No longer a student: My thoughts on higher education and finding employment

Hello world! The last time I posted on my blog was on the 20th of July, 2019 and I admit I’m feeling a little bit guilty about that. In my defence, writing my thesis took a lot of dedication and time to get right, and with a mark of 82% I couldn’t be happier considering that it was my first real academic piece.

My master’s year

My final year was a little more difficult as all my friends had already graduated with honours or had left for other reasons. It was a little lonely, but I made a couple new friends and got through it. The first semester was mostly dedicated to my thesis anyway, so I rarely went into the university and rarely saw anyone else.

Honestly, from a learning standpoint, I am highly displeased with higher education. Let me make this clear: my words may not apply to every course at Sheffield Hallam, nor does it apply to a specific CS course at another university. I can say what I’m about to say for sure though, that it isn’t just my own university and it wasn’t just my year.

Before I dive into this in full, I wanted to quickly talk about my feelings towards my master’s year. We weren’t actually taught anything this year apart from one module which was one of two modules ran by ex-students. I didn’t actually see any of the other tutors write any code or even demonstrate that they knew what they were doing. I’m so fortunate that the Coronavirus pandemic cut the year short as I was so frustrated with how the course was run.

In one module, we had to make a game or another project and work on it weekly. In another module, we had to work on a rendering project weekly also — this ended up being my 4D Geometry Viewer. As soon as I finished my weekly work for one project, I had to then meet the next deadline in 3 days, then I’d have 4 days until the previous deadline comes back around again. It was a very exhausting cycle when ultimately I could have done better if I focused on them one at a time and managed myself like with literally every other traditional assignment (where you are set to do something by a certain date). One weekly-based assignment is fine, but two demanding and highly important projects simultaneously quickly gave everyone a sour taste of the year.

Why am I so critical about all of this? Because I paid for it. What sets me apart from any of my friends who graduated last year? I haven’t learned anything new, and I wasn’t challenged in a way which required master’s level thinking. The only real difficult thing was the fact that the dissertation had to be somewhat novel — other than that though this year was just lots of work for no real reason. “But Ashley, didn’t you learn from your thesis or 4D Geometry Viewer?” I hear you ask. Yes, I did, but that’s because I chose to.

You see, the university shouldn’t be able to take credit for things that I pushed myself to learn. Most of my tutors didn’t encourage students, collaborate or ultimately support any of the learning. But sure, this was a master’s year and that means that we should be expected to do this ourselves, right? Well, that’s hypocritical. If they haven’t helped us in any way, then how can they say that they’re educating? We set our own projects, we did them, and we presented them. Bottom line: I could have left the university via graduation or otherwise and done these projects, and I would have yielded the same amount of benefit.

So, what did I actually pay for by doing a master’s year? If it wasn’t for the education, then it must be…

The degree

The almighty piece of paper that I won’t get until later this year that means we’re qualified to do our future jobs. By getting a degree, we should be able to say we’re ready. I can tell you now, the only way my degree would feel valuable to me would be if less people were in possession of one — it is watered down. This isn’t the fault of the student’s but the university — our money was used to build several new buildings and our tutors went on strike. I can’t say if my criticisms of the tutors were fair because of financial struggles or management issues, but they were still legitimate. Perhaps the blame lies with my tutor’s employers instead?

There are people graduating all courses who probably shouldn’t even be in their current year. This is pretty mean of me to say I admit, but hear me out. So many people came to me for help with debugging because they simply didn’t know how — it would get to the point where they’d ask me if a snippet of code would work before they even tested it themselves — are these people really ready? Are these people really the people the university wanted to show off as first-class students?

How degrees have changed

Higher education has changed significantly as it has become more accessible. Previously, degrees were awarded based on oral vivas and not on the outcome of written dissertations like they are today. In order to get their degree, students had to demonstrate their knowledge and convince academics that they were not only capable but also deserving of their degree. PhD students still go through this process; most likely due to both the lower number of people undertaking a PhD in comparison to other degrees and because of the prestige of the PhD certification itself.

A student being examined via an oral viva.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1901

During these vivas, students would simply pass or fail their degree; the different levels of degrees were introduced later on as more students were graduating. Students are now ‘churned’ through the process; they take exams and are made to feel like they are what matters most. Students who don’t function well under such examination are then deemed less suitable than those who can and therefore struggle through the entirety of university. Rather than inspiring and nurturing students to perform better, universities simply require students to be at peak performance without necessarily giving everyone an equal opportunity. Some are given free-rides, others have to work their butts off. At the end of the day, universities are a business and they want to boast about how well they can produce graduates. I urge everyone reading this to watch the following video:


A visual representation of Sir Ken Robinson's talk "Changing Education Paradigms".

