-internship students.

        I should note that my internships paid higher than (a) what my friends were making in retail or waiting tables, and (b) what they made when they finally started jobs in accounting. So it wasn’t a hardship at all.

    2. Sloan Kittering*

      That is a great point, ideally at this point OP would be able to leverage this entry level experience into something still relevant but better paying.

  8. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    My friend did a supermarket job for all of university plus a work study position for awhile. That was years ago and sadly she’s still only able to get retail oriented jobs due to a flooded market for most entry level positions within other industries.

    I would try to stick with the relative lab work. If you leave. Someone will take it and possibly be the exact person who is chosen over you for other jobs after graduation. It’s ugly and I hate it so much. But if you have the same education as everyone else the next thing they look is your relative work experience. Only in hard to fill jobs do people start trying to consider transferable skills because they can translate but that’s a high risk gamble to take.

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      Supermarket or retail experience is better than no experience at all – those people who never did a single internship or worked in any job at all are totally screwed – but yes, someone with relevant experience is going to beat someone without it every time. And there are so many recent graduate applicants for the positions.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        For sure it’s better than nothing, that’s pretty much a given.

        But still, a lot of people in retail and service have degrees that they never get a chance to use due to the difficult expectations out there from hiring managers.

      2. That Girl from Quinn's House*

        I had nothing but “unrelated experience” when I graduated college. That was the end of me getting a professional-level job. It’s been mostly temp jobs and service sector jobs since.

  9. Eve's Husband's Mustache*

    This brought back the fun memory from grad school when, in addition to my peanuts-paying assistantship, I picked up a far more lucrative waitressing gig.

    And then a few months later my grad advisor found out I was a server and told me I needed to quit. Should have told her I only could on the condition that she start paying my rent for me…

    1. Oldster*

      Unfortunately grad assistantships work that way. They pay for school and you get a stipend to work with the expectation that school plus the work is a full time job. It’s why there is a cap on hours.

      1. Eve's Husband's Mustache*

        Yes, which is why perhaps they ought to consider at some point possibly paying, you know, a living wage.

        Weird tho how once we start organizing we’re suddenly “just students” and “not employees”

        1. Tina*

          Ah, yes, Schrödinger’s employee: “Oh, you want to have [student benefit]? Well, you see, you’re really a GRAD student, not a student-student, so you’re more of an employee.”

          “Oh, you want [employee benefit]? Well, you see, you’re not really an employee, you’re a STUDENT, it’s right there in the title.”

          That second one was used to justify why they wouldn’t tell us when our paychecks would come or how much would be in them. We would just get seemingly-random amounts direct deposited into our accounts at different times, and when they inevitably screwed up our pay they would tell us we had to repay them the thousands of dollars they accidentally overpaid us.

          Am I still bitter? Yes, yes I am.

          1. Flower*

            yeah I still don’t know if I’m staff or student. It seems to depend on who’s asking and in what context.

      2. Flower*

        A… cap on hours? What the what? Where does that exist???? We have a theoretical cap on years we can take but it’s… not that strictly enforced.

        We have been told we’re not allowed to work for pay for anyone else or risk losing our GRA but (1) in my field they will always pay you a liveable though not comfortable salary and (2) they tell us *wink wink nudge nudge* if we never find out and your PI doesn’t think you’re not making enough progress it doesn’t hurt us.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      This reminds me of how many women pay their college tuition with stripping and the schools will try to ruin them if they ever find out.

      It’s like universities want students to take a pledge of poverty. I’ll go into a nunnery if I’m going to do that. I’m not going to sink into a pit of debt for hollow promises of what comes after you get those degrees.

      1. Bunny Girl*

        Honestly the only reason I’m not stripping is because I work at a University (while going to school) and I’m sure I’d run into some students. I have seriously considered going a couple towns over for a shift or two a week. I hate the pearl-clutching attitude people have towards it. I also used to work at an adult video store. Not because I respected the fine art of a good lubricant but because they were open 24/7 and I was having trouble fitting a job around my schedule because of other places’ open hours. That solved the problem.

      2. YouGottaThrowtheWholeJobAway*

        I know of someone who stripped her way through her MSW — she is now working in her professional field and hung up the glitter heels, but there is no way she could eat, pay rent, have enough time to study, and graduate without a mountain debt without that specific job. Her classmates are now buried with 6-figure debts in a field where they may never pay it off, or were rich enough they don’t really have to take every job. She still did field work and took relevant internships, but landlords don’t accept prestige for payment. As long as universities treat grad students like indentured servants, they will have to make money how they can.

    3. Owler*

      Because of my small screen and the way my phone screen cut off the text, I made a mental jump from “peanuts-paying assistantship” to “a far more lucrative walnutting gig” and was briefly wondering what one would do during a walnut gig.

  10. Just Another Techie*

    Dear OP,

    I had an AMAZING intern at my previous job. I know for a fact, my former employer would hire my intern in a hot second when he graduates. I’ve already asked him to apply for a position at my new employer (even though he won’t graduate until May) and I’d be shocked if my other former coworker (who also worked with this intern at OldJob, but who left for a different NewJob than I did) wasn’t also recruiting the intern.

    Don’t underestimate the importance of the networking you do in your internship or RAship. You never know who you’re going to run across who will be in a position to recruit you later. I totally get having financial difficulty now, but you’re playing the long game, and having a strong start immediately out of school will have so much impact on your earnings for years afterwards.

    And since you are a woman in a male dominated field, this goes double for you. It’s SO HARD for women in my field to get hired, I tell my female mentees to seize any advantage they can possibly get their hands on.

    1. Emmie*

      Everyone here is giving fantastic advice. I wonder if there is a chance for OP to intern in another capacity, such as for a private company, where she would be compensated better. If OP’s experience is for one person for the duration of her undergrad, she may benefit from additional experience with another organization. I am sorry that OP is dealing with this.

  11. Celeste*

    Because the boss is so great to work with, I’d keep the spot. It’s not going to be easy for her to get great candidates at that level of pay. I would look for a couple of houses to clean because you sometimes get tips with those. Or some other kind of task-oriented job that you don’t necessarily have to put on your resume. Something you feel you can do with the talents you have.

    1. Celeste*

      I meant to add that since she likes you and you are doing great for her, you can surely get a wonderful letter of recommendation for her. Maybe even networking. I’d want to preserve this relationship.

    2. Sloan Kittering*

      I realize there might not be raises available on the grant, but I wonder if you asked this boss to connect you with other (better paying) opportunities, explaining that you were going to have to leave the current position because you can’t pay the bills, if she could help you out. She may not realize the issue.

      1. Emmie*

        Good point. Maybe the boss realizes it, or remembers what it was like to be in the situation. The boss may be more understanding than we think.

      2. Pommette!*

        This is definitely worth a try. Research assistant pay can vary wildly, even within one institution.

