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Dropping out.

Posted: 07 Mar 2010, 19:33
by daniel_reetz
Hi all,

I've been going through some hard times over the last year/two years. Most of the circumstances I've faced have been due to my graduate studies, or rather, due to my status as a grad student.

My program is kind of bizarre. Though I was told I'd get a degree in Neuroscience, I found out two years into the program that they had planned all along to give degrees in Psychology, while making us do the work of neuroscientists/vision scientists. I asked some of the smartest people I knew what I should do, and they all said to finish the degree. So I stayed.

Now, at this time, thebuilding I work in creaks and groans. The water in the toilets actually kind of splashes up and down, depending on where they are working in the building. My dad is sick, my personal life and mental health are in disrepair, and my experiment still isn't running in spite of the many long, long days and nights I've spent working on it. I've even paid programmer friends to try to get me past the technical issues, but the experiment itself is, in my opinion, and in the opinion of people who have helped me, doomed. Even if the experiment does get up and running, I'm not guaranteed usable data. A reasonable estimate of time remaining is 6-8 months.

The best possible outcome of this four-year stint would be a Master's Degree in Psychology. I am not a psychologist. I would never call myself one. As far as I can see, this degree will not open any doors for me. In fact, given my interests in cameras and optics, this degree might even be an impediment to jobs and further studies, if either one ever happens.

I think it is time for me to leave the program. I will likely finish out this semester, but I don't think it makes any sense to continue any further down this path. If you have any thoughts or advice for me, I could use them. Everyone in my present sphere is an academic or family, and they all want me to stay, for their own reasons. But I've stayed, and things have only gotten worse.

FYI, I may delete this thread to ensure that my grad program doesn't find it.

Re: Dropping out.

Posted: 07 Mar 2010, 20:55
by StevePoling
I've known several people who have done like you. Gotten into a PhD program, got jerked around by their respective committees/advisors, and left ABD (all but dead/all but dissertation).

For this reason, I stopped at my 2nd Masters. But I have paid attention to my friends' experience who did finish. They had some common experience:

1) A sense of efficiency: Two friends started PhD programs at about the same time. One had the idea that he really was into this academic business and he would work as hard as possible to do everything demanded of the study. The Other had the idea that he'd just work hard enough to get the grade he felt he needed. The former languishes without a PhD and the latter finished his PhD about 7 years ago.

2) A certain ruthlessness toward the subject matter. One friend described getting his PhD was like being an SS agent hunting down a Jew in Marseilles. Sure, you got into your PhD program because you love your subject matter. But you've got to show that bitch whose boss.

3) Some political sophistication to get a powerful Rabbi pulling for you and avoiding enemies who can derail you.

4) I've recommended that friends start by getting a gubmint grant that's tied to the success of the thesis, then shopping that grant around graduate programs. Since departments like money coming in, it provides a powerful motivation for those running the department to minimize petty distractions.

This is a bit late to recommend this to you since you're already years into your program. All I can say is take a hard look at has to happen to get that sheepskin and what focused things you can do to get it. If that thing can't happen, or if you can't do those things, move onto the next thing in your life.

Ultimately, this is your life and your decision. Don't listen to me or anybody. Listen to what your gut is telling you.

Re: Dropping out.

Posted: 07 Mar 2010, 21:44
by rob
I agree with Steve above: do what your gut tells you. But, listen to my story:

I happened to get lucky. I loved mathematics and electrical engineering, and I got into a university program which would give me a degree in both (Bachelor's in Math, Master's in EE). It was a 6-year program, and I graduated in '92. I had no fscking clue what company I would work for, up to about a year before I was due to graduate.

During one lab period, a friend of mine came into the lab and loudly proclaimed, "Does anyone want a job with XYZ company?" A fraction of a second later I said, "Yeah, me!" So I ended up getting a summer internship with the R&D division of a large company.

