Thursday, December 31, 2015

A very masters Christmas

Your thesis has been accepted.

Those words in my inbox were magic.  Finally, my thesis, after the hundreds of revisions, had been accepted by the thesis processing office at Naval  Postgraduate School.  It'll be a few months until my degree arrives at my permanent address and gets on my record.  But I won't actually have to do  anything during that time...which is good, considering I'm due to PCS in less than a month!

It's even more satisfying because I'm not at Naval Postgraduate School in sunny Monterey.  I'm sitting in a sunnier Honolulu, Hawaii location.  I've only set foot on the campus twice, both times on TDY travel.  I'm a distance student at NPS, and about as pure a distance student as you can get.  My masters degree saga is a cautionary tale about the  benefits, challenges and drawbacks of distance education.

In the beginning, we bombed Libya

I started my distance learning adventure shortly after reporting to Navy  Information Operations Command Georgia.  As a second tour LT lateral transfer into Information Warfare, I felt a bit behind my peers in terms of IW experience, and I worried that taking a tour to get a masters degree might  hurt my promotion chances.  The gouge I had was that NPS is viewed as an "easy" tour, and being one tour behind, I couldn't afford any easy tours.

Apparently, doing this day in and day out is "easy"
NPS has a fairly easy to use website, so I looked up the distance program and emailed Dr. Monique Fargues, the distance student coordinator for the  Electrical and Computer Engineering Department.  Dr. Fargues called me on my cell phone while I was shopping for gifts at Bed, Bath and Beyond.  She and I then spent almost an hour talking on the phone while I circled around in the store.  Most of that time was Dr. Fargues telling me that the program was extremely challenging, and that most distance students don't make it, and that I better be darn well certain I wanted to do this.  The people in the triple B probably thought I was crazy.

Having just come from SERE school and getting beat up as the senior Navy guy in my class, on top of a lateral transfer out of a submarine community that  tends to not let anyone go, I was feeling fairly bulletproof.  So I gleefully took on the challenge and said I was ready for anything.  Boy was I in for a surprise.

Flying equations

My XO had to sign a form saying that the command understood I was working on a degree.  The form probably ranked in the least-important-task category for him, considering he had a 1,400 Sailor (and growing!) command to deal with.  After that signature it wasn't long before I started my first class, EC 3500, Analysis of Random Signals, taught by none other than Dr. Fargues.  NIOC Georiga then deployed me to Souda Bay, Greece to begin flying missions in support of operations in Libya.

And so began the fun dance of balancing work, degree and life.  First I had to find a way to scan my homework in to send to Dr. Fargues.  Luckily the MWR on base had a scanner, plus one of my deployed Chiefs had purchased a printer that happened to have a scanner, which he kindly let me borrow when I needed it.  The time difference made attending class via VTC impossible, so I ended up downloading the lectures and watching them in my room.  Thankfully we had decent internet, but on occasion an internet outage would compress my homework and exam schedule.

I love these guys...without their computer labs, I'd be toast!
The worst part was the drag on social life.  I would walk off the plane after a 10 hour mission and my crew would be ready to hit up the local establishments for food and beverages, while I went back to my room to work on homework.  And conversation?  Forget it.  Nobody wants to talk to you about probability distribution functions.  One of my Sailors saw my 10 pages of scrawling equations as a homework and gasped openly.
Yeah, I got that expression a lot
I survived, though.  I only took one class a semester, a wise move on my part that ensured I didn't go too crazy.  After a year the command had placed me in charge of the air division, so I didn't deploy, although I traveled to conduct check rides in the United States on occasion.  The classes got harder, but with ready access to good internet and a bit less time difference, I got by OK.

MEng or MSEE?

After about a year I had to make a choice.  Either I would commit to writing a thesis and pursue a MSEE degree, or choose the no-thesis option and get a MEng degree.  The MEng was tempting.  Less work always seems like a good  route when you're balancing a job, a family with a new child and attempting  to do something non-Navy on the side (plus maintain this blog!). 

But MEng wasn't a real degree.  At least, not in my mind.  It sounded like something you'd find on Aisle 9 of the Hawaii Commissary in the "Wall of Value."  Plus MEng didn't give you a P-code, which let you take some of the more technical jobs in the IW community.
MEng degrees to the right, alongside the Strategic Studies degrees
So I bit the bullet and said I'd write a thesis.  It couldn't be that hard.   I am a writer after all.

And then he said "How hard can writing a thesis be?"
Then I tried to find something interesting to do a thesis on.  Link equations between deployable sensors and communication satellites?  Boring.  Re-programmable mesh networks?  Snooze.  Everything was so ACADEMIC (who knew NPS was academic!) and just didn't seem all that relevant to me.

Then Dr. Herschel Loomis had a proposal for geolocation work.  Now I was interested.  So I submitted a writeup for "Enhanced Geolocation of High  Frequency Threat Emitters."  It was accepted, and then suddenly I had two problems:

1. I had no money to do any research.
2. To be interesting and useful, the thesis would have to be classified.

Gas, Grass, JWICS and funding...nobody writes for free

Luckily SPAWAR Pacific solved problem one for me.  They have an annual contest for ideas, and the top ten get up to 10,000 dollars of money to travel and arrange research.  I heard through the grapevine that every year they ended up not getting enough submissions, so I put together an  unclassified submission and sent it in from my hotel room in Whidbey Island, as I was traveling at the time.

Then I heard that there were lots of submissions this year.  I cursed myself for not spending more time on the writeup.  I crossed my fingers, and luckily for me, I was selected for 10,000 dollars and the assistance of two doctors that worked at SPAWAR.  Out of 17 submissions, 10 were selected, so I could confidently say my project was viewed as worthwhile.  After traveling out to San Diego, we worked out experiment details and started working.

