There was no valedictorian and other observations on the way to my graduation

by Stephen Cobb on February 7, 2017

Last month I graduated from the Criminology Department of the University of Leicester with a Master of Science degree in Security and Risk Management (MSc SRM). I graduated in person, in England, with my own two-person cheering section (mum: Dorothy; partner: Chey). The trip to get there was a long one, and I don’t just mean the miles (6,000) or the years (two spent on the course, but many more getting ready for it). However, the journey was well worth making, and the graduation ceremony was well worth attending, even though it raised several questions that I feel obliged to answer here.

1. Why graduate in January?

The timing of my graduation ceremony was awkward to say the least, but it was due to the fact that the SRM program that I wanted to pursue has two cohorts per year, commencing in March and September, with two graduation ceremonies, July and January. I was in a September cohort for which the usual graduation is January.

That is not, in itself awkward, just unappealing, given how cold and grey January weather can be in England (for the photo of Chey and me on the right I had to crank up the Brightness). But the exact timing was awkward, given that my employer, ESET, whose generous employee education program had funded my studies, decided to hold its annual North American Partner Conference (NAPC) that same week as my graduation.

The NAPC is a great event, hosted at the San Diego Hard Rock Hotel, and as head of the US Research Team I was expected to address the partners on the 2017 cybersecurity threatscape, the world into which they would be selling ESET’s security solutions in the months ahead. Fortunately, it was possible for me to do that, and go to the graduation, by speaking before lunch on the first day of the conference and then taking the direct BA flight from SAN to LHR later that afternoon. Unfortunately, that meant getting to my UK home base of Coventry late in the afternoon of the next day,  checking into a hotel, having dinner with Mum, and then rising next morning to head for Leicester. Not a lot of time to get over jet lag, but it was do-able.

2. Second or third masters degree?

At the end of my remarks to the NAPC I apologized for not being able to hang around for the whole two day event, making a joke about having to go and get my degree because the university refused to change the graduation date to accommodate ESET, even though it’s one of the largest security software companies in the world. That got a few laughs, but it’s what I got over lunch that surprised me: questions about whether this was my second or third masters degree, or more generally: “How many degrees is that then Professor Cobb?”

I can honestly say my initial reaction was entirely factual: I said this was my first masters, two degrees total. Some people obviously assumed I had spent a lot more time in academia than in fact was the case. But I had to chuckle when I told my classmates about this at our department’s pre-graduation buffet, because they all said they would have played along with the assumption: “Second or third masters degree? Hmm, let’s see, hard to keep track.”

Of course, these were all security people, many of them in physical security, and accustomed to the odd piece of, shall we say, tactical social engineering. And for some of them this was their first degree, since it is possible to do a Masters degree in England without a Bachelors or, as in my case, without a relevant Bachelors. My first degree, back in the 1970s, was in English and Religious Studies (and the number computers involved was zero).

A big motivating factor in attending my second graduation is that I skipped my first one. Why? I was boycotting the royal family on principle. I have always objected to monarchy and my first degree would have been handed to me by a member of the royal family, which I did not think was appropriate. This presented my mum, seen here on the right, with something of a dilemma.

As far as we knew, I was the first person in our family to get a degree, so definitely something to celebrate, but on the other hand, my mum and dad had raised me to stick by my principles, on top of which, they weren’t fans of the royal family either. In the end we compromised and I borrowed the appropriate gown from an alumni for some suitably formal picture taking in my grandparents’ garden (my grandfather might not have had a degree, but by the time he was 50 he was able to sell his share of an engineering firm that he co-founded and retire to a life of leisure that included a garden large enough for them to have their own bowling green).

3. Isn’t that against the rules?

In America, the rules of academical hierarchy tend to be strict. For example, you will have a hard time getting a paid teaching gig at a US university if you don’t have a masters degree. But rules can be bent at times, for example when a new discipline emerges. There was a time, not much more than a decade ago, when you couldn’t hire someone with a computer security degree to teach computer security because such degrees did not exist. This led to an interesting exchange when I was being interviewed for my job at ESET in 2011. One interviewer said: “It says here on your resumé that you taught master of science in information assurance classes at Norwich University, but how was that possible when you only have a bachelors degree?” To which I replied, “Well spotted! It was only possible because the Dean made an exception, based on my knowledge and experience.”

In fact, the award-winning MSIA program at Norwich, created in 2002, was put together by someone with a PhD in applied statistics and invertebrate zoology, Dr. Mich Kabay. To create and deliver the program’s online curriculum, Mich tapped myself and Chey and a small army of security industry experts, none of whom – to the best of my knowledge – had a degree in security at the time. His approach paid off in short order as Norwich was quickly named a Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education (referred to as COE for short) by the NSA’s Deputy Director for Information Systems Security.

Last month, I was initially surprised that people assumed I had multiple degrees, and then I felt flattered. I decided it meant that they think I know what I’m talking about. And that is actually true most of the time: I try hard to only talk about what I know, or at the very least, to provide a clear disclaimer when I’m asked, or tempted, to talk about something that I’m not sure about. Over the years folks have occasionally referred to me as Doctor Cobb, and I have immediately pushed back. I do not have a doctorate, even now. But I am less concerned when folks call me Professor Cobb. I have taught at university, and may do so again at some point. However, and just to be clear, I currently only have two degrees.

4. What happened to the valedictorian?

Another funny thing that happened on my way to, and upon return from, my graduation, was the multiple requests from my manager for a copy of my valedictorian speech. According Wikipedia, Valedictorian is “an academic title of success used in the United States, Canada, Central America, and the Philippines for the student who delivers the closing or farewell statement at a graduation ceremony (called a valedictory).” Fair enough, but notice which country/region is not on that list? Graduation ceremonies in England, and certainly the one I attended at Leicester, do not have a valedictory or valedictorian.

The intent of the good-humored ribbing was to suggest that I had graduated at the top of my class. But that’s another thing my class did not have: ranking. When I got my Bachelors degree in 1974, the results for all the students were posted on the department notice board, a physical object in a specific geographic location. Going to the department and looking at the board was how I, and all my classmates, found out that I got a First (English universities used to rank degrees as First, Upper Second, Second, and something else). As it turned out I was the first person to get a Joint First in English and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds. But on my masters degree program, I got my grade via a website and that only showed one result: mine (which was Merit, one level below the top grade of Distinction).

So it is quite possible that I was not the top student in my class. There were 33 of us graduating and none of asked about each other’s grades – I think we were all just glad to have made it to the finish line, especially since most of us were holding down full time jobs, often in challenging places (like Kabul and Beirut to name two). Indeed, whenever I was feeling like giving up I reminded myself that studying in San Diego was a lot easier than in a lot of the places my colleagues were coping with, so I should quit complaining, and besides, I was studying in my native language, which quite a few of my classmates were not (I confess that I’m awed by people who get a degree in a second language).

So in closing, but still speaking of languages, I promise my next post will be about the meaning and significance of the University of Leicester motto: Ut Vitam Habeant (here’s a hint).

 

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