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!