Life after the University of Leicester, pronounced Lester, plus academic bang for bucks

by Stephen Cobb on January 7, 2017

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(In which the author gets back to his blog after a virtual expedition to a place called Leicester…)

I was going to start this blog post with something like: “As regular readers may have noticed…” But frankly, I doubt there are many regular readers left out there, mainly because I’ve not been blogging on this site on a regular basis for several years. Why? Because of my preoccupation with two things: cybersecurity and going to school.

I didn’t stop writing blog posts, but they’ve mostly been about cybersecurity, and most have appeared on WeLiveSecurity.com or on S. Cobb on Security and ESET.com.

As for going to school, most of the going has been virtual, that is: distance learning over the Internet. Most of my “spare” time for the past 24 months has been dedicated to working on a postgraduate degree at a university in England, specifically an MSc in Security and Risk Management, namely at the University of Leicester. And while the name Leicester looks like it might be pronounced “lie – cess – ter” the correct way to say it is “lester“.

Copyright Leicester City F.C. Knowing this pronunciation is more useful today than it was when I started my studies there in September of 2014. Why? Because millions more people around the world have of heard of Leicester today than even six months ago, thanks in part to the amazing story of the Foxes, a.k.a. Leicester City Football Club (I will go into other reasons in another post).

To be clear, I’m not an expert on sport; indeed, I’m not even a huge fan of sport in general. The “sport” I follow most closely involves driving cars (Formula One car racing). So I will leave it to this BBC article to do the telling of this one: Explaining the Leicester City Story to Americans. The bottom line is that the team that owns the totally cool logo on the right, the Foxes, achieved what some sports fans say is the greatest underdog comeback in any sport, ever.

But let’s return to a far more modest come back, my return to blogging after spending two years studying for a Master’s degree while holding down a full-time job (not only is the job full time, it requires a fair bit of travel – for example, in 2015 I took more than 50 commercial airline flights).

Was the studying worth it?

Yes! Let me make that clear. I plan to write a separate article about the details of my degree programme (it was in England, hence the English spelling of program); but even without going into detail I can say for sure that it was worth the time, effort, and money.

ul-criminology

No, it’s not Hogwarts on a sunny day, it’s the Department of Criminology at the University of Leicester (but like Hogwarts, it has hidden depths, in this case extensive cohorts of distance learning students).

On the topic of money, I should be clear that my employer, ESET, one of the world’s largest security software companies, has a very enlightened and generous tuition reimbursement program (I’m in their San Diego office, so it’s a program).

By using the annual reimbursement from ESET and the interest-free installment plan offered by the university I was able to stagger my payments across 2014, 2015, and 2016. I was fortunate enough to be able to front the payments without economic hardship. And, as luck would have it, the British pound declined in value relative to the US dollar during my studies (more on that later).

This fortuitous set of circumstances, plus some planning on my part, meant that I was able to recover most of my tuition through ESET reimbursements. However, even without such a wonderful company incentive, I think many US professionals could find that a UK postgraduate degree is an attractive option for knowledge and career enhancement. I base this on three factors that I will address in more detail: hoops, bucks, and bang.

Hoops: Most British universities eschew the “hoops” you have to jump through to get into many US schools. UK universities are more inclined to consider mature applicants for Masters degree programmes based on their potential for academic study, as demonstrated through career and life journey.

Consider my MSc in Security and Risk Management (the SRM programme). My fellow students included police and military personnel, both serving and retired, who had entered those services direct from high school. In other words, not all of them had a bachelors degree. This seems eminently fair to me. Sure, I have a double bachelors degree, but it dates from the 1970s and the subjects were English and Religious Studies (Comparative Religion in US terminology). Is that a better foundation for a masters degree in security and risk management than 20 years as a police officer, or peacekeeper in a post-conflict zone, or a CISSP? I don’t think so.

What everyone on the course had in common was an understanding that we would be held to a high academic standard in our course work, and would not be able to proceed to a full degree if we fell short. Again, this seems fair to me. The university has enough confidence it its ability to identify good candidates that it is not reliant on an applicants checking boxes (called ticking boxes in England) and taking a bunch of tests. I should point that there are certain standards, and these can vary between institutions, but you may find that the general approach is refreshingly different from what you have encountered in the US.

pound-dollar-chartBucks: The tuition fee for the next intake of the SRM MSc in Leicester’s highly regarded Criminology Department is £13,015 which is about $17,000 at the current retail exchange rate of around $1.30. The chart on the right shows that I paid my first installment when the pound was over $1.70, and I was sure it was worth it at that price. When I paid my last installment it was about $1.40 and boy was I chuffed (English expression for “pleased with oneself”). Then came Brexit and an even bigger drop. Of course, I have no crystal ball, so I can’t guarantee the pound will stay this low, but it has a lot of climbing to do to get back to 2014 levels.

