I’m two final exams away from completing my first semester of Georgia Tech’s Online Master’s in Computer Science program. I’ve learned a lot of material over the past few months. I’ve also learned some really great lessons in how to succeed in an online advanced degree program, which I’ll share with you in this post.
At various points throughout the semester, I found it easy to disengage from one or both of my classes. Don’t! I would have saved a lot of frantic catching up if I’d stayed more consistent. Most frequently, I became disengaged in a class after a big assignment. I would either “check out” and do other activities rather than logging back into school. Or, less evasively but equally damaging, I would focus on my other class which I had probably neglected somewhat up to that point. The second scenario is fine if you have to catch up immediately, but I found it was easy for me to let the pendulum of my attention swing too heavily toward my other class when in that situation. Keeping a stable pace on all of your classes throughout the term will serve you well.
Doing this is harder in an online setting compared to going to a physical location for your classes. For me, I was able to acheive this balance by setting a time limit for not working on a class. If I finished an assignment and needed a break or to focus my attention on another class, I would make myself come back in no more than three days. This upper limit on time away from any particular class helped me keep momentum in all of my classes. Doing work could be watching video lectures, researching for an assignment, or just reading the class forums. It didn’t have to be full-throttle work.
Face the Forums
Many times, I found myself in need of another’s perspective. The OMSCS program does a great job, from what I’ve seen, of supporting and facilitation forums for additional help. However, it was very common for me to think twice about posting there.
“Maybe I’ll figure it out in anouther hour.”
“Maybe I missed something from the videos and I should go watch them again.”
“Maybe I’m misinterpreting something basic, and I’ll get called out on the forums.”
These were all thoughts I had before posting. Very rarely did the other students have a negative reaction to what was posted, so these doubts were all in my mind.
I did find a way to help me overcome these doubts though: answer other students’ questions. I found that if I felt that I had “paid in” to the forums, then I deserved a little help in return. So what if someone thinks I’m not smart for figuring out myself, I’d think, because at least I’ve helped someone else out when they were struggling.
Learn the Load
One mistake I made this semester was taking two classes instead of one. Granted, I’m still on track to get two grades I’m happy with, but it’s been a lot more work than I anticipated. I’m simultaneously looking for paid work, and that search has been very hampered by the amount of time I’ve had to spend on my coursework.
Many people who opt for an online program are also working a full-time job or have other responsibilities to deal with. So even if you think you have a good idea of the course load before hand (which I thought I did, as well), only take one class your first term if at all possible. The reason is simply to learn the expectations and work load of the program better before overcommitting yourself.
I’ll actually only be taking one class next term so that I can focus on other areas (like job searching and some other side work I’ve lined up), but if I hadn’t bitten off almost more than I could chew this term, those areas wouldn’t have had to take the back burner for such a long time. (Am I getting hungry? Because that was a lot of mixed food/cooking metaphors.)
Going back to school is a great experience personally and professionally. Online programs are getting better every year, and they can be a great option for a wide variety of circumstances. They do, however, come with their own unique set of challenges. If you take my advice not to disengage, to face the forums, and to learn the load during your first semester, then it’ll be an easier transition.