The value of time as a student

When I was at college, many of my associates had part time jobs, or worked during school breaks. They were often unpleasant, uninspiring, and poorly paid jobs, such as food preparation. Some were better, such as bureaucracy. But they were generally much worse than any of us would expect to be after graduating. I think this is normal.

It was occasionally suggested that I too should become employed. This seemed false to me, for the following reasons. There are other activities I want to spend a lot of time on in my life, such as thinking about things. I expect the nth hour of thinking about things to be similarly valuable regardless of when it happens. I think for a hundred extra hours this year, or a hundred extra hours in five years, I still expect to have about the same amount of understanding at the end, and for hours in ten years to be about as valuable either way.

Depending on what one is thinking about, moving hours of thinking earlier might make them more valuable. Understanding things early on probably adds value to other activities, and youth is purportedly helpful for thinking. Also a better understanding early on probably makes later observations (which automatically happen with passing time) more useful.

This goes for many things. Learning an instrument, reading about a topic, writing. Some things are even more valuable early on in life, such as making friends, gaining respect and figuring out efficient lifestyle logistics.

Across many periods of time, work is roughly like this. It is the total amount of work you do that matters. But between before and after graduating, this is not so!

If activity A is a lot more valuable in the future, and activity B is about as valuable now or in the future, all things equal I should trade them and do B now.

Yes, work before graduating might get you a better wage after graduating, but so will the same amount of work after graduating, and it will be paid more at the time. Yes, you will be a year behind say, but you will have done something else for a year that you no longer need to do in the future.

On the other hand, working seems a great option if you have pressing needs for money now, or a strong aversion to indebtedness. My guess is that the latter played a large part in others’ choices. In Australia, most youth whose families aren’t wealthy can get enough money to live on from the government, and anyone can defer paying tuition indefinitely.

It seems that college students generally treat their time as low value. Not only do they work for low wages, but they go to efforts to get free food, and are happy to spend an hour of three people’s time to acquire discarded furniture they wouldn’t spend a hundred dollars on. This seems to mean they don’t think these activities they could do at any time in their life are valuable. If you are willing to trade an hour you could be reading for $10 worth of value, you don’t value reading much. When these people are paid a lot more, will they give up activities like reading all together? If not, it seems they must think reading is also more valuable in the future than now, and the relative values are jumping roughly in line with the value of working at these times. Or do they just make an error? Or am I just making some error?

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  • Andy McKenzie

    I suspect they are being more risk-averse, whereas you are more risk-neutral. 

  • bobby

    You just said it: friends are more valuable the earlier in life you make them.  Most of the people I knew in college spent the money they earned working on socializing (going out, buying drinks, saving up for a big trip, etc).  Seems rational.  

    It can also be seen as job training.   Give students a relatively meaningless job so they can spend time developing an efficient way to manage how they work (IE, how to be productive while also being insanely bored).  While it’s true you could develop those skills on your much more lucrative first job, you could also be fired for not having them developed in the first place.
    It is also probably true that you value activities that don’t cost (much) money more than post people (reading and thinking, namely).  I think you could keep going, naming a hundred reasons why this is rational (or isn’t), but the best way to solve this problem is probably empirical   Just ask some students!  

  • dmytryl

    Well, one can easily imagine some species X that are bottlenecked by some memory formation or organization process rather than by the time spent sitting and studying, and so these species X can have 5 hour per day of study and rest of the time ending up unused other than for menial labour. Humans probably don’t quite work like this, but education system kind of does.

    • gwern0

       Honestly, that does sound a lot like humans to me. Who can do math for 16 hours straight on a regular basis? Most people would be hardput to do, say, 5 hours a day…

      • dmytryl

        Yes, I’ve mostly added qualifier because I don’t know if its memory consolidation or anything else (synaptic strength have to be re-normalized for instance). I did actually have a rush job where I did applied math >12 hours per day, for several weeks, no smart drugs nor other stimulants (not even caffeine), but I don’t think I could do that for much longer, and I got insomnia afterwards.

  • One possible flaw in your argument … . Your time thinking may be more productive when you know more, and (hopefully) going to college will result in your knowing more.

