After graduating with my bachelor’s degree, I had little understanding for those of my fellow students who decided to pursue a master’s degree.
The last semester of my bachelor studies was an internship semester at a digital agency. After working on real-world problems full-time I couldn’t imagine going back into an academic environment. I felt I was learning more and quicker on my own – a thought shared by many indie makers these days.
Starting to work after my bachelor studies was the right decision. If you asked me back then whether I ever wanted to return to university, I would have laughed at you. Why should I?
Yet, last year I decided to go back to university pursue a master’s degree after all. Why would I?
Why did I decide to go back to university?
I’m not studying to attach a title to my name. I do not need a degree to advance my career, as I’m striving to go indie full-time anyway.
While studying to get a better job is a valid reason for many, I’m just interested in the topic of my studies: I want to get a deeper understanding of content strategy and find out how I can apply it to our indie business. I already researched this before thinking about going back to university.
I stumbled upon my study program when an industry professional, Rahel Bailie, mentioned teaching there. I was intrigued by the variety and quality of lecturers as well as the way the program is organized. And after some years of work experience, I am now looking back on my time as a student more fondly.
While I wasn’t completely sure if going back to university was the right path for me when applying last year, I decided to just give it a try. Let’s recap the good and the bad so far:
The good: Things I love about studying
Diverse & holistic insights
What I enjoy most about my studies is getting diverse insights from the various points of view of my lecturers and fellow students.
Hearing stories about the experiences (and mistakes) from the industry professionals that teach my courses is really valuable. It helps me understand the bigger picture, rather than just learning how to do X and Y.
Danielle Johnson, Co-Founder of Leave Me Alone, also feels that studying Computer Science studies was worth it for this reason: “Studying has helped me understand the core concepts of development. While it’s not impossible to learn these things on your own, it is easier if you get a thorough theoretical overview first.”
Besides that, my fellow students are as much inspiration for me as my lecturers. They all have various skills, backgrounds and opinions. As much as I enjoy discussions in maker communities, these groups can be an echo chamber of opinions at times. Discussing a topic with someone that has a completely different point of view can be eye-opening.
Pausing & reflecting
As a student, I’m often forced to pause and reflect on what I know. You can’t write a paper or report without having an idea why you’re solving a problem this or that way. Taking that time to think things over teaches me to be more mindful about my work again.
In The Reflective Practitioner, Donald Schön calls the reflective practice “a dialogue of thinking and doing through which I become more skilful.”
Driven by to-dos and deadlines, we often only start reflecting on things when they go wrong, or unexpectedly right. We wonder why the result of an action was different than we thought it would be.
If you make it a habit to reflect on your actions, you will develop a deeper understanding of all possible solutions for a problem. This helps you do things smarter and more future-proof. Considering all possibilities, and deciding for the most suitable one is basically what it means to develop a strategy.
“Learning how to turn my opinions into a proper approach and argue about its advantages and disadvantages was an important part of my studies”, Danielle agrees.
What happens if you don’t know about your possibilities and their consequences? You tend to go the path of least resistance, which is usually not the wisest choice for your business, your users or customers.
Anne-Laure Le Cunff, Founder of Ness Labs, also profits from reflection. She feels that her studies and indie maker ventures influence each other positively: “The best thing I found in studying as a maker is this virtuous circle of learning new things via reading and writing, then applying them through building real-world products, and bringing back this experience to my studies. The subject I’m studying – neuroscience – is applicable to many situations I find myself in as a maker, from understanding the psychology of my users to being mindful of the way I design my products.”
It is fun to learn things in an environment that is not competitive and encourages me to make mistakes. Sharing misunderstandings and mistakes with my fellow students helps me learn and also makes the whole learning environment feel safe. Studying together with a great group of people has been a positive experience for me so far. It also helps my self-confidence.
Soyo Awasika-Olumo, COO and Co-Founder of MacScientists, had a similar experience while studying Computer Science: “Aside from the technical and academic aspects of school, it taught me very quickly that I’m not always going to be great at things. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try it still won’t be that good. This has allowed me to try different things now without fear of it not working out or not being good at them – because I know at the end of the day I will be okay.”
