Free time in grad school

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.

A non-paternalistic justification for human research subject protections

Just this morning I had a great meeting with my prof regarding my thesis. I showed him the outline for my thesis and we put together a schedule for completing it. He even gave me a few references to go on in terms of researching the topic. I’m starting to feel good about it.

I’ve had a number of people asking me what my thesis is about, so here it is in brief:

There are restrictions that institutions place on the sorts of human research that can be done, and the justification for such restrictions are usually given in terms of subject harm or benefit. Unfortunately, such justifications are paternalistic. By that, I mean there is a sense in which, if someone wants to engage in a very risky research protocol as the subject, what right does the institution’s ethics board have to stand in her way?

That said, there is also a sense in which we do not want human research to just be a free-for-all house of horrors, where anything goes. My thesis is that we should rather justify human research subject protections in terms of protecting the integrity of the human research project as a whole.

So, in colloquial terms, I’m suggesting that rather than saying, “We won’t let you do that risky research because we know better than you what ends you should be pursuing,” rather we should say something more like, “We won’t allow such risky research because allowing such research to go on would make the human research enterprise look sketchy.”

An interesting application of this thesis is in the area of phase IV human research studies. A phase IV study is one that occurs after the drug is already approved for use, and it is essentially a marketing study. The drug company wants to see how to best market the drug to doctors and patients. Often it is even the marketing division of the drug company that applies for the phase IV study.

Ethicists have generally been trying to criticise phase IV studies on the basis of some sort of risk that it may pose to the research subjects. This position is difficult to hold because really, the drug has already been approved for use on humans. I will argue that it is much more defensible to say that such studies are unethical because they do violence to the integrity of human research.

Et voilà. My thesis. All I have to do now is write 80 pages on that, and I’m golden.

Things that I accomplished today

  1. Periodically, Canada Revenue likes to send me confusing letters. I think they do it just to mess with me. This weekend, I got a letter from them, indicating that I owed money … or maybe it was indicating that I didn’t owe money. The letter wasn’t very clear. This morning, I phoned Canada Revenue (despite being given the wrong number in the letter) and figured it all out. It turns out that the letter was sent for no reason at all. They already had the information that they were requesting, and no balance was owing. In fact, the whole issue was resolved months ago, but for some reason, it took a long time for the letter to reach me. At the end of the conversation, the agent told me that I could have put the letter in my shredder without opening it and there would have been no repercussions. If only I could do that with everything Revenue Canada sends me!
  2. OSAP has been dragging its feet, and sending me terrible, contradictory messages for weeks now, which have made me worry about whether or not I’ll have money for school. I finally got in touch with people from the McGill Financial Aid office and they told me that OSAP has figured out what to do with me after all, and that my OSAP might be in as early as Thursday of this week!
  3. My computer monitor has gone and died on me, but it’s under warranty. Today, I took it to the UPS store (as much as I hate UPS) and had it delivered back to the company that made it, to be fixed or replaced.
  4. I renewed my Québec driver’s licence, and went in to have my photo taken for the new one.
  5. I did three chapters of organic chemistry, and also reviewed two chapters of biology. I finished biology three weeks ago, but I’m going over it again, so I don’t forget.
  6. I did four loads of laundry.
  7. I made a delicious dinner.
  8. I even did the dishes.

Almost done

I’m almost done writing my last essay. It’s on zombies. I’m not even kidding. Zombies are surprisingly important in philosophy of mind and metaethics, and a lot of ink has been spilled by philosophers over a thought experiment involving them.

This is the last assignment for my coursework for my MA. After this, the only thing that’s left is my thesis. Depending on what I decide to do after I graduate, I may never sit in a classroom again.

TA evaluation

TA evaluation
My TA evaluation, on the side of my fridge

This week, I went in to the office of the department of philosophy and got my evaluation from last semester’s TA-ship. This is the students’ chance to evaluate the TA, and it is done online, anonymously, and the results aren’t given back until well after the course is completed.

I was very pleased to see that in answer to the statement, “The TA was effective in fulfilling his/her role,” the overwhelming majority of the students who filled out the form clicked “strongly agree.” The written-out comments were very positive as well.

Except for one person. He or she clicked “strongly disagree,” and then wrote a very negative comment.

You can’t please everyone, I guess.

All done my work for this semester now

As of 17h15 today, December 26th, 2009, I have officially finished all my work for this semester. My last essay is due tomorrow, and I just finished it now and emailed it to my professors.

When the classes ended for the semester, I had no idea what I was going to write about. I was pretty much done by the 24th, and I didn’t work on it at all yesterday. Then today, after going out for a bit with my mother and younger sister, I came back home and put the finishing touches on my essay.

It’s an essay regarding a particular philosopher/cognitive scientist and his take on, among other things, a man named Ian Waterman with a very interesting neuropathy which left him without a sense of touch or proprioception below the neck. I’m happier with how it turned out than I thought I would be.

Actually, I’m reasonably proud of the work I’ve done this semester, all in all. :)

I’m going to spend the next few days relaxing and collecting my own thoughts about the last few months and getting ready for another action-packed semester. Actually, I really hope it isn’t as action-packed as the last one. I need a break.


Something that one of my students drew for me
Something that one of my students drew for me

Being a TA is one of the best parts of grad school. In the class that I’m a TA for, the first essay of the year was due last Monday. I guess I must have done a good job emphasising good “signposting” in essay-writing in my conferences, because this week, one of my students came up to me and handed me this hand-drawn cartoon that she made while writing her essay.

Some of the other grad students say I should put it up somewhere in the philosophy grad student office.

By the way, I do realise that it’s been over a month since I posted last. Sorry guys! My life is pretty complicated right now, and I don’t want to blog about it yet, because there are people who I need to talk to in person, before I start letting the whole world know what’s up with me. I expect that sometime this week, I will resume regular posting again.

Thomson house

This is Thomson House, the grad students' building
This is Thomson House, the grad students' building

As a graduate student at McGill, I have access to Thomson House, a building set aside for the use of grad students. You can go there and get relatively cheap meals. Also there is a pub, a ballroom and offices for the Graduate Students society at McGill. It’s pretty nifty. I went there for lunch with a professor yesterday, to talk about details regarding my TA-ship.

I’m really looking forward to being TA this year. The prof has given me a lot of freedom in the way that I run my “conferences,” which is what they call “tutorials” here at McGill. It looks like I’ll have two sections and I won’t be required to go to the class, except for the days on which the essays are assigned.

The prof said that he has had uniformly good experiences with bioethics students as TA’s in the past, which is good – it just means that I have to live up to his expectations, now! :|