    • A short time spent doing a job related to one’s future employment may actually help them to think more about work-related things.

      Which is why in my opinion doing some career-related things during study can be useful. But it does not explain career-unrelated work.

    • Vanessa

      Your thinking time is wasted – despite how much ‘academic’ knowledge you have or how much you have learned – if you haven’t yet learned how to think

      • Except, how do you “learn how to think”?  Even if a child or young adult does not “know how to think”, spending more time fumbling around–especially when that’s what they want to do–strikes me as reasonably likely to contribute to their getting past that milestone earlier than they otherwise would.

  •  Do you omit the obvious explanation, Katja, to be subtle? OK, I’ll pretend I’m on Less Wrong and play master of the obvious.

    Reading is far; it gets  postponed indefinitely. Getting paid is near, and I think “getting work experience,” too, is near.

    • John Salvatier

      I think you also need aversion to debt to make that work, since borrowing money would accomplish the same thing.

  • Phil

    Working and socializing provides value also.  I’d say that in my time in school, I learned more useful knowledge from my non-school activities that from my classes.  

    If your argument had said, “why waste time in University, studying and doing assignments and listening to professors, when you could be thinking” … that would be almost as persuasive, to me.

    BTW, for many people, thinking has little or no utility.  I have friends whose uitility for (a) thinking vs. (b) drinking and socializing is probably the reverse of mine.  Thinking probably has low future payoff if you’re not enjoying it, and if you don’t know what kinds of thinking are valuable and which ones aren’t.

  • Matthew Graves

    >When these people are paid a lot more, will they give up activities like reading all together?

  • Gulliver

    Speaking for myself, I worked in college because my family was lower class and I learned early on that debt and poverty made budgeting time for other things (such as reading) more difficult. Also, I had marketable technical skills thanks to a dad who taught me programming at a young age plus working as a software developer my last year of high school. Yes I made less than the same job would have paid after college (about half as much), but I also laid the foundation of social relationships that allowed me to go into business for myself after graduation.

    A better question, in my particular case, would be why did I spend almost a decade working to build a business while deferring my higher education (Masters and PhD). The answer is similar. By building a financial buffer for me and any future family, I can now focus on intellectual pursuits without having to worry about ends meat. A no longer have to ask if my career will pay the bills, freeing me to pursue the career I want.

    In general, though, I doubt most students are quite as dogged in their plans as I. For most, I suspect the calculus is that socializing and beer money are more enjoyable to them as students, whereas thinking and reading isn’t perceived as having such a diminishing value. When your young and out on your own for the first time, spending time with friends and not being broke are new and exciting, and still have childhood’s aura of independence from other responsibilities, but fewer of childhood’s restrictions. I strongly suspect that if you gave most students sufficient funds, they would exchange their work time not for pontificating, but rather for socializing. And indeed, this is what I observed among many of the non-scholarship students at my alma mater, USC (The University for Spoiled Children). I’d also wager that many of those students are still at least partially dependent on their wealthy parents or extend families.

    Many times as many people in the West attend college as consider thinking and reading worthwhile pursuits.

  • blink

    To the extent that our minds deteriorate with age, a focus on thinking early in life  can be recommended even more strongly.  Working at menial jobs does allow one to claim “experience” which may act as a positive signal in some circles as a kind of noblesse oblige.  Also, the point of rescuing discarded furniture seems more about relationship building than the item.

  • Faze

    I took the reading and thinking option during and after college. Now I’m in my sixties and glad I did. It’s very important to build reading capital early. Once you’ve got the classics of literature, art and music under your belt, you can spend the rest of your life enjoying the commentary — which is the good part. The young mind captures and preserves observations better, which strengthens your arsenal of examples and comparisons for later life. A small taste of menial labor should be enough for an intelligent person to get the idea of what it entails and why it should be avoided at all costs. And by all means, have and keep a small circle of close friends. From my point of view, it all worked out pretty well — of course, you really do have to read and think during this period and not succumb (more than a little) to dissipation and time-wasting amusements.

  • Anonymous

    Is this all just signalling that you were financially privileged during your undergrad? That’s what it sounds like to me.