      3. Kaitlyn*

        Yeah, chiming in late, but basically came here to say that you need to clue your boss in on your financial situation. See what she has to say when you tell her what you wrote here – there may be connections to other jobs that she can make, or she might have leads on gig-based contract work outside the university, or even just be able to streamline your work so you don’t drop any of the interesting stuff you’re currently doing, but can pick up an extra shift at that grocery store.

    3. Celeste*

      I caught up the OP’s replies and it’s definitely not an easy situation. I don’t know how much longer it will take to get the degree, but I think I wouldn’t rule out crowdsourcing. I would also ask for cash gifts for bills from anyone who might be giving you Christmas and birthday gifts. It’s hard to ask for basic needs, especially when you’re working so hard, but if some help will put you over the hurdle then it seems worth it. You can pay it forward someday, because you’ll definitely have empathy for what it’s like.

  12. Sandy*

    I graduated college 15 years ago. I can honestly say that my college jobs led directly to where I am now (which is awesome on the outside, if soul-sucking on the inside).

    I met a guy from a land far away at my summer job.
    I used my tip money (and let’s be honest, a credit card) to fly to see him the next summer.
    He turned out to be a knob, and my plane ticket wasn’t for months, so I got a volunteer gig in the land far away.
    When I got back to school, a professor was looking for a research assistant with knowledge of the land far away.
    That research job gave me job experience that didn’t involve a cash register or a mop.
    When I was applying for jobs out of college, I got an internship with a politician who wanted to start up a project in the land far away.
    Job experience in the land far away and domestic politics got me an entry-level media job.
    Entry level media job led to an entry-level policy job in government.

    And so on and so forth.

  13. DrMouse*

    PhD biologist here; 100% keep doing the research. You’ll be more competitive for jobs and grad schools if you do go in that direction!

    1. College Career Counselor*

      I see that I’m in the minority with my view that two years in the same research position is not absolutely required. I defer to the science folks here! I do stand by my suggestion to see if the LW can swing a reduction in hours in the science research position AND pick up a hours at the grocery store.

      1. Sloan Kittering*

        I agree with you. You don’t lose something on your resume, once you’ve had that experience. I liked Alison’s suggestion to cut way back on the lab job – that won’t be obvious on a resume anyway.

      2. Nesprin*

        if higher education is in the cards, publications >>> yrs of experience. i.e. coauthorship on a paper is worth more than 4yrs of ugrad research. If not, getting a student job at a company is a better solution to the $$ problem than stopping research.

      3. Nesprin*

        Also, in my decade of research experience, it takes a yr to get up an running in a new lab. So typically, yr1 is learning, yr2 is productive. I’m always more interested in the depth of research experience (so 2yrs) than the breadth (ie. multiple short stints).

      4. professor*

        Hard Disagree. At least 2 years needed, you spend a lot of year 1 just getting acclimated and trained, then do real things. One long term lab experience is better than 2 shorter ones.

    2. Anna*

      So, be broke and barely making it and eating crap? I call bullshit. For some reason, academia has the same bs “suffer for your work” mentality that art does and it is 100% exploitation. This is why research assistants are talking about unionizing.

      OP, if you can do both, that’s great and you should do that. If you cannot and your health, both physical and mental, are being affected, take care of yourself. It will help to have more experience, of course, but this idea that it’s the only way it can be done is one of those bizarre things that people in industries seem to cling to as some sort of right of passage. Just a reminder: You’re barely making it so the university can make a buck, all under the guise of education. Sure, you’re learning something, but unless that something is paying your bills right now? You have to do what’s going to keep you going now, too.

      1. Colette*

        The question is whether the OP is getting enough out of the experience vs. what she’s giving up. If the experience will help her significantly in the future, she’s better off to keep the job (or try to balance it with a better-paying job). If she gives up the opportunity and ends up stuck in jobs outside of her field, she will not be better off in the long run.

        1. Anna*

          As any of us know, and especially people going into academia, there is no guarantee of a job in your field no matter how much experience you garner. My point is, don’t harm yourself in pursuit of the “dream.”

      2. CheeryO*

        Yes, but everything has an opportunity cost. There is always someone willing to suffer more than you are (this isn’t a dig at the LW, it’s just life), and there is always someone more privileged who will get the same experience with less suffering because their parents still pay their bills. I’ve seen many people go through similar lab grinds, and I would advise LW to try to stick it out if at all possible.

      3. Pommette!*

        The idea that students ought to be broke and barely making it and eating crap is, absolutely, bullshit. We should call it out as such whenever we can, and we should promote policies (including better funding for higher ed and primary research + making that funding contingent on evidence of efforts towards being a good and equitable employer). It’s obscene that we still live in a system where people who can afford not to work for a living have a huge advantage when it comes to moving forward in accademia and in the sciences.

        That said, for someone working in that unfairly rigged system, there is a real choice to be made, and OP should know whether choosing money now may leave her at a disadvantage in the longer term. It’s unfair and it’s wrong, but being in what is essentially the lowest and least powerful point in her chosen profession’s hierarchy, there isn’t much that she can do to challenge that unfair system (yet!).

        In any case, OP should know that the problem isn’t her: it’s that she’s faced with an unnecessary and impossible choice.

    3. Heidi*

      Also, if you’re considering grad school/med school, get that letter of recommendation locked down if you haven’t asked yet. If admissions committees see this work experience on your application, they will expect to see a letter from your boss.

      You might also want to consider a side hustle, meaning part time work with flexible hours. There was a discussion about that a few weeks ago. In college, I used to work evenings as an usher and do some proofreading around my lab job (which involved making up petri dishes to grow bacteria for worms to eat). Some of my friends volunteered to be subjects for medical research. It won’t make you rich, but you can buy eggs and vegetables to mix into the ramen. Good luck to you, OP!

      1. OP - Starving Student*

        Hey guys, thanks for all your comments.

        Initially, I tried both jobs and it was the hardest thing I had ever done. I came home from the grocery store bone tired and stayed up till the wee hours doing homework, just to get up for an 8am lab. The market was also very inflexible with the schedule- I was often pressured to skip class to cover shifts. My major is field trip heavy, and we often have weekend trips, which is prime retail time. In my experience, part time work with flexible hours is very hard to come by. One thing I like so much about my research job is its flexibility- I can work anytime I want, and sometimes from home. It just pays peanuts.

        1. Kiwiii*

          I wonder if you could find something at a grocery store and be very up front like, “I can literally only do two four hour shifts a week, but I’ll be a star employee during that time” and just deadpan at any wheedling or guilting they attempt OR find something more flexible in gig work, like maybe dog walking or baby sitting or postmates or something?

          1. Jules the 3rd*

            Not at the store she’s been working for, which pays better than more. A store that will let her do that won’t have the same 40% pay bump.