After that, I was lucky enough to get a job with the company that at the time was doing electronics work and programming work. I interviewed with them, and they asked whether I'd like to do electronics or programming. I saw that there was one (count 'em, ONE) guy doing electronics, and a bazillion doing programming. I counted myself a very good programmer, so I said that I'd do programming. I think I got the job because of a combination of the Master's degree, plus the fact that I showed myself to be an independent thinker as well as generally knowledgeable to all the interviewers. There weren't any of the crazy Microsoft or Google questions.

I'm still with the same company (modulo several mergers) 18 years later. I eventually moved into software architecture because I saw the writing on the wall that all the programming jobs were going offshore.

I don't think my path via programming is possible today because of the offshoring. Project management and software architecture is where it's at in the industrial software world right now.

Anyway, I think the point is that I got my degree. At the time, a Bachelor's degree was the minimum requirement, but the Master's gave a higher salary. The Master's gave me a boost into getting a job. I never used the knowledge gained in my Master's degree. For me, the purpose in getting a Master's was (1) to have fun in my chosen field until I had to work for a living, and (2) to put it on my resume for an extra chance at employment.

Note that at the time I was also considering getting my PhD, and was told by pretty much everyone I met in industry that there wasn't any point: it would be a waste of time and a waste of earning power. But we're talking about your Master's degree here.

So I think the questions you have to ask yourself are:

(1) Are you having fun, overall? Setbacks are expected, and even a negative result is publishable.
(2) With what you have now, would you be able to get a job in industry? Academia?
(3) Do you know of any companies who would be interested in your field? Academia?
(4) Where do you want to see yourself 5 years from now? In industry? A lab rat? A perpetual student? A researcher at a university? No, living on a friend's couch is not an option.
(5) Are you that positive that a Master's degree in one field is so different from that of another field? (answer: it isn't)
(6) Do you have a personal mentor in academia? (answer: you need one, if only as a friend)

If you want a definitive answer instead of this wishy-washy stuff, here it is, without any sugar coating. Get your Master's degree. And maybe here's a side of me you won't like: your family comes second. Sorry, there it is :| Go ahead, everyone, pile on me!

Re: Dropping out.

Posted: 07 Mar 2010, 22:42
by daniel_reetz
rob wrote: (1) Are you having fun, overall? Setbacks are expected, and even a negative result is publishable.
(2) With what you have now, would you be able to get a job in industry? Academia?
(3) Do you know of any companies who would be interested in your field? Academia?
(4) Where do you want to see yourself 5 years from now? In industry? A lab rat? A perpetual student? A researcher at a university? No, living on a friend's couch is not an option.
(5) Are you that positive that a Master's degree in one field is so different from that of another field? (answer: it isn't)
(6) Do you have a personal mentor in academia? (answer: you need one, if only as a friend)
1. No, not at all. I hate the stuff I'm researching, and find it pointless. I understand it rather well, though.
2. Industry, maybe. Academia, no way.
3. A degree in Psychology from a no-name university is almost as worthless as my undergrad in Sculpture.
4. I'd like to be working on cameras, or be designing technical things.
5. A degree in Psych doesn't get you engineering jobs, as far as I can see? I don't understand these things well, though.
6. Yeah, a couple, and they all told me to stay when I wanted to drop out my first year, but so far that's proven only to be hell.

Not arguing here, just stating what I'm thinkin'.

Re: Dropping out.

Posted: 07 Mar 2010, 22:52
by StevePoling
Everything Rob says I agree with. To underscore his point: When I worked at NSA someone told me that he figured the best guys to hire has Masters' degrees. The guys with Bachelors didn't know enough, and you couldn't get any work out of the guys with Doctorates. Presumably the guys with Doctorates were more interested in grand ideas than the grungy details of getting production out.

Re: Dropping out.

Posted: 07 Mar 2010, 23:10
by StevePoling
Another thing. In 1978 I started work on my Masters in Mathematics. My roommate who had been my best friend was a total ogre to live with. And I had not been well prepared so my work load was crushing me. At that time my mom's cancer came back real hard. I spent Christmas Eve in a graveyard. Why, yes, it was hell. I came within epsilon of a nervous breakdown.

