Shea Levy, College Dropout

Note: This post has been automatically imported from my old blog. Formatting may be incorrect.

So. I've dropped out of college.

After a really painful spring semester and a frustrating start to this one, I started seriously rethinking my current path. Due to significant overloading in previous semesters, I was able to drop down to a single course (which I kept because it isn't going to be offered in the future) and still expect to graduate in May 2012. A couple months later, course registration came around, and my thinking and experience had lead me to one conclusion: The U of R wasn't working for me.

I've had a lot of thoughts about why things didn't work out. Maybe the U of R teaching style or quality isn't right for me. Maybe my learning style and goals are such that a university setting in general isn't right for me. Maybe university is exactly what I need, but I'm just not ready for it at this stage in my life. Or maybe (though I seriously doubt it), I'm not actually as interested in biomedical engineering and neuroscience as I thought I was.

Whatever the reasons, though, the situation was clear: I was miserable, and the only prospective gain I could see from sticking with it was having that damn diploma. Since my Fall '09 biochemistry and math classes, I haven't really learned much from lectures. Most (if not all) of the learning I've done came from reading the textbooks, looking at posted slideshows, or researching things on my own. For an average engineering class, I could cover in three hours what was meant to take four weeks of classes and homework assignments. And once I got the material, the homework assignments were useless grinding that neither enhanced my understanding nor, in my view, demonstrated my mastery better than exams did. Most disappointing, though, were the labs. Even in my engineering courses, the vast majority of lab time was spent following procedures that were at least 80% laid out for us (often the only parts we had to figure out were determining component values for resistors, capacitors, etc.!). I did not get the sense that was practicing using tools to solve problems (or, in the basic science labs, answer questions), rather I was repeating the solutions/answers that others had come up with. The significant exception to this was the honors organic chemistry lab in Spring '09. And in case you're wondering, this all applied in junior and senior-level courses, not just introductory ones. Given the time I was spending and the money my parents were spending, this just didn't cut it.

With a year and a half left of what I thought would have been more of the same ahead of me, I didn't have the will to continue. My long-term plans of working in the biotech industry (eventually aiming to run my own company), however, remain the same. So, what now? At first, I was nearly certain that I would eventually need a degree, so I planned to spend the next few years working (as a tutor, tech support, at a book store, whatever), learning and researching on my own, and eventually finding a degree program I could participate with minimal hardship when I'm more ready (or, in a long shot, find a way to start my career without it). But, after having a good chat with Santiago, I'm much more hopeful about the possibility that I'll never have to go back to school. To explain why, I need to go into a bit of detail about what I see in my longer-term future.

One probable stage in achieving my goals (no matter which path) involves several repetitions of bringing a well-developed product idea (including both technical details and business aspects) to venture capitalists and starting a company based around bringing that product to market (obviously, the real process is quite a bit more involved than I'm saying). Unfortunately, no matter how well qualified I might be from study and work outside of school and no matter how brilliant my product is, no VC is going to take me seriously without some sort of degree. But what Santiago made me realize is that I don't need ME to be taken seriously, just my idea. If I can find someone who does have the relevant degree(s) that I can convince to be part of a project, and set up a business relationship where he has the primary responsibility of pitching the idea but I still work with the resulting company and get credit for what I contributed, then I could be golden. Once I can point to experience at  a successful biotech startup, the degree won't matter the next time around. And, especially given that I have friends in the field, convincing an engineer to take my ideas seriously will be much easier than convincing a VC. So, while I still may need to go back to school eventually, there's hope.

For now, then, the plan is this: I will find work for the short-term, hopefully making enough tutoring to not have to do anything else. I'll start researching to see which of my product ideas are most feasible for production given current scientific understanding, and learn what I need to learn in order to design it. Hopefully, I'll be able to make some real progress and, depending on the tech, make a rough prototype on my own before finding other people to include. If that doesn't work out, I'll start looking at different schools and eventually finish off my degree. I'm pumped.