Unpaid internships, minimum wage laws and hockey helmets

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In the past few weeks, there have been high-profile legal cases on both sides of the border involving unpaid interns taking legal action against their former venue of unpaid work. (I hesitate to call them “employers.”) Recently, a US judge ruled that the interns working on Fox’s Black Swan should have been paid for their labour. Bell Canada has recently been accused of breaking labour laws with regard to its unpaid interns. This has sparked a great deal of debate, and in what follows, I will respond to the most common defence of unpaid internships: That the intern consented to it. I will not be making a legal argument, even though I will be talking about laws. I am not a lawyer. I am a philosopher by training. I will be making a moral / political / economic argument.

What is the point of a minimum wage law?

The point of a minimum wage law is that we have decided as a society that even if the job market were to deteriorate to the point where a prospective employee was willing to agree to be employed for wages lower than the minimum wage, such an agreement would not be legal. That is the point of a minimum wage law. That is what it means. It is a law. It is not a suggestion or a guideline that can be ignored if both parties agree.

The consent of both parties does not make it okay, and as I will argue below, if a person could just consent to waive her right to a minimum wage, making it optional, that would undermine minimum wage law entirely. Defenders of unpaid internships routinely point to the fact that such programmes are “voluntary,” and that the intern went into the arrangement with her eyes open, knowing that she wouldn’t get paid, and that the interns agreed to work without compensation. They argue that the consent of the unpaid internship voids her right to claim a minimum wage.

While it is true that these programmes are voluntary, consent doesn’t get Bell out of its moral obligations to its employees. The fact that the interns weren’t slaves—kidnapped and locked in an office building to work for Bell against their will—doesn’t mean that what Bell did wasn’t exploitative.

The argument boils down to the proposition that if a person decides to work for $0 per hour (or “for job experience” or “for the networking opportunities”), she has every right to do so. After all, what business is it of ours to say that she can’t spend her time the way she likes?

The economics of hockey helmets

Economists and game theorists call these sorts of things “coordination problems.” A famous example identified by Thomas Schelling is the Hockey Helmet Problem which goes as follows: In the 1970’s, NHL hockey players were allowed, but not required to wear helmets, and most did not wear them. A secret ballot of these hockey players confirmed that they would prefer to wear them, but did not because they worried about losing the competitive advantage of peripheral vision as well as a certain “tough guy” image. As Teddy Green of the Bruins said in 1969, “It’s foolish not to wear a helmet. But I don’t—because the other guys don’t. I know that’s silly, but most of the players feel the same way. If the league made us do it, though, we’d all wear them and nobody would mind.” (Schelling, “Hockey Helmets, Concealed Weapons, and Daylight Saving”, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 17(3):381–428, 1973.)

By making helmets mandatory, NHL players no longer had to choose between their personal safety and their hockey performance. By making the helmet rule, the NHL was saying that players shouldn’t even have to make that choice and that it was wrong to even ask them to do so.

Let me emphasise—now that the rule about hockey helmets is in place, NHL players can’t just choose to play without helmets, even if they want to. If that were allowed, it would make helmet-wearing optional again, and it would undermine the point of having the rule in the first place. This is a good analogy for minimum wage.

Analogy to minimum wage

In most cases, we rightly take what a person would consent to as a pretty good proxy for that person’s own idiosyncratic values. That is to say, in most cases where a person is willing to consent to something, she has made a subjective appraisal in favour of it, according to her own values. This is why we think it’s paternalistic to impose many restrictions on what a person can consent to do with her time / money / body / etc. This intuition is what gives the “it was voluntary” argument its moral force. A person’s self-interested behaviour is usually well-aligned with her own values.

In the Helmet Problem, the self-interest of NHL players was actually working against their own values, and so, a restriction that could have been framed in terms of a loss of freedom on the part of the players (“Who are you to tell me that I have to wear a helmet?”) was actually necessary to enable the players to coordinate and allow them all to do what they wanted to do. Put in moral terms, it was wrong to even make the NHL players choose between them in the first place.

Similarly, the self-interest of unpaid interns has been used against them in a morally problematic way and coordination through regulation will best respect their values and best interests. If a company is allowed to get away with offering an unpaid internship, a prospective intern has to choose between getting job experience / networking on the one hand and supporting herself financially on the other. If anyone is allowed to get away with working for less than the minimum wage (like at an unpaid internship), the minimum wage becomes optional for everyone. This defeats the purpose of having a minimum wage law in the first place, which is to ensure no one has to compete in a job market with free labour.

