I plan on simulating my own Masters of Science education outside of the University system.
Masters of Science (MS) degrees typically require two years of full-time coursework and the completion of a research thesis. Universities post these degree requirements online and list the specific courses and research criteria needed to graduate. Further, most of the syllabi can be found online that detail all course readings, assignments, and projects. Thus, the curricula of MS degrees are open-source and can be learned for free outside of the University system.
Of course, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) graduate programs offer more than just educational content. They also provide in-person teaching, academic mentorship, laboratory resources, and a general forum for collaboration and discussion of contemporary ideas; however, these features do not guarantee the educational outcomes one might expect from a $60,000 investment.
A 2018 National Academy of Sciences committee states that “many graduate programs do not adequately prepare students to translate their knowledge into impact” . They conclude that current STEM graduate programs primarily serve the University itself. Imbalanced incentive systems disproportionately reward research publications and deemphasize the holistic development of students. Evidence suggests that STEM graduates tend to lack:
- Soft skills like leadership, communication, and consideration of ethics/social impact 
- Professional skills like collaboration, project management, and critical thinking [3, 6, 9]
- Breadth of knowledge in different subjects to complement their deep research focus [2, 5, 14]
Also, the 21st-century poses interconnected global challenges such as climate change and rapid technological development. These complex challenges require interdisciplinary research teams that collaborate across the STEM fields. Further, disruptive information technologies have begun to change the nature of STEM research from siloed to more multidisciplinary efforts. The research enterprise of Universities may struggle to adapt to this disruption and support cross-disciplinary research projects .
The current state of graduate programs may warrant an alternative approach to a Masters of Science education. An approach that abandons expensive, top-heavy Universities and embraces disruptive trends in open-source research and education. Such an education promotes learning through real-world experience rather than a purely academic context. This might better prepare students to contribute what is principally important, real-world value.
I was educated as an engineer and received a BS in Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) in June 2016. The MSE department I attended was engaged in the development of materials for application in fields like aerospace, biomedicine, and electronics. My academic projects and experience reflect this materials science research.
- Develop a materials characterization strategy for novel battery design (EnerG2 report)
- Materials lab work covering topics such as diffraction analysis, ceramic processing, polymer fabrication, mechanical properties, and materials characterization (Integrated Lab report)
- Lab technician in tissue engineering lab developing biocompatible nanofibers (Lab website)
- Tissue Engineering Literature Review (report)
- Nanoparticle Enhancement Literature Review (report)
- Glass Manufacturing Air Emissions Essay (essay)
I also specialized in biomedical device fabrication with employment at two engineering laboratories: the Washington Nanofabrication Facility (WNF) and the Advanced Polymers Research Lab (APRL). I integrated my undergraduate thesis with my work at the WNF and this culminated in the design and fabrication of an E coli. biosensor (thesis report + presentation).
These STEM experiences strengthened me as an analytical thinker and taught me how to systematically approach problems. After all, the scientific method demands that we define a problem, make a hypothesis, collect empirical evidence, and conclude on the hypothesis based on this evidence. And I have a deep respect for the scientific process as it has done the most in liberating humanity from a set of harsh initial conditions. It also continues to make improvements to our lives. But the whole scientific endeavor must ultimately submit to our human values. We must accept our role as the sole interpreters of “meaning” and acknowledge the primacy of our subjective experience. I wanted a system that accounts for both objective fact and subjective meaning. I wanted to bridge the “chasm between what is abstractly true and what is existentially real for the living person” .
In pursuit of this I joined a market research consultancy as an analyst. This introduced me to human-centered research concerned with the understanding of people and their behaviors, attitudes, and experiences.
The consultancy has exposed me to many types of studies including product and concept testing, attitudes and usage, consumer segmentation, user experience, customer journey, and ad tracking. Each project requires a custom study design and utilizes different research methodologies and data collection techniques. My professional work outcomes include:
- Involvement across entire research process – from initial consultation, project proposal, study design, programming, sampling, analysis, reporting, to final consultation
- Managing research projects and rapid timelines – move through the entire research process in as little as 6 weeks
- Effective communication and collaboration – more direct and concise speech. Also, data visualization skills (with Adobe Creative Cloud, PowerPoint, and R programming) to communicate results
- Project management with diverse groups of people
- Distilling detailed findings – generating valuable insights from raw data for client consultations
Professional work builds high levels of efficiency at particular tasks. This supports an economy predicated on the specialization of labor. It does not necessarily encourage exploratory learning. I believe work should be supplemented with learning new subjects that contribute different perspectives and transdisciplinary skills. This is why I have continued my learning with online courses.
