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Say Yes: The Benefits and Risks of Working for Free

The case for accepting uncompensated opportunities.

September 20, 2016

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is a newly-minted PhD candidate in English Literature at Northeastern University. You can find him on Twitter at @jon_fitzgerald or at his website www.jonathandfitzgerald.com.




After earning my MA back in 2005, I decided that I wanted a change of pace from academic writing and decided to try my hand at what we in academia sometimes call “public writing.” In short, I became a freelance journalist. Though I wasn’t trained as a journalist, the path to publication seemed clear. I’d start a blog, try to attract a small following, write some pieces for small online magazines and websites, and, when I felt like I had enough experience and a good enough idea to pitch a mainstream publication, I’d go for it.


And that is exactly what I did: I wrote for free until I had the opportunity to write a book review that earned me $100. After my first paid publication, I hadn’t “made it,” of course, so I continued writing for free—saying yes to any opportunity that came my way—and occasionally getting paid. Eventually, however, I got to the place where I could stop giving away articles and only write for publications that would compensate me for my efforts.


When I returned to grad school, nearly 10 years after finishing my master’s, it felt a bit like starting over. And, because I had already started from scratch once before, I knew this would require a lot of hard work and sacrifice—for very little compensation. Whenever I am presented with an opportunity that I feel would further my career and ultimately help me reach my goals, I have to say yes.


Recently, however, I realized that this is not a very popular opinion among grad students; many of my peers feel that all labor should be compensated. While I recognize that this is an ideal we should strive for, my experience as a freelance journalist has taught me the value of saying yes to opportunities that have the potential to pay off, even if not monetarily. To be clear, this not in any way an opposition to the necessary and growing grad student labor movement (see the recent discussion on labor and unionization here at GradHacker, part 1 and part 2). Instead, it’s a call for nuance. While we must insist that grad labor be treated as such, sometimes the long-term benefits of being willing to do work for free are worth the short-term sacrifices.


Be a student first


No question, being a graduate student with a paid stipend lands you in that gray area between student and employee. But my sense is that not too many of us go to grad school to make money. For me, going back to grad school after years in the labor force meant a major salary cut, and while the fact that I would get paid something made it possible to even consider going back, I knew it was going to be a sacrifice. I think it’s important to remember this while in school. You’re first and foremost a student, pursuing an education.


Be an apprentice second


One of the best things about graduate school is the many varying opportunities we have to learn—not just in the classroom, but by working closely with (and for) faculty members. This is the apprenticeship model, in which we get to learn both by observing and by doing. It’s difficult to put a monetary value on this and unfortunately, at present, most universities don’t.


Be a yes-person


It’s a fact: people like people who are willing to be helpful. In a graduate school environment, this means that your professors and advisors are more likely to have a positive view of you if you’ve shown yourself to be willing to help out. Maybe this means teaching the occasional class when a professor has to be absent, or working a bit beyond your paid hours. Being willing to go above and beyond occasionally will earn you the respect and admiration of your professors. This could pay off in a very tangible way when it comes time for recommendations.


Be careful


Now for the caution: thinking of yourself as a student first and an apprentice second, and being willing to say yes to helping out even when the compensation is not in monetary form can be risky. You’re putting yourself out there and you could easily be taken advantage of. Sometimes it’s right to say “No.” Just as the line between student and employee is blurry, so too is the line between being helpful and being used. Hopefully you’re fortunate—as I am—to work with faculty members who are sensitive to this risk, but either way you should guard yourself against being taken advantage of. One way to do this is to get involved with your fellow students in the burgeoning grad student labor movement. In this way we get work toward a future in which the dual role of student-laborer is better understood and ultimately more profitable (in any number of ways) for all.


What do you think? Should all grad labor be compensated? Have you had good experiences being a yes-person? Have you been taken advantage of?

[Image via Wikimedia Commons and used under a Creative Commons License]


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