The Traveling Graduate Student

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I’m not just out in the world wasting away, stringing together hangovers in strange cities. When I am done traveling and living like a hobo my career will continue without so much as a hiccup. I’m covering my tracks. I’m in graduate school. Again. Kinda.

A week ago I submitted a design project for an embedded systems class from Seoul. Two nights ago I was at Beijing Capital Airport submitting a homework assignment at midnight. Today I’m at a library in New Jersey (see unglamorous picture above) studying for a final exam that I will take from Boston before jetting off to San Diego. I’ve been enrolled in a grad program for two semesters but have only stepped foot on campus once and that was optional. If you haven’t caught on, I am doing an MS program in Computer Science entirely remotely via the relatively new OMSCS program at Georgia Tech.

Let’s hash some things out here. Deserved or not, online graduate education programs have a questionable reputation. I’m not one for rankings, but to be completely honest, if Tech’s CS program wasn’t nestled comfortably between Princeton and Cal Tech for the number 9 spot in the USNews CS Graduate School Rankings I might not have given it a second look. The reality is that ordered lists like these have some palpable value when going on the job hunt in terms of getting your resume looked at.

The siren call of a nice reputation and a flexible program was too much to resist. Grad school while traveling would level me up professionally and silence any awkward questions targeted at what I’ve been doing for the last few months of my life. Half a year before I left Samsung and with some modicum of foresight, I gathered my recommendations, wrote my statement of purpose, and submitted my application. Here I am now, six months of traveling and nearly two semesters deep. Traveling full time. Full cloaking mode enabled.

Is the OMSCS effective only at deflecting pointy questions from HR or does it hold water as a graduate program as well? Already having a traditional thesis-based MS in Electrical Engineering from a top twenty-ish school, I can offer some insight. To put it in very simple terms my experience with the remote program so far is captured by two words; rigorous and different. The courses are just as rigorous as traditional STEM graduate programs. But, and this is a big but, the feeling is very different. To be a bit more wordy, the workload, grading, and standards of the online program are still near-depression inducingly harsh. I mean this as the highest compliment since, as engineers and scientists, our mettle is proved through tough education. However, I say that the feeling is different because I am no longer rubbing shoulders with peers in research labs and classes talking about papers and deadlines and projects. I’m not surrounded by academic facilities and quiet study areas. I rarely interact with professors. No amount of message boards or chat rooms or Youtube office hours can remedy the feeling that when my laptop closes, I don’t feel like a student.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a very real but very minor detriment to the online MS program. The purpose of a course-based online MS is not to be an academic schmooze fest. The purpose is attaining a rigorous education with freedom and flexibility and so far it has exceeded my expectations in achieving this. I’m finding that this freedom is allowing me to adjust my education to my busy travel schedule. And when I’m finally through with it, the decision to disclose that I finished this course or that from a park bench in Tokyo or from a library in New Jersey is completely up to me.

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