Going Back to School, for the Amateur Academic

Ryan Mitchell has worked for several software companies – mostly start-ups – since graduating from Olin in 2010.   As one of our first alumni authors, she recently wrote her second book, Web Scraping with Python, following Instant Web Scraping with Java in 2013. Ryan has spoken at conferences around the country about Web Scraping, including DEF CON in Las Vegas!

Recently, Ryan spoke with us about why she chose to continue her education with the Harvard Extension School, through which she will be graduating with a master’s degree plus a certificate in data science, all while keeping her day job. 

About a year after I graduated from Olin, I felt like my life was stagnating. Work, sleep, work, sleep -- weekends: party, party -- work, sleep, work, sleep… The start of Fall was approaching, and, rather than the relief I felt last Fall about having been done with all that school stuff, I felt a little pang of regret that I just wasn’t going back to the classroom.

Partly, this was because my job at the time was pretty boring, but also, as a “General Engineering” graduate of Olin (which, don’t get me wrong, is a fantastic degree -- but that’s another blog post!), I felt like I could really use a deeper understanding of my post-Olin field, in software. I just had a deep-seated, nagging feeling that my formal education wasn’t complete somehow.

So I called up a very wise older relative of mine (always a great kind of person to have in your metaphorical Rolodex). I told him that I didn’t want to stop working (gotta love that paycheck), but was thinking about doing some community college on the side.

This wise older relative reminded me that I had taken community college classes already in high school -  they weren't great then, and I would likely be even more bored out of my mind all these years later. However, he did point me in the direction of several very good professional education programs, some of which actually offered master's degrees after a few years, while you kept your day job.

If you’ve thought about going back to school, I will say, that it’s probably easier to get started than you think. Both Boston University and Harvard, among other institutions, offer great programs where you can take relatively inexpensive classes in the evening, complete the required number of credits within five years, and get a degree at the end. Admission requirements to just sign up for a class or two are low to non-existent, so if you just want to try it out, basically all you need is a credit card.

However, while getting started with a couple classes is easy, the requirements to actually get admitted into the formal degree program, and eventually get the sheepskin, are usually pretty tough. Most require that you complete a set of initial classes with a B or better (remember: you’ll have to keep your GPA up while working a full time job -- easier said than done), be on-track to graduate within the maximum allowed time, meet residency requirements, and jump through various paperwork and essay-writing hoops.

If you think you might be serious about academia (in which case, I’m sorry to say, my expertise is limited here), these programs might also be a good stepping stone into a formal PhD program, or other full time graduate degree program, especially if you feel like your years in industry or undergrad coursework might have left you a less-than-desirable candidate for applying to these.

This May, I’ll be an official graduate of Harvard University, with a Master's in Software Engineering, Certificate in Data Science, and another piece of paper to hang on my wall. Sure, I’ve heard all the arguments against going to school (especially grad school!) if you want to be a programmer, but this has been a fantastic decision for me over the last few years. Not only have the classes been a tremendous help in my day job, but the extra (pending) degree has already helped to open a lot of doors for freelance jobs, writing, speaking, workshops, and who knows what else!

Whatever you decide to do, a little more education on the side is almost always a good thing. My only real worry now is avoiding the temptation of the PhD!

Added Author’s Note:    Harvard Extension School is one of the degree-granting schools that make up Harvard University - we get the same student IDs, can attend all the events that other Harvard University students do, can join all the clubs, and go to the same commencement ceremony (although all the schools split off into their own smaller ceremonies after the main speakers). And while they offer some classes where the lectures are recorded for distance learning options, there's also a residency requirement for degrees, where you have to take at least one class in-person. So people sometimes get touchy about it being called the Harvard online Extension program ;) 


Posted in: Alumni Speak, Graduate School