Thoughts on Returning to School

I graduated from college back in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in computer science. I had a job lined up and I wasn’t looking back. Now, after five years of working in the “real world,” I’m returning to school (albeit a different university) to get my master’s in the same subject. Still working full-time, but now I’ve got classes in the evenings too.

I’m only three weeks in, so I haven’t started my thesis or any major research yet. In these early stages, my academic work as a grad student isn’t hugely different from what I had as an undergrad. Still, it’s exciting.

As a citizen of corporate America, here are five things I love about going back to school:

1. The focus is on knowledge. In the corporate world, knowledge is a means to an end. Training is justified in terms of benefit to the company. The ultimate goal is to make money. In school, this order is reversed: knowledge is explicitly the goal, and money is the hoop you jump through to reach it. I love learning more than almost anything else, so it’s wonderfully refreshing to return to a world centered on that.

2. Objectives are clear. When you’re managing a corporate project, you spend half your time just trying to nail down what, exactly, your requirements are – and the other half trying to keep up with the changes. (Ideally you do the actual work somewhere in there too.) In class, you know what your goals are, because they give you a sheet where they’re numbered and printed in bold. Is it realistic to expect clarity from the universe? No. Is it wonderful when it happens? Oh sweet Asimov yes.

3. You know how well you’re doing. In the corporate world, it’s very hard to figure out whether you’re doing a good job. If your project finishes under budget, maybe you’re a good project manager – or maybe your initial estimate was too high. If you miss a deadline, maybe you screwed up – or maybe the problem was just more complex than anybody realized. In practice, your own performance is so intertwined with everyone else’s – and external factors – that it’s very difficult to sort anything out. Sure, you get an annual review from your boss, but in the end, that’s just another opinion. But classes? They give you grades: simple, unambiguous grades. I never realized how nice that was until it went away.

4. Success depends only on you; failure only hurts you. Sure, classes have group projects sometimes, and researchers often work in teams. But by and large, academia (especially at the lower levels) is far more individual than corporate life. Some people might consider that a downside, but for me, it’s pretty wonderful.

5. Projects end. You turn in your homework, and that’s the end of it. You finish a class, and you never go back. Even multi-year research culminates in a thesis, and then you can move on. Contrast that with the corporate world, where nothing is ever truly over. Sure, projects have a close-out phase, but from there you just switch to supporting whatever you installed – and gearing up for the next project, which will build on the last one. Efforts are measured in decades, and early mistakes can haunt your later work for years.

Of course, everything loses its luster after a while. By the time I had my bachelor’s degree in hand, I was thoroughly sick of academic life, determined not to go back, and ready for the fresh air of Actually Doing Something. By the time I get my master’s, the pendulum may have swung back again. But for now, school is a good place to be.

How does school life compare with working life in your own experience?

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