By having a minimum wage law, what we are saying is that in the same way that a hockey player shouldn’t be made to choose between his personal safety and his performance, an intern shouldn’t be made to choose between getting job experience and getting paid. Further, by having a minimum wage law, we are saying that an intern doesn’t get to make that choice, even if she wants to. That’s the whole point of the law.

I still disagree with you

If you don’t want to live in a society where there is a minimum wage, that’s fine. We have a democratic process for passing legislation that allows us to change laws as we see fit, but at least in 2013, in Canada and the US, the law is that work must be compensated with a minimum amount of money per hour, whether you’d be willing to work for less or not.

BibTeX

@online{bgcarlisle2013-3619,
    title = {Unpaid internships, minimum wage laws and hockey helmets},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2013-06-24,
    url = {https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2013/06/24/unpaid-internships-minimum-wage-laws-and-hockey-helmets/}
}

MLA

Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Unpaid internships, minimum wage laws and hockey helmets" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 24 Jun 2013. Web. 22 Mar 2019. <https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2013/06/24/unpaid-internships-minimum-wage-laws-and-hockey-helmets/>

APA

Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2013, Jun 24). Unpaid internships, minimum wage laws and hockey helmets [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2013/06/24/unpaid-internships-minimum-wage-laws-and-hockey-helmets/

Rethinking Research Ethics: The Case of Postmarketing Trials

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Good news!

Toward the end of the year in which I was working on my thesis, my supervisor had me write up a shorter version of my thesis for an attempt at publication. This was no small feat—imagine trying to compress a 90-page master’s thesis into 2 pages!

After my RA-ship ended, my supervisor, Jonathan Kimmelman, and Alex John London took the paper, made some substantial edits, and submitted it to a couple journals. The paper was accepted, and as of this week, it was published in Science.

Needless to say, I’m thrilled. :D

BibTeX

@online{bgcarlisle2012-2878,
    title = {Rethinking Research Ethics: The Case of Postmarketing Trials},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2012-05-3,
    url = {https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2012/05/03/rethinking-research-ethics-the-case-of-postmarketing-trials/}
}

MLA

Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Rethinking Research Ethics: The Case of Postmarketing Trials" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 03 May 2012. Web. 22 Mar 2019. <https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2012/05/03/rethinking-research-ethics-the-case-of-postmarketing-trials/>

APA

Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2012, May 03). Rethinking Research Ethics: The Case of Postmarketing Trials [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2012/05/03/rethinking-research-ethics-the-case-of-postmarketing-trials/

Free online game theory course

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So a few months ago I signed up for a free online course in Game Theory, taught by two professors at Stanford. I like Stanford. Ever since I discovered the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy as an undergrad (the one website that philosophy profs will allow you to cite in your papers), I had a profound respect for this institution’s free online offerings.

The course isn’t for credit at all—there’s just video lectures, and “quizzes” integrated into the videos. I guess I’m sort of interested in it because it relates to my thesis subject. Ever since I wrote my thesis on it, I find the whole idea of collaborative enterprises fascinating, and I would love to be able to more rigorously analyse what regulations would make a complex system with multiple stakeholders work best.

The course was supposed to start in “late February 2012,” so I waited until today—I was going to send the professors an email, since February 29th is about as late in February as you can get. So I opened up the site for the course to find a contact email address, and found the following message:

Regarding the start-date of the Game Theory Online course: The University is still finalizing policies to cover its new online courses, and so there has been some delay in the launching of the courses. We anticipate being able to launch the course soon, and will keep you informed of any news on the starting date. Matt and Yoav

I’ll let you know if anything interesting comes of this. Let me know if you sign up for the course yourself. :)

BibTeX

@online{bgcarlisle2012-2733,
    title = {Free online game theory course},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2012-02-29,
    url = {https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2012/02/29/free-online-game-theory-course/}
}

MLA

Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Free online game theory course" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 29 Feb 2012. Web. 22 Mar 2019. <https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2012/02/29/free-online-game-theory-course/>

APA

Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2012, Feb 29). Free online game theory course [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2012/02/29/free-online-game-theory-course/

Good decisions and bad decisions

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A decision is a good one or a bad one ex ante, regardless of what can be said about the results of the decision ex post. By ex ante, I mean, “as evaluated prospectively.” By ex post, I mean, “as evaluated retrospectively.”

I will give some examples to clarify what I mean.

