When you think of the word apprentice, what comes to mind? For me, sadly, the first thing that comes is the image of Donald Trump telling some celebrity that they are fired in an obnoxious tone. The term goes a bit further back than that, however — many centuries before the ridiculous ‘reality’ show came to be. Teenagers were sent to learn a particular trade — they could spend a good number of years learning how to be a proper blacksmith, or a shoemaker, for example.

In some ways it was a bit like being an indentured servant. The apprenticeship itself came with no wages proper — what the person got out of it was the knowledge of how to perform the craft. Have a look at this contract from seventeen fifty-nine:

…during all which Term or Time the said Jesse Cook his said Master he shall faithfully Serve and all his lawful Commands everywhere Gladly Obey. Neither shall the said Jesse Cook frequent Publick Houses, Contract Matrimony or Commit Fornication during the said Term.

Mr. Cook pretty much belonged to his teacher and master. Though it could be said to be a mutually beneficial relationship, it can be easily argued that the master was getting a bit more out of the deal than the apprentice.

This sort of apprenticeship doesn’t exist anymore, at least not in the United States. The essence that drove the movement, however, still exists to a certain extent — in different forms.

Last Friday, the social web site Facebook announced via its blog it would be offering a number of $30,000.00USD fellowships for Ph.D. students studying certain areas of academia, all of which are applicable to the long term growth and sustainability of Facebook as a company.  As the blog explicitly states:

As Facebook engineers, we are surrounded by engaging technical problems to solve. We’ve recently tackled efficient photo storage, distributed computation and crowdsourced translations, to name a few. While we’re working on inventive solutions on a daily basis, we can’t do it alone.

The really jaded side of me says that this is just an easier way to get people who can do what they want without having to pay the higher salaries of people with years of experience that would ask significantly more than thirty thousand dollars a year. I don’t know. It seems like a great program, much like the official Google Fellowship.

My eyebrow arched just a little bit when I read the following line from the Google announcement:

The Google Fellowship will provide them with funding to cover their tuition and expenses, plus an Android-powered phone and a Google mentor.

How incredibly kind of them. I wonder how likely it is that the mentor will guide them toward working for Google?

On the plus side, these fellowships do not prohibit the frequenting of public houses… yet.


  1. Fantastic article, Gordon!
    This is a pretty blatant contest for buying higher minds.
    I wonder if there are strings attached to any of the money — like a “first look” deal or a more severe, “anything you create on our fellowship must be shared with us.”
    Can somebody get both a Google and a Facebook scholarship… or are you limited to accepting only one?

  2. I like the way you think, David. I was looking for such strings but couldn’t find them — surely they are buried once applications are filed.
    I would imagine a person could get both scholarships — but given how many people apply and how few get in, it would be like getting hit with lightning twice! (Or perhaps they would prohibit you from taking both!)

  3. They probably won’t forbid you from anything — or attach any real strings — unless they pick you. Then, in the excitement, you’ll be more likely to give in and give up your work in exchange for a few pennies now versus the rest of your future.

  4. Agreed, David! That’s just “how they get you” — so few genuine acts of kindness with no self-interest behind them.

  5. This looks like a simple “give and take” arrangement Gordon, take it or leave it!
    The concept of “free lunch” doesn’t exist in the corporate world…even the supposed to be corporate social responsibility comes with a price…whether to avail it or not…that’s the question! 🙂

  6. I just worry about the lesser off who take up such offers thinking they are going to be better off and end up tied to a machine for years to come without knowing it.
    Good point, though.

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