            Maybe a second research position? Or seriously sit down with your boss and say, ‘I may have to leave if I get no pay raise, is there *any* room for a bump?’

            Boss may be happy about the cheap rate letting her stretch the grant, but OP leaving would probably be rough too.

            1. the Viking Diva*

              yes, I too want to push back on the “raises are not possible” idea. That may be what the PI told you but it’s not true. She may think of it as a fixed budget to pay for XYZ tasks, but she can give you a raise– she just doesn’t want to. You’ve got some skills now, and it would cost her to replace those by training a new person etc. I think it can’t hurt to ask for a raise and tell her you are looking at other options. When I find smart and reliable student workers, I am willing to keep giving raises and to be very flexible on hours, because they are worth their weight in gold :)

        2. EventPlannerGal*

          That’s rough, OP. I’m really sorry you’re facing this choice.

          I think it’s important that whatever you choose, you keep in mind how it’s going to affect your actual studies. There’s no point in toiling at all hours over a job, whatever that job is, if it means you end up performing badly at school – that’s what you’re actually there to do. And it doesn’t sound like the retail job squares very well with the requirements of your degree, either? I completely understand the money pressures (boy, do I ever) but is this specific retail job actually going to solve them without negatively affecting your studies?

        3. Ra94*

          OP, have you considered freelance/contractor jobs in your area of research that might allow you to pick up a little extra cash without taking up too much time? I did some freelance translation on Upwork when I was a student, and my boyfriend tutors a few high school students. It’s hard to fill a lot of hours, but even a few hours a week at $40-50/hour can make a HUGE difference.

          1. Colette*

            Tutoring is a good idea. Math tutors in my area are making $40-$50/hour, so it can be a lucrative sideline.

            1. Ra94*

              Yeah, and while it’s definitely hard in its own right, it’s generally not physically demanding and can be fun if the kids are motivated!

            2. Dagny*

              Yes, tutor, or look into teaching test prep for Kaplan, Princeton Review, etc. The latter are less flexible and pay less, but the former means you have to build your own business.

          2. Kiwiii*

            In this vein, I have some friends who do ESL tutoring/conversing online on a light and flexible schedule. They’ve paired with a Korean company, though I imagine there are many options.

        4. Jules the 3rd*

          You’ve tried the both jobs thing and it doesn’t work for you – fair enough.Don’t get fixated on this as an either / or choice. Some of the suggestions here that aren’t ‘do the market *and* the lab’ or ‘stick through it’ are:
          – Ask boss for a raise (can’t hurt to ask!); your position training people is extra skilled, it deserves extra money. Mentors do matter, so keep her in the loop, and ask if she has any other suggestions.
          – Ask to cut the lab tech hours in half this semester and get a different second job – weekend retail through xmas (the time limited nature will help you get through to Jan), dog walking, house sitting. I’d focus on part time data entry positions first, but if you don’t see something good in a week or two, go for the retail.

          I’d argue that the mentor almost matters more than the skills, we do still get a lot of our jobs through networking, and she’ll be one of your main recommendations.

        5. Glitsy Gus*

          I don’t know where you are, but maybe instead of applying at a chain that has more hard set rules regarding scheduling you could look for a part-time gig at a local market or shop that might be more flexible? I had a few hours a week at a local flower shop my first couple of years in college and because I worked with the owner in her shop, and she like hiring students, it was a lot more flexible than it was for my friends who worked at chains. The pay wasn’t quite as good, but the trade off was worth it.

  14. Sassy*

    I think you should stay with the science job and find other options for food. Look at food stamps and food pantries.

    1. Wren F*

      This is a fantastic idea. Is there a Feeding America warehouse near you? My high school aged son and I have volunteered with them and I was astonished at the incredible food they provide for our community. Even down to fresh fruit & veg. They are amazing.

  15. beepboopin*

    Research Manager here in an academic setting: I hire grad students all the time and while its nice to see work experience, I want to know if you have relevant experience. It is helpful to know work ethic but at the same time in technical related areas, I want to know you have a base knowledge of concepts, terminology, and processes. I don’t generally have the time to teach someone how to do the basics of science. I did an internship my senior year of college in a museum, which helped me get hired as a library aide out of college which helped me get hired as a research assistant in grad school which helped me get hired as a research manager out of grad school. I waited tables and life guarded as well but while good to see I had work ethic and they helped pay my bills, didn’t contribute to my career at all.
    That being said, could you scale back your hours at the lab and do part time there and part time at the grocery store to help supplement your income? I feel you with research jobs being underpaid.

    1. HVAC Engineer Here*


      I was coming here to say exactly this. Beepboopin has captured well what I wanted to say. Replace “science” for “engineering” and you have neatly summed up what we look for in new graduates.

      Also: +1 to seeing if you can balance both jobs.

  16. Not really a waitress*

    If possible to both. I worked 20 hours a week in my student job (at minimum wage and capped at 20 hours.) It was a great position, tons of positive exposure and I loved doing it. Then I waited tables 2 nights a week as well. (did I mention I also had a baby?) That way I got money and the experience to give me an edge.

    1. Catwoman*

      Yeah, as much as it sucks to work two jobs I think this is the best option if OP can swing it. I would try to reduce your hours at the research lab so that you’re still getting enough experience and are able to learn from it and then take on the hours you dropped at the grocery. Also, you might ask the grocery if it would be possible for you to work something like a night-stocking shift, which might even pay more. You might also talk with your professor about consolidating your lab hours to one or two days a week if you need more availability.

      It’s a hard row to hoe, but this is doable. There was one summer in college that I worked an unpaid internship a few days a week and worked in a residence hall on campus. I also worked a retail job full-time right after graduation and asked to always have Fridays off so I could do another unpaid internship one day a week to keep some relevant experience on my resume. Good luck!

      1. Pommette!*

        If she can swing it: true, but it is a big if!

        I know that some people manage to do 30-40 hour a week of paid work while studying full-time, and maintain great grades (and care-taking responsibilities). I tip my hat off to them!

        But lots of people genuinely can’t make it on that little sleep. Something has to give, and their health, their grades and/or the quality of their work slip. I’ve seen had friends come out of school with bad grades and lukewarm recommendations that hindered their professional progress. We need to fix systems that force people to choose between eating and getting the training and experience they need to move forward professionally!

        It may be that 19 hours of paid work (total) is genuinely all that the OP can handle. (Your suggestion of reducing hours at the lab is a good one for sure, if she can do that while still getting relevant experience!).

