Dennis Raddle | 1 Dec 22:23 2013
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possible CS major seeking advice

Sort of off-topic for Haskell, just seeking general advice. (I do love Haskell.)

I'm 45, have a B.S. from Caltech and 20+ years of programming experience with NASA (JPL), and now I'm thinking of going back to school to get a Ph.D. in computer science, with a goal of teaching at the university level. I'd like some advice about a possible path.

Currently I have an illness which prevents me from handling full-time school, and I am receiving a small disability income. That's the bad news; the good news is that it looks like recovery is on the horizon, perhaps a few years out.

Getting admitted to graduate school poses a problem. The only people who know my recent work are my supervisors at NASA. My work at NASA was very uncreative, just grinding through boring code. I was getting gradually sicker and my productivity was going down. Then I got laid off. I'm sure they weren't happy with my productivity. So I'm not too optimistic about getting a glowing letter from my direct boss. However, I did work with two scientists there--they were project leaders, not my boss--and I made a good impression. It's been something like five years since I worked with them and I don't know how well they will remember, but I think they would give me good letters if I can locate them and they remember me.

Another possible good letter would come from a fellow I know with a Ph.D. in mathematics. We have worked closely over the years on something very hard to describe called the Feldenkrais Method. It's not math or computer science, but it does require a lot of creativity and learning about learning. I have demonstrated dedication, focus, and intelligence in my work with him. He could give me a good letter, but it's questionable how well it would be received as it's not about CS directly.

Another path would be to attend a local state college first and have some professors get to know me, then get letters from them. I'm near California State University Northridge and California State University LA. I hope I could easily get admitted to the M.S. program there. I have some prerequisites to get out of the way; my CS classes at Caltech include only half the normal B.S. requirements, and I am rusty at many things (discrete mathematics, calculus, formal logic, etc.--never used any of these in my job and it's been 20+ years).

Although clearly full-time school is out of the question for a few years, I could attend part-time and take some of these prerequisites.

For both my M.S. and Ph.D. I want to get admitted to the very best school I can. I'm sure the school determines much of the career that follows. So I would not want to finish the M.S. at the California State schools, but rather transfer to somewhere more prestigious eventually.

My next problem is determining an area of specialization. As a professor, I think it's the teaching and mentoring that will satisfy me the most. To feel good about my job I need to work with people and not stick my nose in a computer screen all the time. If I can find a job with good teaching and mentoring opportunities, I know I will LOVE it. I will talk all the time about the pleasure of having a job I love. I'll want to get up in the morning (and that was a big problem with my job at JPL; I was getting depressed).

But what will be my area of specialization? As an undergrad I was most drawn to discrete mathematics and algorithms. I also love learning Haskell and would probably be interested in languages. I never really connected with any other classes. But should I specialize in algorithms or languages? I don't know. A priority for me is interacting with people collaboratively, so it might be good to specialize in an area that gets me out in the practical world sometimes. Maybe artificial intelligence? I'm even thinking about the intersection of C.S. and teaching, like devising programs that help teach mathematics and CS through artificial intelligence.

But I don't know about artificial intelligence in particular. I would be interested in hearing what people think about areas of CS that would get me involved in real-world applications.

Although teaching is my passion, it would be good to stay open to a job in industry should that become desirable for financial reasons. I'm poor right now, have little retirement savings, and I'm blowing through them quickly due to the high medical costs I have. Although people say, "Do what you love, the money will follow." I wonder if those people have ever been poor, especially sick and poor. At some point money becomes more important.

But my first preference is teaching. I just don't want to close any doors.

Any advice welcome,
Dennis

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Ben Lippmeier | 1 Dec 23:27 2013
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Re: possible CS major seeking advice


On 02/12/2013, at 8:23 , Dennis Raddle <dennis.raddle <at> gmail.com> wrote:
> 
> Although teaching is my passion, it would be good to stay open to a job in industry should that become
desirable for financial reasons. I'm poor right now, have little retirement savings, and I'm blowing
through them quickly due to the high medical costs I have. Although people say, "Do what you love, the money
will follow." I wonder if those people have ever been poor, especially sick and poor. At some point money
becomes more important.
> 
> But my first preference is teaching. I just don't want to close any doors.

If you're aiming for a permanent faculty position, then the top universities care primarily about
research output and the ability to attract external funding. Teaching is also an important part of the
job, but they assume that if you're a good researcher then you'll also be alright at teaching.

I suggest starting out as a teaching assistant / tutor to get more exposure to the field. You could probably
tutor for a first year programming course at a local university, just based on your past experience. While
at the university, make a point of meeting the faculty members and get to know what projects they're
working on.

What matters is to find people working on projects that interest you, and for them to see you as an
enthusiastic and useful collaborator. Reference letters and the "prestigiousness" of the university
matter less than you would think.

If you think CS is your thing then step 0 is to get involved in some open source projects. 

Ben.

Gmane