Why I dropped out of my Master’s degree (and what I learned from it)

Just over a year and a half ago I took redundancy at a well paid, very comfortable job where I was surrounded by good people and sustained by a regular supply of cake. I did so because I knew that I needed to develop my skills for my career to progress, but wouldn’t be able to do that within the role I had. I left with the plan to study a Masters, most likely in a new city, leaving behind not just the job, but a strong circle of friends, a beautiful home and many other familiarities that made Sheffield home.

And that’s just what I did. In September 2017 I started my MSc in Computing with Digital Media at The University of Sussex in Brighton. A ‘Top 20’ university; I had confidence that this course would teach me skills I needed to succeed in the digital media industry. My plan was to study part-time, completing the course in 2 years and working freelance in between. With loan interest included, the course would cost me over £12,000, but I felt this was a worthwhile price given that it would fill such a gap in my knowledge. After a year on the course I dropped out, with nothing more than £6,300 of debt (before interest) to my name.

Now, I’m not writing this post purely to drag the university – although I will say that I was not the only person who had complaints about the course. Outdated course content, lackluster teaching, zero industry interaction, and in some cases modules made almost entirely from YouTube tutorials (not even created by the module leaders but quite simply found on YouTube) left my course-mates and I somewhat disgruntled about what we were receiving for our money.

Don’t get me wrong, there were a couple of good modules where we actually received direct teaching. Teaching that was insightful, engaging and interesting. I had a great introduction to programming, and learning about technology enhanced learning environments helped me explore a passion I hadn’t fully embraced before. But when you’re satisfied with 2/4 modules, and extremely dissatisfied with the rest, it seems counterintuitive to spend more time and money to finish the course.

In leaving the course, I’ve recognised what really drove me to take it, and where I made mistakes.

Expectations

Firstly, before starting the degree, I knew that I could learn most of the things I wanted to learn by myself. The Internet is such a wealthy resource of learning materials that it’s no surprise how many people in the industry are self taught these days. Many of the people that inspire me came from design backgrounds but taught themselves to code, or developed skills in different jobs. I knew this was possible, but for me this didn’t seem like the best way to learn. I needed structure, collaboration, mentoring. I believed I could find these in a Masters. I had no interest in the certificate at the end; the qualification meant nothing to me. But still it seemed reasonable to spend money on a structured learning path.

In reality, this didn’t turn out to be what I received. Yes there was a structured plan of learning, but it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to learn. We learned 3DS Max rather than Cinema4D, I learned how to build games in Mogre3D, while the rest of the industry was using Unity. The collaboration was minimal; I didn’t work on a single group project. Mentoring? Well it was mostly self taught with educators ‘on hand’ should I need help.

Nostalgia

I’ve also no doubt that my desire to study a Masters was at least in part driven by nostalgia. I fondly remember hours spent in the Graphic Design studio while I studied my undergrad; working with my course-mates into the late evening, sharing ideas and just enjoying what we were doing. Studying a Masters is wildly different. As with many courses, mine was pieced together from various modules which we shared with other courses. While there was a small group of us on the same course, we weren’t always together. We also had our own lives and didn’t have the same sort of available time that I’d enjoyed in my undergrad. I made friends for sure, but that collaboration just wasn’t there.

A lack of creativity

There was one other huge mistake that I should have recognised before I started. This course was an MSc. I knew that, and I believed it was what I needed. After all, I was looking to develop technical skills more than anything, and I was wanting to move more towards computing than design. But I understood that even without a computing background, my design skills would be valuable on such a course. I soon learned that in fact, there was almost zero creativity involved in the course. The 3D modelling was photorealistic, the game we built was already designed, there was virtually no consideration for design thinking in any of the modules I undertook. Problem solving? Sure! Design skills? Not relevant.

This also helped me realise that this is a problem that runs deep in the computer science/developer sections of this industry. Even whilst working amongst programmers, I’ve started to notice how many of them either don’t seem to see the importance of good use of colour, type and layout – or simply don’t understand it and don’t see how it’s relevant to them – it’s something done by someone else. I am firmly of the belief that designers and developers need to have a good understanding of both sides. Truly great work comes when the two understand each other’s goals and can work both collaboratively and independently. There’s definitely another whole post in there.

So what now?

Well, that’s the big question. I’ve got no solid plans ahead of me and all the time in the world. The whole purpose of this blog is to record my own learning journey, Masters or no Masters. I’m trying to focus on the things I want to learn for the work that I’m doing, and making sure I progress on them. Whether it’s After Effects expressions or games design or project management. I’ll keep learning, whatever it takes.

I’ve also got a huge, pointless debt to pay off. Anyone looking for a motion designer???

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