Zig-Zagging Towards a PhD — Part 1: Northwestern

In 1972, the University of Michigan Rackham School of Graduate Studies conferred upon me a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Psychology. While this was a notable achievement, it was not a unique one: quite a few people got PhD degrees in Psychology in 1972. What made this event truly unusual was that the only piece of paper documenting my academic accomplishments I possessed was a high school diploma. I did not have a masters degree, nor, for that matter, a bachelors degree. Now I have a high school diploma and a Ph.D. – I still don’t have a bachelors or masters degree.

I entered Northwestern University in 1957 to study electrical engineering. I didn’t know much about college or majors, but my high school math teacher thought I’d be good at engineering. I liked solving problems and electronics was more than a hobby, so that’s what I chose.

One of the several non-engineering courses we were required to take was introductory psychology. The professor selected to teach that course was so junior to the faculty that he trudged the ¾ mile up to the Tech building through a Lake Michigan winter to teach the course, rather than have 60 or so engineering students make the trip South to the Psych building. His name was Steve Glickman, and he had just finished his Ph.D. at McGill University, where he studied neural organization and behavior with Donald Hebb.

(For brain-science nerds, Hebb had studied with Karl Lashley, one of the first American psychologists to study how different parts of the brain are involved in memory. Lashley, in turn, had studied with John B. Watson, the founder of Behaviorism.)

Glickman’s youthful enthusiasm for his topic was contagious. (Truth be told, he never lost that enthusiasm. He later spent many years in the Psych department at UC Berkeley. Here is a link to a talk he gave in 2012.)

Thanks to him, I got interested in circuits in the brain, and started thinking about ways to refocus my academic program to include more physiological and psychological courses. In my Junior year I created a sequence of courses out of the mainstream for electrical engineers and submitted a petition to the department to permit substituting bio-science courses for some of the required “electives” and still meet the requirements for a BSEE degree. They approved it. Then my scholarship ended.

I dropped out of school in 1960, got married, had two kids, got divorced, worked at WXFM, WFMT, Teletype Corporation, and Wheaton Engineering, and, four years after dropping out, decided to go back to NU. I got a small scholarship and took out a student loan, but the department had lost any record of having approved my curriculum changes. In the meantime, they had set up a program in “biomedical engineering” that looked a lot like what I had originally proposed, but would have required me to take many more courses to graduate than sticking with the regular BSEE program.

During my last year and a half I took some courses in night school and some in day school. Night school was in downtown Chicago, and was on the semester system. Day school was in Evanston, and on the quarter system. And I worked part time as a technician for a psychiatrist doing research at the University of Illinois Medical Center. I didn’t get much sleep. I focused on fulfilling graduation requirements, with more philosophy, literature, and psych classes (Glickman again: his course in History and Systems stands as a hallmark in relating psychology to developments in science, philosophy, politics, music, and art) in addition to fluid mechanics, servomechanisms, and other engineering courses. I even did some independent study in Glickman’s lab, refining techniques for electrical stimulation of rat brains.

Anticipating that I would finish my undergraduate requirements in the spring of 1965, I had applied for doctoral study in physiological psychology at the University of Chicago. I was ready to graduate but discovered that I lacked three courses. The EE department approved my petition to take the courses as independent study over the summer, but the individual faculty members declined to supervise my efforts.

So I didn’t get a bachelors degree, after all.

But, surprisingly, I did get into graduate school at the University of Chicago.


About Jesse

My name is Jesse Blatt. My first name is actually “Ramon,” but I haven’t used that name, except for official purposes, since 1970. I have a high school diploma and a PhD…nothing in between. I’ll get around to explaining that in a post sometime. From time to time I will be posting true stories from my past, though not in any special order. I’ve been fortunate to have had a dozen or so different careers, most of them very satisfying, some fairly frustrating, and none that I wish had never happened. In my many former lives, I have been a mail clerk, radio and TV engineer, radio announcer, electronics engineer, college instructor, psychologist, research consultant, Federal employee, supervisor of research professionals, computer programmer, web designer, instructional designer, construction site handyman, and carpenter, not necessarily in that order.
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