  17. Bertha*

    I’m with AAM on the whole “how about maybe doing both jobs?” thing. My undergrad was almost 15 years ago now, and it was when the state I lived in was in a recession before everyone else.. but since all my work experience was only in food service/customer service, the only job I was able to get after college was managing a cafe. (Working with a lot of people with no degrees at all, because you don’t need a degree for that position). It’s really hard to say, but imagine you and someone else are applying for the same job and you are the one with the work experience while they only have the degree. I don’t think it’s NECESSARY to get that type of work experience, but it will absolutely put you at an advantage, if you can swing it.

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      I must not be understanding because I’m not an academic. OP already *has* the experience to put on their resume. They don’t have to take it off just because they ended up moving on after a while – right?

      1. Nesprin*

        It’s my experience that research work is non-linear: i.e. 6month -1yr internships are typically for student learning, and the student will not produce anything, 2yr internships are long enough that students produce some new work. I’ve got a decade of research experience and I’m still not very productive for the 1st year in a new lab. If OP can finish a research thesis and hopefully publish, this is an enormous leg up if she pursues a grad school and research fellowships to pay for grad school.

  18. M. Albertine*

    My last job in the Treasury department of a University told me that one of the reasons they hired me was because I had banking experience as a teller in college (one of the “desired” qualifications was in banking), as well as an internship with a financial advisor. At that point, I had had 9 years of experience as a CPA. Which mattered, but the other experience put me over the top.

    Unfortunately, when even entry-level jobs require experience, the experience you have matters. I hope you find a way to make it work, LW!

  19. Has The Bitter Tasting Gene*

    Living on the lower pay from the lab job is good practice for the sort of money you will be earning as a working scientist once you graduate. (I’m a PhD biologist.)

    1. Jedi Squirrel*

      I have a former student who is majoring in biology right now and thinks he’s going to make $80,000 a year as soon as he gets his PhD. I had to break it to him that he’s looking at the top of the scale.

      He still completely disagrees. Yeah, that frontal lobe doesn’t fully develop for a long time.

      1. Benzene*

        If he gets a job in big pharma, that would be easy. I’m a PhD chemist, and my starting salary in big pharma (east coast) was $100k. Biologists may be slightly different, but still within the same pay grade. Smaller biotechs are probably less, but $80k still seems reasonable (coast cities at least, much less certain about midwest and south)

      2. Grapey*

        Depends on where you are, what his specialty is, and how driven he is to get relevant work experience. Biology PhDs that know a little bit of computer science could very easily start at that number in (specifically) Boston or San Diego/LA/Bay Area where biotech is exploding.

  20. Kay*

    Ahh, just another way the poor students get screwed. Not everyone can make the choice between relevant work experience and rent.

  21. MsChaos*

    The value of your work in your field of study is very, very high. My daughter worked for a professor and his grad students when she was an undergrad, and she even got her name on a paper before she graduated. This experience opened the door to multiple well-paid internships with NASA and the National Laboratories (she was a physics major), which opened the door to her being approached by several universities wanting to admit her to their PhD programs. She is now doing some pretty exciting work and traveling all over the world to do it while working on her doctorate. She doesn’t think she would be this far along if she hadn’t kept that department job.

    That being said, I really sympathize with you, and Allison’s suggestion about working the store job just a few hours a week to supplement might work out for you best in the long run.

  22. Rena*

    Science major here with years of grocery store experience (before I went back to school) and relevant undergrad research work experience – no one I interviewed with cared at all about my grocery experience, but they cared an awful lot about my relevant research experience. I don’t think I would have gotten my internship or my current full time science job without the relevant experience from school.

  23. J*

    I think maintaining the lab job if at all possible is more important if OP intends to roll directly into graduate school. If they intend to work after coming out of undergrad, whether temporarily, longer term, or permanently, it is less critical. FWIW, this is the situation my scientist Dr. husband found himself in about ten years ago when we were finishing college. With limited lab work from undergrad, he teched for a few years in an academic lab, then applied to graduate school. It’s pretty much a certainty that he wouldn’t have been admitted to the caliber of programs that he was had he applied while still in college with minimal lab experience. But having to take two years between undergrad and grad to build that experience and skill set wasn’t the end of the world, either. As a regular employee with benefits (and a union member, to boot), he was also paid reasonably, if not extravagantly. He also took a few extension classes at the university at significant discount, which was a nice perk that proved helpful in building an attractive graduate school CV.
    Good luck, OP! I would take the grocery store job with confidence that I could still get to where I am trying to go, if that’s what finances and your mental well-being dictate. No matter what things may feel like, having to leave this lab job, if indeed you do, will not close all the doors you hope to walk through. I 1000% promise.

  24. OP - Starving Student*

    Hi everyone, OP here. Thanks so much for all your advice and enrouragement, especially from the sciencey folks. I reflected a lot on what I wanted to do between submitting my question and when Alison answered it, and I pretty much reached the same conclusion. One poster mentioned that I am playing the long game, and that’s how I’m going to look at it from now on.

    When I first started working at school, I balanced both jobs for three months before I had to quit the market. I was working near full time between both jobs and taking 4 very tough classes. It was *so hard* and I don’t think I could do it again.

    1. banzo_bean*

      I know you mentioned earlier in the comments that you wouldn’t be able to make a split between the grocery store and the research job work, but you might be able to find other side jobs that you could fit into your schedule. In college I worked part time at a brewery on their canning line. It was very intermittent and very part time. Canning manager would call a few days before and ask if could come into work for a few hours. I also was a sub for an after school care program. Same thing, people would call and I could turn down or take jobs when I needed.
      I didn’t make tons of money this way but it did supplement my on campus job.

    2. drpuma*

      Depending on which department you were in at the fancy grocery store, I wonder if you could parlay that experience to being a part-time/occasional cater waiter, on- or off-campus? Again there’s a high likelihood of weekend hours, but at least since the work is event-focused you could have some more discretion over whether or not to take shifts?

    3. Another JD*

      I’d keep your current job for the experience. One-off jobs like babysitting might be a good side gig. You can work after the kids are in bed and make pretty good money. Sitters in the DC area charge at least $15/hour.

    4. Cascadia*

      Hey OP! Such a tough situation – I feel for you. No idea if you like kids or have any care-taking experience, but you could always try getting an occasional evening babysitting gig. Websites like make it easy to upload your information, and if you can cultivate one or a few families that you like working for, you can do the occasional Friday or Saturday date night for the parents. You could do this to bring in some cash, on a very part-time basis, as needed basically, in addition to keeping your RA job. I did this in grad school, in addition to my part-time job in my field, and being a full-time student. I was able to charge $10-$20 an hour, and some parents stayed out way late on Friday/Saturday nights. The job was super easy, usually included a free pizza dinner, and a lot of time watching cable tv. You can also do homework after the kids go to bed, but you’re still getting paid. It’s tough out there, but if you like young children at all, definitely check this out as an option!

