Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Why and How I Chose a Ph.D. (or, "wow, what a dumbass")

I've been asked (many times) why I chose to get my Ph.D.  The short answer is because I don't like to get up early in the morning.

If only you knew how much
this reflects my real life...

Ok, that's probably too short to be a blog post, so I'll provide a little more detail.  I majored as an undergrad in a field that provided pretty good job stability, while also teaching me
This would have been me for
between 20 and 30 years...
fairly useful technology skills.  I landed a pretty sweet sounding job right out of college, and made a fairly comfortable living.  But the job was one of those 8:30 - 5:00 (or later), dress in a suit and tie, constant under-fire deadlines that changed from minute to minute, three different bosses, CC-my-bosses-on-every-email, hoping for retirement to kick in type jobs that wasn't very 'fun'.  My coworkers were pretty great, and we had a lot of fun goofing off, but the job itself was mostly shuffling papers to and fro under strict deadlines.  I couldn't see myself spending 30+ years sitting at my desk doing this job, because I know I'd only be counting down the days until I retired.

No mother, I'm not gonna
be a cop or a lawyer
So, after a lot of worrying about my future happiness, I decided to go back to study the field I took courses in 'for fun' during my undergrad days.  This field was criminal justice/criminology, which is based on sociology but focuses on things like crime, deviance, laws, and society's response to criminals.  This was my undergraduate minor, and I held a solid 4.0 in it (my overall GPA was a respectable 3.82).  So I decided to 'go big or go home', and looked into what it would take to get an advanced degree in that field and be able to quit my job to attend grad school.  My wife was totally behind my decision, particularly since it meant we would be moving closer to our families while I was in grad school.

So with only my close friends at work (and my family) knowing what I planned to do, I looked into what programs offered good degrees in the general Northeast area.  I settled on applying to one M.S. program in Forensic Psychology, and one Ph.D. program in Criminal Justice.  Both were relatively close to my and my wife's families (15 minutes and 1 hour 45 minutes, respectively).
Hindsight is 20/20...

Looking back now, applying to 2 programs was a horribly stupid mistake on my part, as I should have sent out 5-10 applications to ensure I was accepted into at least one school. I was pretty naive when it came to the whole 'grad school' thing, and so I figured I would have one long shot (the Ph.D. program) and one safety school (the M.S. program).

Once I settled on where I was going to apply, I contacted some of my faculty contacts from my undergrad program (two from the minor, one from my major) and asked them to write letters of recommendation.  I was lucky enough to have not pissed off my professors, and all three agreed to write letters for me. I studied for the GREs and did pretty good (Word of wisdom: You WILL think you have failed the GRE when you finish it.  Get the scores anyway). I compiled the various documents I needed (transcripts, etc.), and wrote my letter of interest.

I apparently wanted to be a TMNT,
because my wife was a hottie?
Let me take a moment to highlight my letter of interest.  It was probably the single most cliche piece of garbage I have written since middle school.  Even after my co-worker and good friend Will helped me revise the letter, it was still the equivalent of a steaming pile of liquid feces.  The letter read something like this:
"Hiya Professory Peoples! When I look at my wife, I realize that I love her a whole bunch! So I want to learn about crazy/bad/criminal-type people so that I can protect my wife from them and *sings* "Save The Day!"  I'm good with the words and stuff, and can also type on the computer!  Let me in to your program and I'll be happy! Holla back, son!"

Where they stored
my application files 
...this, kids, is a prime example of why you need to f*cking rock the socks off your undergrad courses and impress the sh*t out of your professors while you're there.  Without an awesome transcript and great recommendation letters (I assume?), I'm pretty sure my application would have been used as backup toilet paper for the Dean's personal rest room (or wherever Deans end up pooping. Come to think of it, I have never seen/heard a Dean going to the bathroom, so perhaps they just store it all up until they retire?).  As it is, I'm pretty sure my letter of interest gave a number of admission committee members a good laugh and is probably in one of those secret "Examples of what not to do" files that professors keep.

So once everything was finished, I sent out my application packages (with the check for the application fees, of course) and waited.  And waited.  And waited some more.  My applications were sent in for a December 31st due date, and I didn't receive a letter from either school until mid-March.

This was me, realizing I might
be stuck at my job forever...
The first letter arrived from the (safety school) M.S. program.  As I opened the letter in front of my wife, my check for the application fees floated out and onto the floor.  "Sh*t, that ain't good..."  I read the letter, which basically stated the program had recently imploded and was being put on an 'indefinite hold' starting with this year's admissions.  So, with no safety school as a backup, I sweated it out for a few more weeks while the Ph.D. program made a decision.  During that time, the eyelid twitch I had developed due to the stress at my job flared into a full on, 24/7 "I might be having a mini-stroke" twitch.

During the same time, I had also thrown in my resume in for a couple of different interesting sounding jobs, and had received an in-person interview (at my expense... cheap bastards) for a job that I realized only afterwards I was definitely under qualified for. (They wanted a senior level database/networking analyst, and I knew how to make a fairly simple database and use the Internets...).
"F*ck yes I'll accept!"

While I was waiting for the outbound flight to the job interview, I received a call from the Dean of the Ph.D. program.  She said they would like to admit me, and were interested in flying me out for the visiting weekend! (At their expense!  Bling bling!) I completely blew the job interview (but who cared at that point, right?), and prepared myself (and my wife) for the visiting weekend.  Fast forward just over 6 years from the visiting weekend, and I had finished my Ph.D.!

So, what's the moral of this overly long story?  Well, there are a few things that come to mind:

1. Know what you're getting into (more on this in future posts).

2. Don't mess up your future prospects by being a dumbass as an undergrad.

3. You don't HAVE to keep working the same deadend job until retirement, assuming you have the resume/skills/contacts/etc. in place to let you jump to another job or opportunity.

4. "I want to protect my wife because she's a hottie" is not a good framework for a letter of interest. (More about applying to grad school in a later post).

5. Have more than 1 long shot and 1 safety school, in case one implodes and the other isn't tricked into (somehow) accepting you.

6. If you develop a nervous twitch in your eye from stress, you should probably find a new job (or otherwise cut out what is stressing you out).

7. Related to #4, even a sh*tty letter of interest might be overlooked if the rest of your application is impressive for some reason.

8. Making simple databases and browsing the Internet effectively does not make one qualified to be a 'senior level database/network administrator'

Picture credits: Garfield Bored_Guy Dog_Butt TMNT Toilet Beaker Handcuffs Phone_Guy

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