Disaster

Troi in "Disaster"

Troi in "Disaster"

You are Deanna Troi (yes, from Star Trek: The Next Generation—don’t pretend you don’t remember this episode!) and the Enterprise suffers a terrible accident. It is about to explode. For some reason, you’re actually in command of the ship, despite the fact that you don’t wear a proper uniform. Against the advice of Ensign Ro, you decide to stick around to wait and see if someone downstairs fixes the ship before it explodes, even though you have the opportunity to escape. You have no reason to believe that anyone else is alive, but if you leave, there will be no power for anyone to fix the ship and save themselves. Fortunately for everyone, Riker and Data’s head go to engineering and save the day just in time.

Superbowl bet

You are a fan of American football, and on the night of the Superbowl, you make a bet with your friend on who will win the big game. You bet $100 on the underdog, knowing full well that they stand little chance of winning. Fortunately for you, the quarterback for the favoured team falls ill and throws up over the rest of the team. As a result, the entire team spends the next several hours projectile vomiting, and they have to forfeit the game. Your friend admits defeat and pays up the $100.

Drunk driver

You are drinking heavily, and you get into your car and drive yourself home, despite your friends’ protests and attempts to stop you. Fortunately for everyone, the streets are empty of both people and other cars, and you manage to bring yourself and your car home completely safe.

In all of these cases, ex post, you made the right decision—by that, I mean, there was an optimal result, if you consider the decision from the perspective of hindsight. Ex ante, however, in all of these cases, you made the wrong decision.

I put these examples in the order that I did because I think that readers will be most sympathetic to the decision in the first example, and least sympathetic to the decision in the last example.

In Disaster, an unreflecting analysis would say that of course Troi made the right decision—it’s the Enterprise, for Pete’s sake! They have to be all right. In Superbowl bet, you might even imagine your friend begrudgingly admitting after the fact that you made the right call (although he might say that it was “just luck,” and for some of us, our intuitions might differ). In Drunk driver, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would say that you made the right decision.

Decision trees

Decision trees

All of these cases have the same form, which I have diagrammed to the left. You can make one of two decisions—choice A or choice B. If you make choice A, you are likely to experience a very bad result, but there is a small chance that you will experience a good result. If you make choice B, you are certain to experience a mediocre result (one that has more utility than the very bad result, but less utility than the good result).

If all of these scenarios have the same form, we should give the same answer to the question as to what should be done in each situation, on pain of acting irrationally.

So even though you won $100 in Superbowl bet, you made the wrong decision. You should have declined to bet. Similarly, even though Troi saved the Enterprise in Disaster, she should have condemned Riker and Data’s head to death.

Why is this important?

Humans are really bad at judging probabilities and systematically make certain sorts of errors. In particular, humans are easily swayed by trying to place experiences into the context of a narrative.

For example, after being told a story about a young woman who participates in feminism rallies and studies math in college, there is a non-zero percentage of people who will say that it is more likely that she will end up as a feminist banker than as a banker, which is logically impossible. (This is the “conjunction fallacy”—all feminist bankers are bankers, after all.)

You may have won bets that were long shots in the past, out of sheer luck. In fact, if you are a betting man, likely those are the bets you remember, to the exclusion of the ones with the same odds that you lost. The point is that you shouldn’t model your future decisions after such mistakes.

Also, if someone is trying to sway your decisions through an anecdote regarding his or her own success in an endeavour that is unlikely to succeed, it is also irrational to take that as evidence on which to base your decision-making process. If the story includes the line, “and against all odds, everything turned out all right,” or something like it, you should interpret that as meaning, “I made the wrong decision, but I was lucky this time,” and treat it as a cautionary tale.

The moral of the story is that you should model your thinking after Ensign Ro, and not after Troi.

BibTeX

@online{bgcarlisle2011-2282,
    title = {Good decisions and bad decisions},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2011-10-20,
    url = {https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/10/20/good-decisions-and-bad-decisions/}
}

MLA

Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Good decisions and bad decisions" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 20 Oct 2011. Web. 22 Mar 2019. <https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/10/20/good-decisions-and-bad-decisions/>

APA

Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2011, Oct 20). Good decisions and bad decisions [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/10/20/good-decisions-and-bad-decisions/

A scary email to receive less than a week before the thesis submission deadline

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I bet you thought I was done posting about my thesis. Last Friday (6 days ago), I received this email after I had the pleasure of submitting my thesis electronically.

