A Conversation with the Dean

This week I had a long talk by phone with Dr. Lynn Carter, dean of the Information Technology/Computer Science department at Aspen University. I had some questions the department, and my program, as I heard that Dr. Carter has been working to make a number of improvements and changes to the various degrees in CS.

Before we began discussing the program, we talked a bit about the challenges of pursuing a doctorate in a field with an incredible pace of change. Such a moving target makes it a challenge to do the kind of creative work necessary in doctoral study. I can see why so many CS doctoral students choose areas of study that are very small, highly technical and relatively un-pursued by private industry. At least that way there is a chance that Google or Microsoft won’t figure out the subject of your research before you can publish. Being the second person with the same breakthrough idea in a field doesn’t make for a persuasive dissertation defense.

My primary areas of interest, machine learning, data mining and natural language processing, are a hotbed of current research in and out of academia, with breakthroughs coming at a breakneck pace. It should be interesting to see how this will play out over the course of my studies.

Dr. Carter’s work with the Aspen CS programs has been based in part on his experience teaching at Carnegie Mellon University. He wants the Aspen programs to stand out from the usual course of such programs. In the doctorate, he wants us to begin pursuing potential areas of research almost from the first day of enrollment. This identification of research interests is begun in the first course, a research methods course. This self-examination goes into the creation of a portfolio, or engineering notebook. Throughout the program, each class has research application projects that contribute to this notebook. The contents of the notebook, as they grow, will become one of the sources of later publication and work towards the dissertation.

Also, since the department is small and study is largely independent, each course is driven by a primary question derived from the student’s research interests. For example, he stated, in the Discreet Math class he is less interested in knowing that I have studied the entire breadth of discreet math, and is more interested in knowing that I can apply discreet math to my areas of research interest. This concept of a underlying question driving the coursework is exactly the kind of study that will push students toward the narrowing of research interests that leads to creative research and the dissertation. The entire program, from the first course, is designed to drive the student toward successful research and program completion. Aspen is using distance/online study as an advantage in this case, doing things that would be more difficult to do in a larger, classroom-based program.

It occurred to me, while I was scheduling this call with Dr. Carter, that there is another benefit to going with a small, private university with a small CS doctoral program: contact time and academic support. Bigger programs stretch faculty time thinner. I can’t remember any program I’ve been in, graduate or undergraduate, where deans and department heads were as easy to find and talk with as teaching assistants. At Aspen I can email or call the dean, department heads, the faculty and others with almost immediate response. To me, that’s important. For a program that operates at a distance, where face-time is limited to video-conferencing, accessibility is important to academic success.  So far, so good!

How I Chose My Doctoral Program

I tell people I’m in a doctoral program in computer science, and they immediate start rattling off a list of schools: “Is that the program at GW?” No, I say. I’m at Aspen University. The typical response? “Where?”

Okay, Aspen is accredited but doesn’t make it to the “Top Colleges of the West” list, and it’s not Ivy League. Those things really aren’t that important to me anyway. Here’s why I chose this program:

  1. The doctorate at Aspen is a Doctorate of Science in Computer Science, a Sc.D., not a Ph.D. The two are equivalent, but with a difference: the Ph.D. is slanted toward theoretical research in a field.  The Sc.D. is slanted toward practical research in a field. As I’m not looking for a tenured professorship, but plan to keep working as a developer, the Sc.D. serves my career better than the Ph.D.
  2. The program at Aspen can be done part-time. This is surprisingly difficult to find. Most doctoral programs I investigated are looking for full-time students who will spend their time split between learning, research and teaching. That’s okay, as far as it goes, but it means three or more years of immersion in the academic world, putting the graduate three or more years away from the professional world of computer science and software development.
  3. The program at Aspen is rigorous. I know, the title bar on their website reads “Online University - Online Degree Programs”. Some people seem to think that a part-time, mostly online program is easier. It’s not. There is plenty of interaction via email, Skype and other means. There are proctored exams, proctored comprehensive exams, and a video conferenced dissertation defense. All that’s pretty normal for any graduate program, except for the use of technology to substitute for face-to-face interaction. What’s harder, though, is the fact that much of the study is entirely self-directed. Learning is supported through outlines, notes, forums and other means, but there is no class schedule to meet, nothing but your own discipline and focus to get your work done, week after week. If you’ve been through a Coursera class, you know how it’s not necessarily easy just because it’s online.
  4. The university has been around for a long time, at least in terms of distance education. They were founded in 1987, and in the 27 years since, they’ve learned a thing or two about distance education, what works and what doesn’t.
  5. The faculty is solid. Most of the doctoral faculty earned traditional Ph.D.’s at brick-and-mortar schools, and most of them are working professionals in the field. I’d rather learn from working developers and computer scientists than someone who hasn’t worked in the profession for 10 years or more. The teaching I get from working professionals is often much more useful to my day to day work life.
  6. The program is affordable. This was a huge win for me. Many doctoral programs would have left me with $70k-$100k in student loan debt. The entire doctoral program at Aspen is about $20k. Not $20k per year. $20k for the entire program. With a monthly payment plan I will graduate with my doctorate with no student loan debt. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

For all of that, though, it’s been my experience that a graduate program is pretty much what the student puts into it, and little more. This is true of brick-and-mortar programs and online programs. A student can coast through a program, or a student can work hard and do work that will be recognized by their profession.  It’s our choice, no matter where we go to school.

As I progress through this program, I’ll share some of what I learn here and post research updates. I just started the Aspen doctoral program, and I’m sure there is a lot to discover yet. It remains to be seen if all the reasons I chose this university will play out over time. Stay tuned.