Why Carnegie Mellon Computer Science?… Or Why Not (A Rising Sophomore’s Reasoning)

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view of Pittsburgh taken from Gates 9th floor conference room

About a year ago, I wrote a piece Why Carnegie Mellon Computer Science? An Incoming Freshman’s Reasoning and back in December last year after I finished my first semester at CMU, I wrote 120 Days at Carnegie Mellon. Well, now I guess I’m back to write a third post to this #LifeAtCarnegie series (or saga? who knows?)

I’ll reflect on some of the initial expectations I had as an incoming freshman last year and how they fact-checked against my experience this past year.

CS Focus Curriculum – No surprises here. The curriculum is soooo CS heavy and absolutely perfect for anyone wanting to be in the best Computer Science program in the nation. However, I did admittedly have doubts during my first year at CMU. For starters, I think the people in CMU SCS typically fall into one of two categories (note: this is a pretty extreme simplification, but just bear with me).

1. you were that kid in high school who loved Math, was significantly involved in Math extracurriculars in high school but somehow decided being Math major didn’t seem like the best fit so you chose Computer Science.

2. you were that kid in high school who was decent enough at Math and Science, involved in a coding club, did FIRST robotics, did HTML/CSS, AP CS and thought it was a fun enough time that you’d want to be a Computer Science major.

Now, personally I was in the second categories, so naturally, I was initially disappointed at how much Math I really had to do in CS. Sure, you can call me naive for thinking CS would be doing programming homework all semester long with a bit of Math sprinkled on the side, but I think this is a very common reality for a lot of incoming freshman Computer Science majors. Ask yourself. Are you comfortable with doing both Math and Coding? If the answer is no because you despise Math as a subject. Well, then CMU CS probably won’t be for you.

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going to Greek Sing on a weekend and not just studying

Still, most of us here learn to embrace the Math and come to really enjoy it, after all, none of us are particularly bad at it to have gotten into CMU SCS. This was the case for many of my friends who were also in the second category. Me? Well, I’m still not completely sure. I find the Math in my CS classes interesting and I get by when I put in the effort but I don’t know if I’d really say I like it as much as I do my strictly more programming classes. Nevertheless, I’ve accepted it’s part of what makes Carnegie Mellon CS so great. It ultimately helps me become a better problem solver and it’s okay to not absolutely love *every* aspect of your major, but just know that if you’re choosing CS in general, but especially Carnegie Mellon CS, you’re signing up for a Computer Science and Math heavy experience and you should feel prepared to tackle both when you get here.

Another thing I learned about myself in the past year is that I like Computer Science, but I don’t really like it *that* much. Every CS Major here in SCS is required to have an additional minor/major or CS concentration. So while many of my friends were planning for their Machine Learning, Math, Physics, or Robotics minors I spent most of my time browsing through the Dietrich curriculum looking at Philosophy, Psychology, and Decision Science minors. Again, I am perhaps rarer amongst the SCS crowd for appreciating the Humanities as much as I do but I learned that I needed an escape from my CS related classes from time to time and I hope to find this by pursuing my additional interests in non-STEM areas through my minor. It’s okay to not live and breathe CS, not all of us do.

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late nights at Gates getting homework done

Community – I don’t think after a year being here that I am involved enough in the community to give any overarching assessment about the community here or within SCS. Perhaps I never will be able to, but I suppose I can offer a few things that I’ve noticed. I think what I commented on last year about how students in Carnegie Mellon CS tended to value prestige less and as a result seemed more down to earth still generally holds true from my experiences this year. I’ve met some very humble people in my time here that I admire and have great respect for and these are the people I am glad I can surround myself with.

People are also very willing to help when you ask, but you need to ask. I think I definitely struggled with this aspect initially and arguably it is still a work in progress. I don’t know that I will ever feel comfortable speaking up and asking a question in an entire lecture hall of students but I know that when I need help that I can always speak with a TA or professor directly to address my concerns and that’s a comforting thought.