The next term I moved into a Christian co-op across the street from campus, decided I'd get a Masters not PhD, and became acclimated to the work load. The next year was a lot easier and I graduated just fine. The Michigan economy was in the toilet when I graduated in 1980 and used my newly-minted Masters' degree to get a cushy gubmint job outside DC. Things worked out.

Times can be tough and you just have to grit them out. They'll get better.

Here's what I'd do. Get the Masters. Then go home to be with your dad and monetize your bookscanner fame from there.

Re: Dropping out.

Posted: 07 Mar 2010, 23:21
by rob
I have to disagree that a degree in Psych from a no-name university is worthless. It isn't. It's extremely rare today to have a degree that matches what you do for the rest of your life unless you get a PhD (then you're stuck). I guess I have to agree with the Sculpture thing being kind of... not very useful. But not Psych.

True, perhaps a degree in Psych will get you in the door at a marketing research firm. But I think it will get you in anywhere, as long as you show that you are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the job you're going for. A degree proves you know how to study. It only has tangential application to what you actually do.

In any case, I guess if you're finding it absolutely completely mind-fsckingly unbearable, and not just today but every day for the past year, then "stick it out" probably isn't very good advice... Are you sure it isn't just a temporary funk?


Re: Dropping out.

Posted: 07 Mar 2010, 23:42
by StevePoling
You know, Dan, if you can monetize this Book Scanner thing, it wouldn't matter if you're a high school drop-out. The degree just gets you in the door for your first gig. After it is the value you create that keeps you earning a paycheck. And doing the impossible gets you offers for better gigs.

But if you're cool with doing the entrepreneurial things you've been doing. You might be better off being an entrepreneur. No degrees necessary for that, just a love for creating value for paying customers. And if you own the joint, you keep all the profits after Uncle Sam gets his cut.

Re: Dropping out.

Posted: 08 Mar 2010, 14:03
by IcantRead
It sounds to me what you really want is an optical engineering degree. I hear the university of Arizona has a good program. That may be a little fare from home though.

Re: Dropping out.

Posted: 08 Mar 2010, 15:13
by dbmoura
Give yourself the time you need for reflexion. The knowledge you express in all those initiatives is inspiring.
I was reading this from Giorgio Agamben the other day and I thought it is a good point for all of us.

"The contemporary is he who firmly holds his gaze on his own time so as to perceive not its light, but rather its darkness. All eras, for those who experience contemporariness, are obscure. The contemporary is precisely the person who knows how to see this obscurity, who is able to write by dipping his pen in the obscurity of the present. But what does it mean, "to see an obscurity," "to perceive the darkness"?
The neurophysiology of vision suggests an initial answer. What happens when we find ourselves in a place deprived of light, or when we close our eyes? What is the darkness that we see then? Neurophysiologists tell us that the absence of light activates a series of peripheral cells in the retina called "off-cells." When activated, these cells produce the particular kind of vision that we call darkness. Darkness is not, therefore, a privative notion (the simple absence of light, or something like nonvision) but rather the result of the activity of the "off-cells," a product of our own retina. This means, if we now return to our thesis on the darkness of contemporariness, that to perceive this darkness is not a form of inertia or of passivity, but rather implies an activity and a singular ability. In our case, this ability amounts to a neutralization of the lights that come from the epoch in order to discover its obscurity, its special darkness, which is not, however, separable from those lights.
The ones who can call themselves contemporary are only those who do not al low themselves to be blinded by the lights of the century, and so manage to get a glimpse of the shadows in those lights, of their intimate obscurity. Having said this much, we have nevertheless still not addressed our question. Why should we be at all interested in perceiving the obscurity that emanates from the epoch? Is darkness not precisely an anonymous experience that is by definition impenetrable; something that is not directed at us and thus cannot concern us? On the contrary, the contemporary is the person who perceives the darkness of his t i me as something that concerns him, as something that never ceases to engage him. Darkness is something that more than any light-turns directly and singularly toward him . The contemporary is the one whose eyes are struck by the beam of darkness that comes from his own time."