Educational content comes in different forms online from massive open online courses (MOOC’s) to more self-guided learning on websites uploaded by University professors. I began with the study of psychology on a course website posted by University of Toronto professor, Dr. Peterson. The course, “Personality and Its Transformations”, features his video lectures and a full reading list. These studies introduced me to the following topics that have profoundly influenced my thinking as a whole:
- Various systems of thought – trends in psychology including psychotherapy, behaviorism, humanism, existentialism, pragmatism, constructivism, and phenomenology
- Measuring personality with the Big 5 factors – measure differences across five dimensions of personality including emotional stability, openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and extraversion
- Neuropsychology and mapping to biology – the neurological and biological systems related to personality and behavior
- Levels of analysis – make arguments across multiple levels of analysis (i.e. human behavior can be described at the subcortical level, then conscious and voluntary movement level, then psychodynamic level, and finally, sociological level)
After this I moved on to complete two Coursera certificate specializations: Statistics with R and Data Science. I was attracted to these subjects for a couple of reasons. First, learning statistical modeling for my research consulting projects would eliminate the cost of statistician contractors. I also wanted some experience with machine learning and exposure to the technical side of artificial intelligence.
The statistics and data science MOOC’s took about one year of part-time study to complete and the following outcomes resulted:
- Learned inferential statistics – the basis of my consulting work (i.e. sampling a population and hypothesis testing)
- Data Science Tools – from mining, cleaning, visualizing and clustering, modeling, to interactive data products
- Machine Learning Projects:
- Applied data science experience – generated $7,500-worth of data solutions for research consulting projects
After completing these specializations it was clear that a full, graduate-level education could be built up from disparate online sources. This motivated me to develop an educational plan and base it on a central theme. It was important that this theme reflect my interests in STEM and human-centered research.
A Culminating Interest
My previous experiences seem disparate but unite under an overarching narrative – one concerned with the interaction between humans and technology and the ethical development of technologies. More specifically, I am interested in the development of artificial intelligence (AI). Most experts believe we will develop systems as intelligent as humans sometime in the 21st-century .
These intelligent systems pose great socio-political and existential threats to humanity; therefore, deliberate strategies and policies must dictate the development of AI systems to align them with our human values. AI should help us pursue the maximal well-being of conscious creatures and achieve peaks in conscious experience . Sam Harris discusses these peaks in his Moral Landscape and describes a scientific morality based on understanding “what the actual consequences of an action are, about what changes in human experience are possible, and about which changes matter” .
We also must tell compelling stories about the potential futures between humans and technology. What creative experiences will we access to fulfill our higher-needs of social belonging, esteem, and self-actualization? How will we beautifully interweave our ever-growing scientific understanding with the symbolic narratives that we inhabit in everyday life? How will humanity converge on a universal ethic and unite under a common goal like maximal well-being (related to the Harris and Peterson discussions: One, Two, & Three)?
Directing the development of AI requires a transdisciplinary knowledge that balances technical fields like machine learning and the cognitive sciences with more normative fields related to human and cultural understanding. The field of Information Science does just this with research topics that include :
- Artificial Intelligence and Cognition
- Big Data Analytics
- Human-Computer Interaction
- Semiotics and Theories of Qualitative Behavior
- Socio-technical Systems
Information Science also considers technologies at three levels of abstraction. At the most technical level, it considers a technology’s instantiation in computer systems. Next, it considers a technology’s effect on human users. At the highest level, it considers a technology’s role in a greater social context. Development of ethical technologies requires input from all three perspectives.
The following Universities feature MS programs in the Information Sciences:
- PennState’s Information Sciences and Technology
- Cornell’s Information Science
- University of Colorado Boulder’s Information Science
I will base my education on PennState’s Information Science and Technology degree requirements. Cornell and University of Colorado Boulder offer similar programs and many other Information Science courses. This gives me three University programs to select courses from.
