Thursday, November 20, 2008

Why grad school was not for me

I like to stay in touch with the extremely limited population of women in Computer Science at my alma mater, being a woman who graduated CS. Every once and a while, we do stuff together. This time, it was tea. During tea we were chattering away about academic life, since most of the people who went were students and HAVE no other life, I was struck by the different experiences that everyone else was having and the ones I was having as a member of industry. This has made me reflect on my decision to not go to grad school and instead dig for employment.

It took me 9 months to find a job. There's a story behind that, but bottom line is that I finally found one and for the last 10 months I've been happily sitting at a computer and programming.

The grad students I was talking with? They were impassioned, all fired up for their chosen disciplines and extremely intelligent. They had brains full of thoughts that will eventually translate lead to concrete advances in their fields.


Maybe it's just me, but I drove myself nuts in college. At the end I was jaded enough to decide that a third of my professors didn't know the first thing about teaching and another third didn't care enough about their subjects to impart anything of value. My favorite teachers were the in-the-thick-of-it teachers who had opportunities for learning coming out their ears instead of the ones with dusty theories lurking in our 'required' reading. By the time I got out of college - five years and two degrees later - I was fired up to go out and DO something with what I'd learned.

It just struck me how sheltered these thirty-something, extremely talented students were when it came to the outside world. It was like they lived in a bubble of academia and anything that didn't enter and rub up against their shins like a purring cat didn't get any notice at all. What was most terrifying was one of their comments, "Most people don't know what they want to focus on when they go to grad school." So... passion but no focus and no idea what you want to do with it? It sounds to me like they were allowing academia to babysit them until they were ready to come out of their cocoons.

Of course, I'm flaunting my immaturity here. I wouldn't have been able to hack grad school. My senior thesis was a sad display of constructive criticism laced with bitterness at the pitfalls of my own education. I went out and got a job because I wasn't impassioned enough about anything I was doing when I graduated to ever want to touch it academically ever again. I wanted a job that wasn't popping popcorn, an income that could handle car insurance and an apartment with a washing machine. Now, though, I'm seeing why I was so adverse to academia.

All the opportunities I thought I had when I graduated followed paths that my interests had diverged from long ago.

Now that I'm set loose upon the world I've found that I'm a programmer, but... that's not my life. I dream in code when there's a sticky problem that I'm obsessing over, but I just as often write short stories, design graphics for websites, and go hiking. By the time I finished schooling, I just didn't care about the direction that my education had been taking me. I had started school optimistic, but the more I'd learned the more rigid the curriculum had gotten until I wasn't even vaguely pointed in the right direction. At the time, trying again from a different angle wasn't an option. My backlash against my own education was to abandon it for the realities of business and industry.

I've moved on. I've gradually discovered over the course of the past year that while I may have a job in my field, it's not who I am. It's something I do, it's something I enjoy doing, and it's something I've decided is interesting and dynamic enough to keep my attention. But it's not my box.

I could never have gone to grad school in CS because it is an interest and not a passion. I might have been able to go for Theatre, but even with the love I have for the discipline it would have been even worse because it was a degree I took to cling to something familiar. Forcing myself to continue in either field would have placed me in a definition that I would have apathetically accepted and quietly resented without consciously acknowledging it.

Now, however, I'm seeing more realities. There's no syllabus now, nothing holding me anywhere beyond a love of where I am and who I'm with.

College was nice. Safe. It was comforting struggling towards something you knew everyone else was struggling for. There was a network of authority figures to tell you 'hey, good job' even when your good job was just waking up in the morning. That's no longer the reality I live. There's now a heady sense of independence that I would have been unable to find if I'd continued schooling immediately after graduation from CS. It's not the right choice for everyone, but it was for me.

That and it's delightful to say, "I've reached my goal, time for a new goal."

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