YouTube

My experience

I have seen people breeze through university doing barely any work. This is largely in part due to the sheer number of group projects we were put through — projects where the dedicated were put in teams with the lazy. While we were always given the opportunity to change how grades were calculated in accordance to effort done, that is just a very superficial way of looking at how people work together.

Let’s say person D does no work in a team of 4. A, B and C all come together and do their best, but in the end, someone needs to pick up person D’s work otherwise the project will not be completed. Overwork, team squabbles, bugs and failures ran rampant in each and every one of these group projects. We were always told that this is made to mimic the working environment, however, I’d at least expect my future employers to choose people who could do the work, and if they didn’t do the work they’d get fired. These students who choose to slack off would still scrape passing grades because of how forgiving the university is. While I am thankful that the university is willing to work with weaker programmers to help them achieve their best, the system is easily exploited and you have to make a very big blunder in order to actually fail a year.

“You’re better having a degree than not, but it’s not a guarantee anymore” — Sir Ken Robinson, June 2008

On the flip side, some students were not recognised for their talents. The assignments we were given failed to draw out the skillsets of some of the brightest people I’ve met and yet I was always on top and they were always on the bottom. They were put into groups with people the university had branded as failures and essentially their grades were put on the spiral of doom. Whenever we had the chance to choose groups, I always chose my friend who I truly, truly believe is a spectacular programmer — he was always able to accomplish the tasks that I couldn’t. While these tasks may not have been strictly programming, they were critical. An example would be keeping calm and fixing the Unreal Engine when it broke down a couple of minutes before a presentation. I had no idea what to do and yet, as if he had just passed the stress check in Darkest Dungeon, he prevailed.

The worst part is that I don’t think the university really cares about students enough to look at what they’re doing. I remember going to awards ceremonies and everyone patting me as the ‘student of the year’ was about to be announced, thinking it was going to be me. It went to one of my friends instead — she ended up having a mental breakdown and quitting the university the following year. In a conversation I had with my course leader, he had already forgotten one of my friends who graduated the previous year. I used to think he wanted us to do well, and unfortunately I couldn’t have been more right. The university wanted us to do well so that it looked like they were doing well, rather than educating for the sake of education.

Graduates

Seasoned programmers know that computer science degrees are a bit of a meme. They simply aren’t always ready. A graduate’s degree doesn’t actually mean they’re any good at what they want to get paid to do, and is insufficient evidence for their suitability. This is encapsulated in the CS graduate meme, some of the best of which will be posted below for your amusement. Please remember that no one is perfect and everyone makes mistakes.

I like to think that I wouldn’t make the same kinds of mistakes that are commonly attributed to graduates, but at the same time, I have always been at the top of the pile and therefore I’m sure anyone with more experience than I do will have numerous criticisms for me — criticisms I’m excited to receive seeing as university didn’t really teach me anything. I don’t blame graduates for these mistakes, but the universities that let them graduate without being thorough enough (while also yoinking £9k a year at the same time).

A compilation of CS graduate memes.

Imgur

Getting a job

Despite the amount of criticism I’ve just given about higher education, it is true that degrees help you get a job. It is more of a filter than anything else — I had 6 interviews and each and every one of them were impressed with my portfolio and testing results, while none of them asked me anything about what I learned at the university. One of the employees who was present for my interview at Jagex had even gone to Sheffield Hallam and had the exact same complaints I had. We both came to the conclusion that despite our feedback nothing of worth has changed in relation to our course.

All of my interviews went well, and I couldn’t be any happier. Everyone liked me. After so many years of feeling like I wasn’t enough, that my hard work was ‘expected’ and thus didn’t require praise, I was finally being recognised. My confidence really did plummet as a result of the university; the only times my work was given feedback was when I did something wrong. However, those years are behind me, and with that I can finally say the following:

I am thankful that I have this shiny piece of paper, but I also acknowledge that university didn’t get me a job — I did. I am proud to announce that I have accepted a job at Deep Silver Dambuster Studios!

Unfortunately, I can’t really say much more than that because secrecy and NDAs and blah blah blah. But the point is, while I absolutely loathed university, sometimes you’ve got to bite the bullet and play along. I think my degree is worthless especially now that I’m going to be getting experience in the industry itself, but who knows whether my CV would have even been considered if I wasn’t a student.

I hope that higher education changes and that it’s more a story of a pilgrimage than a ‘my way or the high way’ scenario.

Thanks for reading!