Why Now

In the autumn of 2012, when I start whatever program I decide to enter, I’ll be 60 years old. “Why now?” you may ask. (And you would be justified.) After all, I don’t have a 30-year career ahead of me, teaching or doing research. So here’s the story.

When I was about to receive my first master’s degree, one of the members of my committee, Prof. Lavon Page (who had also been my undergraduate advisor), told me two important things: (a) my oral exam was the best master’s oral he had ever sat in on (“so far”, I must add now, 36 years later :), and (b) I was as capable of doing PhD work as anyone he had ever taught. I was very flattered (as you can tell by how well I remember what he said! :), but the problem was that I although I enjoyed mathematics I didn’t like it well enough to spend PhD-level time and energy on it. And at that point I was tired of being in school. So I took a COBOL course and started working for the City of Durham (North Carolina). I very soon grew tired of doing business-applications programming and moved to Maryland to work (in FORTRAN) on NASA projects at Goddard Space Flight Center.

After a few months I was asked to join the “graphics” team on the large orbit-determination system that the company I worked for was maintaining and enhancing. This work involved very little graphics (the user interface was almost entirely text based), but I found it interesting and much more satisfying than standard programming. Fairly soon they let me start designing some of the screens I was coding.

Then came the first (or perhaps the second, depending on how you read it) conference in the series now known as CHI. “Human Factors in Computing Systems”, it was called. And it was in Maryland. Gaithersburg, specifically — just eighteen miles up the road. I was then working on a project to investigate the uses of microcomputers in helping make it easier for people to provide input to the orbit determination system on which I had previously worked. We were using a Digital Equipment Corporation MiniMINC to build a Q&A system that would construct the keyword-card images and feed a file to the mainframe. Users could modify their parameters by answering the questions again, thereby avoiding having to go to the keypunch machine and produce another card (not to mention insert it in the right place in the card deck). So my NASA client agreed that the conference was relevant for me, and since it involved only local travel he approved it with no fuss.

Zowie! The light bulb went on. I finally knew what I wanted to do with my professional life.

I dreamed of doing research in how to make software more usable. Problem was, at this point I had been working full time for almost seven years and was accustomed to having a full-time salary; I was not interested in being a poor grad student again. Nor was I interested in having what would amount to two full-time jobs, which is what would have happened had I gone to PhD school while working full time. So I went part time and got a second master’s, this time in Human Development. (The psychology department at the University of Maryland accepts only full-time PhD students, so I chose a program in the College of Education. It was close enough for what I needed at the time.) My advisor, Dr. Stan Bennett (no faculty page available) gave me my other favorite compliment I’ve received from a professor: “You ask the most interesting questions!” he once exclaimed as we met after class (a class in which I had asked a question to which he didn’t know the answer) to discuss my program.

If I had discovered human-computer interaction before starting to work, I probably would have stayed in school and gotten a PhD in cognitive or experimental psychology.

So why now?

The answer is, essentially, because now I can afford it. I have a very small mortgage (having owned my house since 1985), no dependents, some investments, and two sources of income that I can use if I need to. I have my late husband’s Social Security, which I can start drawing when I turn 60 (remember how old I’ll be when I start school? :), and my pension from my long-time employer, which I’d have to draw at a reduced rate but which will help keep me from losing sleep over worries about paying tuition and rent.

The rest of the answer is that in recent years I’ve become more involved in the CHI community than I had been earlier, and I want to contribute to it (and to the user experience — UX — practitioner community in general) academically as well as from the practitioner perspective. In addition, over the last two years I’ve been heavily involved in efforts to improve research-practice interaction, and one of my possible research topics is in this area. (Stay tuned for others.)

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Edit 5 Dec 2012

After someone tweeted a link to this page I realized that I hadn’t updated it with my chosen topic. My research focus is the design of technology to support spiritual and numinous experiences, experiences of awe and wonder. I’m interested in people’s subjective experience, independent of any specific religious interpretation.

  1. robbiemelvin

    I’m so glad to see this.

    I’m 36 and working on my Masters. Though I can’t stop thinking about following up the Masters with a PHD, I don’t think it will be the right time. My husband has a great job and our kids will still be in school a number more years. Moving everyone to another city for my schooling seems a little um, irresponsible. Knowing that an appropriate and financially healthy time WILL be there eventually, calms me down a little bit. Hopefully I can find some way of doing work related to my flavour of UX without having to move any time too soon.

    I waited this long for the Masters, and it was the right thing to do. Waiting for the PhD probably will be too. What is it they say about preparation meeting opportunity? :)

  2. Answer: Why not now? I don’t believe there should be a cutoff age for learning, nor should there be a maximum age by which you need to receive all your academic credentials. Doug and I joke about which one of us is going to get our PhD first. I think it’s my turn next, but first the kids get a turn. By the time they’re all done we’ll be in our 50s Who cares? If I’m done learning it means I’m dead.

    Good luck with your adventure!

  3. Thanks for sharing. Are you on Twitter? :)

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