Students raise alarm over psych department’s practices

Brain maze Morgan House

Unpaid RAships cause for concern

Psychology students at the University of Regina are raising concerns about the department’s practice of using unpaid research assistants in labs on campus – even as other departments, and the psych department itself – use paid RAs whose workplace rights are protected under the collective bargaining agreement of CUPE 2419. Students describe a hyper-competitive environment in which their ability to pursue graduate studies is dependent on their ability to get into honours, which is dependent on their ability to get these coveted – uncompensated – RAships. Several psychology students spoke to the Carillon on the condition of anonymity, saying they were concerned that speaking out might threaten their ability to build and maintain solid relationships with faculty and administrators in the department, relationships that they say are key to any possibility of advancing in their program.

Laurie Sykes Tottenham, the head of the psychology department, said that “volunteering in psychology is very much a norm.” Tottenham said that far from being an exploitative practice, “it’s something we offer to students as a service. We’re very transparent about that.” She said that because of the competitive nature of the program, lab experience is highly sought out and there aren’t enough positions to go around, either paid or volunteer. “We don’t require students to volunteer, they’re the ones that are seeking out opportunities from us.”

But students have a different view of the situation, one they’re not entirely comfortable speaking publicly about. “The psych department is pretty specific in how they do things and because I’m trying to get into this honours program, it’s one of those things where if any faculty see my name attached to anything like this, there goes my chance,” said one student we’ll call Alicia, on why she didn’t want to give her name.

Tottenham said volunteering isn’t a requirement “in any way, shape, or form,” but Alicia said that’s not the whole story. “What they don’t tell you they take into consideration a lot is that they want you to have two years of lab experience” before you can be accepted into honours. “They also look at the connections you have with professors. You don’t have to be the best candidate. If you know most of the professors, there’s a high chance you’re going to get in over someone who meets all the qualifications on paper.” And just getting into a lab is no guarantee that it’s the right lab. “There’s like a weird hierarchy that you don’t find out about until later on,” Alicia said. “If you’re working with someone who has an established lab, they consider that better than if you’re working with someone who’s just working on their own individual projects who doesn’t have a lab, even if you’re doing the exact same thing.”

And even though it’s unpaid labour, Alicia said the process of getting that work is highly competitive. “You basically have to hunt down professors and beg them to take you into their lab. And then a lot have an application or interview process to see if you’re good enough to be in their lab, though they’re not paying you to be there.” Melissa, another student who asked not to be named because she’s applying for honours said, “at first it just strikes you as weird and you can’t quite put your finger on why and then you start getting more and more involved in things and you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s because you’re taking advantage of us.’”

Tottenham said that because the positions are unpaid, and because there is a union that represents paid RAs, “we’re very much aware of the article that says that we can’t have any students doing work that would otherwise be for pay. And we really want students to know they’re not taking somebody’s job.” But there’s no official framework in the department for determining what work unpaid RAs can and cannot do. “Each PI is responsible for their own hiring and their own personnel and their own volunteers. They have their own contracts.” So there’s no way for students to know what work they might be doing that should be paid work. Melissa said, “I wouldn’t even know what to look for,” when it comes to duties covered by CUPE 2419’s CBA. And the competitive nature of the department, in which everyone is trying to gain as much experience as possible in order to have the best chances of moving on in their field, means that even if students were given tasks reserved for unionized workers, they don’t feel that they could turn them down. “Why would I turn down something they’re asking me to do if I knew it was going to benefit me?” Melissa asked.

While Tottenham said that many of the duties they ask volunteers to perform are one-time things, like acting as an audience in an interview, Alicia said some of the work she’s been asked to do is much more complex. “You’re looking at data or your collecting data or you’re doing things that a paid RA or an honours student would be doing, that you wouldn’t exactly expect a volunteer to be doing.”

She said she was given little training for her first job in a lab. “I was given the password to get into the lab, told to tell people to do this thing on a computer, and punch that information into a spreadsheet. That’s all I was told. I was like, ‘how am I supposed to talk to [participants] in regards to the ethics form they’re supposed to fill out? What do I do if they have questions? How much can I actually help them without hindering what’s going to happen as a result?’ I wasn’t told anything. And that’s pretty much how all of them are.”

Tottenham said that the volunteer experience is meant to be a benefit for students “to see how research works and to build their skill sets.” She said that they couldn’t make research experience a requirement for honours even if they wanted to because “research is very transient and it doesn’t adhere to the semester structure.”

Alicia said that students who are doing psychology undergrads but plan to move on to medicine or law or some other graduate program besides psychology are encouraged not to let professors know that. Past and current honours students “don’t recommend you mention that because it will actually harm your chances at getting into the honours program.” The culture of secrecy extends to what students choose to share with each other. “You feel like you kind of can’t say anything because you might be putting your personal success on the line,” Melissa said, of sharing what she’s learned with other students. “It puts us in conflicting positions as students, where it’s framed as dog eat dog. Like, look out for yourself. I don’t like the way that feels and I hope it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Tottenham insists that research experience is not a requirement for honours, saying that she personally has “worked with many honours students who have never volunteered with me or with anyone else.” But both Alicia and Melissa stress that that hasn’t been their experience. “I know of one master’s student that has managed to get into a master’s and PhD program without an honours, and that’s because they took a year and did their own like independent research so they still got that experience, but they’re the only person I’ve ever heard of getting into a program without honours,” Melissa said. Alicia agreed. “They really expect you to have that research experience.”

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