Independent Masters of Science Curriculum
The table below shows my MS curriculum with all of the courses and research that I intend on completing. This is largely based on PennState’s IST graduate requirements and also features courses offered by Cornell and University of Colorado Boulder.
Independent MS Supplementation
The above outlines a Masters of Information Science curriculum including a research thesis. Of course, on-campus graduate programs offer more than just curriculum. They also provide in-person teaching, academic mentorship, laboratory resources, and a general forum for collaboration and discussion of contemporary ideas. I plan on supplementing my independent education in these areas to make for a comparable, if not superior, learning experience.
First, I live near a Tier 1 STEM research institution, the University of Texas Dallas. I will take advantage of this close proximity and benefit from the following on-campus activities:
- Take “non-degree seeking” courses for free
- On-campus access to online scientific literature (no need for expensive journal subscriptions)
- Potential involvement in and collaboration with University research laboratories in the fields of Computer Sciences, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, and Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communications.
- Access to University clubs that sponsor events and projects such as the UTD chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery and the Artificial Intelligence Society.
Dallas offers many other MeetUp groups related to my interests including the Data Science Applications Community, Geek Meet Dallas, and Dallas AI. Also, national and international organizations offer memberships and access to their conferences, workshops, and contemporary thought-leadership. Some relevant organizations include:
- Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)
- Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)
- EPIC – ethnographic practices in industry
Still, none of this addresses the most major drawback of an independent education – no University accreditation. No academic body will grant me a diploma and validate my education. But I feel that using my education to produce a portfolio of valuable and relevant work trumps this accreditation issue.
Emphasis on Real-World Application
Masters degrees in themselves are not strong predictors of performance and workplace success . For this reason, employers value experience over educational attainment when hiring . Thus, I plan to ground my independent MS in real-world experience and produce a portfolio of relevant works (this was partially inspired by Share Your Work) :
- Maintain a website and generate online content in the form of essays, data reports and video presentations related to the courses
- Share progress of research thesis. Demonstrate methodologies in documentary-style videos. Generate interest around the research with artistic, promotional videos.
- Develop an applied research thesis in the domain of ethical technology development (ideally in the field of artificial intelligence)
- Try to publish this research in scientific journals as an “independent scholar” (publishing papers without a University affiliation)
- Integrate Information Sciences thinking into my current market research consulting work
Even in the worse case scenario this independent education will still improve my meta-skills and move me in the right direction. This is inspired by Scott Adams’ thinking on goals versus systems where you can fail at short-term goals while still improving your overall position. These meta-skills include:
- Reading comprehension – especially of scientific literature
- Analysis and reasoning – decision making, critical thinking, and problem solving
- Technical communication – formulating arguments and research results
“…revolutions in data science, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and automation are profoundly impacting the global workforce, and in turn, demand changes in the ways in which the leaders of the future are educated. In an environment with a steep innovation trajectory, individuals who will thrive will be those who have been prepared with life-long learning skills in digesting new content, adopting new methods, and formulating creative approaches to problem solving .”
Current STEM graduate programs do not centrally focus on the development of students and Universities may struggle to adapt to the changing research environment that now favors collaborative, interdisciplinary efforts. Perhaps this calls for an alternative approach to graduate STEM education. An approach that circumvents the University system and embraces the disruptive forces of online education. In fact, the entire curriculum of a STEM graduate degree is often open-source and available online. This has motivated me to simulate a Masters of Science education outside of the University system.
I decided on a central educational theme by considering my past experiences and interests in engineering, human-centered research, data science, and psychology. These interests unite under an overarching narrative – one concerned with the interaction between humans and technology and the ethical development of technologies. The field of Information Science concerns itself with just this and, sure enough, several prestigious Universities offer this program and openly publish their curricula online. I outline an independent Masters of Information Science curriculum based on these programs.
STEM graduate programs offer more than just educational content; however, an independent Masters can simulate these extra-curricular experiences with involvement in intellectual communities such as local Universities and national organizations. Also, diplomas continue to dwindle in their value to employers. In any case, focusing educational outcomes on real-world projects and a relevant portfolio bypasses the University accreditation issue altogether.
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