Considering Formal Computer Science Education? The Simplest, Best Advice I Got Before Taking the Plunge

It has been nearly two years since I completed my master’s degree at Tufts. Like all educational programs, there were drawbacks – some intrinsic (the cost; varying course quality) and some extrinsic (the pandemic striking partway through). However, the bottom line is that I learned a great deal and consider the experience an unequivocal success. The most significant value came from new ways of thinking rather than specific skills or technologies.

DALL-E2; a computer floating in a deep library, by Vermeer

Since I left the workforce to enroll in a post-baccalaureate university program, many prospective students have sought advice. They wonder if a particular program [bootcamps, university programs, self-paced MOOCs, etc.] is best for their situation. This decision is not only highly personal but also specific to each would-be student. Factors to consider include funding, available time, external and internal motivators, and, most crucially yet hardest to decipher: are you even going to like this stuff? 

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How can you know? How can you determine your aptitude and curiosity for layers of topics you’ve yet to encounter? When considering a formal university program, which emphasizes foundational, high-concept topics, I can’t outdo the advice Jordan Smith gave me: pick up an introductory-level book on a central topic (algorithms) and see if it grabs you.

This approach strips away much of the “technology” branding and distills the essence: How compelling is this? Do these concepts resonate with you? Are you eager to learn more?

In my case, I read Prof Diane Souvaine’s copy of Algorithmics 2nd ed.* I gave myself permission to not understand every word, and found myself following along, albeit slowly. Some sections felt enlightening or related to issues I’d encountered at work. I looked up some terms. I felt compelled to watch a related video online. All indicators suggested I could give the conceptual classes a shot.

are you even going to like this stuff?

For some, this advice might be redundant, and the self-taught route could be more suitable. Or perhaps you’re strictly interested in competing JavaScript frameworks and couldn’t care less about underlying systems theory. It’s perfectly fine to have preferences.

In the end, the decision to pursue formal computer science education is a personal one. So, try diving into an introductory topic to see if it clicks with you. Trust your gut, and choose the path that resonates with your interests and aspirations. Embrace the adventure, and enjoy the ride!

(Note: The pandemic interfered with the return of this book – sorry, Professor!)