But while SPAWAR can do magical things with money, ultimately it comes from Congress, and I soon learned to hate the words "continuing resolution."   Normal experiment money from three lettered agencies came to a screeching  halt.  People got laid off.  I had one person I was talking to for six months that suddenly didn't return my calls because he left the company.  
Yeah, I hate CRs now with a passion
The experiment parameters I had worked to painstakingly setup sat on the shelf for a while.  Once a budget passed, the experiment ran and data came in.  Then disaster struck again come October with another continuing resolution, because now I didn't have the money to analyze the data.  So it sat there for almost a year.  Lots of people were "interested," but nobody  would release money to pay for the people and processing time to look at it.

Desperate, I got a lucky break.  I let one of my mentors know about my predicament.  He did something (he won't tell me what), and suddenly help came.  Since my project was cheap (like, less-than-1%-of-what-is-normally-spent-on-experiments cheap), he at least had an easier time justifying the funding expenditure.  And thus, data processing happened.

Templates? We don't need no stinkin' templates!

At this point I began writing my paper.  Since it was on JWICS, the thesis templates on NPS' website wouldn't be useful, so my advisor sent me an approved template on JWICS.  I got cracking and made good progress, and had 4 chapters and about 10 references by October 2015.

References, by the way, are fun.  The thesis class you are required to take does a good job of showing you how to do research.  But it assumes you are on NPS' network.  When you VPN in as a distance student and have issues, guess what?  There isn't a 24/7 assistance line, and you're probably outside of the help desk hours.  On more than a few occasions, this hellish reality hit me square between the eyes when I was very pressed for time.

When you're 6 time zones off, this is what it feels like
In October 2015 I got back data analysis results.  Yay!  Even better, we had found significant enhancements, despite what more than a few critics had claimed.  I began incorporating  those into the paper and scheduled my final travel to NPS and other places to present the results.  A wise man once told me that in the last 10% of the time, 90% of the work happens, and November to December 2015 proved that to be true.  Despite putting in a lot of effort already, I couldn't finish a paper for first reader review until 18 November...and Thanksgiving was going to make it impossible to turn in my paper to the ECE chair on his 30 November due date.

So I asked for mercy.  I was granted some extra time.  I vowed to make damn sure my paper rocked, and with early December travel scheduled to NPS, I  would be able to make my thesis presentation in person.
This guy must have been looking out for me
"World class" isn't just a vacuous label

I flew into NPS hoping to work a full day to finish my thesis and have a half day to present results to the ECE chair.  In reality I spent 15 hours the first day finishing the paper, and 15 hours the next day presenting and fixing changes.

My presentation to the ECE chair was awesome.  He was excited about the results!  He asked my advisor when he would see the paper, which I took as a  positive sign.  I was feeling pretty good.

Then disaster struck!  My advisor saw some problems with how one of the technical papers I cited had derived its equations.  That was a massive problem that the chair would not let pass, and we had to fix it.

My advisor then proceeded to derive these equations from scratch.  As an outsider, I had always wondered why universities bragged about "world class faculty."  I mean, teachers are teachers, right? 

Can your advisor do this?
As my advisor walked me through deriving multiple equations, it dawned on me that only a handful of people in the world could probably do this.  Any doubts I had about his capabilities melted away at that moment.  We finished the paper and submitted it to the ECE chair, who accepted it without too many corrections.

But wait, there's more!
Just when you thought the happy ending was coming...
Once the ECE chair accepted the paper, I thought I was done.  But being "done" is a foolish notion in academia.  Because at that moment, I discovered an entirely new entity, the thesis processing office.

Done you are not. Thesis processing test, you must pass
OK, not exactly discovered.  Perhaps rediscovered is a better term.  I had been exposed to the TPO before.  I had even sent my draft paper in for their review.  But now that it had cleared the chair, the TPO had to say yes, and they operated on seemingly different rules. 

First I discovered that the font of my thesis wasn't an approved type.  I shot back that I had been provided the template, and the TPO eventually said that was OK.  Then I had to find a way to insert equations using MathType, since we weren't supposed to use Microsoft Word's Equation Editor.  After discovering that to install non-approved software on JWICS is damn near impossible even when you work at PACFLT and have your own JWICS network, I got approval to use the default Word Equation Editor.

Then there were spacing issues, and the template jacked up my figures, and all sorts of other stupid nuances that took another week to iron out.  At this point I had received PCS orders and was trying the thesis with job turnover and PCS moving.  Luckily Sue Hawthorne, the classified TPO processor, is an extremely patient person and helped walk me through everything, despite me at one point uttering the phrase "I completely hate this part of writing a thesis" to her over the phone.

And then, suddenly, it was done.  I got my final acceptance email on 23 December.  It was the best early Christmas present I could ask for.

I'll write more about lessons learned and advice for those interested in a distance degree.  But I want to make one point: none of this would have worked without the help of a lot of people.  At NPS, Dr. Fargues, Dr. Loomis and Dr. Kragh really kept me afloat academically and helped me cut through the bureaucratic paperwork at NPS.  Rita Painter ensured I didn't go to jail on funding issues.  Sue Hawthorne guided me through the maze of TPO requirements.  Dr. Meloling and Dr. Taylor at SPAWAR helped connect me with the right people to get the exercise going.  My bosses at two different commands, CAPT Brokaw and CDR Gagnon (NIOC-G) and CAPT Rileage, CDR Means and CDR McHale (PACFLT) let me travel without hassle, even when it occasionally impacted my job.  There are many others I would name if this post was on a classified network.  Despite more than a few naysayers while I pursued this degree, these people and others gave me the chance to try, something for which I am forever indebted.