[Your supervisor] approved your e-thesis on September 23, 2011 at 11:51.

If your thesis has been accepted by all your supervisor(s), it has been sent to GPSO for processing.

If your thesis has been rejected, please make the changes requested by your supervisor(s) to your original document*, and create a new pdf, delete the file on the server, and upload the new file.

You can track the progress of your thesis on Minerva.

Hooray! It was good news to receive this email, and I tweeted about it immediately, of course.

Then, this morning, I received the following email.

Dear Benjamin, … We [at the philosophy department] have been told that you haven’t submitted your thesis electronically, and this is one of the graduation conditions. Can you do this immediately? The conditions have to be met by Tuesday, 4 October. Best wishes.

October 4th is on Tuesday (5 days from now). I’m pretty sure that my thesis has been submitted electronically. Here is my evidence:

  • Minerva lists my thesis as being uploaded and approved
  • I received the aforementioned email from the e-thesis computer

So I really don’t know what this fuss from the philosophy department is all about, but now I’m nervous that something’s messed up.

BibTeX

@online{bgcarlisle2011-2219,
    title = {A scary email to receive less than a week before the thesis submission deadline},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2011-09-30,
    url = {https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/09/30/a-scary-email-to-receive-less-than-a-week-before-the-thesis-submission-deadline/}
}

MLA

Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "A scary email to receive less than a week before the thesis submission deadline" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 30 Sep 2011. Web. 22 Mar 2019. <https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/09/30/a-scary-email-to-receive-less-than-a-week-before-the-thesis-submission-deadline/>

APA

Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2011, Sep 30). A scary email to receive less than a week before the thesis submission deadline [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/09/30/a-scary-email-to-receive-less-than-a-week-before-the-thesis-submission-deadline/

Catch-22: the final test of my master’s degree

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In order to graduate, I must submit my thesis.

To submit my thesis, I have to hand in my Nomination of Examiners Form, available from Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies as a fillable PDF. In the top-left corner, it reads, “this form must be typed.”

If you look at the fillable PDF, you’ll notice that I can’t fill in the form completely until I know who my internal reader is.

I spoke to the Philosophy Department, and they told me that they would inquire as to which professors would be able to serve as my internal reader after I hand in the Thesis Submission form and the Nomination of Examiners Form. I’m not allowed to contact professors myself to ask them to be my internal readers.

This is my final test.

BibTeX

@online{bgcarlisle2011-1865,
    title = {Catch-22: the final test of my master’s degree},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2011-06-2,
    url = {https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/06/02/catch-22-the-final-test-of-my-masters-degree/}
}

MLA

Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Catch-22: the final test of my master’s degree" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 02 Jun 2011. Web. 22 Mar 2019. <https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/06/02/catch-22-the-final-test-of-my-masters-degree/>

APA

Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2011, Jun 02). Catch-22: the final test of my master’s degree [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/06/02/catch-22-the-final-test-of-my-masters-degree/

Quirks and Quarks Roadshow in Montréal

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Quirks and Quarks Roadshow in Montréal

Quirks and Quarks Roadshow in Montréal

This Wednesday night, I went to the Quirks and Quarks roadshow at Concordia University here in Montréal. It was their question-and-answer programme, so they had scientists answer listeners’ questions. Questions prepared in advance, that is. One wasn’t allowed to stand up an ask a random question. It was a very pleasant evening. I actually got to see what Bob McDonald looks like (that was weird—he’s supposed to be a bodiless radio personality), the questions were interesting and the scientists were entertaining.

I brought my towel, because it was May 25. You would have thought that an event like that (a radio recording of something aimed at über-geeks) would have brought out more people with towels, but nope. You’d be wrong.

I left to get some food because I was hungry after the recording, but I was strongly tempted to stay and heckle Bob McDonald for one of the questions.

One of the listeners asked how it is that we know that what he sees as red is the same thing as what anyone else sees as red. This is a classic problem in philosophy. It is a problem of philosophy of mind, and one that touches on issues of qualia, naturalism, the hard problem of experience, and our phenomenal experience of the world as distinct from our brains’ and our eyes’ mechanism for discerning colour.

I was excited when I heard the question.

Then they had an ophthalmologist answer the question. She totally missed the point! She did not answer the question. She talked about rods and cones. She talked about optic nerves. Those things are interesting in their own right, but you can’t use them to prove anything about whether my phenomenal experience of the colour red is the same as yours.

