But, why though? – some thoughts about grad school.

This morning, I got a fantastic set of questions in response to my previous post about a mid-life career path. It boiled down to the following:

  1. Setting aside the practicality of work and a degree, do you have the literal time to make back the tuition cost?
  2. Could you consider a more-rapidly paced certificate program, perhaps through a community college?
  3. Will your employer support this (financially or experientially)?

The plan was to respond directly, but the response got long enough that it felt weird to bake it into a reply, so instead, I’m dropping it here. And yes, it’s LONG.

To start, I’ll tackle question #1.

At this point, I won’t ever make money back from that sort of thing. I have 15-25 years before retirement, so I ‘could’ make my money back. However, I’m currently the head of a data management unit, more or less at the top of the pay-scale (if not longevity scale). My responsibilities cover a fairly complex topic (subsistence economies) having a state-wide reach. There is no opportunity here to move up. In theory, there could be, but it’s an avenue that doesn’t match up with my strengths or interest, and again, the pay differential isn’t really that big.

I could remain with my current set of qualifications and skills and do what I’ve been doing: Figuring it out as I go. I woldn’t have any additional financial investment and potentially hit the same finish line. From that perspective, it sounds like I should just not, right? That’s why it’s such a good question.

Practically speaking, I don’t possess the qualifications for the nature of my job even today. My group lives and dies through grants and other non-state government funding. This year, in part because of the pandemic, was an absolute blood-bath. We couldn’t conduct surveys in remote villages, therefore had to push work back and much of our staff had their hours cut, some to 0. It gets more complicated, though. I’ve observed a pretty significant headwind in obtaining this funding. I have no insight whatsoever into why, except to say that the number of funding sources are dwindling. Clearly, we are somehow not competitive enough. With this in mind, I started looking around to see what else might be out there. If we can’t fund ourselves, then I’ll be obliged to do something else. When it comes to being a lead data scientist, pretty much anywhere, the resume needs to include a master’s degree. It turns out, even with 15 years of experience doing this work, I’m not qualified in the eyes of a lot of organizations.

So, that’s a long way of saying: I think expanding my knowledge and capabilities will give me tools to help our team bolster our proposals for funding through analytics or advanced statistical topics. It also gets around to: A lot of the difficulty I had this winter, so far, could be addressed through an increase in staff and project work, and I’d rather stick with this position and the work we do. It’s important.

Question 2 follows question 1. A master’s of data science has a typical price tag of somewhere north of 35,000 for a two-year program. There are less expensive programs that are absolutely world-class, you’ve got to get in first. I could probably obtain a certificate for half of that or maybe even less. So why not that? The short response is that I work in research, and it’s something of an expectation that you’d have an MS, at least and ideally a Ph.D. This expectation also appears in the jobs I was looking at. A certificate is an excellent qualification to get a job, but it’s generally not worth much, if anything, when applied to a grant application or funding proposal. In part, these qualifications tend to focus on specific technologies. Technologies aren’t super relevant for proposals; knowledge of approaches weighs a lot more in that context.

The second part of the question has to do with community college programs – the short answer is that where I live, the university system has recently been gutted to the point that the governor has to remove ALL education requirements from state job postings. The University of Alaska Fairbanks still has a good program for what I’m interested in, but it’s not delivered remotely and isn’t practical for a working person.

The last question revolves around support from my employer. There is no program to help pay. However, the experiential portion is relevant. The programs I’m looking at connect directly to the work I do daily. Two of the programs require a 6-credit professional practice course. I’m near certain that I could pick one of the upcoming projects I’m already slated to work on and use that. I could basically knocks-out a whole semester that way. So, yes, I do get some indirect support.

So there it is: Some of my reasoning for why.

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Mid-life Career Path

Today’s blog is more a jumble of thoughts than anything. I know this blog is supposed to be about writing, and for 2021, it’s shaping up to be exclusively not that. On the bright side, today’s blog isn’t going to cover how I’m feeling. I will say that, if nothing else, I feel like I’m pointing in the right direction.

A couple of days ago, I posted a Twitter poll that asked:

Should I get a masters degree?

  • -Yes (32.7%)
  • -With what time, Dave? (24.5%)
  • -But why tho? (32.7%)
  • -No. (10.2%)

As the past two blogs have whined about how over-worked and overwhelmed I am, you might be wondering what the hell I’m on about. After all, I clearly have too much going on. Yeah, that is, without a doubt, true, but the question, “do I go back to school?” is a part of that problem. The idea is far from a new one for me, but the real consideration started about a month and a half ago.