    • Chad Gilbert

      This is definitely signalling. And privilege seems like a plausible
      thing to signal. But the “just” part of your accusation is dubious. Just because
      something said is used as a signal as a signal does not mean that it lacks content.

      an example, any scientist can be understood as pursuing a career that
      signals their intelligence, yet their discoveries can still be genuine contributions to human knowledge.

      • Gulliver

        Accusation is an interesting choice of word to describe financial privilege. However, I have my doubts as to how carefully either of you read the post…this sentence in particular:

        In Australia, most youth whose families aren’t wealthy can get enough
        money to live on from the government, and anyone can defer paying
        tuition indefinitely.

        So perhaps the author received government assistance and accumulated debt, unless either of you have some particular reason I’m unaware of for assuming the contrary. Would either receiving government assistance or tuition-loan debt qualify as an accusation?

      • This is definitely signalling. And privilege seems like a plausible thing to signal.

        I can’t imagine how inherited privilege would increase Katja’s status on OB! If she’s signaling anything it’s that she likes to read.

        Which brings me to another point. In another Comment, I said the faulty trade-offs were obviously the result of near-far biases. But that doesn’t offer a complete explanation for the problem, which includes why Katja resists this bias where others don’t.

        Theoretically, I see two main explanations. One is that Katja made a conscious judgment regarding the value of her time and established corresponding principles of integrity.(  ) That’s what I think is the most likely answer, but I may be biased because that was the route I chose. But there’s another possibility that construal-level theory exposes. If Katja’s reading process is nearer than that of her classmates, then it would be less subject to the bias that causes them to choose nearer activities in its stead.

      • dmytryl

        People signal for no reason at all, that’s the issue. I sometimes mess with a gun advocacy thread. No one there got a slightest clue what is the risk of, say, shooting yourself in the foot (and I mean literally in the foot) one fine morning as you are getting ready for the day of carrying the gun around (in from my POV very low crime rate environment) while being a very big guy who’s totally not walking less safe places than he would without gun, but they sure know they must signal that for them this risk is zero (while also trying to signal they’re very big guys and so on). The opinions are determined entirely by what ever they think could bring them some status – online where it doesn’t even matter.

      • dmytryl:

        People signal for no reason at all …

        I don’t think there’s “no reason at all” for the gun advocacy group, seeing as participating in such a group serves for them to signal the claims you mention. The preclusion here isn’t based on being online but on the specifics of the status dynamics of OB. OB is for defending privilege, and that message is diminished by claiming unearned privileges. 

      • dmytryl

        srdiamond: My point is that the very act of signalling something positive seem to be pleasurable, without serving any other purpose.

        Besides, what is ‘earned privilege’ exactly? Even if you made some wealth yourself you were dramatically influenced by privileged position for dealing with people who largely inherited the wealth (originating ultimately with just taking assets from other people, like land from native americans)

      •  dmytryl:

        Having strained to find one, I see no a priori way to determine whether we signal when we know it serves no purpose. Your point is well taken that I rely on “appropriate” signaling being the bulk of actual signaling.

      • dmytryl:

        I think I see the solution to the “paradox”: Why does it seem like signaling is pleasurably per se, if (as I contend) it is purposeful for obtaining advantages–most importantly, status and affiliation, which I think (pace Robin?) are distinct.

        My thought: Signaling is pleasurable, but it is also costly, mostly in credibility. So, it tends strongly to be directed toward what’s “profitable.”

      • LauraABJ

        Pretty sure not- I think it’s a fair argument if one can reasonably expect a high future income and/or has financially well-to-do parents… Trouble is many people can’t expect and don’t have those things.

    • John Maxwell IV

      Did you see the bit about life in Australia?

    • Richard Silliker

       Remember to thank her for the disclosure.

    • [T]he very act of signalling something positive seem to be pleasurable, without serving any other purpose.- dmytryl

      Apparently many people agree with dmytryl (although they didn’t upvote his comment – “market failure”?), since 10 readers upvoted a comment alleging status signaling in the OP.

      I think the split of opinion is interesting. It is as though two OB-reader subgroups have a whole different conception of how you diagnose signaling: relative to context or to society-wide values?

