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grad students as cheap labor

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As a full time project engineer in a university structural research lab and later as a graduate student, I experienced this first hand.  Small, back channel, privately funded research projects created and supported our lab.  The equipment and test hardware these jobs provided the lab would later be used to support official university funded projects.  The big official university projects provided test equipment, hardware and facilities that made the cost of the smaller private consulting projects much more feasible. 


The ethics of this relationship are questionable.  The University was unaware of these privately funded research projects and the department lab director knew full well what was happening, but claimed ignorance.  At first these consulting jobs were after hours and weekends and didn’t impede the university work.  Later, when there were a lot more jobs, this outside work happened during regular hours.  Equipment required for official university projects was no longer available because the lucrative work took precedence.


The consulting work paid well and was fast pace, interesting real world research.  Most of the work stemmed from forensic or product testing sources.  Undergrads and grad students worked hard and weren’t bogged down by the bureaucracy of the university system.  Ultimately, it was too difficult for me to deal with the ethical conflicts and the people who believed that their private profits were for the benefit of society (I guess it was easier to think of it that way).  When I questioned what was going on, the people in charge got upset with me and I ultimately left the program, or was sort of elbowed out.


My opinion of consulting work in university research labs is that it is a benefit to the university and to the structural community.  If the University is aware and formally allows such work, everyone benefits.  If private work has to be hidden from the University, who ultimately supports the infrastructure of the research lab, there is an obvious impropriety.



Matt Steiner, P.E.

Project Engineer


999 Town & Country Road

Orange, CA  92868