grad school decisions

I recently had to decide between staying at my programming job, and setting my sights on grad school. Both of my roomates have plans for grad school, so I thought I would give it a look as well.

I knew the school decision was coming up. When I took my current job a year ago, I did it with the knowledge that I might eventually want to go back to school. Despite all the advance warning, though, I felt strangely unprepared for the decision.

I spent a lot of time talking to people who had gone back, reading guides, and stuff like that. I learned at least a few things about the situation. PhD students, at least at the best universities, are generally expected to do research, and become experts in a very narrow part of their field. "The PhD is about depth." At least in computer science, there's a lot of competition for money and prestige. Depending on the subfield, there might be a lot of industry connections too. Computer science PhDs are generally a path to a life in academia as a professor, or at a corporate research lab as a researcher.

I did get pretty far at answering the "how to apply" question. I know which professors from my undergrad years I would ask for recommendations and which schools were worth consideration more so than others.
I picked 4 colleges that I might want to apply to-- based on factors like reputation, the campus location, and size.

I spent the most time trying a subfield of computer science that would interest me. I know that I'm not interested in pure math, which rules out things like logic and finite automata theory. Robotics is more intriguing, but it faces many of the same issues that artifical intelligence research faces. Nobody really understands thought, so a lot of robotics feels ad-hoc. If anything, robotics is more tiresome than AI, since you have to worry about mechanical issues on top of everything else. Networks is an interesting field. I wonder how far you can pursue traffic issues before you go down the rabbit hole of complicated and inaccurate probability models, though. I thought computer vision might be interesting. The more I looked into it, though, the more it seemed to be dominated by piecemeal approaches to the problem. It felt hackish in a way...

Then there are the ethical issues. A lot of technical research is funded by various branches of the U.S. military-- navy, army, or just the DOD as a whole. Some projects are lucky enough to get funded by DARPA, or even by NASA's anemic budget, but I'm not sure how common that is. What guarantees do I have that my research would not be misused? Of course, not everything funded by the military is evil... but if I was to work on a military project, I would want to know what it was being used for.

In the end, I couldn't find a compelling reason to go back this year. I wasn't really excited by any of the subfields I looked at. There will be some new big adventure for me eventually... but I don't know what it's going to be yet.

Maybe I should consider graduate work in a different field-- since CS didn't seem to excite me.
Perhaps with a little training, I could do computational neuroscience. I know people who seem to be interested in that field. Or I could go back to my EE roots and grab a degree in that field. Actually, though, EE would probably be even more boring than CS.

For now, though, I'll be at my job for at least another year. It's reasonable work, not overly taxing and often even interesting. And I am learning things about C++, and about linux, and other subjects.
The benefits here are generous, but I feel a little underused. Aren't these the years when I'm supposed to be putting forth my best work? Maybe I will get involved in some outside project.


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