Bob McDonald: Don’t bring in a scientist to do a philosopher’s job! I think I’ll email Paul Kennedy (host of CBC’s Ideas) and tell him that you’re encroaching on his territory!

I’m glad I went though. They also had free cookies. Well, they were unguarded cookies. I assumed they were free.

If you want to hear this broadcast, it will be on CBC Radio 1 at 12h on Saturday afternoon.

BibTeX

@online{bgcarlisle2011-1829,
    title = {Quirks and Quarks Roadshow in Montréal},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2011-05-27,
    url = {https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/05/27/quirks-and-quarks-roadshow-in-montreal/}
}

MLA

Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Quirks and Quarks Roadshow in Montréal" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 27 May 2011. Web. 22 Mar 2019. <https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/05/27/quirks-and-quarks-roadshow-in-montreal/>

APA

Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2011, May 27). Quirks and Quarks Roadshow in Montréal [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/05/27/quirks-and-quarks-roadshow-in-montreal/

Contemporary Moral Issues at McGill

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I’m one of the TA’s for the Contemporary Moral Issues course at McGill this semester, and I really appreciate Dr. Reisner, the professor for the course. He gives me a lot of freedom in which to conduct my conferences, provides good structure, and never micro-manages. Further, he often anticipates things that will go wrong.

For example, at the beginning of this semester, he had me take the entire first conference of the year to give an open-book “course syllabus quiz.” Basically, I stood up at the front of the conference and explained to everyone all the potentially troublesome sorts of course details regarding cheating and unacceptable conduct so that later on in the course, they couldn’t say things like, “But I didn’t know it was mandatory to attend every conference!”

Not only that, but when problems happen, like catching students cheating or when they want an excuse from doing required work, I can just send them to Dr. Reisner, and he deals with them.

While I can’t tell you any of the details about what happened this week, it has been very eventful, and I’m very thankful for the forethought of Dr. Reisner.

BibTeX

@online{bgcarlisle2011-1309,
    title = {Contemporary Moral Issues at McGill},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2011-02-19,
    url = {https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/02/19/contemporary-moral-issues-at-mcgill/}
}

MLA

Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Contemporary Moral Issues at McGill" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 19 Feb 2011. Web. 22 Mar 2019. <https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/02/19/contemporary-moral-issues-at-mcgill/>

APA

Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2011, Feb 19). Contemporary Moral Issues at McGill [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/02/19/contemporary-moral-issues-at-mcgill/

LaTeX, BibTeX and ibidem

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Apparently, having been trained in the philosophical tradition, I’m unused to citing sources. My supervisor says that a typical attitude for a philosopher to take toward sources is that if your bibliography has 6 citations, that’s 5 too many. So, on the advice of my supervisor, I have been trying to include more references to published sources in my thesis. As he puts it, “think less; read more.”

Having done that for the last chapter or so (I’m going back later to add lots and lots of citations to the other chapters), I realised that the citations were taking up way too much space on the paper. So, I put them all in footnotes. They still took up a lot of space, and they were hard to read down there.

So, I decided that I should change my citation style, so that when I have multiple citations from the same source, the second, third, etc. citations after the first one would just be “ibid.” (From Latin ibidem, meaning “the same place.”) This would have been a time-consuming and mind-numbing task, going through my entire thesis and picking out all the citations where there’s two or more in a row and replacing all but the first one with “ibid.

Fortunately, I use LaTeX and BibTeX (and OS X front-ends called TeXShop and BibDesk) for writing my thesis and citation management.

I found a great package, called inlinebib that does just that. It actually took a bit of digging to find a bibliography style package for LaTeX that worked the way I wanted it to, with ibidem and all. But once I found it, all I had to do was put inlinebib.bst and inlinebib.sty in my project folder, then write \usepackage{inlinebib} in my document preamble, and it worked just fine!

BibTeX

@online{bgcarlisle2011-1215,
    title = {LaTeX, BibTeX and ibidem},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2011-02-10,
    url = {https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/02/10/latex-bibtex-and-ibidem/}
}

MLA

Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "LaTeX, BibTeX and ibidem" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 10 Feb 2011. Web. 22 Mar 2019. <https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/02/10/latex-bibtex-and-ibidem/>

APA

Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2011, Feb 10). LaTeX, BibTeX and ibidem [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2011/02/10/latex-bibtex-and-ibidem/

Free time in grad school

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Let us define “free time (0)” to mean something like “time where a person has no particular appointments or where she has no duties that need to fulfilled within that time.” So, for example, an hour break between classes would be an example of free time (0).

