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YA Request for profile eval. (former Ph.D candidate in the humanities)


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Bit of a messy background; pardon the length. Suppose I'm looking both for career advice and profile evaluation.

Undergrad at Columbia University, graduated phi beta kapa & cum laude, in comparative literature. But have always had strong interest in sciences, math, and (of course) computer programming. A lot of my undergraduate work was in philosophy of science & epistemology. Did not take any CS classes as an undergrad, however.

Upon graduating, had a Fulbright fellowship for study in German.

Then, admitted to Stanford for Ph.D in comparative literature. Awarded the Whiting Fellowship (essentially the top fellowship offered at Stanford, Columbia, Harvard, Yale, etc.)

Had a very good shot a tenure-track job but didn't think I could take living within a dying profession. The proximate cause of my failure to finish my dissertation was that I lost on campus housing, during the middle of the dot com madness. Impossible to rent a bathtub in an alley to live in for less than $1000 a month; the fellowship simply wasn't enough.

So, went to work in software. As I had some programming chops I was hired as a "programmer writer" Have worked at (as contractor or employee) all over the bay area: Sun, Oracle, Microsoft, Nokia (smart phones), plus a ton of start ups. 100k+ salary, but of course that's in the insanely expensive bay area.

Do not want to continue as a programmer writer, however. It's really only the programming that interested me and I don't get to do nearly enough of that. But I did learn a lot. I'd have to go in a read the code, cold, line by line, often without even minimal comments, on huge projects. I did much more than write API reference materials -- I articulated the architecture, explained the programming idioms and design patterns that evolved.

I'm out of the bay area now, and, fortunately, I don't actually *need* to work for a while. But I am in Louisiana, hardly a software hotbed. I'm thinking of doing a postbac at the state university here (in fact I was just accepted and am enrolling), with the aim of applying to a CS or CE master's program. At the age of 40, though, it's going to feel very strange taking undergraduate classes, after I spent so many years teaching them. (Very different types of classes, of course.)

The university were I doing the postbac, of course, is not a top-tier institution: will that hurt me much?

Not sure if I'm aiming for a top-tier master's program, but don't want to rule it out, either. As I'm going to have to do the full run of math (has been far too long), the postbac is going to take a year and a half, perhaps. (There are path dependencies between the math classes and the CS classes.) I will probably test out of all the 1, 2, and maybe some of the third year CS classes, but I won't be able to take them until I finish the math. At heart, I'm still an academic, so I might even want to do a PhD, but, really, am too old. And I do like working and love writing code.

And now I've see I haven't really articulated any clear questions. But I'd certainly love to hear your thoughts.

Edited by Nimmott
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Gre 790 verbal, math 650 or so. Taken quite some time, ago, obviously. I was looking at percentiles of the last groups to use the 800 scale. I think they were weighted differently when I took them. [Just confirmed this; scoring changed in 1995, after I took it.) My math, though not as good as my verbal, as at least in top 10%. (I suppose I may be misremembering the score.) And I had not done any math for several years when I took it, so I think I have a good shot at doing better.)

Edited by Nimmott
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Here's what I'm thinking:

- You don't seem to need a masters. You have a degree from Columbia and great work experience. What exactly would a masters demonstrate? It might get you a "mandatory" pay raise, but in those cases, I think any masters will do, so you don't really need to worry...

- If you DID want a masters, you sound smart enough and you have an interesting story to tell. I think you would do well in the admissions cycle. What would be important for you is to get really good grades and a really good math GRE score. A spot of research wouldn't hurt either.

- I've never seen someone your age in a top-tier PhD program in CS. I think you're too old for a PhD, and you don't have the research experience or educational background to be competitive at top schools. You would have a ridiculous amount of catchup to do in your postbac/masters program. That being said, if you're an exceptionally smart and hardworking person and manage to get your stuff together, you might be able to pull it off. I'd think long and hard about what you want out of life, and whether a PhD will help you further those goals.

- If you want to learn how to code, consider self-study. I think it's really hard to teach how to be a good programmer. The best way, in my opinion, is to think of something the world needs, and code it up + release it as open source software. I can't imagine you're in it for the social aspect, since your peers will be much younger than you.