      What’s also interesting is that they are supported by two different views of the construal-level at which signaling occurs. If, as Robin thinks, far-mode serves hypocrisy, signaling is far. And if it’s far, at is apt to use universal values. But, I think this only goes to show that signaling is near. We signal using values developed in far-mode to serve other purposes, but we signal (at least primarily) in near-mode.

      Why is that? Well, signaling is a commercial activity, and trade is near. Signaling effectiveness often also depends on sequencing, an activity calling forth near-mode. I think this suggests that signaling is very sensitive to context. (Which is also, simply, my empirical conclusion as well.)

      What’s signaled is far but the act of signaling is near. That’s why signaling seems petty and small.

      • dmytryl

        Keep in mind that local values themselves may be some sort of signalling. I don’t particularly see how signalling the birth-privilege on a blog primarily visited by privileged males could be going against the local values.

        In my experience privileged folks love to interpret their status as product of their work and their personal abilities, which is distinct from actually valuing those qualities.

        What you want to signal among the privileged folks is that you are another privileged person that is unaware of / denies the privilege. You want to signal that you belong, that you are one of them. What you don’t want to signal is genuinely being self made from unprivileged, even though it is “valued”.

      • What you don’t want to signal is genuinely being self made from unprivileged, even though it is “valued”.

        In this regard, status signaling and affiliation signaling are in tension. Higher status is to be obtained by signaling that you are self-made; higher affiliation, by proceeding along the lines you indicate.

        It isn’t clear which kind of signaling the ten supporters of the signaling interpretation have in mind. I confess, I had assumed status signaling, as that’s Robin’s preoccupation and seems generally the more obnoxious variety–affiliation signaling wouldn’t ordinarily draw comment. 

    • John Salvatier

      That was pretty rude, and there was probably a better way to say that. Makes me kind of angry at you. Anyway, people are a lot more responsive to criticism if you don’t frame it as “you a terrible person”.

  • One important factor that seems to be left out of this is the desirability of participating in a variety of different activities over the course of any given day, week, year, etc. Let’s say I will eventually, over the course of my life, spend a solid six months of time reading fiction. I would far prefer to spread that time out in the form of an hour or so each day rather than actually reading for six months non-stop and then never doing so again.

  • Chad Gilbert

    You reasoning seems sound to me, Katja, but it seems to ignore any psychological factors. It could be that having a certain balance in activities in each phase of one’s life is good for various reasons. For example, perhaps developing too pensive a disposition early in life will make you into the type of person who is too slow to act later in life, as a habit has been established. Also, preparing food and thinking are things that can be done at the same time. One can manage a deli slicer and ponder the world simultaneously, at least to some degree.

  • Noumenon

    I was unnecessarily frugal in college just because of perspective. I didn’t have any money and had never had any, $6/hr seemed quite rewarding to me. Now I have more money than I can really spend and wish I had smoothed out my consumption a little.

    If only I had played World of Warcraft in college, I would have had the experience of going from ultra-poor where spending time mining copper makes sense to ultra-rich where you will pay silver for copper because your time is worth so much more. Time is better spent leveling up than using the skills you have right now.

    • In some situations levelling up requires other things besides time, so it may make sense to use the skills to get money to buy components required to level up.

      For example I spent some time programming to buy a better computer. (Borrowing the money was not an option in my situation.) Then I used the computer to learn programming.

  • John Maxwell IV

    Why are friends/respect more valuable earlier in life?

    BTW, you’re making the mistake of thinking all hours are equally valuable.  In my experience, I’m much more energy-limited in the intellectual stuff I can accomplish than time-limited.

  • Mitchell Porter

    Most university students would not care about extra opportunities for intellectual activity. They are there to get a degree (and thus a job), and to enjoy being in charge of their own lives for the first time. Getting a job while they study is early practice for the next phase of their lives, full-time work.