There is another sense of free time that is not captured by free time (0). Let us define “free time (1)” to mean something like “time where a person doesn’t have anything that she even could be doing during that time.” For a person with free time (1), that person would be able to say, “I don’t have any assignments hanging over my head right now.” Of course, for such a concept to be useful, it may be necessary to specify a domain over which it applies—so one might meaningfully say, “I have free time (1) with respect to my job, but not with respect to my chores at home.” It would be rare indeed to have free time (1) without qualification.

So for example, a student between semesters, or at the beginning of the summer break has free time (1) as far as school is concerned. And if we consider the previous example, it’s easy to see how a person might have free time (0) in an hour break between classes, but how that person will not truly have free time (1) until after she writes her final exam and hands in all her assignments, because until then, there is always more preparation and work that she could do.

When I worked at my 9-5 job this summer, I was lucky because I had a lot of free time (1) with respect to my job, even though I didn’t really have as much free time (0) as I had when I was in school. That is to say, I didn’t have much free time (0) because my job dictated that I spend the hours between 9h in the morning to 17h in the afternoon at my desk, doing particular things. I had little free time (0) in that sense. Contrarily, I had plenty of free time (1), compared to being at school. At school, really, the only time you get free time (1) is when you are between semesters (and sometimes not even then). At work, I had free time (1) from my job every night. When I left my work, the responsibilities of the office stayed at the office. I never had homework. I never had exams. There was a clear line separating my work-life from the rest of my life. In fact, as far as work was concerned, the set of hours that made up my free time (0) was exactly co-extensive with the set of hours that made up my free time (1).

Now that I’m working on my thesis full-time, I have more free time (0) than I have ever had in my life, especially now that my office hours and conferences are over for the semester. The trade-off is that I don’t ever have any free time (1). There is always something else I could be reading, or something I should be writing or a revision to my thesis that I should be working on. There is no time that I couldn’t point to on my day-timer of which I couldn’t say, “maybe I should use this time for my thesis.”

Here’s where it gets interesting: I believe both that I’ve never truly had any free time (1) while in school, and that somehow this experience of writing my thesis means that I have even less free time (1) than I had before. This is obviously a contradiction (to think that I never had something before and that now I somehow have less), so it means that my conception of free time (1) is too simple.

So let’s now re-define free time (x) as being time with no particular appointments or tasks to do, when there is up to (1-x) times a full workload’s responsibility “hanging over your head.” And x can be any real number between 0 and 1, inclusive.

Awesome. The previous definitions still hold, pretty much, and it gives us the language for describing the difference between my experience in undergrad and my experience with my thesis.

My experience in undergrad was that while I never actually did experience free time (1), I often experienced free time (1/2) or free time (3/4). I would come to a point where I only had a very few things that I could reasonably do (after all, there’s a finite number of review questions for your chemistry test) and so I wouldn’t feel the weight of the full workload’s responsibility. At the beginning of each semester in my undergrad, I would have free time (x) with a higher value for x than at the end of the semester.

With my thesis, on the other hand, even though the whole thing is divided into chapters, it’s more like one long paper than a series of short and connected ones. For example, I have to make sure that any changes I make to one chapter will agree with the other chapters. My supervisor uses the analogy of building a railroad. I have to make sure that the tracks at one end (chapter one) line up with the tracks at the other end (the last chapter). My thesis is a whole, in some ways, and so I think that’s why my experience with regard to free time is different than it was during my undergrad. I sometimes do experience a little bit of free time (1/4), though, but that’s after I submit a draft of a chapter or something.

In conclusion, right now I have lots of free time (0), no free time (1), and only little bits of free time (1/4), every once in a while.

And for the record, I did write this while procrastinating on writing my thesis.

BibTeX

@online{bgcarlisle2010-1043,
    title = {Free time in grad school},
    journaltitle = {The Grey Literature},
    author = {Benjamin Gregory Carlisle},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2010-12-16,
    url = {https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2010/12/16/free-time-in-grad-school/}
}

MLA

Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. "Free time in grad school" Web blog post. The Grey Literature. 16 Dec 2010. Web. 22 Mar 2019. <https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2010/12/16/free-time-in-grad-school/>

APA

Carlisle, Benjamin Gregory. (2010, Dec 16). Free time in grad school [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.bgcarlisle.com/blog/2010/12/16/free-time-in-grad-school/

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