    5. That Girl from Quinn's House*

      When I worked in fitness, we retained a lot of students. We didn’t do the just-in-time/random hours/no time off scheduling that retail does, we took everyone’s availability and made a schedule for the month or semester that worked for everyone: you’d get the same shift, the same days a week, for a month/semester, and if you needed extra time off for field trips or finals, you’d get it as long as you were responsible in asking for it.

    6. smoke tree*

      I’m guessing you would have mentioned this, but any chance your school has a co-op program? I’m not sure if this is the case where you are, but in my area, co-op jobs tend to pay about as well as a regular entry-level position and let you get professional experience as well.

      1. E in STEM*

        Seconded. I had over a year of hands on experience in analysis design and testing by graduation. It extended my BS to 5 years though so there’s that.

  25. anonymous 5*

    Science professor here: will your school allow you to do research as an “independent study” (or related) for course credit? You say you’re a senior, and so most schools will have some manner of senior thesis option that will mean you can be satisfying a graduation requirement with your research (i.e. not needing to do it on top of an already-full course load) and that might hopefully leave you with some hours to work at a job that pays well. Hopefully your advisor will have some insight into that. Best wishes to you!

    1. Lora*

      Seconded. My undergrad had all seniors do some sort of quasi-organized research project which would then be either published or presented at a smallish conference, as part of the degree program. They also offered lab assistantships as part of the financial aid package, which paid minimum wage. I had to work part time at decently paid gigs in addition to this in order to eat and have a roof over my head.

      One of the professors asked me to work on his project all summer *in addition to* my work-study and other research work, with the promise that on the glorious day his grant came through, I would get paid for it. His grant showed up to the tune of several million $$. Did I get paid? HECK NO. He was, for reasons only known to him, shocked when I told him I wasn’t going to work on his project anymore. Didn’t I want to get into the graduate programs of his cronies?? Didn’t I want a paper on (completely irrelevant wildlife biology thing)? Didn’t I want a really nice reference letter from him?

      Unfortunately it doesn’t end when you get into industry. People who need a job to eat often go into engineering, operations, etc. for career stability reasons.

    2. OP - Starving Student*

      I will talk to my prof about the possibility of getting credit for working for her. I have not thought about that.

      I am in a geology program, and this prof is also my senior thesis advisor. My senior thesis involves a volcanic field in the region I study for my research assistant role. It’s already pretty incestuous, lol. I would have never gotten so involved in volcanology if it wasn’t for her, it’s a fascinating field that marries chemistry, physics, and LAVA.

      1. Wren F*

        Would you be interested in offering tutoring services for a fee? There are certainly enough students who struggle with chemistry and physics who’d love the help!

        1. Lora*

          Oh, yes – while my undergrad work study paid minimum wage, tutoring for the athletic department paid 4X the minimum wage. And was very flexible on hours. Definitely look into this.

      2. anonymous 5*

        Ooh, if you’re already doing a senior thesis, that should help a lot with the lab work/relevant experience when it comes to your job search. Unsolicited advice here, but as you’re working this year, I’d keep a list (with your mentor’s help) of what “employment” skills you’re developing alongside the more academic/contribution-to-the-field type of things you can say about your thesis work. Being able to go to an interview and talk about both the intellectual side of your research and the pragmatic tools that you used to do it is a great combo. Lots of good wishes to you!

      3. Third or Nothing!*

        Aha! I totally guessed geology from your earlier comment about field trips. My husband studied that in college before he figured out he needs to work with his hands, so he went into welding. Which also coincidentally involves playing with fire. :D

        Wish I had actual advice for you. It sucks that you’re in this position. I like the tutoring idea many people have suggested.

      4. Close Bracket*

        Getting research credit could actually interfere with you getting paid, though, unless you work more hours. It gets tricky separating hours worked for class and hours worked for assistanceships. It’s a line that grad students have to walk and sometimes schools get into debates about the “student” vs “worker” parts of student workers.

        1. anonymous 5*

          My thought was academic credit in lieu of payment from the lab work, so that the lab hours would become part of the degree and leave the “work” hours available for a different job entirely.

      5. stem bem*

        hey! i am a geochem grad student. Unfortunately, despite volcanology being so damn cool, there are really few jobs outside of academia and USGS. If you want to continue in the field, you’re going to need a PhD. Don’t get a masters first unless your grades are terrible. A PhD program will pay you, but a masters in volcanology will likely not and might even charge you. Start working now with your professor to identify others in the field you’d want to apply to work with in a year or two. It’s probably a little late for next year (though not impossible!).

        I’m going to repost from a different comment I made, because I really hope you see this. I am a woman in one of the top geology programs in the US, and we have to help each other out! The info about fieldwork does change things a little – you have a lot beyond database management, and when you apply to grad school you’ll want to focus on the research rather than your current RAship.

        ok here is my comment:

        “Unfortunately, research roles aren’t going to be THAT interested in someone whose only geoscience expertise is in database management. Beef up on your mineralogy and coding skills. Come to think of it, this is something I’d recommend for any part of the geosciences.

        Work really hard to get an REU through NSF or a school independently (Columbia/AMNH sponsor some really good ones in New York, etc., but most schools have them. NASA and USGS do as well, but you need an in). In order to get one, directly contact a professor you’d like to work with. Undergrads are cheap labor (as in, you’ll get paid more BUT way with way less overhead than a grad student) and professors like seeing motivated people who want to do more in the field. You won’t be ready for a research-based masters yet; maybe a course-based one but those tend to be more expensive and not regarded as highly by employers. If your boss does really like you, look into seeing if she’ll officially hire you as an RA for a year after graduation. That plus an additional REU or two will set you up for jobs anywhere in geo. Good luck!”

        All in all: go to grad school. Make sure it is funded. Work on really cool stuff near a really cool volcano and take over the world. Hope to see you at AGU!

      6. Rock Prof*

        Getting credit for research can be handy for many reasons that have been discussed, but it can also be good to get the credit on your transcript that shows something more focused than the general classes, like “Advanced Geochemical Analysis of Lava” or whatever. If/when you apply for graduate school, sometimes that can count toward your degree credits (or at least for prereqs). At my school, you can count research for both pay (you still have to track your hours) and credit, but it can definitely get into areas of creeping priorities/ethically ambiguous hourly accounting.
        I’m also going to put in a plug for the Earth Science Women’s Network. It’s got a really active discussion board on facebook but also has a website that’s easily google-able. It’s got everyone from undergrads to professors (me!) to gov’t geologists to consultants on it, and it’s really great for specific geology/earth/ocean/atmospheric science and women in stem questions and discussions.

  26. NotAPirate*

    How much free time do you have? If it wouldn’t make your grades suffer could you work for the university and then do sidework? If grocery place only has full time positions there’s other options too. I made a ton of money babysitting and working in weekend nursery’s during college. Nursery gig was the best, it included free dinner and sometimes sent me home with leftovers. Churches need nursery workers a lot for during services and programs. Gyms, some chain stores like grocery places also do. Parents like college aged sitters over highschoolers I found. I also made some money coding websites for people in my free time.