  • LauraABJ

    I think young people are still trying out a lot of different programs and finding which ones work.  Money *is* really scarce for most young people, and learning to deal with this is an important part of figuring out what one does value and what money is *actually* worth,  I was a very stingy college student, in large part because I was raised lower-middle class and had become used to pinching pennies, but also because I actually put the money I saved to good use- having fun, hosting parties, vacations, shows, camping, etc.  My (other poor) friends were frequently jealous, while my not so poor friends didn’t understand why I wouldn’t just spend $50 at the bar on outrageously priced weak drinks like they did…  I remember graduating and reflecting how well I had done to have $3000 in my bank account… an amount that would be laughable to me now… Still, this was important seed money for me when I moved to Germany on a Fulbright scholarship, making 400 Euro/month…  Lets say I rarely ate-out in Germany, but I sure traveled Europe… on the cheap.  

    No- I will *never* again stay in a youth hostel again with 5 other noisy dirty coeds and clogged toilets- not if I can help it…

    No-  I will *never* again take a flight with two layovers to save $100…

    No- I will never again spend hours shopping at thrift stores to find somewhat fashionable clothing, I’ll buy it on 5th Avenue…

    No-  I will never again spend a week trying to find all the ways I can turn rice, beans, and left over chinese food into a gourmet meal…

    No- I will never again work for next to nothing doing the exact same thing that the salaried folk are doing… Wait – scratch that one, I haven’t done my residency yet…

    But do I regret these things?  No.  I know how to budget time and money now.  I know I can eat well spending $25/wk on groceries if I need to.  I know why to find te cheap shit that can masquerade as not-so-cheap shit… Even the poor choices – like not spending more money on my clothes and hair – were things that took time and *money* to get over.  When I first realized that I *actually* had money, and wasn’t just hoarding for the next trip… I wasted a lot of it on fancy, not-to-practical clothing… and needed to recalibrate.  Now a much better shopper.  Anyway- a lot of students really *are* poor, and not all of them can expect to get out from under that, so a healthy fear of spending is not really that crazy a thing.

  • LauraAB

    The other thing to bear in mind, is it’s remarkably difficult to be cheap about some things and not others.  Sure, everyone has that one or two things where they *must* take the expensive option, but if you make a habit of spending when it’s convenient to do so, and you don’t have real money, you will very soon find that you have nothing left in your bank account.  I did really try to reason out what long-term consequences of certain purchases were, IE, ‘If I buy the cheap lap-top, I will need a new laptop in 2-3, not 3-4 years, plus time lost on freezing…, however I doubt the very expensive laptop will last me more than 4 anyway…’, but this took *so friggen long* that I would either not buy anything or default to the cheap option.  

    When my ex-husband got a summer position at a law firm and began counting his white-shoe chickens before they hatched, he decided he was above saving money and living like a student…  A useless 1964 MGB, a pile of antique junk, a bunch of ugly sports coats, an exorbitant tab from the Yale Club, another pile junk, and $30,000 of outstanding credit card bills later, and he found out 2008 had taken this opportunity, and he would need to join the rat-race again…

  • Briancpotter

    I suspect a vanishingly small proportion of people get anywhere near $10 in value from an hour of reading or thinking.

    • dmytryl

       And even then, if you are short on money, you still need something that pays now (rather than something that pays more in the future, maybe, and very far into the diminishing returns side of the utility of money)

    • I suspect a vanishingly small proportion of people get anywhere near $10 in value from an hour of reading or thinking.

      I don’t think Katja implies that time spent reading or thinking has higher market value, only that the market values involved are small. In fact, the narrow-minded and short-sighted concern with market value could be defined as being the problem Katja addresses: why place some paltry market value higher than less tangible but obviously greater rewards?

      This is why there’s a sense of signaling in the essay, but the analysis has been misplaced. The article signals by being understandable only by someone who shares a certain choice of “values.” If you don’t doubt that an hour’s worth of serious reading or thinking is worth more than $10 to a reasonably gifted student of adequate means, Katja has successfully signaled that she shares your “values” (defined as principles of integrity). (  )

  • Roy Stogner

    Why assume that all low wage work is incompatible with thinking?  Heinlein’s schtick about washing dishes comes to mind; I can’t speak to the veracity of that one, but I could probably come up with a half dozen similar seemingly time-wasting-for-minimal-money activities that I do myself that actually facilitate direct thinking (weeding, shoveling, painting) or even reading (hand-watering, taking public transit).