BTW, that $17,000 tuition fee is not per year, that is the fee for the entire course. It even includes several books per course, sent to you by DHL, wherever you happen to be studying (for my cohort that meant anywhere from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe).

Also included is excellent room and board if you attend Study School in Leicester. These are three day events and there are one or two per year. Attendance is not required but I found them very helpful, and enjoyable (I flew over for three of them between 2014 and 2016). Of course, I had to buy the airline tickets, and I spent some of my own money on additional books, not to mention the care and feeding of a big color laser printer (I’m sorry, but I just can’t read and annotate academic articles on a screen). All told, the degree was, in my opinion, something of a bargain. But that doesn’t mean it lacks punch as a professional qualification.

uk-uleicester

Leicester is a couple hours’ drive north of London, close to the center of England. I grew up 25 miles away, in Coventry, which is between the L and A in England on this map.

Bang: In my experience, degrees from British universities in general tend to have a certain cache in America. I’m not going to argue whether or not this is justified, but I can put some stats around the place from which I obtained my “bargain” degree (borrowing heavily here from the university’s own materials).

On the world stage, the University of Leicester has been ranked among the top 200 universities in the world for many years. It was 167th in 2016, ahead of Brandeis, George Washington University, Texas A&M, and the University of Miami.

In UK terms, Leicester won Times Higher Awards every year from 2007 to 2013, the only university to win awards in seven consecutive years. Leicester was awarded the prestigious title of University of the Year 2008/09 by the Times Higher Education magazine. The judges cited Leicester’s ability to “evidence commitment to high quality, a belief in the synergy of teaching and research and a conviction that higher education is a power for good”. In short, they said Leicester was “elite without being elitist”. The UK has a number of national ranking tables for universities and Leicester is consistently in the top 20.

Of course, some universities are better for some subjects than others. The primary driver of my decision to go back to school was to gain a better understanding of crime and so I looked for schools that had a good reputation in Criminology. In 2013 the Guardian ranked the University of Leicester third in the UK for Criminology. This ranking is perhaps not surprising given that Leicester’s Department of Criminology has a large number of widely published faculty, but it also reflects an exceptional score for student satisfaction with teaching.

Summing up

It’s good to be done with my degree, which I will actually collect in person later this month (expect graduation photos on Twitter @The StephenCobb). And of course, it’s good to be free of that constant feeling of “you really should be studying” instead of whatever else you happen to be doing. That said, I never felt that my studying conflicted with my work, largely because the subject of my studies was my work – after all, I am a security researcher by title and trade.

It helped that the work output for the course was essentially six essays and a 15,000 word dissertation. Six essays may not sound like a lot, until you factor in the scale of the essays, which range from 3,000 to 5,000 words, plus references. In other words, you are not attending classes, you are doing the reading and research for the module topic, then writing up your results in the form of an extended academic argument around the question you have chosen to answer. (One essay is actually a research proposal with literature review, and there are some tests on referencing and statistics.)

You have three questions to chose from in each of the six modules, but considerable scope to frame your essay on your own terms; for example, I managed to make all of my essays about, or relevant to, cybercrime and cybersecurity. That enabled me to use a lot of my essay research and writing for work, a good example being the data privacy white paper that I published last year on WeLiveSecurity.com. The paper is an essay re-worked as a guide to US data privacy law.

You will remember that I mentioned high academic standards. That privacy paper has garnered a fair amount of praise and is looked at by several hundred people a month; however, the grade that the essay earned me was barely above a pass (largely because there was too much descriptive accounting of privacy protections and not enough argument around the actual essay question). In other words, a lot of us were sweating our grades after each module.

Fortunately, I got better grades on the other five essays and the dissertation, all 80 pages and 15,000 words of it. I produced two papers on my way to the dissertation, available from my security site, and the dissertation itself should be published later this year. I am also using material from that research in my session at HIMSS next month (as in Health Information and Management Systems Society Annual Conference, a conference likely to be attended by more than 40,000 people).

With that, I will wrap up this “back from school” blog post and make a promise to provide more about the programme at Leicester and the pleasures and perils of adult education and distance learning in a future post. Thanks for reading!

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