Why I Can’t Wait to Escape from Grad School

Credit: flickr / katiew

On Monday, I took what will be my last exam for the foreseeable future.

I remember things best when I write them down, so I went through the course notes and typed all the key points into a document. I was going to hand-write it (better retention) but I started and my hand started cramping up after about 10 lines. I used to write pages and pages, but I haven’t for a long time.

So I typed instead. This means I can tell you that I compiled this course into 75 pages of notes. Mostly bullet points, but 19,362 words, or 98,274 characters (not including spaces). 3,362 lines.

And yesterday I took the exam. 5 pages, perhaps? 80 minutes allowed. I took 25 and then left before I changed the answers I wasn’t sure of endlessly.

75 pages, reduced to 25 minutes. Having seen the exam, I could go through and reduce those 75 pages to 10 or so. We were tested only on memorization – not on understanding. Not having had any sample questions, there was no way to tell that beforehand.

It feels like a metaphor for university. So much work amounts to so small a time to demonstrate that you know what you’re doing. The course is on software testing and someone could ace that exam and still have no understanding of writing good, clean, testable code. Someone could do badly at regurgitating the definitions but be a really good tester. Does it really matter what a “Point of Control and Observation” is? You don’t need to be calling a network port that in order to be able to write a good set of test cases around it.

This disjoint between reality and academia is frustrating me. In the age of the smart phone, don’t ask me to define – ask me to understand.

Also frustrating me is the discord between what the university values (research) and what students pay for (teaching). I pay international tuition. And the course I’ve been taking? We handed in our first assignment nearly a month ago, and have had no feedback. The second one, two weeks ago. No feedback. No sample questions for the exam. Next week I will hand in my project – and the outcome of the course, will end up as a grade on infoweb. No time to improve my understanding. No chance to learn from any mistakes I made early on.

I have straight As in grad school. In the worst case, this course brings down my GPA – something that with feedback I would have been able to avert. In the best case, this course maintains my GPA but I still never got the opportunity to improve. And I live to improve. Relentless improvement. Continuous improvement. It helps to know how you’re doing to assess what you can best be working on.

Can you tell? I can’t wait for my return to the real world next month. I’ll have to return to this vortex of despair that is academia in September, but it’ll be temporary.

Interesting article from Ben Casnocha on whether or not to go to college.

8 thoughts on “Why I Can’t Wait to Escape from Grad School

  1. I just finished my comprehensive exams for my master's a couple weeks ago, and had the same complaint — why was I being tested on memorization? It was basically just a test to see if I could do 8 hours of writing over three days and remain coherent, I think. Then, I found out I passed, but received no feedback whatsoever. It's so anticlimactic after weeks of studying.

    It's reassuring to know that the escape is just around the corner, though. Good luck wrapping up the semester!

  2. With ya here.

    I loved university, but got really P.O.ed at them memorization exams. I did not run into it too much in grad school classes, but far too much in undergrad classes. I actually grew to favour things like multiple choice exams since they can't test memorization since they have to give you a sheet with all the answers on.

    We need to find away to improve university teaching from a side annoyance with purpose of generating revenue to something grander. Personally I would like to see a collection of profs that are teaching focused and a mostly separate collection that are generally research focused.

  3. Thanks Kayla! I've been appreciating your posts about finishing and balance – it's tough, and it's good to know that I'm not alone in finding it so.

  4. I don't think it needs to be an either/or for research and teaching profs. Some do both well. The thing is – profs have complete job security, and it doesn't matter how many bad reviews their courses get they still have a job. The profs who are genuinely good teachers have an attitude that is fundamentally different – they see teaching as an important commitment, rather than just a distraction from research. I think finding people like that and rewarding them for their dedication is more important, and perhaps giving terrible teachers some penalties for not living up to the standards that students should reasonably expect (timely marking, well written assignments, etc.) is the way to go.

  5. With ya here.

    I loved university, but got really P.O.ed at them memorization exams. I did not run into it too much in grad school classes, but far too much in undergrad classes. I actually grew to favour things like multiple choice exams since they can't test memorization since they have to give you a sheet with all the answers on.

    We need to find away to improve university teaching from a side annoyance with purpose of generating revenue to something grander. Personally I would like to see a collection of profs that are teaching focused and a mostly separate collection that are generally research focused.

  6. Thanks Kayla! I've been appreciating your posts about finishing and balance – it's tough, and it's good to know that I'm not alone in finding it so.

  7. I don't think it needs to be an either/or for research and teaching profs. Some do both well. The thing is – profs have complete job security, and it doesn't matter how many bad reviews their courses get they still have a job. The profs who are genuinely good teachers have an attitude that is fundamentally different – they see teaching as an important commitment, rather than just a distraction from research. I think finding people like that and rewarding them for their dedication is more important, and perhaps giving terrible teachers some penalties for not living up to the standards that students should reasonably expect (timely marking, well written assignments, etc.) is the way to go.

Leave a Reply