I’m finally done. Wow. It’s difficult to think that the naïve little freshman who walked into Hamerschlag four years ago became who I am today. I am eternally grateful to the multitude of people who helped me along this journey whom I could not possibly all name in this note. My undergraduate experience has been a transformative one—I have progressed both as an academic and as a person, a friend, someone who can contribute to society. However, much of this change only occurred because I took advantage of the many opportunities that Carnegie Mellon has to offer. In this note, I would like to share with you a few of the things that enriched my time here in the hopes that you or others may follow suit and have a better experience at CMU for it.
Carnegie Mellon is one of the best research institutions in the world. As a corollary, its professors are some of the smartest people you will ever meet. I know that as a student, I sometimes discounted the quality of my professors based on their teaching style or how interesting their lectures were, but don’t let that fool you: every single faculty member here is at the forefront of research in their field, and only got there through an enormous amount of hard work and brainpower. You have precisely four years to take advantage of this incredible opportunity, so do it! If you do not work with a professor, you are wasting a significant portion of CMU’s opportunities.
Personally, doing research was the best decision I made here for my academics. Until junior spring, I knew 100% that I was industry-bound, and nothing could convince me otherwise. Then, that semester I started research with Kayvon Fatahalian, and my predilections disappeared. Since then, I pivoted to grad school and now am about to start my Ph.D. at Stanford next fall. I’m only a single data point in the research narrative, but I can assure you I am not alone. So please, I implore you—talk to a professor. TA their class. Work with their grad students. It may not work out, but you have a lot to gain and little to lose.
This piece of advice stems from a couple important observations:
In sum, do yourself a favor and work hard early on to clear out your course requirements. Take some of your free time in junior and senior year to do exploratory work. Also keep watch in freshman/sophomore year for areas you might want to specialize in! I took my first class with my future academic advisor in sophomore spring.
Diplomas are meaningless. Minors and majors are meaningless. Multiple diplomas times zero is still zero. Nobody (employers, universities, etc.) cares about which specific degree you have, but rather a) what you know, b) who you know, and c) the fact that you came from CMU (not necessarily in that order). The trouble with these pieces of paper is that they impose upon you substantial coursework burdens, and every major/minor will always have some classes that you do not want to take. Curricula must be one-size-fits-all by nature, so in order to give someone full exposure to computer science, business, theatre, etc. the curriculum designers must require a good number of core courses and electives. Your job as a student is to wiggle out of as many of these requirements as possible and to think critically about which classes are best for you 2. Take courses that interest you, as you’ll do far better if you actually like the material—this seems like an truism, but a surprising number of students seem to take courses they don’t like.
However, a number of students take the equally surprising move of not shedding requirements, but instead burdening themselves with more! Many of my fellow classmates had multiple minors, double/triple majors, and dual degrees. This is not to say that taking a greater variety of classes is bad; indeed I have great respect for people who put in the effort to get two diplomas, and for some that is truly the correct path. For most people, though, their time can be better allocated. Anecdotal evidence: my brother graduated from CMU with a dual degree in both Computer Science and Electrical and Computer Engineering. However, he was really only interested in the computer architecture part of ECE, yet he still had to take courses in analog circuit design, signal processing, and so on. Although he graduated with two pieces of paper, in retrospect he wished that he didn’t have to have taken those extra classes unrelated to his true passion.
This also impacts point #2: you won’t have time to explore cool problems if you have to take 18 classes your senior spring to finish up all of your degrees. So again, do yourself a favor, minimize the course requirements and maximize the courses that interest you.
If you really liked one of your classes and did well enough, then consider TAing it. A few reasons for this:
Here’s a couple short pieces of advice for making the most of Pittsburgh and CMU campus.
That’s not to diminish front-end work—UI/UX and HCI in general have a lot of cool problems, but that’s the entire set of CS-related things I knew about coming in to CMU. ↩
The people who design these curricula are the same incredibly intelligent professors mentioned in point #1. CMU curricula were designed for a reason, and you should strongly consider those reasons when deciding what courses to take for yourself. I’m not advocating that you throw caution to the wind and take whatever courses sound the most fun, but instead to just meaningfully engage with the course decision process instead of going to either extreme (taking only default courses vs. ignoring all the requirements). ↩