Frank advice for UC Davis students in CS/CSE

Norm Matloff offers some good advice in his writeup Preparing for a Career. The note you’re reading now has some friendly advice and information which, for the most part, you won’t be seeing in any student handbook.

Taking a class from Rogaway?

Once when I taught ECS 110 (Data Structures) I asked on the first day of class for a show of hands from people who had heard frightening stories about my classes. Half the class raised their hands. I’m really not such an ogre ... so where could this be coming from?

The truth is that my courses are a bit unusual (possible translate: hard) because of the extent to which I try to use homeworks and (to a somewhat lesser extent) lectures to help teach clear, creative thinking. I know very well that you’re going to forget almost all of the facts that you learn each term, and so the only way that I can do something of value is to get at something which goes beyond the material. I want you to improve a certain skill. Roughly, it’s the ability to think in the style that, I believe, makes for a good computer scientist. Well, at least for a particular (somewhat theoretical) style of computer science. Some students are quite good at this coming in, and for them my classes are fun and not so hard. Other students never get it; they can finish class quite clueless about what was going on. Most students, I suppose, are somewhere in between.

Don’t misunderstand; you will be expected to learn the material, and I’ll do my best to help you do that. But you’ll be asked to assimilate material, not just recall it. You’ll need to use the material in creative ways. If you try to do a Rogaway class using recall and pattern matching, you won’t get out of the class what I had hoped. And chances are you won’t do well.

Academic advising

I am one of the faculty advisors (actually, for grads and undergrads both). See me (or one of the other faculty advisors) if you want to discuss what courses would be good for you to take, how long you should spend here, what graduate school is like, if you need to get an advising hold lifted, and so forth. Please come during scheduled advising hours, which can be found on my homepage.

I particularly like to talk with top students who are interested in going to graduate school. Such students ought to see a faculty advisor two or three years prior to graduating. Most students have serious misunderstandings about what is important for getting into a top graduate school.

Lori Avellar (our UG advisor, to be found in the CS office) knows a lot more than me about what is required and what is permitted and what is the process to do whatever it is you’re hoping to do. I can help on these matters, but I’m forever looking things up or calling Lori or running to someone who actually remembers stuff.

Should I really be a CS/CSE major?

Please come talk to one of the faculty advisors if you have this question. Despite our decline in enrollment, I suspect there are a lot of students in our majors who would be happier somewhere else. If your main reason for being in the major is that you think that a CS/CSE degree is just the ticket for landing a good-paying job, or you’re in the major because your parents think that, then I strongly encourage you to explore other areas of study. There’s no shortage of great things to do at UCD.

Who belongs in the major? CS and CSE are good majors for people who enjoy and are good at problem solving. Clever people who like creating stuff and like thinking about problems clearly and abstractly. If you like to work puzzles, that’s a good sign. If you dislike math and physics, that’s a bad sign. If you have a sincere and strong commitment to directly and tangibly helping people or the environment, I regret that that that may be a bad sign, too. From my point of view, the characteristics of a good computer scientist students are relatively uncommon, and so CS and CSE ought not to be terribly popular majors. But they are.

Communication skills

Here’s some advice you really should pay attention to (even if nobody does): make sure you learn to speak and write English not just adequately, but well. Your ability to communicate well in English will be your single most important skill for future professional success. Ultimately more important than the technical information and skills you get from the courses in our department.

Good people in industry understand this. I recall once speaking to a VP at a major tech company. I asked him from what undergraduate major he prefers to hire. His answer? English. His least favorite major? Engineering. “English majors can communicate,” he claimed. “Engineering majors cannot.”

A few more hints

If you don’t speak any foreign language, I strongly encourage you to acquire one, or more, while you are here. It’s more important than you can imagine.

Travel. If you’re US-born but have never left the US, or have only ventured to Canada or Western Europe, travel will help you understand things about our world you never even knew to ask. If you choose a country with an under-valued currency, travel can cost you far less than you think. Travel inquisitively. Travel with an open mind. Bring the attitude of one who comes to learn, and not with the attitude of a tourist. You’ve never been to a region in turmoil? A “developing” country? A “communist” country? Go!!

And one last piece of advice. Don’t smoke. It makes you stink, and then you die a dreadful death.

Personal problems

If you have a serious personal issue and need to speak to someone, my door is open. Other resources are available, too. Like The House, 752-2790.

To Rogaway’s homepage.