Tuesday, October 29, 2013

More Thoughts on Working for Free

I have more thoughts about working for free, and have decided they are wide-ranging enough that they belong here, and not on my Tungsten Hippo site, which I am trying to keep focused on bookish things. (Aside: according to my spellchecker "bookish" is a word by "booky" is not. And several online dictionaries agree. If asked, I would have said both were made up words. I would have been wrong. )

Anyway, back to working for free. Which, technically, I am doing right now, sort of. Is my blog work? Laura Vanderkam has an interesting recent post about how to define work, and blogging is even more borderline for me than it is for her, since I do not consider myself a professional writer. And yet, I have two published books, from which I have made income, so maybe I'm just being silly (like the time I only realized while writing a comment about how I wasn't the breadwinner in my family but I did make the most money that... duh, yes, by the standard operational definition of "breadwinner" I am one). Also, I may eventually make a career transition that leads me to use my network, writing, and other skills I've picked up from my online adventures. (Not saying I will, but it is one of the career ideas that bounces around in my head.)

This just goes to show how messy the distinction can get, and also hints at why it is so hard to figure out when to work for free, assuming that you can afford to even consider the option.

Think about the irony of my original Tungsten Hippo post: I posted it (for free) on a website I've created for which my stated financial goal is to make back the cost of web hosting.

Why did I do that? Because Tungsten Hippo is a learning project for me. I've used it to learn the basics of Drupal and CSS (surprisingly easy), and am now using it to try to learn a bit more about marketing (harder than many people seem to think it is). I have future ideas that I could pursue with that site that would let me learn some new coding skills and push my Drupal and CSS skills past the easy stage.

I am not alone in this. People give work away for free to get chance to learn something new, and this is not a new phenomenon.

What does seem to be new- or at least more widespread than it used to be- is the expectation that people will do this as a normal part of building a career. If you haven't heard about the expansion of unpaid internships by now, you probably just haven't been paying attention to employment news (nothing wrong with that!)  or maybe you're Mitt Romney. It seems unlikely that Mitt Romney is reading my blog, so I'll go with the former.

I have also come across people recruiting for unpaid labor in fields in which I did not think this sort of thing was done- for instance, a friend (probably @betzsteve) tweeted out a link to something- a CraigsList post, maybe?- looking for an unpaid volunteer postdoc, with multiple years of postdoctoral research experience required. WTF?

These things don't strike me as pure learning experiences, unless the lesson being taught is in the workings of capitalism. They strike me as exploitation of people desperate for a break in a shrinking job market.

In addition, the expectation seems to be that you'll gift your work product in its entirety. When I write here, or on Tungsten Hippo, I retain my copyright. I am not handing my work over to someone else to use for profit. I am producing work and putting it out there where people may gain benefit from it- but ultimately, it still belongs to me.

Maybe the proliferation of these "opportunities" is just how it is in a system like ours. Times are tough, and the job market is more competitive. Employers ask for free labor because maybe someone will give it to them.

The problem I have with this is that it gives an advantage to people who can afford to work for free, and those people are usually from a narrower background than seems appropriate in a society that likes to tell itself it is a meritocracy.

So when @tressiemcphd tweeted out a link to @MattBreunig's post about how the expectation that people will write for free probably doesn't exclude poor people's voices as much as people like me think it does, it made me stop and think. Matt Breunig usually writes smart things, so I thought really hard, even after I saw (and basically agreed with) @SarahKendzior's reply:

Eventually, I had my answer, and it doesn't necessarily make me look good. Truthfully, when I wrote about the voices being excluded from the dialog, I wasn't really thinking about the poor, at least not as Matt Bruenig is.  I was thinking of the person of modest means who HAD gone and gotten the credentials, and was still frozen out of opportunities because he or she could not get by without pay for some time after graduation. Or perhaps because he or she didn't realize that was what you do.

