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Why I switched my PhD program from Computer Science to Education

"What do you want to get out of it?" a question posed to me by my big sister, Dr. Joy Johnson when I told her I wanted to switch my major from Computer Science to Education.

Spring 2020 was the worst one yet. In addition to a global pandemic completely changing the way we all live and work, it started by the death of my last living grandfather. That loss hurt my family deeply. As a result of my grandfather getting sick and ultimately passing away, I started the semester as best as I could, still trying to study and finish homework assignments. It was super hard to focus, but in a way, school allowed me to take my mind off of my reality.

I only had one absence all semester and it was in my Programming Techniques class (also known as Data Structures and Algorithms). If you're reading this and you're in the computer science/tech space, you KNOW how tough this class is. I crawled out of that class in undergrad so I had a lot of anxiety going into the semester around whether or not I would succeed. The first homework for this class was due the weekend of my grandpa's funeral and I reached out to the Dean of Students at Temple to understand what support was available to me. They asked for an extension on my behalf; however, my professor only gave me 2 extra days to complete the assignment. I didn't want to push for more time because the second homework would be due the following Sunday, so I pushed through, despite just returning to Philly the day before my deadline extension and submitted a half done assignment. I received a 50 on the assignment, rightfully so, which caused me to start off on a bad foot.

Another note I'll make about most computer science and engineering classes is that your final grade breaks down like this: 40% final exam, 30% midterm exam, 30% homework. The final is often cumulative, meaning that a large percent of your grade depends on whether you remember a concept taught at the very beginning of the semester, which you were already tested on during the midterm. In my opinion, that's not a great way to judge a student, especially when the homework questions and the exam questions aren't similar at all. Personally, I am a fan of performative assessment, where there are quizzes and other ways for a student to test their knowledge along the way, not putting as much pressure on them to test well. So what happened to me? Well, I failed my midterm, as it was during the peak of my grieving time and I left several questions unanswered because I was ill prepared. As a result, I had to bust my ass to get perfect scores on my remaining homework assignments, hoping that would pull my grade up since I was now failing. I also made a study plan two weeks before our final to ensure that I was more prepared and could somehow save my grade. To make the long story short, I still failed the class. Even after making 100% on two or three homework assignments and getting help from others, I still failed.

So, what happens when you fail a class in grad school? I honestly am not sure yet, but my GPA indeed dropped, which doesn't matter much at this level, except I am at school on a fellowship so then it does. I have a 3.0 so I believe I am fine, but what does this mean moving forward?

My options:

  • Petition for an excused withdrawal to remove the F from my records since I suffered a loss in my family and COVID changed everything for everyone
  • Re-take the course and get the grade replaced with my new grade (because I know I'd ace it the second time!)
  • Continue with my coursework

....or change my degree program and never look back.

My sole purpose of coming to getting a PhD is to study computer science education research. As a result of there not being a formal program at Temple, we decided that I would take classes in the College of Education to compliment my computer science classes. I took three classes and was able to use what I learned almost immediately for my research. For instance, my research methods course resulted in a research proposal that I was able to submit to the Internal Review Board to be approved for my research this summer and I was also able to use the same proposal to be accepted to the Race and HCI workshop for the 2020 CHI conference - a real win in my academic journey as this conference is HUGE. I am also able to understand research papers better as a result of taking statistics, which is also a win if I am going to be running my own research studies.

As I reflect on my time in my education classes and revisit the question Dr. Joy posed, my response is this: I want to learn how to be a better researcher so that I can continue to contribute to the computer science education community. In addition to that, when I leave Temple, I would like to work at a company that has a technology education product teaching students how to code (i.e BSD Education, CodeHS, Codio, etc.) working as a researcher to further drive the decisions of the app to better serve both teachers and students. I'd also like to teach at a local university in whichever city I end up in.

As a result of this reflection, I have decided to change my major to Education with a focus on Science, Math, and Education Technology. Based on what I've seen and the upcoming courses after making this switch, it's the best thing for me at the time. Computer Science will always be part of who I am and my high school, college, grad, and work experiences prove that.

I appreciate all of the support and conversations I've had with folks in my circle about this change. I'll forever be the "Digital Diva" and ultimately, I'll forever choose what works best for me and not the approval of others.

To always showing up for yourself!

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