Bridging the Gap Between Philomaths and Academics

Posted on Apr 12, 2010

This is a subject dear to me and something I’ve been thinking about for a long time… I really hope I have this right.

I am self-taught. Almost everything I know I learned because I was interested and wanted to know more. When I wanted to know about number theory I picked up general books on the history of prime numbers, read technical papers on computing them, and experimented with writing my own programs to find prime numbers. When I wanted to know how to play guitar I bought one, listened to a lot of music, bought a few books, watched a few videos on technique, and expiremented almost every day. Still do. I find that this style of learning is what works for me.

How do I know?

I flunked out of high school. All of my teachers were mystified as to why. Everyone I knew kept telling me that I was smart and just needed to apply myself. I eventually finished and graduated, but it was an arduous process. I failed a lot. I barely passed most of my courses.

These formative experiences coloured my perception of the education system. I was the kid who learned more outside of school; I actually asked for chemistry and electronics kits for christmas and birthdays and learned a lot from them. I learned things when I was still in elementary school that the education system wouldn’t teach me until I was in college. I knew how to program computers long before I took the excruciatingly basic “computer studies” course in secondary school. Yet I barely managed to get passing grades most of the time (except in that computer studies class.. the teacher was nice and let me do my own thing). It wasn’t because I couldn’t understand the material, I was just not motivated by that process of learning. I did as little as possible to get by and that worked. I felt that if all secondary school could offer were boring lectures and tests then post-secondary would be more or less the same. It was really off-putting for me at the time.

So perhaps I have no authority to be talking about this. I only spent a year in college studying audio engineering. I never went to university. I haven’t published any papers. Without an established academic record, how can I possibly have anything worth contributing? After all there is no formal institution to verify the authenticity of anything I say. And that’s what I think the post-secondary institution is for: giving us a central authority for verifying the academic “authenticity” of individuals.

Yet despite the social disparity between myself and a graduate with a degree in computer science, there is little difference in our knowledge or ability. I read the same material and worked on learning the solutions to the same problems. I just did it on my own out of my own self-interest.

So why then do I feel discouraged everytime I get the inkling to try and get into the sciences? I’ve worked in commercial software for the past five years and want something more. I want to write software that helps scientists find cures for diseases or helps study the chemistry of micro-organisms that thrive in hostile environments. Yet when I start doing research and pull up job postings the first thing I see on the requirements list is a masters or post-doc degree.

Just the other morning I was doing a little research and came across a post from a bioinformaticist. He wanted to share some code he’d written that he thought was particularly good. It was fine, but I felt the need to offer a few helpful suggestions where he could improve it. Immediately I was struck by this funny feeling that I was correcting a scientist: someone with a cool job and more importantly, a masters or post-doc degree. It was a lucid moment that helped me break through that wall of self-doubt.

The ensuing conversation was encouraging. I wanted to know if he thought it was possible for a programmer to break into bioinformatics without a prior degree in biology or some such. He seems to think so. However, he did say that the job might be difficult at first as I’d have to learn a lot of material I may not be familiar with. It would be no more difficult than breaking into any new field. This made me feel a little better.

Yet despite the little bit of encouragement, it seems to contradict what I see in the job postings for these sorts of positions. They’re titled, “Software Developer,” and yet require a degree in bioinformatics, statistics, computer science, or some such. Perhaps I should have made it clear that I meant a programmer with no degree in anything. Still, I cannot see how this requirement is relevant. After all, I’ve written rather sophisticated software for multi-million dollar companies. That has to count for something, doesn’t it?

So I’m left with the question I’ve been toiling with for years: how can someone with an unconventional background and years of experience contribute to projects in specialized fields in a meaningful way? Or put more simply, how can polymaths/philomaths contribute to fields that typically require formal academic study? I may not be a biologist and I’m cool with that — but I could help that biologist focus on doing what they do best by writing the software they need.

I could really use some advice if anyone reading this has any to offer.