My thoughts on this subject were subconsciously influenced by my own experiences, even though my family was solidly middle class, not poor. Or at least it was by the time I went to college- we were on food stamps when I was little.

One scene in particular sticks in my memory.

It was the end of my fourth year in college, when the natural question to ask of a graduating senior was "what are you doing next?" I was at a party of some sort, and a woman who I almost knew- a friend of a friend, back in the days before Facebook opened up the possibility of that leading to us knowing anything of each other- asked me what I was doing after graduation. I told her I was going to graduate school, and where I was going, and she got a fake sad look on her face and said "oh, you didn't get into MIT?"

I was a bit taken aback, but explained that actually, I had not applied to MIT, but was turning down Caltech and Stanford to go to the school I chose, and I briefly stated a reason why, something about thinking the young program I was choosing was the best fit for my interests and would give me the most opportunities to learn, blah blah blah.

She looked at me as if I were an alien landed in the middle of her senior year celebrations. Which, I suppose, I sort of was. She could not fathom someone who could get into one of the "name" schools turning them down.  In her world, that was insane, because she understood something I did not, even after four years at a "name" undergraduate institution- that the name of my graduate school would matter in the job market.

In truth, I picked my graduate program only in part due to the fact that the program seemed like a good fit and would give me good opportunities to explore my interests. I also chose my graduate program because it, alone of all the programs into which I was accepted, acknowledge the NSF award I had won and passed some of that money along to me, in the form of an extra $3000 per year in stipend.

Now note, I was entering a graduate program in science, so all of my options offered me a stipend, and in all cases, the stipend was sufficient to support myself. But that extra $3000 per year meant I didn't have to have a roommate. It gave me more breathing room. And at the time, I thought choosing that was the smartest thing to do.

Maybe it was, maybe it wasn't. I can never know what would have happened if I'd gone to Caltech or Stanford instead of the school I chose. The school I chose has since made enough of a name for itself that people in the fields relevant to my current career are not unimpressed by it, although people in the wider community have never heard of it and never will.  I am not at all unhappy with my career trajectory, or the income level at which I currently live.

Regardless, I still know that I, a middle class student with a degree from a top tier undergraduate institution, made my choice about what to after graduation based in large part on the immediate financial return of that choice. You simply cannot convince me that aspiring writers from modest backgrounds are doing any differently now than I did then as an aspiring scientist. Will having more paying options for entering the writing career open it up to truly poor people? Probably not. But I remain convinced that our current system is narrowing the range of voices we hear, and I do not like that.


  1. Anonymous10:45 AM

    Unpaid internships is an area that really bothers me. It has definitely created an elitist environment in highly popular industries such as publishing, entertainment, media and fashion. As an example, a friend from an upper middle class household was able to do an unpaid publishing internship at a prestigious magazine. He had the ability and talent of course but that's not something an equally talented person of lesser means could have done after graduation. I, too, made choices based partially on finance rather then pure interest.

  2. I know there are a lot of unpaid internships, and I detest the idea. I'm also pretty sure it's illegal in most cases -- there are a *lot* fewer exceptions to minimum wage law than people think there are.

    That said, I'm in a field (journalism) that supposedly has a lot of unpaid internships and I did 4 internships -- yes, 4 -- and never unpaid. Now, to be sure, the vast right wing conspiracy subsidized 2 of them, but no one made you swear you listened to Rush Limbaugh to take advantage of those programs. It's an option!

  3. Even though I came from a family with the means to support me during an unpaid internship, they would have looked at me like I had 2 heads if I had chosen that option ;) I think it's pretty ridiculous and exploitative, and maybe is an indication that the field you're considering is not going to support you well later in life, though it seems like every field has someone trying to scam free work.

    Re: your grad school choice, I did the same, a few years after you and I can assure you that among people who KNOW, that school was indeed a "big name" as far as research went. Then again, I went to Caltech for undergrad and to this day no one in the world at large has ever heard of it, or mistakes it for a number of other schools. So maybe I was already used to that!


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