The Cost

I was hellishly jittery before and during my colloquium last Friday. I talked way too fast, but I finished in time, and with that it was basically over. The questions hardly warranted that name; they were conversational or at best informational in nature. The subtext was clearly that my thesis and presentation had left no questions open. When I returned to the room after a token debate among the examiners, they joked it had been a close-run thing. I waited for the explanation, as was probably expected of me. When it came, after a moment of deliberate suspense, it was that the grade scale barely sufficed to grade my work. In the good sense. I.e., they regretted there was nothing on the sweet side of an A+. A typical remark for a couple of CS professors, packaging a compliment in two levels of indirection! They also said it had been a pleasure to read my text. They didn’t mind the few colloquialisms that survived my two proofreaders’ comments. In fact they said they would have enjoyed more of that kind, as a welcome change from the usually dry and boring stuff they get to read.

So I finished this study program with the 24th A+ in a row, and that one counted 2.5 times a regular grade. Thus my overall record comes to 24 A+ and 1 straight A. In our “points” system, where 15 points is the best possible grade, my average grade is 14.96 points, the tiniest bit shy of perfect, which I suppose is a good thing. The just-not-perfect record I mean. I should be embarrassed. In regular German school notes from 1 (best) to 6 (worst) I calculate my average as 0.71, as an A+ is somewhat paradoxically defined as 0.7 on that scale.

Certainly an excellent record. At this point however I can’t help but reflect what it cost me, and by extension, my family. To start with more figures, in the 6th term I invested an unprecedented (and coincidentally amazingly round) number of 900 hours of work outside lectures. This includes about 110 hours for IT security, 78 hours for Certified Tester, and a staggering 616 hours for the bachelor thesis, which doesn’t even count over 97 more hours spent on learning Scala and functional programming (with a little excursion into Clojure) in the spring term break and all alone beats the combined workload for all courses for every single term save the 4th. In fact, the actual numbers for terms 2 through 6 are, for the 15 weeks of a regular term each, 523.5, 477.75, 672.25, 400.5, and 900 hours, respectively, outside lectures. Of course, this also reflects that in the 6th term we had only two regular lectures instead of the usual four to five. It also shows that in the 5th term I worked two days in addition to attending the study program, dramatically cutting down my available time outside lectures, while in the 6th term I got paid for working on the thesis project.

What these figures, impressive as they are, mostly hide is the human cost of all this effort. What with every single exam counting towards the final grade, I was basically holding my breath for three years. And that took its toll. The weekends spent on the computer instead of with my family, to complete practicum assignments and programming projects. My wife shouldering the bulk of taking care of the kids and the household, in spite of my feeble attempts to share the burden. Impatience with my children, stress, nerves, hard words, sleepless nights. A severe, very nearly clinical depression in the second term that took me close to a year to overcome, even with the help of anti-depressants, and of which tiny traces are still occasionally cropping up in unguarded moments. Even considering that probably not all of this was exclusively caused by my studying computer science at UAS, taken together it was still a rather high price to pay for the successful start of my second professional career.

However, on the upside, it was challenging, rewarding, and often also a lot of fun. I met a bunch of great, smart, interesting people. After a first professional life in which I had achieved very little of any value to anyone, I have learned a truly useful, productive trade. I discovered traits, talents, and gifts in me that I would never have dreamed I had. In fact one might say I have found a whole new vocation, and possibly even one in which I can make use of some of the secondary abilities acquired in my first 20 years of professional life, such as organizational aptitude, work discipline, communication skills, and pragmatism. I am really looking forward to my future work life now.

Though truly, I do wonder if I could have had all this with a B average as well, probably with a few hundred hours of workload less, and maybe without the drama.

I am not quite sure. Our lectures were crammed with content, and the corridor between a poor passing grade and a very good grade is not that wide. Admittedly in some cases I clearly overshot the mark by a wide margin, but Mut zur L├╝cke (the courage to leave gaps, in the old student adage) would frequently not have worked, at least not reliably. With six to eight questions in a standard exam say in one of the rote learning subjects such as operating systems or computer networks, there is always a realistic chance that not one but two or three happen to fall into the gaps in your knowledge. Assuming that you would logically not ignore trivial concepts but rather those hardest to master, these questions would probably also be those with the highest relative weight, so that such an omission would quite possibly bring one perilously close to the magic 50 percent limit, i.e. failure in the exam.

But while that is an entirely rational explanation for making triple sure, i.e. attempting to know or master the whole content of a lecture in every single exam, ultimately I suppose something else motivated me to try so hard. As someone doing something radically different with the second part of my professional live, after a somewhat dramatic failure in the first part, I probably simply had something to prove. And I reckon I have.

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