    1. AnotherAlison*

      Coming here to say something similar. I would pay you $100-$150 to clean my house biweekly. It would be difficult to connect with people outside your uni network, but in my situation my son is college-aged, and can refer me to a bunch of college kids looking for work. My husband currently has one kid working for him as a part-time electrician helper mornings only, so it can work out. Can you connect with a townie friend’s family & their friends to find some hidden cash opportunities as-needed?

  27. Lynca*

    STEM hard science grad here. I had a ton of admin work on my resume post college along with one work-study job I did in my department.

    But what got employer’s attention was that I had demonstrated skills in testing and that I was intimately familiar with what they needed to be able to show for regulatory/informational purposes. Not all of that was paid, I volunteered for a lot of the things I ended up putting on my resume. That was backed up by the people in the labs I volunteered in being willing to provide references as to what testing I did and what kind of worker I was.

  28. Rock Prof*

    It depends upon your course load, but you might be able to work in the lab and get credit, which could at least account for some time. I have very little money to pay students (getting grants at an undergraduate state school is tough!), so most of my research students take between 1-3 credits of research a semester. At my school, if you take a 15 credit load normally, and 3 of those are research, you might more easily add in another part-time job, as you could have only 3 normal 4-credit classes (assuming they’re lab course credits). You’d still need to dedicate time to the lab job, but you could at least get away with one less class.

  29. MissGirl*

    I had this same problem with my undergrad. I worked at a warehouse and went to school, which didn’t leave much time for internships. I realized my senior year I was going to be screwed so I did my best to fit a few in. I was rejected for an internship that would lead to full time work after graduation because I didn’t have enough experience. I was rejected at an entry level job for someone who had five or six internships compared to my two. I cried to my mom on the way home how no one would ever hire to do anything besides selling plumbing parts.

    I finally did land a full-time position based on skills I had picked up doing some of the unpaid work, not anything in my class.

    When I went back to get my MBA, I was determined not to make the same mistake. Since I was completely changing careers, I quit my job in publishing and went back full time so I could do internships. I took out student loans, which I was loathe to do and still worked a part-time unrelated job in the winters. I did a full-time internship in the summer that gave me experience to get my job after graduation (FYI MBA internships pay way better).

    Four years after quitting my job and two years after graduation, I make more than twice what I did and have paid off all my student loans. The short-term loss was well worth the long-term gain.

  30. Hey Karma, Over here.*

    Are there any of your courses you can take online? I worked full time in grad school and was able to take a class that was online through my university. They asked that you attend one session, but it was very relaxed. I also found that this class had more flexible deadlines, like “get through these four lectures this month, if you can’t do one a week.”

  31. awesome*

    I feel so angry on your behalf. This is an example of how privileged helps people get ahead: if you don’t need the money for food, you can take the lower paying job that will give you the experience you need. Then you’ll be the one that gets the job offers because you have the needed experience.

    1. Miranda Priestly's Assistant*

      Yeah – it’s like this in almost every industry. I was a science undergrad and left for another, more business-y field. However, it’s one of those white collar fields where you are more likely to get a job if you did some sort of unpaid-but-prestigious internship (usually afforded to people via nepotism.) It keeps the field very un-diverse. The irony is, I feel like my customer service, barista jobs were 10x more useful for preparing me for my current client-facing role than any of those lame internships. Like, yeah, I crunch numbers 10% of the time. I spend the other 90% of the time juggling multiple personality types, dealing with high expectations, anticipating other people’s needs, anticipating issues, and preventing/putting out fires.

      (That being said, I think working in a lab DOES provide valuable experience, but it should be paid more.)

  32. PopJunkie42*

    I agree with Allison that finding a split would be best if you need to! Getting an extra year of lab/research experience, if that is what you want to do after school, is the best thing you can do. Once you have your degree you will be able to do similar work for more than (not-quite) minimum wage. But I would also encourage you to do a LOT of career research in your senior year as well. Talk to your mentor and your university’s career services office, as well as connecting with your field’s professional organizations. If you really hate lab work, don’t set yourself up for doing it immediately after you graduate. If you want to do lab work, make sure you look at salaries and find out what opportunities you can get with your 2 years experience + bachelors. I know it’s extra stress in your final year but don’t be caught by surprise in terms of job titles/availability/pay when you graduate.

    1. Summertime*

      Student financial services can also be helpful with providing a list of scholarships you could apply to. Some will have more time consuming applications, so I recommend skipping those that are really intense. But some will require basic info. I’d suggest to throw your net out and see what you can catch. I don’t know OP’s financial situation, but if you’re working through school it’s likely you qualify for some need-based scholarships on top of the merit based ones.

  33. sequined histories*

    It’s a sad commentary on our society, but, assuming you really want a career in this specific field, your best option may be to look into what kind of charitable or governmental aid you might be eligible for: food stamps, emergency food pantries, meals in soup kitchens. It sounds pretty depressing I know, but I think if some help now could help you achieve something that is truly important to you, something that you aspire too do, and a little help now could make the difference, you should avail yourself of it.
    On the other hand, if this specific field isn’t that important to you, maybe consider whether or not you could get on another career ladder with similar earning potential that doesn’t require so much sacrifice up front.

  34. LadyofLasers*

    Physics PhD here: I agree with the others that if you’re in the sciences and you want to continue in the field, lab experience is way more valuable than other jobs. There’s a little bit of an apprenticeship to science where a lot of hands on knowledge about research is passed directly from person to person and can be hard to find in books.

    As for money what you get paid in industry is way more than what you get paid in academia, if that has any appeal to you. Even if you’re thinking about grad school, the stipend you can get in STEM is livable, if not enriching.

    I am a little surprised that you are in a paid position as an undergrad instead of getting college credit for it. Would you be able to swing making the research an independent study? If the research was instead of another class, that might free up some time for a better paying job.

    It also might be worth running your struggles by your mentor. She might have some ideas and suggestions of opportunities that haven’t occurred to you. (Maybe don’t come out and say I’m thinking of quitting research and working at the store, but be open about how you’re struggling to make ends meet on just the research funding and are trying to find a way forward to continue doing research.)

    1. Miranda Priestly's Assistant*

      The independent study is a good idea! I would also recommend applying for any scholarships provided by either your school or outside programs that are geared towards STEM students.

      I did not continue in the science field, but also worked as an undergrad research assistant in college and was funded through a grant. It is very little. I worked another part-time job but was also fortunate to be supported by my parents. Something I noticed was that very few science majors were minorities because of this financial reason – many students had to choose between working for a living or doing research.

    2. 1234*

      The only problem with making the research job an independent study is that the university will most likely charge the OP for the credit hours. Essentially, the OP would be paying to work at the lab.

