Random Thoughts

Graduate School

I’m watching The Good Place, and at this stage of my life, I’m relating an awful lot to Chidi Anagonye, the overthinking protagonist who often is portrayed as having difficulties making a choice: even the seemingly mundane option of which muffin to choose presents an opportunity for a crisis. I’m on Season 3, but I’m really hoping for a flashback where we get to see how Chidi ended up as a professor of ethics, because presumably there were a lot of decisions that he had to make about education that got him to where he was. That’s where I am in my life right now, and I could use a television hero to walk me through my own choice about whether or not to attend grad school in a comedic fashion.

When I was in college, I couldn’t wait to finish. Starting teenagers off in higher education by making them pick a subject and sit through a ton of prerequisite classes with little room for creativity or autonomy is a poor system design, and certainly didn’t inspire me to dive deeper into the topics that interested me. Things got a bit better in my junior and senior years: the projects became more open-ended, and I could actually choose which courses I wanted to take – but I struggled through low-level programming classes and left at the end of four years feeling certain that was it for me, as far as formal education went.

About six months later, into my first job, I took the GMAT exam. The test scores are good for 5 years, and I figured that it would be better to take them fresh out of college in case I changed my mind and decided to get an MBA. And, as someone with an indecisive, anxiety-driven personality, I decided to follow that up with taking the GRE, “just in case.”

In the years that followed, every six to eight months I’d decide to apply to grad school. I’d go through the school researching phase, driven by my interest du jour (Should I study neuroscience, so I can understand how the brain responds to virtual reality? A human-computer interaction degree, so I can make better product design decisions? A law degree, so that I can navigate the complex space of technology ethics with authority?) and then trail off at various stages of the application process. There were a lot of false starts, and most of the time I’d stop short of completing the recommendation section of the application and abandon the attempt.

There are so many ways that one can further their education outside of the boundaries of a traditional educational environment. I read books and built my own ad-hoc study programs for topics that I was interested in, but I had a hard time with the lack of structure that a classroom environment gives. I took a summer course in computer graphics at Stanford in 2015, and started to discover the joy that came from a low-pressure (I wasn’t working towards a degree) learning environment where I was taking the course purely from a place of interest.

In 2018, grad school started to feel like a more realistic way to accomplish the career growth that I envisioned for myself. I found a program that aligned with my interest at the time – a human-computer interaction degree at a university in Sweden. Living abroad was an appealing opportunity, and it was the first time I successfully made it through the application process. Or so I thought – it turned out on decision day, I discovered that there had been an error with my degree being validated, and my application was deemed incomplete.

Towards the end of 2019, I started to develop an interest in technology policy as a result of working at Mozilla. I started to study for the LSAT, thinking that law school was the avenue for getting into that field, when I discovered a fellowship that included a bootcamp portion for technologists who wanted to learn more about policymaking. When I was accepted to the program, I took a 10 week leave of absence to study policy and start my own projects grounded in shaping policy related to data privacy and ownership.

As you might guess at this point in the story, when I next turned to graduate school, it was in the technology policy arena. I retook the GRE. I applied for an online policy program with OSU and was accepted, but I was encouraged by my advisor to consider in-person programs in the DC area instead. I started on applications to American and Georgetown, and took an online microeconomics course from U.C. Berkeley to address a prerequisite for the Georgetown degree, but by the time I had gotten to the “submit your application” part, I was in the throes of a new job and reconsidering my focus in public policy altogether.


Probably not.

When I reflect back on how education has been a part of my adult life, what I’ve observed is a desire to dive deeper into different areas as I’ve discovered them. It’s not that I’ve lost interest in human-computer interaction, or technology policy, or the legal implications of a somewhat archaic system about right and wrong intersecting with modern software. On the surface, there’s a lot of indecisiveness. In my mind, there’s a deeply complex web that is constantly evaluating and re-evaluating my decisions to optimize for a given moment. The interest that I’ve had in each of these areas is still there, as deeply entrenched as it was at the time of my graduate school attempts, it’s just blended with other topics to take on a new form.

Chidi Anagonye says: "You know the sound that a fork makes in the garbage disposal? That's the sound my brain makes all the time."
Chidi Anagonye in NBC’s ‘The Good Place’

Having the ability to make a decision about continuing to study at an institution with a degree-oriented program comes is a privileged position. Colleges and universities and graduate programs are expensive, especially if you are not attending full-time. I don’t have dependents who I need to care for, aside from Mosby, and he doesn’t really care if I’m working or studying overtime. He gets to sit on my lap all the same. I also had the ability to get a degree in the first place, and while I lack some of the understanding of how academia works, I have enough experience with it that I can ask the right questions to figure out pieces of it. I’m also privileged to have a network of people who have PhDs and other advanced degrees, so I can turn to them to understand the nature of what I’d be getting myself into.

So, again – it isn’t surprising (to myself, at least) that I find myself constantly changing the target. Some days, I’m convinced that a particular graduate program at a specific school is the only way to go. Other days, I wrestle with the very idea of institutions and degrees, because I recognize that they’re a carryover of elite wealth and don’t actually predict performance. Carrying both of those in my head at the same time is – well, it’s like listening to a fork in a garbage disposal.

I wrote this as a reflection after pressing submit on my application to a part time online MBA program this past weekend. This time around, the garbage disposal paused long enough for me to bias towards velocity.

I’m a believer that you can’t break the rules until you know what they are. For me, I’ve always wanted to start my own company, and I’ve dipped my toes into that in the past by starting a nonprofit and picking up contract work here and there. When I studied economics this past winter, I got a bigger picture of how our system works, and it’s clear that it’s failing in many real ways. On a systemic scale, opportunity and wealth is not equally distributed. On a personal level, I’ve been working through work-related trauma for years as a result of my experiences in Silicon Valley. While I don’t think that MBAs are required for people to be successful in starting and running companies, I do think that there are valuable lessons that I might be able to learn with the right structure. Maybe it’s right for me.

I’m also trying to spend more time listening to the thoughts in my head that come up even when I’ve pushed them away over the years. I remember in high school so clearly articulating that my goal for my career was to work at Microsoft, and then start my own. I left Microsoft five years ago, but I haven’t yet worked up the courage to throw myself behind my own mission. Maybe an MBA will help me. Maybe this is just another distraction.

1 – The GMAT is a standardized test for students applying for an MBA. This is contrast to the GRE, a standardized test for general graduate degrees, the LSAT, a standardized test for law students, and the MCAT, a standardized test for medical students. I personally hope that the requirement for testing, which has been waived by many schools this year as a result of COVID, stays gone.

2 – Why an MBA? Well, at the time, I was living in Silicon Valley and all of my acquaintances were focused on starting businesses. I recognized even at the time the gender disparity in venture funding, so I figured that an MBA might be a good option to hedge the options in my favor if I were to go the route of starting my own company.

3 – If you’re interested in taking classes or working at a more flexible pace towards a degree, consider looking into if your workplace offers a professional development stipend. I’ve worked for a couple of companies that had these benefits, and they can go a long way in contributing to educational credits at traditional universities. But that’s not the only way to learn!

4 – Fellowships can be another great avenue for expanding your experience outside of a traditional educational environment. I am filled with gratitude for the Aspen Tech Policy Hub for offering a paid training opportunity to learn about policy and widen my understanding of the industry and impact.