    I wouldn’t sniff at “indirect thinking” either.  “Think about the problem for two hours” often comes up with less creative solutions than “Think about the problem for 45 minutes, go do something else forebrain-occupying for an hour, then come back and think again”.  The study I read used “Sudoku” to test the latter strategy, but I bet most of your example activities would apply as well.

    • The point is that they are incompatible with thinking; only less compatible. Instead of washing dishes, take a long walk or hike. Do you doubt you would think better? Of course, if you need the money, nobody I hear is saying you should be a ‘starving student.’ But getting a menial job in those valuable years for the sake of some extra pocket cash or as ‘experience’ is just plain dumb. That this simple premise is getting questioned so brutally signifies a misguided contrarianism that occurs in the ‘Monomaniacalist Quadrant (  ), which predominates at OB.

  • This may be a quirk of my psychology, but I have found that alternating intellectual activities and somewhat mindless physical activity makes for better thinking. A job keeps me from being distracted by the internet and whatnot, allowing my mind to focus. Weedeating and philosophy work well together, in my experience. These days I do all my thinking on the subway.

    • You take the subway to do your job weedeating?

      But seriously, there’s a big difference between puttering around in your garden and working as a weeder for a wage, in that maintaining a reasonable work rate for an employer requires conscious effort. I mean, there’s a reason why for performing such a pleasant-sounding job, in fact only undocumented immigrants can be found.

      And a college student working at McDonald’s does work that’s at once trivial and attention-demanding.

      • I asserted the opposite above, based on my experience washing dishes in the college dorm.

      • Am I going to have to create a dishwashing exception? It would be disingenuous for me to comment, as I find the process so viscerally repugnant that it makes me gag. I suspect you react differently.

        Odd thing is that my guess is that dishwashing would be the last thing college students would want to do. The stereotype is fast-food service, which doesn’t strike me as compatible with broader cognition.

      • I was, in fact, doing groundskeeping for a wage. And it required *some* conscious effort, but not my entire brain. The same was not always true when I was operating the big rider mowers, though. Those suckers were scary. Dishwashing is pretty good for thinking too, as mentioned, except when there’s huge rush and the dishes begin to pile up. Some types of construction work are as well, while some types (e.g., anything involving powertools) are definitely not. Janitorial work also.

        Sadly, grad school does not leave any time for such activities, so the subway must suffice. And church. I get lots of ideas for experiments while my mind is wandering in church…

      • JDM

        What if a decent portion of the time is spent on reading and non-paid projects related to your field? Surely that could be more useful than working some mindless job making minimum wage? You can cancel out some of this value if your job is mindless enough to allow you to think about your field on work time, but most unless the job is related to your field, the experience is essentially non-existent.

  • “Or am I just making some error?” Most of the menial part time jobs that college students are likely to get are great for letting your mind wander and thinking about the things you’ve read lately; whereas sitting in your dorm with a book if you get bored your impluse (if you are the average college student) will probably be to grab the video game or phone a friend or check facebook.

  • $100 are much more valuable to a college grad who lives on $4,000 per year than they are to an executive that makes $200,000 per year.

    It’s really about how the person spends those additional $100 they make while they are a college grad. 

    “Across many periods of time, work is roughly like this. It is the total amount of work you do that matters.”
    No, that’s isn’t the case. Quality of work is more important than quantity.

  • Daublin

    I like your overall analysis approach.

    I do think debt aversion is important, though. It’s just terribly easy to convince oneself that an extra beer right now is worth five dollars that you will have to earn some time in the future.

    I would also emphasize that you are thinking any time you are awake. Unless you are doing something incredibly menial at this hypothetical job, you’ll learn a lot of useful things, not the least of which is how to be a productive part of the work force. There’s a lot more to it than is on the surface, and to paraphrase some of the other posters, you won’t learn it in a classroom or in a philosophy book.

  • Robert Wiblin

    Some possible reasons:
    They enjoyed the work
    They wanted the money now
    They wanted to smooth out the market work they did over time, rather than push it all into post-graduation
    They didn’t expect much better job opportunities after graduation
    They couldn’t get their foot in the door of the place they wanted to work if they didn’t work while studying
    … Perhaps because they can signal their work on their CV better than they can any extra thinking.

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