Welcome Week: Module Choices, Ice Breakers And Imposter Syndrome

This first week involved a lot of introduction to the course and its structure. The tutors were clearly attempting to make very sure that we know:

  • what marks we need to achieve and what the marking structure is
  • that this year is going to be hard and that we are going to be studying all year. If you want to succeed in this course you have to accept that you wont be getting any time off until after it’s finished. (Some of the students weren’t terribly happy about this and one or two entirely disbelieved it.)
  • we need to be talking to each other and our tutors (several of the speakers emphasised that the students they tend to see the most are also those who are the best performing).

Module choices

Unlike some taught masters courses the modules for MSc Computer Science are mostly compulsory, however we do need to make up 20 credits from optional modules, of which at least 10 have to be from one of the software engineering modules. This actually makes my decision quite difficult as this module is the one that set the tone for our degrees.

As my interests lie in the very much linked areas of mobile and ubiquitous computing; and human computer interaction I am trying to pick a module will which focus my MSc in this area.

Initially I thought this would make my module choice easy as I would “simply” have to pick whichever module would have the greatest impact on my ability to do research in the future. In some ways though I feel that having a clear goal has actually made my decision harder. There are several interrelated topics which would be useful for future study and I literally have no idea what to pick. I’m not being aided here by the fact that I ideally need to make this decision prior to the term starting[1].

As a result of this pressure I spent most of my first week fretting about my options and not actually coming to any useful conclusions. Having subsequently cornered our Human Computer Interaction tutor and requested guidance I now have some idea of where I should be focussing. His suggestions were:

Two of these are autumn modules so I can go along to lectures this week and see which I feel most comfortable in. The third is in spring so if my optional module goes horribly wrong this term I will still have the ability to pick that one up. (Though at that point I may also have to accept that my dreams of doing research aren’t going to be realised.)

Imposter Syndrome

My first degree is in English Literature, I don’t have A’ level maths (and even if I did it would have been taken 19 years ago) and I haven’t done any formal study in 15 years. The majority of my colleagues by contrast have numerate degrees (maths, physics, conservator, chemistry, economics, neurobiology), they have come either straight from a first degree or have only a short gap[2] and they don’t have children or pets. On the other hand a significant proportion of them are foreign students, many many miles away from the support offered by their families. I am also a bit in awe of their decisions.

I am highly conscious of my usual state of scruff, working remotely and mostly as a maker/developer I haven’t needed to be mindful of my presentation. There is however an adage about dressing for the job you want rather than the one you have. While in the current climate of relaxed dress codes this doesn’t generally mean suits I did notice that I look a lot more like a student than a researcher. So, does that matter? From a psychological stand point, probably. There are various studies on the impact of the beauty premium on prospects, many of which back up the belief that attractiveness correlates with success and improved perceptions of performance. However, correlation is not causation and there are relatively few studies that compare other metrics between groups that are perceived to be attractive and successful versus those that are not. The one I did manage to find reports empirical evidence that there are deeper things going on here than just beauty: Is There Really a Beauty Premium or an Ugliness Penalty on Earnings?. This is also backed up by studies cited in The Science of Wellbeing regarding the ongoing happiness of those who seek to change their physical appearance be that through weight loss or cosmetic surgery.

This appears so suggest that I’d be better off attempting to change my personality to be more outgoing than worrying about my looks, and if it weren’t for quite how scruffy I often look I might be inclined to agree. However it’s probably worth at least attempting to de-scruff a bit and look more like I’m serious about the course I’m doing. This will probably result in more hacking femininity posts.

Ice breakers

The first week was very full of ice breakers. A year isn’t very long and we’re being expected pretty much to hit the ground running. That means there will be a fair amount of group work from the start and, as at least 20% of each modules marks are awarded for group work we really need to get good at talking to each other pretty quickly.

Unfortunately I’m painfully shy (hence the comment about changing my personality based both on the study sited above and the content of The Science of Wellbeing Course) so this wasn’t a terribly pleasant experience. However I quickly got over myself as we’re all in the same boat and unlike networking events which always feel terribly false this had a clear purpose to it.

Lets talk about research

The week ended with an introduction to the Computer Science Labs, and a series of talks about research at the university. We will at the end of this year be expected to undertake a project so this was at least partially to focus us on that as well as to cement the message that all our lecturers are research active. The talks focussed on four areas:

Disclaimer: some (all?) of these topics cross research boundaries, I’ve tried to link the research group closest to the topic but there are many others: http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/research/


[1] Spoiler, I failed.

[2] One, who I’m slightly in awe of, spent the last year working two jobs and living with their parents so that they could save up enough money to support themselves this year without having to take a job on top of their studies.