Many maker communities also promote a fail culture. The difference? We as students often fail at or solve the same task, which shows us that other people struggled with the same things. It also makes it easier to understand all the learnings of the group as our own.
The bad: What makes me doubt my choice?
(Lost Opportunity) Cost
I am very lucky to receive my education for free, so studying only brings about lost opportunity cost for me. Still, this is something to think about from a business perspective. (I am fully aware that this point of view is a very privileged one. I am thankful for receiving my education for free, while others have to take up a loan or don’t have access to university at all.)
Studying takes up a lot of time that I could else use to work on indie projects. While I know that many courses are worth the time, there are some topics that are repetitive or just not interesting for me. The fixed curriculum is an all-or-nothing choice. There is also a lot of organizational overhead.
Sometimes this makes me doubt whether the time investment of studying will pay off for me and our business. Would it be more efficient to figure out the things relevant to us on my own?
The lack of efficiency has also been the reason why Mo Rajabifard, Co-Founder of There, quit school altogether: “I was lucky enough to start earning money early on with things I learned on my own. It helped me realize I can learn anything I want myself. After a while, I just couldn’t think of a reason to stay in school any more. Dropping out has been the best choice for me and the most efficient way to work towards my goals.”
Disconnect from real-world problems
My study program aims at applying knowledge to real-world tasks. It is organized extra-occupational and is meant to be intertwined with our projects at work. It has been a romantic idea of mine that I would be able to work on our indie products during most of my studies. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work out that well so far.
It is easy to choose one of my own products as a topic of my semester’s project work (which is great). But it’s not feasible to tailor all the small tasks during my courses to our own projects.
This semester, I have written blog posts for a fictitious company that sells hiking tours. I developed a landing page for a fictitious startup, and I wrote a shop content concept for a fictitious online shop selling pans.
I made sure I learned something by doing all of these tasks. But I didn’t apply this knowledge to anything useful while doing it. Trying out something new and seeing if it helps our business at the same time is an aspect I love about being an indie maker. I also didn’t have constraints like those of a real company selling hiking tours, or opening an online shop for pans.
Study tasks often being a waste of time is what Armin Ulrich, Co-Founder of madewithvuejs.com (and my number one sparring partner for discussions about studying), criticizes the most: “School puts you through a series of constructed tasks. You hardly learn how to apply your knowledge to real-world situations. I have seen many developers from a technical university struggle because they can’t fathom how to use their learned principles in an existing codebase.”
Armin dropped out of business school himself to pursue his career as a software developer. He has a point: “Why waste all that time when you could learn how to do things while actually doing them?”
10/10, would recommend?
The indie maker community is full of self-starters: those who feel the desire to build something and learn everything they need along the way.
Being able to self-educate and figure things out yourself are important skills in the digital industry, where problems are unique and there are more than a thousand ways of solving them.
Does university teach you that? That depends on you. Every study program provides you with a structure to hold on to and a framework to succeed. You can either use it to wriggle your way through or to get confident enough to start exploring independently.
This is what makes the university more than a place to gain knowledge for me.
University does teach you to stop and reflect on what you really know. You get confronted with opposing opinions, different mindsets and points of view. It helps you figure out patterns and principles in a safe environment. Although you will often have to find out yourself when it’s wiser to break them, it’s an invaluable baseline.
As always in life, there’s no easy answer to the question „Is it worth it?“. I’m not 100% sure for myself, but my answer is definitely not „no“. After getting myself into this adventure (again), I think that studying often gets dismissed as unnecessary too quickly in this community.
Soyo feels that studying was worth it for her: “While it was really difficult, and there are parts of it that I will never use again, I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.”
So while studying might not be right for everyone’s journey, I think we should remind ourselves that it is just another way for people to learn and build their self-confidence to start creating. This is definitely something we should support, don’t you think?