      1. Miranda Priestly’s Assistant*

        This is true. It would only help with the time aspect if it replaced one of the courses in their full course load.

        1. LadyofLasers*

          Right, that’s what I was thinking, that she could make this work count towards her degree, and replace a class. For better or worse it’s really common.

  35. RC Rascal*

    What do you think you want to do after graduation? Non glamorous part time college jobs can lead to real jobs after graduation. I got hired by a big name food and beverage company after college because of a part time school job in a cafe where I mostly grappled with the beverage equipment, fixing and cleaning it. But that experience allowed me to stand out in the interview process with the company that made those products, and put my career off to an outstanding start. Similarly, an acquaintance of mine ran up a big credit card bill in school, and her parents wouldn’t help her pay it off. The only place she found a job that worked with her schedule was a tire store, as a cashier. The tire store loved her, and she stayed after the credit card was paid off. They trained her on tires, and it turned out the tire company had a management trainee program for college grads. She applied, was accepted, and has a great job as a region manager for the tire company.

  36. Newton Geiszler*

    Hey OP, one option I haven’t seen mentioned here are seeing if your university offers grants to students. I was able to apply for one my senior year that helped boost me above minimum wage. Professors don’t always know about these! Your program advisor or a department administrator are probably the best people to ask.

  37. July*

    Someone once told me “work/life balance is a whole life deal.” Right now working hard for little money is pretty rough. But when you make that choice, you’re working toward a bigger paycheck throughout your career and a more comfortable retirement in your old age. If you can think about the lower paying job in those terms–that you’re actually doing this to get richer–it might make those Kraft dinners go down a little easier. I don’t mean to minimize the difficulty here, at all. But sometimes that bigger picture perspective really helps.

  38. Goldfinch*

    I’m in tech, and agree with the science folks that you need to keep this recent, relevant experience.

    It sounds like the grocery job isn’t compatible with your current schedule. I’d scrap that idea, dial back on the lab hours, and find a second gig that IS workable. Something very flexible and on-demand. Uber/Lyft, if you have a newer vehicle? Dog walking through the Rover app? Assistant gigs on TaskRabbit?

  39. YoungTen*

    OP- Sorry to hear about your difficult position. Could you do a side hustle? Maybe some students studying your field could use some tutoring? Maybe you can take notes for students? If you have a car, could you do a food delivery service? With some creativity, I’m almost sure you can find a way to pad your income while keeping your current job. I have a feeling that you are living frugally but just in case, look around and see if there is something you can cut to save even a few extra bucks. And while it sounds tacky, with the holidays approaching, your family may want to know what you’ll like as a gift, that may be the time to politely ask for monetary gifts or gift cards for places that you’ll use. Most people who love you will be happy to help a hardworking student while they are trying to achieve their goals. If worst comes to worst, it’s only for a little while longer in the grand scheme of things. I’d love to read an update in the future, best of luck to you!

  40. Lauren*

    We interviewed interns based on them having their own lawnmower businesses. Two of them. Shows initiative vs. the internship collectors we got who expected a job to materialize instantly for them post-graduation.

    1. TL -*

      In the sciences, the technical skills count for a lot. It is a lot of time to train someone up (undergrads are a LOT of work for their mentors) and having someone who already knows how to be in a lab is a really valuable asset, much more so (in most cases) than any transferable skills.

  41. Jedi Squirrel*

    Instead of a grocery store, why not bartend a couple of nights a week? I had a student teacher that bartended on Friday and Saturday nights while he was interning with me (he wasn’t supposed to, but I didn’t say anything to his college advisor because I know how it sucks to not have money). He was making almost as much money in two evenings as I was in five days of work.

    Neither of us are in teaching any more.

  42. Another worker bee*

    Can confirm all of the above, OP. I spent my undergrad years, and a few beyond that, working the incredibly low wage lab jobs supplemented with waiting tables and tutoring so that I could actually afford my rent. The lab jobs were what people wanted to see on my resume, so you should keep doing it if at all possible. If you are in a STEM field you should consider tutoring (high school math, test prep, the 101 classes) if you aren’t already, it’s a low time commitment and I think I charged about $30/hr when I was in school.

  43. Ella*

    This is one of those infuriating things that so clearly highlights how low income students are at a massive disadvantage when it comes to joining the workforce and beyond.

    To the Letter Writer, I had two part time jobs during my final years in college that were both very relevant experience to my future career, and I know they helped me get interviews and offers after I graduated. (Much more than the cafeteria jobs I also worked while I was at school.) I second Alison’s final suggestion to see you’re able to keep your research assistant job but drop to fewer hours and then work part time at the grocery as well. I suspect most future employers will give fairly equal weight to a part time vs. full time assistant research job, given you were a student at the time so part time work is extremely normal.

  44. Barbara Eyiuche*

    If you can possibly manage it, stay with your university job. It gives you experience in your field, a mentor, contacts, access to other opportunities, and so on. It will help you later.

  45. Psych0Metrics*

    Unfortunately in today’s job market, even entry level jobs often require 1.5-2 years experience so you can really give yourself a leg up by keeping the research assistant job.

  46. CommanderBanana*

    Ugh, it sucks but seconded. My undergrad required an internship, which was unpaid (which is a whole other box of crap I won’t open) BUT it was actually really helpful to have that on my resume, because I had a lot of work experience but it was all retail or similar and this was the only relevant thing I had by the time I got out of grad school.

  47. Triumphant Fox*

    Agree with everyone about staying with this position. I’d recommend looking into other part-time work, especially childcare if you enjoy it. Try finding things where you are either doing something to blow off steam or that you enjoy, that makes decent money (waitressing, bartending, etc.) or that let’s you do your homework on the job (some receptionist positions, working in small shops, etc.) A lot of these have flexible hours that don’t conflict with school or your research job and that you can get a low enough number of hours to still manage your time. If you need more flexibility, teaching english online is often done at night, completing surveys or other side gigs for cash is always an option.

    Unless the job you have is a lot of time, then I still think you should stick with it for the mentorship, but you may be limited in outside jobs.

  48. Close Bracket*

    You should be able to get an internship or coop at an engineering company with a science major. See what you can learn from the College of Engineering. Colleges of Natural Science tend to believe that everyone is going to go to grad school and be tenure track. They don’t focus enough on finding industry experience. It’s actually job fair time in the academic world. Update your resume and see if you can find someone to pay you.

  49. phira*

    Biologist here: Most labs, whether they’re industry or academic, want to put as little time and money into training people as possible, which means recent grads with the most experience are the ones most likely to get hired. Your GPA is important when it comes to getting interviews and interest, but a 3.2 with twice as much lab experience as a 4.0 is going to get my interest more.

