An Interview with Luke Duncan

“I knew that a masters degree would help me to form the kind of relationships I needed in order to start a successful career. I have pursued my masters degree with a professional rationale. My ambition has always been to find work in Silicon Valley. I have used the work I pursued during my masters degree as a means to an end.”

Luke Duncan is finishing his final semester as a Master of Science in Computer Science student at University of Michigan, Dearborn. He currently lives in California’s Bay Area, where he works full time for LinkedIn. Due to his career obligations, Luke is completing his masters degree through online distance-learning courses.

Luke has been interested in computers and the technology industry since he was young. He considers himself to be a software engineering generalist, since his work spans many areas of computer science, from developing mobile web applications to exploring data science.

In your own words, what is computer science?

Computer science is an academic term for the study of what makes computers work. A student of computer science will learn the intricate science of how machines pass information to each other. They will also learn how the different parts of a computer work together to allow people to perform tasks like browsing the Internet or playing games.

Do you have a specialty within the field of computer science?

I would not say that I have a specific specialty within computer science, although much of my professional work has been focused on web technology. For instance, I used to work in the area of mobile integration for Ford, where I would develop ways to integrate smartphones like Android, iPhone and Blackberry with vehicles. I currently do back-end web development for LinkedIn, where I make web applications.

Why did you choose to get a masters degree in computer science online?

I chose to obtain a masters degree in computer science online because I wanted to be able to continue working while I studied. From the start, I knew that a masters degree would help me to form the kind of relationships I needed in order to start a successful career. I have pursued my masters degree with a professional rationale. My ambition has always been to find work in Silicon Valley. I have used the work I pursued during my masters degree as a means to an end.

What do you find most and least enjoyable about studying computer science?

What I find most enjoyable about studying computer science is that I get to solve problems. There’s nothing I enjoy more than that moment when I finally discover the answer to a difficult puzzle after spending a week banging my head against a wall.

But something that I don’t like very much about computer science is that it doesn’t involve much personal interaction. It is a little contentious to say that, because people who work in computer science do have many digital interactions like e-mail and instant messaging. While there is much collaboration, most of my day is spent alone with my head down and my headphones on.

When you first considered pursuing an online masters degree in computer science what were your major concerns?

I wasn’t very concerned about earning my masters degree in computer science online because I had completed much of my bachelors degree online from the same school, University of Michigan, Dearborn. My experience as an undergraduate taught me how to navigate the online learning format as well as how to manage my time so that I could go to school while working multiple jobs.

How did you choose your graduate school?

I chose to stay with University of Michigan, Dearborn based on convenience. It offered a 100% online masters program, which I wanted since I knew that I would be working full time while going to school. This program allowed me to keep my job. In addition, I went to the same school for my undergraduate degree, so I already knew some of the instructors and I didn’t have to rebuild all of those important academic relationships.

What is your program’s curriculum like?

The first part of the program is based on coursework and the remainder is devoted to researching and writing a thesis. I have taken classes about advanced operating systems, compiler design, software architecture, design patterns and web applications. I am not sure how long it would take you to complete this program if you were a full-time student. Since I work, I have attempted to finish my program in 2 years as a part-time student, which is a very aggressive pace.

As far as the program itself, I have found myself quite underwhelmed with the quality of my courses and the work that they demand. It seemed as though many of my classes lacked substance. In fact, I feel like I had to bring value to the courses on my own by going above and beyond their requirements.

How do you interact with your professors?

As a distance learner, I interact with my instructors mainly through e-mail. However, there are times when I need to get in touch with the administration for whatever reason, and I appreciate that University of Michigan, Dearborn employs a very responsive graduate program secretary. It is comforting to know that I have a personal advocate to help me through the program. She is a life-saver.

Are you able to interact with your peers while studying online?

I am able to interact with my peers because I knew many of them during my undergraduate degree program. When I do take courses where I don’t know anyone, I make sure to send out an e-mail to the class to see if anyone wants to exchange numbers and be a “study buddy.” That way, if either of us does run into a problem, we have someone to discuss ideas with.

What is your thesis topic?

My thesis topic will relate to data-mining social networks, but I haven’t narrowed that area down to a specific topic or title yet. I am relying on my professional connections at LinkedIn to assist me in my research and mentor me throughout the thesis process.

Do you have an advisor, and if so, how does your advisor support your academic progress?

I do have an advisor at the University of Michigan, Dearborn campus. He serves as my advocate when I need to jump through hoops at the university. Whenever I encounter red tape of any sort, he will find a way to cut through it for me so that I can carry on with my research and my program.

What is your weekly schedule?

I operate on a very early schedule so that I can avoid Bay Area traffic, which is extreme. Each day, I leave home by 6:00 a.m. and work until about 4:00 p.m. I usually go to the gym after work. When I get home in the evenings, I do 1 to 2 hours of homework. I also spend a lot of time doing homework and working on my thesis over the weekend.

How do you balance your studies and your personal life?

I haven’t found a good balance yet because I don’t have much of a social life at this point. My fiancée is also in graduate school, so we’ve had to accept that at this stage we don’t get to do much more than work and study. We try to get out of the house and do something social on Fridays, but the routine does get tiresome.

One thing I do to manage my stress is work out regularly. I have found that if I don’t exercise I tend to be affected by anxiety. But if I do some of my reading while I am on the treadmill, I can go to bed feeling much more relaxed.

What are your plans for after graduation?

After graduation, I plan to stay around the Bay Area for a couple of years. But I have recently begun to recognize that my long-term goals are entrepreneurial. I want to use the time that I am with this company to learn all that I can, so that when I leave to form my own company or join a startup I will know how to approach problems.

What advice do you have for students who are considering an online masters degree in computer science?

I would advise online masters degree students to attend a graduate school that is different from the one where you did your undergraduate program. I stayed at the same school and I don’t think it served me well. At another school, I would have been exposed to different ways of teaching and learning, and I think it would have broadened the scope of my knowledge.