Education Thesis

Dropping Out

The sky isn't falling
Credit: Geek and Poke /

I wrote the post Being Human at around 5am having stayed up most of the night to get my edits in for the deadline. I don’t normally work like that – I think I forgot to tell my co-supervisor I was in the UK. Oh well. I never really made it off Canadian time whilst I was there. It’s been blissful to come home and be a morning person again.

I hadn’t been feeling too well, but thought it was mostly jetlag. But then, edits done, I crashed. I got the flu really badly – I don’t remember the last time I was that sick – followed by post-viral exhaustion. My boyfriend got sick too, about 3 days behind me. Result was the laziest holiday ever; we didn’t go to Iceland, or Paris for New Year – we stayed home with tissues and hot tea and Harry Potter Lego (Amazon) – which, frustratingly, I had to leave 98.8% completed.

Still, being sick over the holidays gave me two things. The first – a real break – not just from work, but from the guilt of not working. Secondly, it gave me time to think about what I want and what I’m doing.

The person I emailed at uOttawa, of course, never got back to me. This is what I have come to expect, but it’s still frustrating. I’m so tired of this, and of uOttawa being so for-profit when they insist I must register full time, at international rates, but like a non-profit when they try and cut my TA’s hourly rate by a third (with no notice) because “it’s for a good cause”. And so I haven’t registered, haven’t paid any tuition. Is this how you drop out? I’m looking into transferring because having time to think, I realized that if nothing changes then it’s unlikely that another semester is the answer. The problem is not, I think, time. It’s direction.

On January first (great start to 2011), our education paper got accepted – it’s about the curriculum design for the workshop we were running and is called “Four Hours to Smash the CS Stereotype and Create Something Beautiful”. This brings me up to three papers coming out this year – on widely divergent topics. The IBM paper is on text analytics. The paper I’ll present in Switzerland later this month is called “Following the Conversation: A More Meaningful Measure of Engagement” and is about applying visualization and graph theory to social network analysis. The citation in SIGCHI? That’s a paper on Usability of IDEs and programming languages for teaching.

I look at this, and I think – this is why I’m doing well at life, and failing at grad school. I’m interested in a lot of different things, and apparently I’m creating value in a number of different areas. I’m an incrementalist. I can try and fight it, but on reflection, I get more value and I’m happier when I partner with someone who complements me instead. Having come to this conclusion, there was a post on Escape the Ivory Tower that talks about “mismatches” – and that that’s exactly what the grad school experience so far has been for me.

So, I’ve been talking to people about my options, and I’m looking at transferring to another school, and maybe a slightly different program. They all seem to get it – and nobody has been judgemental. My parents tell me they want me to be happy, but think I do deserve the piece of paper. My friend (who had the same supervisor, and left after a similar experience) tells me that transferring saved her years to finish. It’s interesting, because I have enough work – it’s just not focused enough to create a thesis with.

Really what it comes down to, is I have enough publications and an awesome enough job that I’m prepared to hold out and try and do something that works for me, than try and fight with myself to work within a system that doesn’t.  I’m confident enough, given everything, that the problem isn’t lack of work, or ability on my part. Lack of focus, probably. Making it work at this point, seems like a lot of effort with very little return – I’m not on board with the level of ROI in terms of the tuition I’m paying, or, more importantly, the time I’m investing.

So, I guess I’m dropping out.

6 replies on “Dropping Out”

OK, this might be a rambler, but I feel the topic warrants it.

Wednesday night, I was sitting in a bar in San Francisco with a very close friend of mine. It was an important night, as right now she is in surgery having a portion of her breast removed.

Why the heck am I telling you this? On that same day (Wednesday), she shared with me some good news about her work. (She is a scientist for the Google-equivalent of cancer research.) For the past year, she has been managing a team, and been having to put most of her time into the projects under that team. In her heart though, she is a horizontal thinker (incrementalist is another way of seeing it). She doesn’t see herself in one project, but looks across the horizon and sees patterns and relationships.

Her own boss has been encouraging her to move away from this and get more involved with management (as there is serious potential for a directorship in her career path).

But my friend believes full heartedly that she wants ot make strides in science, in her papers, and in looking across the horizon – not in some title that is given to her (and probably with a serious large paycheck).

In the middle of all this crazy going on in her life, the CEO of said major company met with her with a couple of VPs, both of whom want more of her time, and he asked her point blank what she wanted and she said that she wanted to pursue the science, that she had an inkling about certain relationships, and that by dabbling in a range of projects, she would be making strides in some serious stuff.

He agreed that she was making the right choice, and now he is making it happen for her.

You may find that now you need to walk about from your dissertation, as you are still in that discovery period, that time of absorbing all and anything that comes your way. But later in life, when you have accumulated enough of a horizontal view to see a pattern. You will have something truly meaningful to your type of thinking that gets you excited to finish. And really serious people, like CEOs of major companies, will look to you as the real deal (which they probably already have a hunch you are).

Enough said (probably way too much).

Thanks for this comment Meggin, my response turned into a whole other post (I feel like you’re basically coauthor on my blog lately; I hope you’re OK with that).

Incidentally, if you live in the San Francisco area I’m in Mountain View from tomorrow. Coffee?

I’m sorry you were sick over the holiday, but I’m so glad you really rested. I did the same thing and I think it will go a long way this semester. I’m happy you rested some.

You definitely deserve the degree after all of your hard work. You are so close. That being said, you have to do what is best and what will ultimately make you sane and happy. It really sucks that all this happened. 🙁 But it definitely didn’t because you didn’t work hard enough, so it’s good your recognize that. You work very hard.

Alex what does it say about how awful grad school is that when we get really ill we say, “well it was a break at least”? That makes me kinda sad. But it’s completely true.

I actually called Julie from Escape the Ivory tower for some academia-escape coaching. She tells me that pretty much no-one could write a thesis with no supervision. I feel slightly better about it now…!

Thanks as ever for your support and presence – even if it’s internet-only. At some point we’ll meet up for sushi and martinis!

I agree with Meggin. I mean, you’ve already done SO much without your master’s. There seems to be a recurring pattern of your thesis causing you much unhappiness, and there being no “BUT I actually really love it and think it’s all worth it in the end” justification afterwards. I know this is fluffy, and yes I’m a Gen Y kid and optimism is hard-wired into my cultural perspective but…I think you know what will make you happy, and I think this thesis breakdown is your subconscious fighting to be actualised. You’ve been doing it, otherwise you wouldn’t bother to get out of bed in the morning and be incrementalistic about things. Follow your bliss, as you’ve been. If that means you change schools, or hold off on finishing your paper, or suddenly off to travel the globe for a year and then write a best seller about it, then so be it. You’ll be supported and loved either way by the person who matters most- yourself- if you allow yourself to be.

Thanks AY 🙂 I actually hadn’t noticed my lack of justification afterwards (Alex always has this, I always just hate). That’s an interesting point.

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