Sometime in early  December, my workload suddenly became too much to cope with, and I realized that I might not be able to keep on. Naturally, when these things happen, you start looking for an out. I found several promising jobs, nearly 100% of which required an MS with some years of practical applied experience. It turns out, all I have is the experience. Without the education, I don’t qualify for jobs I’d be the most suited to. As you do, I filed that away and tried to focus on the here and now.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago. I offered an opportunity to review a set of proposed job class specifications for the Research Analyst series. The core of the revision focused on the ‘minimum qualifications.’ Typically, you see these as a bachelor’s degree in (some discipline or related) and some years of experience according to the job class level and experience necessary to succeed in the position. In this revised set of qualifications, the State of Alaska effectively jettisoned ALL experience and education requirements in favor of some incredibly squishy ‘behavioral competencies.’ As much as I think it’s a profoundly unhinged concept, I still spent an entire evening developing competencies that align with reality. Today I learned that my recommendations were largely adopted, though without any requirement for the applicant to actually demonstrate how those behavioral characteristics are shown through work history and education. So, partial win, at best, I suppose.

I know some people will think this sounds great because it opens up opportunities. Speaking from experience, it does not. It’s one HUGE bait and switch that devalues higher education. Just imagine getting in on the ground floor as a Research Analyst I and working your up to running a research and analysis group as a Research Analyst IV. Then, you lose your job because of budget cuts… Guess what? You’re now not qualified at the level and pay-grade you are accustomed to, and you WILL BE starting over as a junior analyst. I know because I’m in that position now. My position, before today, allowed candidates to substitute graduate work with job experience. Now it doesn’t even require experience.

Setting aside the devaluing of education and the fact that my group lives and dies by grants that rely on those higher education qualifications, it’s got me realizing if I’m laid-off because of budget cuts, I’m not qualified for the job that I’m the most suited to do. What’s more, I am easily the least educated among my coworkers. Most of the people I work with are PhD, or have some form of master’s degree. It makes me feel awkward and pretty uncomfortable when we’re submitting grant proposals, and I suspect folks reviewing those documents absolutely notice that the lead data analyst doesn’t even have his MS. I used to feel like it was something of an accomplishment that I managed what I have without going through grad school. Now I realize it has been a pretty big liability all along.

Anyhow, that’s where I’m at—trying to find an online program that doesn’t suck balls and costs less than an arm, a leg, and the first-born child. I don’t know if I’ll end up following through in the end. After all, it’s fabulously expensive, and I’ve got kids now looking to their college careers.

Image by Nikolay Georgiev from Pixabay

Why are you counting days on Twitter?

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed that on Friday I started counting days. I’m on Day #6 as of today. What is that? You might remember that last week I wrote a post about how I was in something of a dark place. And so many of us are for all different reasons. I think I’ve heard it described that we’re all in a storm. Each boat we inhabit is different and some are sinking faster. Our norms have been destroyed and our daily reality changes almost by the hour. Regardless of someone’s financial or personal situation, a dark place means the same thing, and it can lead to bad things no matter who you are. My count is the number of days since I’ve decided to focus on getting myself out of that dark place by focusing on ways to cope that aren’t self-destructive.

What have I been doing on those days? To start, on Wednesday, I wrote a blog post, forcing myself to recognize I needed to fix some things. Thursday, I spent time on the phone with a friend who is going through some shit. I’d argue his shit is shittier than any shit I’ve got, but it’s been good to connect with him. Don’t think we’ve spoken this much in years. On Friday, I took steps to actively recognize an accomplishment —it’s an esoteric thing relating to my day-job, but could become one of the biggest accomplishments of my whole career. Yesterday, I slept in, cleaned the house with my family, played Microsoft Flight Simulator (I have a YouTube channel about Alaska if you’re interested in a bit of demography, history, and general sight-seeing), and then we watched TV together. It was nice. Today, I spent most of my day on Twitter.

*insert record screech* – What? Twitter? A wellspring of dystopia – that can’t have been good, right?

A week ago, starting the day on Twitter meant dodging anger, vitriol, and honestly a hell of a lot of misinformation, plus general reports of the US coming apart at the seams. It wasn’t fun. Today, it was a totally different story. I was greeted by a great thread about road trips and a mad uncle. It it made me think of my own last road trip, nearly 20 years ago now. As you do, I put out a poll about the longest road trip. To my surprise, most people (and as I write this I’m up to about 90 votes) who responded have traveled in excess of 3000 miles on a road trip. My longest was around 4500 —not unusual for urban-dwelling Alaskans. Better than that though were all of the stories. I met new people and got to hear their tid-bit.

My whole point? I’m working on it still and still holding myself to it. Today is better than Tuesday last week, but I have a long way to go. As I said before, I’ll likely continue to use this blog to just talk, because it keeps me on track.

Image by tigerlily713 from Pixabay