Imposter syndrome can also feel very real at times, in fact during Orientation Week we were explicitly told that we would be bound to feel this at some point during our four years at CMU. For some of us it’s even more frequently than “some point,” but eventually you tell yourself the truth that everyone is on their own path and dealing with their own struggles and all you can and should do is focus on bettering yourself and getting yourself to where *you* want to be without worrying about how others are doing. This is definitely far easier than said, but it’s a learning process that I think nearly all of us go through but come out stronger for. We frequently give SCS this image that everyone has their life together because everyone knows that Computer Science is what they want to do as their career, but trust me, this isn’t true. We’re all in college. We’re in our teens or just breaking 20. We’re all learning about ourselves. None of us really know with absolute certainty what we want to do, but hopefully these four (three now I guess!) years are when we get to figure this out, so don’t always assume that the person sitting next to you in your lecture has their entire life and 10 year plan sorted out. I know it may really seem like they do at times, but trust me, they probably don’t and it’s okay if you don’t either.

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the scs day dragon

Small Private School – Private school perks here at CMU are pretty nice here. I mean, yes we pay an arm and a leg for these perks via our tuition, unfortunately, but aside from the constantly dead grass and permanent construction areas we get treated quite nicely here, and in particular in SCS. Once you’re admitted into CMU SCS, you in, you’ve made it. There’s no fine print requiring you to have a 3.5 GPA to graduate with a CS degree you’re guaranteed a diploma as long as you pass all your required CS classes.  Unlike a lot of public schools who have limited resources and are unable to offer this guarantee, CMU SCS gives you significant peace of mind that you will graduate with a CS degree and as an extension of this, it drastically diminishes any atmosphere of competition with your peers in SCS. There is no cut-throat fighting required for a spot in the major or a spot in a class. If you want to get into a CS class that you need to graduate, you’ll get in and on time without a doubt.  We also have many companies come visit us because of the CMU SCS brand. During the Fall, nearly every week we have a different company giving a talk to CS students and recruiting for the summer along with a company fair exclusive to CS and ECE majors. I also found that advisors and faculty here are surprisingly accessible. This is something I’ve learned more so through others and less so through my own personal experience, but I hope to work on remedying this in my remaining 3 years at CMU. Research on campus is also especially easy to find as well. Professors are quite receptive to students expressing interest in their projects and happy to take on research assistants. Many of my friends merely had to email one professor and instantly got offered a research position.

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women@scs roadshow for high school students

Female % in CS – To my girl squad (you know who you are heh), thank you for keeping me alive and afloat this semester. In my time here I’ve found that I never consciously think about how there are 50% female in CS my year because it’s just a fact of life. I subconsciously just expect to see that half my lecture, lab, or recitation is female. There is never a concern or doubt about this. And honestly, that’s such a luxury. The upperclassmen women in CS have also been so willing to help and offer support that knowing that so many of them faced struggles through their first two years but ultimately made it to graduation is an incredibly comforting thought. I don’t have much more to say except that if you’re a woman in CS at CMU, you should also consider being more involved in Women@SCS!

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exploring more of downtown pittsburgh

Location – Being from suburbia New Jersey, as I anticipated, I quite liked the change of environment. CMU campus definitely feels like a bubble and it’s also very small but there’s always the option to venture to the UPitt side or Downtown to get more of a city feel which I like. The food here is really not that great. There were a couple of campus eating locations that I straight up avoided like the plague, but luckily I am now free from the bonds of the freshman meal plan. I’ve been told that we at least have bubble tea here which partially makes up for the mediocre food?

So yea, that about sums up a significant portion of my thoughts on freshman year and hopefully if you’re a prospective or incoming CMU SCS student you found this hopefully mildly helpful and I didn’t scare you away. Especially if you have follow up questions or concerns feel free to shoot me a message and I’d be happy to answer or help in any way.

Anyways, I’ll be back in Pittsburgh for part of this summer to TA and I already foresee many a more interesting experiences in the next three years that I’ll be sure to continue updating you all on. Until then! 🙂