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A graduate school retrospective

· 8 min read
zach wick

Patterns are always obvious in retrospect. Upon reflection, the story arcs of my life are typically around ten years long.

From 2010 to 2011, I attended math lectures at University of Michigan's campus. I wasn't enrolled as a student there, I just lived nearby and worked odd hours as an iOS contract developer so after figuring out when and where classes that sounded interesting would meet, I would purchase the textbook from the campus bookstore and then just start showing up and not turning in, but completing all the work. I would attend sporadically in the fashion of a stereotypical perennial slacker student and try to withdraw from the class unnoticed all the while pursuing the topic on my own. I became reacquainted with numeric analysis, discrete math, and algebraic topology from my undergrad studies in this manner.

From 2014 to 2016, I was regularly traveling to New York City for work. On one particular trip, I had three in-person pitches to venture capitalists in as many days. After those pitches, I realized that I didn't really understand how exactly venture capital funding worked financially. Since I was in NYC, I went to the NYU bookstore and bought a copy of Venture Capital and the Finance of Innovation as well as a copy of Patent Law and Policy: Cases and Materials , the latter of whose title caught my eye and a quick perusal had me hooked. I always suspected that my future endeavors would have a legal aspect, and at the time, I dreamed about my startup exiting and practicing IP law for software businesses as a retirement hobby. This IP law textbook was purchased in the guise of being a ready source of semi-productive daydream reading as well as being a physical reminder to myself of my legal aspirations.

Buying a textbook from a campus retail bookstore when you have no affiliation with the institution usually requires a non-zero amount of social engineering. The conversation usually starts with the cashier asking to scan your school id. I've always had success by openly responding with "Oh, I'm not a student here, I just wanted to purchase this book for my own purposes." There's usually a bit of a pause, and then the cashier either shrugs and rings up my purchase, or they flag over a manager to get them to ring it up. In the worst case, searching online by the ISBN almost always yields an opportunity to purchase a given work.

Accordingly, in NYC in 2015, after a brief conversation with the cashier at the NYU bookstore, I had my books.

From 2016 to 2021, I worked at a private fintech unicorn and helped scale and create teams that worked on problems at the intersection of developer experience as a product, technical education, and marketing. This is too brief of a description for what was the most personally rewarding work-for-hire I have ever engaged in, but it is sufficient for this context.

On February 2, 2021 I published the inaugural edition of Read Law.This was the kickoff of an ambitious project to acquire an autodidactic legal education in a learning in public way, a la building in public . It was my intent to use learning in public to hold myself accountable seeing this project to fruition and as a way to build a network of peers to leverage to later advantages.

As many of my projects do, it began in earnest. On February 8, 2021 the second issue, on Judicial review and more went out. A week later, another issue went out, this one on the appellate flavor of judicial review . Around this time, I had an insight. I wanted two distinct outcomes from this nascent Read Law project that I was quickly realizing would be a multi-year affair at shortest. I first and foremost wanted to acquire a legal education for my own use and benefit. Secondarily, I wanted to be illustrative of what can be accomplished by sheer force of will. Perhaps some measure of vanity and ambition accounts for the first aim (and some of the second). The insight that has resulted in my re-association with Bowling Green State University after first attending fifteen years previously as a bona fide undergraduate student, was that in order to be the most illustrative example of what can be learned in an autodidactic fashion it would be necessary to be able to provide a framework or lens to my learning in public peers to evaluate what learning if any was occurring individually and en masse. I recalled a previous conversation with a coworker while working on constructing a developer education and certification platform for the aforementioned private fintech unicorn. We were discussing the difficulty of accurately assessing the effectiveness of a self-directed asynchronous technical education course at a scale of thousands of new users daily. To my everlasting obligation, my coworker said something that I remember as "what we really need is an instructional designer".

About two weeks later, my last day working for that company was February 19, 2021. In that same time period between my sophomoric realizations regarding Read Law and the difficulties in assessing learning in my recently departed day job, I had applied to Bowling Green State University for two graduate programs. A Master of Business Administration with a concentration in Accounting and a Master of Education in Instructional Design and Technology. Much like before, personal ambition fueled this former set of goals and less pecuniary motives fueled the latter.

I will complete the Accounting program in May 2023, and this retrospective is written as the culmination of the Instructional Design and Technology program.

With a clear idea to the idea of tailoring one's content to the medium, context, and audience that it is intended for, I applied to the IDT program with this Statement of Purpose , that begins with the paean

Reflecting back on it now, it is obvious that since my self-directed learning was just that—self directed—I meandered through the garden of knowledge picking fruits as I went, instead of systematically harvesting the fruit from one end to the other.

and ends with the appeal

My hope is that with the knowledge I gain during this degree program, I am able to make my own self-directed learnings more efficient and more comprehensive by knowing strategies and styles for teaching myself.

These same inward facing frameworks and lens for evaluation could also be applied externally, and thus investing time and effort in this IDT program seemed a prudent decision to make. A similar, but much more accountingly-terse calculus and statement of purpose were used to decide to invest in the Accounting program.

Now at the maturity date of one of these capital investments, it is time to take an accounting of the performance thus far.

Since February 2021, I have spent at least $724.56 USD on books for the furtherance of my progress in the IDT program. The receipts for two books cannot be located at this time. Unsurprisingly, some readings from each program have proven useful in the other, but this figure represents books that would not have been purchased were I not in the IDT program. Calculating a similar figure for tuition is left to the imagination, but it is a sufficiently large enough number to be noteworthy. BGSU's website notes that the estimated tuition for the e-campus IDT program option is $14,350. That seems a reasonable enough low-end estimate based on my recollections of paying regular tuition bills. For easier later mental math, let's approximate the lowest possible total monetary expense of the IDT program at BGSU at $15,000 USD for books and tuition. Participating in this program does have an opportunity cost associated with it since I could not possibly earn at my full potential while spending some time on educational efforts. The dollarization of that opportunity cost is likewise left to the imagination.

With that $15,000 USD figure in mind, my investment in the IDT program has been a resounding success. I now have the frameworks and lens by which to assess learning. I have increased confidence in my ability to use these lens to internally inspect personal learning as well as externally evaluate the learning of others. I have the specific knowledge by which to critically evaluate and improve my work, and the general understanding required to best encourage and enable others to learn from their work. Concretely, I have a clear vision for how to complete my Read Law project in a way that achieves my goals. By working at the intersection of my prior experience in marketing to technical audiences and my newfound instructional design toolkit, I have found my educational path back wandering the paths and sampling the wild fruits after a season of cultivating cash crops.

Have I experienced a change in my career aspirations since beginning the IDT program? No, I don't believe that I have. What has changed is the clarity by which I can see the abundance of ripe knowledge around me. Has the IDT program been a sound financial investment? Only time can definitively answer that question, but all indications point to the payoff period of this investment being quite short. Without ascribing values, it is a true statement that my confidence in the financial soundness of investing in earning a Masters in Education in Instructional Design and Technology has greatly increased in the 21 months since I resolved to determine that soundness experientially.