    I think it’s criminal to underpay student workers, and it’s unacceptable that you are having to scrimp and save this much. But if you can stick it out for one more year, I would do it. (And then look for industry jobs so you can actually make some money.) I would also see about either increasing your technical skill repertoire OR being more involved in the higher-up aspects of your work. Can you do a mini-thesis? Can you help write a paper (e.g. methods section and maybe the results or introduction)? Because if you’re going to do this for another year and make shit money, you should be getting as much out of it as possible for you to leverage for a job.

  50. professor*

    LW is VERY lucky to have a paid research position at all- most undergrads pay tuition money for that in the sciences. And without that, you’re not getting into grad school for sure. Jobs only needing a BS? Yeah, much better odds…the system sucks

  51. Phoenix Programmer*

    I graduated, top of my class, from the 4th best school *in the world* for the science I do, was published, first author, my senior year as an undergrad in the journal of theoretical biology, got a Fulbright for science to Australia … and I don’t work in science today.


    A lot of the reasons you mentioned here. I wanted money to enjoy life. I wanted to support a family, to have health and dental insurance, and to be able to retire by 70. My field just didn’t pay enough for that. I settled for using my science and math skills for data analyst and data science jobs and have zero regrets.

    Maybe you are not like me, but please do not go to grad school until you have worked in the field a couple of years. Most of my friends who went the grad school/post docs route are burnt out and trying to transition to non science jobs at 33 and feeling out-competed by 22 year olds. One of them is happy and has her first permanent position at 32 – which good for her! It’s making $40,200 a year in Massachusetts though. I make almost twice that in a rural mid western town. With no added graduate school debt.

    Maybe $40k in MA with a hundred grand in student debt sounds worth it to you but just be sure.

    1. stem bem*

      she’s in volcanology, so there are no real well-paying full-time jobs you can get without a PhD. Technically, not every job “requires” a PhD, but there are always people with PhDs applying for those jobs and they aren’t going to look at someone with just a BS in the field. She can try to get an RA somewhere else, but if she wants to do research she’d be better off getting paid a similar amount IN grad school and working on her own research instead of someone else’s

  52. J.B.*

    OP – I am in my second masters program now (15 years in between). If you are thinking of going to grad school, I would think long and hard about what you want to do with that degree. The academic job market and publish or perish is not something I would recommend unless you can’t see yourself doing anything else. (This is why I will have two masters degrees instead of one PhD.)

  53. stem bem*

    Hi OP – is it possible for you to pick up tutoring or some kind of STEM-y side job? I, like you, am a woman in a male-dominated field who had to work several jobs during college just to get by and support myself while pursuing a STEM major: several research jobs, some coding work, teaching assistant for a summer camp, tutoring, and teaching math to little kids. I was definitely able to spin my non-research things in a way that made me a valuable candidate for jobs and grad school (where I am now), and as a plus they tended to pay WAY better than my research work alone.

    However! A lot of my experience rested on going to state college in a mid-size college town, where there were lots of people who needed employees but not a glut of college-educated people available to fill them, so a lot of the jobs were available to reliable students. You’re a senior, so it may be harder to find a long-term job before moving on and up. Good luck!

    1. stem bem*

      Oh, reading through your responses, it looks like you’re in Earth sciences somewhere. Most likely petrology or geochem? Me too! I’m in a geochem-centric PhD program right now. If you want to go into mining or exploration, your school almost definitely has connections. Talk to your department head about what typical student backgrounds look like before entering those fields. They probably have some good ins with people in those fields and can point you towards internships, etc. Not to mention that summer gigs on the exploration (esp oil/gas) pay really well if you can get them.

      If you’re interested in something more research-y, then see if you can find a side job that helps up your technical skills beyond Excel and database maintenance. Unfortunately, research roles aren’t going to be THAT interested in someone whose only geoscience expertise is in database management, so you’d be better off looking towards a more administrative role at the moment. Beef up on your mineralogy and coding skills. Come to think of it, this is something I’d recommend for any part of the geosciences.

      Work really hard to get an REU through NSF or a school independently (Columbia/AMNH sponsor some really good ones in New York, etc., but most schools have them. NASA and USGS do as well, but you need an in). In order to get onedirectly contact a professor you’d like to work with. Undergrads are cheap labor (as in, you’ll get paid more BUT way with way less overhead than a grad student) and professors like seeing motivated people who want to do more in the field. You won’t be ready for a research-based masters yet; maybe a course-based one but those tend to be more expensive and not regarded as highly by employers. If your boss does really like you, look into seeing if she’ll officially hire you as an RA for a year after graduation. That plus an additional REU or two will set you up for jobs anywhere in geo. Good luck!

  54. boop the first*

    I admire people who can juggle multiple gigs and somehow keep the peace between them.

    It’s so easy to say “reduce hours at ____” or “work some part time job in your off hours” as if jobs are controllable in that way. The truth is, low wage jobs are just as demanding as any other job. They’re not going to choose hires that don’t have 24/7 open availability if they can help it. And if pickings are slim, and they decide to try the employee who has a strict schedule, they will use every moment of interaction to beat you down and take whatever time they can squeeze from you, until you quit your field job and stop showing up to “less urgent” classes out of fear of losing the paycheck. It’s exhausting.

    It would work though, if you are the type who is very rigid and powerful when saying no. And if you have the energy to deal with it and stick to your agreed schedule. There’s no reason not to try it.
    I’ve had some coworkers who made it work short term, but they were also unreliable, and kept messing up schedules for the rest of us.

  55. Enginear*

    One of the benefits of being a student is the eligibility of internships and co-ops that people who are already graduated don’t have the luxury of. You need to capitalize on the opportunity and get as much experience as possible to build your resume before you graduate. Once you’re out of school, you’re done. No more internships or on-campus jobs anymore. You don’t want to make that mistake.

  56. Laura*

    I was a Writing Assistant during my last two years of college, and I recall my supervisor mentioning to us that he wanted the pay to be higher than it was. Note that I held this job 7 years ago and went to college in a state (OR) different from the one I currently live in (CA), so maybe things have changed. Because Writing Assistants take a training course, “Composition Theory and Practice,” he felt that we were justified to more pay compared to student jobs that do not require extensive training (clerical workers, food service staff, etc). OP may be correct that minimum wage does not apply to student workers, but I’m not certain as this could depend on the state.

    As for whether college jobs matter, my thoughts are that 1) depends on how recent of a graduate you are and 2) what kinds of jobs you’re applying for. Of course, if OP is about to graduate or is a recent graduate, college jobs will matter. On the other hand, college jobs matter less the longer one is out. I’ll also add that I’ve changed career paths from education to medicine, so my experience as a Writing Assistant mattered more when I applied to teaching jobs, but less for medical/administrative jobs – with the added note that being a WA demonstrates my excellent writing skills!

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