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Dangers of getting a Masters in a different field than your Bachelors

It basically boils down to a lack of background knowledge. As an electrical engineering student who is doing a masters thesis in a very computer-science-y domain, I sometimes feel disadvantaged. As a problem-solver, my weakness is that I prefer to figure out solutions on my own rather than search for other people’s solutions in journals and textbooks. This is certainly a fun way to go about life, but it’s rather inefficient when it turns out that my solution is some well-known common knowledge in the field, and I just had never heard of it before because I didn’t do any reading at the outset. So I could have saved a lot of time NOW if I had learned it EARLIER. I’m particularly affected by this situation lately; I’m reading my thesis (the topic of which is parallel operating systems) and realizing that I spend two pages elaborating on how I’ve added a layer of protection between user threads and the kernel by only giving threads indirect references to kernel resources. But it turns out Linux (and probably everyone else in the world) has been doing this since before I was born, so I feel like I’ve wasted the reader’s time.

Now, on the other hand, to say that I’ve wasted my own time by not having exposed myself to this material earlier through classes is not necessarily true. Yes, at this point in my life I would have spent less time on this particular problem. But in order to have taken the classes earlier, I would have had to NOT do something else that I did earlier, because I’ve only been alive for so many seconds. Plus, the knowledge probably wouldn’t have stuck with me as well back then when I didn’t have an immediate use for it in a project that I cared about. It might have stuck with me just enough to remember now that there was something I had seen earlier that could take care of my current issue, and then I might have an idea of what keywords to search for. But if it wasn’t presented to me in the context of my present problem (e.g., because it’s a solution/technique/practice that is useful for some other problem too) and I didn’t dwell on it much when I learned it, then perhaps that isn’t even true. So perhaps getting knowledge bounced off of me without an immediate “use” for it is the less efficient way to learn things after all.

Viewing this dilemma from a more general perspective, I conclude: It’s not the THINGS you learn in school that matter, it’s the SKILLS — it’s the “learning how to learn” and “learning how to solve problems” part. (“Things” are not totally unimportant, of course, but in the present context, they are less important than “skills.”) In this case, I should have taken to heart the lesson that a good place to begin problem solving is by searching to find out if anyone else has already solved it! In particular, I think this is bound to be a major part of post-school life. If I’m trying to figure out how to make a computer look at a 2D photograph and extract from it the 3D structure of the scene, determine where the light sources are in that scene, and render a new object within it with realistic lighting, I’m way out of my league. But someone else probably has already been working on this difficult problem and might be making headway, and they’re probably publishing papers about it. So the smart engineer that I hope to be will find those papers and learn and apply their solutions.

As a side note, eventually that smart engineer will have seen so many problems and solutions that he will start making connections — maybe this thing that I did before can be applied in this way to this other problem… That’s when life gets really fun and interesting! (It’s similar to doing an advanced degree, in which you learn and learn and learn as much as you can, and then once you’ve collected all of these ideas in your head, you see a problem just outside the fence that needs solving, and you poke and pry and charge at the fence, and eventually you budge it just enough to find the solution that wraps your problem up inside the fence with the rest of the solutions in the pool of human knowledge. Only, unlike a typical (“typical” is debatable) advanced degree, you’re drawing on a broad set of knowledge rather than a deep and narrow one.)

So, as with everything else in life, the problem of educating oneself isn’t a simple black-and-white, “A is good, B is bad” situation. More like “A and B are both good, but there’s only so much time in a day.” So… life is an optimization problem? Mallen would love it.

(Mallen is my friend. If you know him, you know he’d love it.)


One Response to “Dangers of getting a Masters in a different field than your Bachelors”

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