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Getting a master's degree when disillusioned with academia?
May 21, 2012 7:03 AM   Subscribe

I've always been drawn to science and research and I'm strongly considering going to graduate school to get a master's degree in computer science (location: Sweden) and maybe even aim for an academic career. But my recent experiences with academia has left my disillusioned, sad and angry. Can I get my degree without GRARing all the time? How?

I'm about to finish my undergraduate studies (computer science), having previously taken a couple of years off to work. Although I only needed to study for just a semester (four courses) it's been a frustrating experience:
* I've been working with students - undergraduates and graduates - that come off as lazy and irresponsible, forcing me take on more work that I should have too.

* Most of the courses have been poorly designed and executed. The have been too easy, the pedagogy has been lacking, the contents has been irrelevant, outrageously few lectures in one course, etc.

* I'm frustrated with the low quality of learning/teaching. Sure I've learned things but not to the extent I would have expected. I look back at this semester and I feel that I've gone through the motions of learning, that I've wasted six months of my life.

I know that if I'm going to graduate school to get my master's degree, I would have to put with several more courses, which seems utterly dreadful. The only thing I'm looking forward would be writing a thesis but I don't want to suffer through more pointless courses just for that.

Needless to say I'm no longer excited about an academic career. There seems to be too much bullshit, administration and indifference (both from students and professors) going on when teaching and researching. I need to feel that the things I do have a deeper meaning that's shared by others.

Have you been in a similar situation where you wanted to get your degree but couldn't stand all the pointless nonsense involved? How did you go about getting your degree?
posted by Foci for Analysis to Education (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Okay,

First of all, if you hate the idea of academia, why on earth would you be considering graduate school now?

Take some time off and get out into the job market. Get some experience in the real world, and see where your interests take you. The biggest mistake you could make is an investment in time and money in coursework that you find tedius and pointless.

I had seven years between my undergrad and grad degrees, and it made a world of difference in how I approached my schooling. I had real-world experience to make the Masters relevant, and an appreciation for the process that I hadn't possessed previously.

You may find that after being out in the job market, that you'll want to explore Finance, or Economics, or Social Science. Computer Science is so perishable, that it would be criminal for you not to work for awhile, you know, before the next big thing comes along.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:11 AM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have a few ideas:

1. Consider more rigorous graduate schools. In particular, I've found the top American schools are very very good both in the quality of teaching and the depth of subjects.

2. Consider industrial research (Microsoft, Oracle, etc). You can continue to do research but there's no requirement for teaching and so on.
posted by gadha at 7:19 AM on May 21, 2012


(location: Sweden)

You've described the Swedish educational system to a tee: underwhelming. You have to get out of Sweden. It's as simple as that. Even a mediocre U.S. graduate program will be vastly more challenging than what you now experience and the motivation of the students, if not their quality, will be incomparable.

But you're in Sweden so you know this so what's the problem?
posted by three blind mice at 7:25 AM on May 21, 2012


I'm getting a PhD in a tech field. I spent the first several years being angry all the time for the reasons you've mentioned above. It was also stressful because I was trying to do work according to my standards and felt undermined by the lack of understanding from advisor and committee about what I was trying to do. Finally, I'm getting good enough to do work that meets my personal high standards and also be able to simultaneously defend it and advocate for it in a way that satisfies said advisor and committee (so they can no longer keep trying to derail me into fluffy nonsense).

I don't think you'll have enough time to get good in an MS. You would have to do what you're told and/or be miserable all the time and/or get kicked out. There just isn't enough time to meet your own standards and keep the authority figures happy. Or, find an advisor that you are SURE you respect. That is risky and hard because you don't know enough when you start and PIs are deceptively charming.

I would go work, hate it, save money, and think about a PhD eventually if academia is really for you.
posted by zeek321 at 7:26 AM on May 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


There is certainly plenty of reasons to be skeptical about the prospects of on-line courses like those offered by Coursera, but your situation (unhappy with the college education available to you, interested in computer science) is pretty much tailor-made for it. Here's step 1 your master's degree coursework: take the very popular Machine Learning course. Here's your master's thesis: enter and give your all to a Kaggle contest.

It seems to me you'd be very likely to come out of this experience with a clearer idea of whether you might enjoy research in CS, or at least this precinct of CS.
posted by escabeche at 7:27 AM on May 21, 2012


(USA)
posted by zeek321 at 7:28 AM on May 21, 2012


My area is not computer science at all, and I'm not located in Sweden. I've had similar feelings, though.

I've taken both graduate and undergraduate courses at my current institution, and I've met all kinds of students. Some of them are lazy, some of them are pragmatic, and some are that special blend of lazy and pragmatic that drives me insane. On the other hand, others are motivated, curious, and independent learners who take the class material as a starting point and go much farther.

The ratio differs from class to class, from program to program, and certainly from school to school. I've taken classes in one master's program where each class session was a litany of petulant complaining. I've taken other classes where the students greeted the material with happy smiles. They were fascinated by it and couldn't wait to take it apart and play with it.

Does your academic institution offer multiple programs that are relevant to your interests, but cater to different types of students? I was less than thrilled by coursework in a program of a very applied nature. I feel more at home among students in a much more rigorous abstract program at the same university.

If your institution is a poor match for you, do you have any opportunity at all to do your master's coursework elsewhere? You may fall in love with the academic culture at another nearby institution.

Finally, is this the kind of material that encourages independent exploration? You may have a better time in courses that are built around a single semester-long project with occasional input or guidance from a faculty advisor.

Best of luck with your decision!
posted by Nomyte at 7:29 AM on May 21, 2012


Consider getting jobs at national labs or at commercial places - Google, Microsoft, etc.. You don't need a PhD or even an MS to do research. You do need one of those (or a proven track record that is at least as hard to get) if you want to SET the research agenda. If you want to find out new stuff for other people, jobs are available.
posted by pmb at 10:34 AM on May 21, 2012


In my experience, it is very difficult to get into top tier commercial research labs without a PhD. Researcher positions require a PhD and candidates are recruited from top-tier universities. There are a small number of development support positions but you often need a solid track record inside the company to even know about/be considered for them.

Also, while the culture at commercial research labs is not at all lazy, it is decidedly biased against non-PhDs. If you want to be a thought leader you'll want to be the PhD and not the proxy for grad-student labor. Or pursue a technical position at a competitive startup - there are many where rigorous thinking is an asset and you don't need any advanced degrees to qualify.
posted by SakuraK at 5:30 PM on May 21, 2012


I recently finished my Swedish PhD in physics. Which school do you attend, if you don't mind me asking? There has been an over-establishment of universities here and they differ a lot in quality.

If you're planning to stay in Sweden, definitely go for the MSc. It is the default stopping point for most higher education and employers here are likely to see a BSc as incomplete or inferior compared to most applications they receive. This also means you may have to live with your irresponsible peers up to that point. There are some specialized MSc programs with high application pressure though, especially at the technical universities. Look at those instead of the standard run-of-the-mill continuation of your present program.

The PhD is a different story: It takes an additional 5 years (nominally) after the MSc, and the courses there are often given exclusively for PhD students. Courses are anyways not as important as the research you do, and your experience and competitiveness will depend a lot on what professor you work under.
posted by springload at 5:41 PM on May 21, 2012


Many thanks for all your replies!

I've marked many answers as the best simply because they have given my food for thought and have reminded me not to be so shortsighted and blind about all the options that are truly available. Also, I think that my current life situation makes me overtly negative right now, so your perspectives are welcomed.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 12:57 PM on May 22, 2012


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