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.

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