cctalk Digest, Vol 73, Issue 13

Liam Proven lproven at
Thu Oct 15 07:21:06 CDT 2020

On Wed, 14 Oct 2020 at 22:28, Adam Thornton via cctalk
<cctalk at> wrote:
> I agree that whether a student learns has much more to do with the student
> than what in particular they're studying.
> I quit my undergraduate physics degree when I had a moment of clarity that
> even if I managed to squeak through my Partial Differential Equations class
> with a C (I did) I'd still be on a trajectory where _solving PDEs was what
> I would be doing with my life_.

I don't know about that. AIUI very few people continue to work in the
field where they studied.

In my field, most holders of bachelors' degrees who work in that field
do palynology or haematology. IOW, they spend their lives in labs,
peering down microscopes, identifying and counting either blood cells
(for hospitals) or pollen grains and spores (mainly for oil
companies). Neither appealed to me at all, but I learned that to stay
in biology, I'd _need_ to do a doctorate. I didn't fancy that at the
time (20Y old), nor did I fancy a career of lecturing uninterested
undergrads and applying for grants.

So I left.

Sounds like you changed disciplines instead? It's good to have that
option. In the England, Wales & NI in the '80s, you only got 3Y grant
for a bachelors -- I guess 4 in Scotland, where a 1Y foundation is
mandatory. So if you change your field of study and restart, you have
to pay your own way for the extra time, which was not doable for most
people. Result: a strong incentive to either stay the course, or drop
out completely.

Since now there are no grants at all, only loans, I guess it's worse. :-(

> My undergrad degree is in Ancient Mediterranean Civilizations.  My MA is in
> History (but, hey, the History of Computing).  I dropped out of the Ph.D.
> program I was in for a variety of reasons, to be honest crushing depression
> probably chief among them, but also because I was a fairly decent
> practitioner, and I had more fun playing with computers than I did writing
> stories about people who'd played with computers a couple generations
> before I had.  It being the late 90s, my job prospects were decidedly
> better on the Not A Professional Historian side of the fence.

I can see that! But hey, you beat me -- you got a Master's. I was
battling depression for the 2nd half of my degree too, but I didn't
know it.

> That was 22-ish years ago.  I'd been making beer money all through college
> and grad school with IT jobs, and I've stayed in IT-related fields ever
> since.  Consulting, systems administration and engineering, these days
> software development-but-also-devops.  My lack of appropriate degrees
> probably only didn't hurt because I started a not-unsuccessful consulting
> business with my mentor after I quit grad school, and by the time I was
> ready to move on from that, I had enough years of broadly varied experience
> under my belt that it didn't really matter.

Yup. Broadly what I did, too. I look upon it as turning my hobby into my career.

I never found the irrelevance of my degree a hindrance, but those were
different times.

> But that's tangential.  The actual point was: the fuzzy stuff is only
> contemptible if you've got Physicists' Disease.  History is hard, and it
> has a lot more in common with debugging that is obvious at first glance.
> In both cases you are presented with "Here's what happened," and it's your
> job to figure out "why?"

Fascinating insight -- thanks for that!
  In both cases, the ability to break the end-state

>  The thing with debugging is that you usually are afforded
> the opportunity the repeat the experiment while changing parameters.  With
> history, you're not so lucky

You might enjoy the novels of Connie Willis. :-)

> Nevertheless, a degree--and particularly an advanced one--is indeed much
> more about the discipline to put your head down and swallow what's put in
> front of you than about smarts.


> I was told a couple of decades ago I'd regret not having stuck it out for
> my Ph.D.  I'm still waiting for that regret to kick in; in the meantime,
> many others have come and gone.


Thanks for a very interesting and engaging response!

Liam Proven – Profile:
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