Graduate School?

Yes, the earth has stopped rotating. I am officially considering graduate school.

People who know me well know that I don’t generally advocate going for a graduate degree. I feel many students are mislead by universities regarding the value of said degrees, and many people would be better served simply getting in some real-world experience.

And yet I’m considering grad school. For software engineering.

So why the change of buy cheap viagra internet heart?

Primarily, I want to learn new things.  I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts in metalsmithing. Which is great, and I’m proud of that degree; I worked hard for it. But I also do a lot of professional web development and programming. I’ve learned most of it through the school of hard knocks. I’m self employed, and while one might think that would make it easier to take time to learn new things, in some ways it becomes more difficult. It’s easy to overdue “work time” and spend 12 hours a day on my business, leaving little time for anything else.

In addition to polishing my skills, I decided the degree was worth something to me. If my Bachelors was in CS or math, I’d probably skip the official degree program and just take some continuing ed classes. I’m after the information, not the acronym. But after talking to a few people I think there’s a benefit to having a degree in computer science on my resume. As much as I wish it wasn’t, sexism is still an issue for women working in technology and science. Having an advanced degree can help combat that, although it’s a shame that it even has to.

I’ve more or less decided to go into software engineering, as opposed to “computer engineering” or “computer science.” Admittedly before I started looking into grad school all these terms sounded identical to me. The Association of Computer Machinery put out a curriculum which breaks down various computer sciences into a few different disciplines. The article itself is a bit dry but there are some very useful charts and graphs which help me figure out how my interests lined up with different programs. You can find it here if you’re interested:

Now comes the daunting task of picking a college and getting admitted. I’m going to have to use all of the work I’ve done since college graduation to show my aptitude and interest in software engineering, since my college transcript just shows that I’m damned good at metalsmithing. I was hoping to take a few undergraduate classes as a non-matriculating student at a university I’m interested in to get a feel for it and meet the faculty, but it looks like most CS programs don’t let non-majors take classes. Without a lot of connections to academia, the graduate admissions process is pretty intimidating. When I was in high school, my college counselor seemed superfluous; I already knew where I wanted to go. Now I’d give my left arm to have someone help me navigate the sea of programs and paperwork.

I’m not looking to relocate, so I’m sticking to colleges and universities within a reasonable commuting distance (via public transit) to my home in Jersey City. So far I’ve checked out Rutgers, NYU, and Stevens. I’m still on the fence as to whether I should go for a masters or a PhD. A PhD sounds like it might be more interesting, but I’ve got mixed feelings about setting aside such a huge chunk of time. Would becoming a PhD student mean I’d have to leave my business behind?

One thing I’m oddly looking forward to is the GRE. I’ve always done pretty well on standardized tests.  Do you still use a number 2 pencil and fill in the bubbles? I find that to be immensely satisfying.

6 thoughts on “Graduate School?”

  1. Yes, the charts in the ACM paper are very good, worth the time to find them. The verbose wording is just how academics write.

  2. dear kellbot,
    as someone who worries her current degree doesn’t mean much in a see of them (but wants the experience, nonetheless) i can relate to a lot of your feelings, and my gosh did our high schoo college counselor blow, and yet when i was done as an undergrad i ran screaming to my uni’s career (+grad prog) resource center begging for a little guidance. oh how things change after you figure out a weebit more of what you want to do with your life, or at least how to get edumacated/trained.

    let the earth stop rotating, it’s awesome that your interests have evolved and you are open and willing to get the learnings you fancy by exploring all these options. we’re rooting for you! and now to ogle your moleskines…lovejojo

    p.s. obvi every day i am so impressed w. the people our circle have evolved into (being) it makes me pretty stoked

  3. I would say go for a Computer Science degree over a Software Engineering degree, though I’m very heavily biased since I have a degree in Computer Science.

    The software engineering classes I took in college weren’t that helpful in retrospect, as I don’t believe that the classroom setting can accurately emulate the environment of a real software development shop. Semester long schedules, short projects and new code with every class runs completely contrary to the realities of a software development shop: legacy code, confused users, system quirks, live system requirements, year long projects, pointy haired bosses, etc etc.

    Computer Science is, IMO, a better match for the academic world, since it is essentially an offshoot of mathematics. College is pretty much the only place that you’ll encounter the course work to prepare you for debugging really tricky problems, figuring out recursion and doing a bunch of cool stuff with lambda calculus etc.

    If you want to get a feel for the differences between CS and SE, I would recommend reading a couple of books, for Software Engineering:

    The Mythical Man-Month
    Code Complete

    for Computer Science:

    Introduction to Algorithms

    These are pretty much the defacto computer software books. In fact, if you “get” everything in Intro to Algorithms, you’ll probably be ready for a job at Google!

  4. Hi Kelly,

    Rory has his undergraduate degree in CS and worked hard to try and figure out what to do next before moving on to the ITP program at NYU. Please please please come over some time and pick his brain. He’d be happy to share his experience with you! He’s busy, so I can help coordinate if you guys want to talk. Maybe a drawing night or dinner some night would be good timing?

    Check out Rory’s web site for an idea of what he likes to do, because I would love to tell you about it but I seem incapable of articulating every time I try.

    Thanks for coming to our party this weekend. It was fun to finally have you guys over.


  5. If your main concern is the practice of making software, I’d support getting a masters. A CS Ph.D will open some doors, but I also know that many places see it as a bit of overspecialization or too theoretical. A Masters will open as many doors; it proves you’ve gotten through a major project and know your way around CS ideas and fundamentals.

  6. The GRE is unlike any standardized test you’ve ever taken, and as far as I am concerned, it is the devil.

    Okay, so I might have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder, but seriously the GRE isn’t just a grown-up SAT. As you might have heard, it’s a Computer-Adaptive Test, which means that you take it on the computer (if you’re hankerin’ for fill-in-the-bubble test, they still do that for the Subject GREs) and that each quesiton you answer determines what the next question will be. Get one right, get a harder question. Get one wrong, get an easier question. While this may seem like a good idea, in fact it means that first 5 or so questions determine the broad range of your score and if you don’t perform well near the beginning you can never truly recover. Also, because each question depends on the answer to the previous one, you can’t skip questions and come back to them later. If you hit one you don’t know, you must either waste precious time or guess. One last thing that I personally don’t like about the test because it doesn’t play to my strengths but may not be a problem for you, is that the Quantitative section isn’t at all about solving math problems like you would encounter on any normal test. No, it’s a “reasoning test” which means you’re supposed to use concepts like knowing a negative times a negative equals a positive to solve the answer rather than just straight out doing the math. I am much, much better at plugging away and getting an answer than finding the “trick” I must use, but the time allotted for the section doesn’t allow for spending multiple minutes finding the solution.

    Anyway, all this is not to say that you won’t do well, but just be aware that the GRE is different from other standardized tests. I would suggest picking up a Kaplan or Princeton Review book to help familiarize yourself with the test’s quirks. Just my $0.02.

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