Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Its about the bills... the trouble with the financial aid office at UCSD

Late last week I was informed that my financial aid isn't going to last me through the winter quarter. I’ll be lucky if I can finish up by then. Bills, as if they aren’t painful enough to pay right now as a UCSD computer science masters student, are only going to get worse. I think things are a bit better as a PhD student because there seems to be more funding available for them. This is understandable, PhD's are associated with the school for the long haul, spending some 5-7 years in school, with the opportunity to contribute significantly to research, arguably the most important "export" a top tier university provides. As far as I know only masters students have to take out loans in our department. (Correct me if I'm wrong, friends, but isn't this so?) But the problem isn’t the loans, rather its how much time the financial aid department says I have to finish my degree requirements.

I'm at issue with a particular rule that dictates I have about two years and a quarter to finish my master's program. This amount is fine for students who graduate by taking a comprehensive exam at the end of their two years, but for a student like myself who is doing a master's thesis to graduate, this route can take up to 3 years to finish. The first year is spent taking classes and unless one is lucky, finding a thesis topic in a year is difficult. We have a year to choose a particular subfield of interest, become acquainted with research in that field to a proficient degree, and then choose an outstanding problem in this field to work on. This is assuming we don't switch fields in the middle of this process. To add to this, we may not even know if a thesis project is interesting enough to work on until we have spent months of work on it. In my own experience, I suffered a false start on a project that set me back a whole quarter. Judging from my own experience and from friends experiences, I would estimate that it takes about a year and a half, usually a little bit longer, to find a thesis project that one is happy with. Once the topic is chosen it will take another six to nine months to not only write the thesis, but also conduct experiments, implement code, etc. In some computer science fields, like systems, projects can take up to a year to complete.

With this in mind I would guess that the average masters student under thesis option takes somewhere around two years and two quarters to finish their research. If the financial aid office made funding available for 3 academic years that would be a huge relief. I would estimate that that would cover the academic careers of most masters students under thesis option. In the absence of this option we’ll need to resort to alternate sources of funding (for many of us our parents are already helping us out in addition to aid that we procure), private loans, and extraordinary feats of penny-pinching.

I’m lucky enough that this is just a big annoyance to me. I’ll make it out of the program one way or another. But it’s a shame for those students who, because of this imposed timeline, cannot continue with their education because sufficient funding is not available. And it’s a shame for the school, who is not facilitating the education of its masters students. These facts leak out to the public, much like I am making them known here, and will only detract from the prestige of this excellent university.

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