The real reason I didn't finish my Masters in Advanced Computer Science
7 min read
A warning first
Content warning: I will be discussing some of my history with depression and (in the past) suicidal thoughts. I am in a good place these days! If these are topics you need to avoid right now for whatever reason come back another day, I'll have something else for you to read.
And now, I couldn't think of any snazzy way to lead up to this. The reason I didn't finish my MSc...
I mean, that's it! I was getting depressed and realized I needed to step back. I will give more detail shortly. I worried this would be out of place on Hashnode. Still, I'm sharing part of my story because mental health problems are common in tech, and other areas, and we also have unhealthy expectations of an ideal developer to contend with. I hope seeing someone who has struggled with mental health (and probably will again in the future) and came out ok on the other side of some dark places can help someone who is maybe in the middle of struggling right now.
While I was talking with a friend, Joel, the other day on this topic he made a good point that I want to share with you:
"The thing with problems are that they are subjective. Yours might be worse, but mine still feel much worse to me, because they are my problems, and we all just need to accept that."
I think that's something we all need to remember, maybe especially when we try to help someone else because it can be tempting to say, "Oh that's not that big a deal" while that may be true for you, it's not true for them and can discourage people reaching out for help.
By the way, Joel is a great guy with an incredible journey into tech. You should connect with him on Twitter and check out his blogs.
Lots of changes alongside trying to switch careers
I had about 15 years of work experience, in several industries, before I went back to school to get a bachelor's in Psychology. Computer Science was nowhere on my radar (I have worked on those in the past though). Then we made an international move to England, my wife's home country, and I discovered an MSc in Advanced Computer Science that accepted applications from people like me with no CS/coding background.
I've done some reading on this, it turns out grad school can be hellish for people. Great for memes, not great for mental state. Whether you've done formal studies or are self-taught, you've likely gotten up close and personal with Imposter Syndrome. Maybe it comes baked into the software somehow? But that and balancing a full-time master's program along with having two small children and a recent international move was maybe too much at the time. I had gotten to the point of starting the final thesis project. I had done some work on it, had several meetings with my supervisor, had even made up the poster board for the poster session. I didn't realize I had slipped into depression until one day I just struggled to get ready. I looked at the clock and was like "Oh, I should have left by now if I was gonna make the poster session and I'm not even ready yet"... and I just went back to bed.
A history of depression and suicidal ideations
There's a joke among some psych folks, "I know I got issues! That's why I got into psychology", and we all laugh cause it's true and probably pretend we don't have any issues anymore. But taking psych classes made me realize I've probably had bouts of depression even as a child. In my 20's while I was in the Army I struggled with depression and occasionally suicidal thoughts. I didn't seek help cause I was worried it would hurt my career (at that time it probably would have). I had also seen a couple of friends admitted to military mental health facilities and when I visited them they just weren't the same and the thought of that happening to me was terrifying. After my last deployment, I was a wreck when I was back stateside. I was in denial about having a problem until something awful happened in the family. Finally, I knew I had to do something. So I did a short course of therapy, got on meds for a bit and I figured I was fixed. Great!
I was fine for a while it seemed. But between still being in denial of issues I had, PTSD was one of them at the time, and poor choices and coping mechanisms, my personal life eventually fell completely apart. In early 2011 I was trying to put my life together and then that old companion, depression, came back with a vengeance and brought a friend, insomnia. I was only sleeping a few hours a night, which I just shrugged off as a habit from being in the Army. Without going into specific detail, I spent every night of the first 5 months of the year talking myself out of attempting suicide. I had joint custody of a nearly 3-year-old daughter and that kept me going for a while. Then I started thinking I would never get my life on track and it was getting harder to talk myself out of doing something awful. Once I realized staying around for my daughter wasn't enough motivation I knew I had to get real help or I was going to die. It was probably the hardest thing I've ever done, admit to myself and others that I was not ok. That I wasn't even safe for my daughter to be around, not because I would ever directly hurt her but because I couldn't trust myself not to hurt myself and that meant her mom and I agreed I shouldn't have her alone until I was in a better place.
Some of that period is foggy as I found my way again. I saw VA (Veterans Administration) psychiatrists and counselors regularly, I was on medications that helped my moods stabilize. I managed to get a job that I enjoyed. I got involved in some things outside of work that were meaningful to me. Somewhere along the line I met this incredible English woman and married her, have two daughters, and now live in England.
Dropping out of the Master's program
So back to the Master's program. When I realized how depressed I was, I knew I didn't want to get to the point of thinking of suicide again. I decided nothing was worth risking that. I figured out I could take a leave of absence for medical reasons and did that. After nearly a year off and finding an internship I was due to come back to the program. I ended up deciding not to finish the program and ended with a Postgraduate Diploma instead. I had several reasons for making this decision but looking back, I think I still wasn't up for it mentally. Otherwise, I would have likely worked through the things that made me decide to stop.
What I was forced to face
Previously I assumed that depression would only be a short-term experience that I could overcome for the rest of my life. I was fully aware I would have regular episodes of being a little down on occasion, but I still thought a severe episode was a thing of the past. But sinking into this deep depression again made me realize there's a likelihood it will happen again. I can't predict when/if it will happen again, all I can do is be prepared for the possibility and try to recognize it sooner in the future.
I can't give you a formula for beating depression or other mental health struggles. I can only tell you that it is worth continuing even when it feels like a huge struggle. Get help as soon as you can, you're worth it! And moments will come that will make you glad you are still here.