Edited by OH YEAH
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Hmm . . , maybe you've never seen older students in a top CS program, but there are older students in very good programs in many fields, so I wouldn't be surprised to find a few even in great CS programs. Not saying it's easy, but it can happen. And the OP might need a tippy top program for what he wants. I say, "Go for it!."

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OH YEAH, emmm, thanks for your replies. OY: it's not for a salary bump, at least not in the short term. I'm already getting 100-120k and I think I'm pretty much maxed out, within my current job title (programmer/writer, which is, of course, technical writing.) The problem is that there is no career path in technical writing -- even the somewhat more flashy kind that I do, that involves some degree of coding.

And, really, I'd rather just be doing software development. I fell into tech writing after the ABD morass; it's a hard profession to move out of.

I have solid programming skills (meaning novice-level, complicated with very wide industry experience). But, at least in that economy, that's not really enough for me to move out of my job title. Without some other excuse (like a new degree), I don't see employers hiring you to do anything except exactly what you've done before.

In an odd way, the work I do almost requires that my programming knowledge remain shallow. The nature of the assignments and the length of the projections I work on usually require that I'm constantly learning some new enterprise-class framework in order to write about it, but I don't get enough time to use it to retain any of the knowledge. As soon as I've learned it, I'm working on some completely different project. So even when I acquire depth, it quickly regresses. (Still in my head, somewhere, I hope.)

Though cold-reading of large large, real-world software projects is not easy, and my ability to do so probably accounts for why I get hired at a decent salary. Still, passive, all too passive.

I want to build my own things. OY: your suggestion about working on a project of my own is a good one. One I've started several times. But with the work hours, and the constant need to move on to the next language/framework/industry domain, I've not managed to keep focus on my own project.

As for learning more on my own, I've spent a lot of time doing that, but the pace is very slow. 50-60 hour work weeks are not uncommon, and with the commute, I usually only have a couple of hours to do anything after I get home. And often I have to do it with an eye towards my next job, and we're back to the shallows, as I'm once again working on learning something new before I have time to learn something in depth.

As I said, I half-known a lot about writing code and software engineering.

So that's why I'm thinking of doing a post-bac program to complete the pre-reqs, and then applying to a CS masters program. It will give me the time to focus on writing code. To truly take advantage of all those frameworks and design patterns that I've half-learned several times over.

Ok: I will have to do my math coursework first. I've tested into the upper-level undergrad CS classes, but I can't take them as I lack the math pre-reqs. But, even if I didn't have to, I'd still very much like to take the math. Yes, I know that most software development does not involve any formal math, but I still think having the background will make be a better programmer. And, again, I'm interested in the subject for its own sake.

As for just learning this on my own, I think I'd have a hard time selling it: "I decided to take a few years off to finally focus on..." I'll need some kind of legitimate explanation for the whole in my resume. It would be different, of course, if I continued working, but, as I said, it doesn't really leave me with enough time. And I'm very anxious to move out of tech writing.

And, hey, have to admit, it will be cool to do physics, chemistry, and other science classes again. As I won't be able to take the upper-level CS classes until my math catches up, I'll get to do other coursework until I do.

Thanks again for responding, and thanks emmm for the encouragement.

I suppose there's every chance I'll come out of the master's program making a lot less money than I did before, but a pay cut isn't usually with a career shift. And, really, I'd be happy to make less money if it means doing the work I'd want to be doing.

Edited by Nimmott
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  • 2 weeks later...

@Nimmott: Take the postbac and then do apply for a masters since your reasons for doing so seem solid. Don't worry about being an older person on campus, you bring a different perspective than the rest of us so adcomm's will consider that. Also your sop for admission should tell your story of why now really well and I think your age and experience can actually be made to work to your benefit. A career shift is a great thing to go back to school for. All the best.

Regarding the PhD: Unless you'v saved a ton of money and don't mind spending it now to make yourself comfortable, IMHO you are a little too old for a rigorous PhD programme because you have to go back to living so cheap. If you can afford to make yourself comfortable though, I think you should go for it, if not for anything else to get rid of that ABD that seems to be nagging at you. Of course the academic preparation you would have to do to be competitive is going to be quite crazy

If you finish your masters degree I don't see any reason why you should have a dip in salary. Your experience in technical writing will still count vs a fresh graduate student with lil-to-no experience.

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