[Haskell-cafe] possible CS major seeking advice

Dennis Raddle dennis.raddle at gmail.com
Sun Dec 1 21:23:02 UTC 2013

Sort of off-topic for Haskell, just seeking general advice. (I do love

I'm 45, have a B.S. from Caltech and 20+ years of programming experience
with NASA (JPL), and now I'm thinking of going back to school to get a
Ph.D. in computer science, with a goal of teaching at the university level.
I'd like some advice about a possible path.

Currently I have an illness which prevents me from handling full-time
school, and I am receiving a small disability income. That's the bad news;
the good news is that it looks like recovery is on the horizon, perhaps a
few years out.

Getting admitted to graduate school poses a problem. The only people who
know my recent work are my supervisors at NASA. My work at NASA was very
uncreative, just grinding through boring code. I was getting gradually
sicker and my productivity was going down. Then I got laid off. I'm sure
they weren't happy with my productivity. So I'm not too optimistic about
getting a glowing letter from my direct boss. However, I did work with two
scientists there--they were project leaders, not my boss--and I made a good
impression. It's been something like five years since I worked with them
and I don't know how well they will remember, but I think they would give
me good letters if I can locate them and they remember me.

Another possible good letter would come from a fellow I know with a Ph.D.
in mathematics. We have worked closely over the years on something very
hard to describe called the Feldenkrais Method. It's not math or computer
science, but it does require a lot of creativity and learning about
learning. I have demonstrated dedication, focus, and intelligence in my
work with him. He could give me a good letter, but it's questionable how
well it would be received as it's not about CS directly.

Another path would be to attend a local state college first and have some
professors get to know me, then get letters from them. I'm near California
State University Northridge and California State University LA. I hope I
could easily get admitted to the M.S. program there. I have some
prerequisites to get out of the way; my CS classes at Caltech include only
half the normal B.S. requirements, and I am rusty at many things (discrete
mathematics, calculus, formal logic, etc.--never used any of these in my
job and it's been 20+ years).

Although clearly full-time school is out of the question for a few years, I
could attend part-time and take some of these prerequisites.

For both my M.S. and Ph.D. I want to get admitted to the very best school I
can. I'm sure the school determines much of the career that follows. So I
would not want to finish the M.S. at the California State schools, but
rather transfer to somewhere more prestigious eventually.

My next problem is determining an area of specialization. As a professor, I
think it's the teaching and mentoring that will satisfy me the most. To
feel good about my job I need to work with people and not stick my nose in
a computer screen all the time. If I can find a job with good teaching and
mentoring opportunities, I know I will LOVE it. I will talk all the time
about the pleasure of having a job I love. I'll want to get up in the
morning (and that was a big problem with my job at JPL; I was getting

But what will be my area of specialization? As an undergrad I was most
drawn to discrete mathematics and algorithms. I also love learning Haskell
and would probably be interested in languages. I never really connected
with any other classes. But should I specialize in algorithms or languages?
I don't know. A priority for me is interacting with people collaboratively,
so it might be good to specialize in an area that gets me out in the
practical world sometimes. Maybe artificial intelligence? I'm even thinking
about the intersection of C.S. and teaching, like devising programs that
help teach mathematics and CS through artificial intelligence.

But I don't know about artificial intelligence in particular. I would be
interested in hearing what people think about areas of CS that would get me
involved in real-world applications.

Although teaching is my passion, it would be good to stay open to a job in
industry should that become desirable for financial reasons. I'm poor right
now, have little retirement savings, and I'm blowing through them quickly
due to the high medical costs I have. Although people say, "Do what you
love, the money will follow." I wonder if those people have ever been poor,
especially sick and poor. At some point money becomes more important.

But my first preference is teaching. I just don't want to close any doors.

Any advice welcome,
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