Fog Creek Software
Discussion Board




An alternative way of studying CS?

I'm a freshman in college.

My university offers a major program called "Mathematics-Computer Science," which is sort of an attempt to give the student the best of both worlds; you get a solid foundation of pure math, as well as plenty of classes in computer science fundamentals (algorithms/data structures, theory), but also hands-on classwork where you write software alone or in small teams. It gives the learner a lot of flexibility to emphasize either the math or computer science aspect more than the other. The idea behind the major is to produce mathematically-inclined computer scientists (which is what I want to be -- but there is a chance I will end up going into industry with a terminal bachelors).

I want to go to graduate school in applied math/computer science, and this major would allow me to scale back coursework senior year to take a graduate-level course in combinatorial algorithms (my field of interest), be a teaching assistant in a lower-division math class section, and graduate with departmental honors by doing a good senior thesis (and having an entire academic year to work on it).

My question is: if a potential employer saw "BS Mathematics-Computer Science" on a resume, how would the employer react? Would it cause her to think I was unable to think pragmatically and "get things done" or something? (I remember Joel's "Guerilla Guide to Interviewing:" "People who are Smart but don't Get Things Done often have PhDs and work in big companies where nobody listens to them because they are completely impractical. They would rather mull over something academic about a problem rather than ship on time. These kind of people can be identified because they love to point out the theoretical similarity between two widely divergent concepts." Not to imply that I'm exceptionally smart.)

Would it make getting industrial internships (e.g., the summer between senior year and the first year of graduate school, God willing) difficult?

What do all of you think of such a plan of study?

Input is appreciated. For the record, I enjoy both theory AND practice, and not shipping on time as Joel's article mentioned would seriously freak me out.

Warren Henning
Thursday, January 15, 2004

> if a potential employer saw "BS Mathematics-Computer Science" on a resume, how would the employer react?

It depends on the employer: if it were an employer whose product is based on combinatorial algorithms (JD Edwards for example) then I'd guess they should love it.

Christopher Wells
Thursday, January 15, 2004

I think it would not hurt.

The biggest problem I see is the employer being "shy" of offering some kind of jobs to you, because they would be "too little". Like offering a PhD to do some ASP pages. Perhaps he likes it, even more than anything else, but the guy reading his resumee may think he wouldn't take the job, or he will become bored soon, or he would ask for too much.

Any reasonably big company probably already have a few guys from math-inclined courses, and won't have this kind of view.

whatever
Thursday, January 15, 2004

> The biggest problem I see is the employer being "shy" of offering some kind of jobs to you, because they would be "too little".

You can always ask an employer to exploit you. This reminds me of the Woody Allen, unemployed architect in Indecent Proposal, who asked a small community college to give him Architecture 100, something much smaller than what he can do--just so he can get back on his feet. With the abundant people with post secondary degrees in our generation, the industry will simply learn to use all these newly available skills to be more competitive. Don't worry about over-qualification.

Li-fan Chen
Thursday, January 15, 2004

I'd prefer to recruit someone with a "Mathematics + Computer Science" qualification than someone with just computer science, even for a "pure programming" post. But I'm a mathematician myself (by training, inclination and job title, though I do quite a lot of software development) so I'm not exactly unbiased.

Gareth McCaughan
Thursday, January 15, 2004

"My question is: if a potential employer saw "BS Mathematics-Computer Science" on a resume, how would the employer react? "

The same way as they would react to a resume with just "BS Computer Science"

"Would it cause her to think I was unable to think pragmatically and "get things done" or something?"

Probably not. Or maybe. It depends on the employer.

"Would it make getting industrial internships (e.g., the summer between senior year and the first year of graduate school, God willing) difficult?"

Probably not. Or maybe. Depends on the economy.

"What do all of you think of such a plan of study?"

I did the same thing, but the computer science courses were mostly stupid, so I switched to an applied math and philosophy double major. I have never had any problems finding work.

If you like that type of thing (i like math), go for it. If your school is good, it will be fun. If your school is not so good, it can be a nightmare. I've found that math departments are reasonably consistent, but that CS departments are of wildly varying quality at different institutions. Don't hesitate to switch to something different if it seems like what you are doing is pointless.

My other suggestion is that since you are a freshman, you might want to consider double majoring with some liberal artsy type field. And maybe take a business course or two.

There is more to life than work, and most people can't relate to engineering and math, so if you have another non-math/engineering interest (like painting, or literature, or music, or history) you will find it easier to meet girls and other non-engineers. I'm all about being "well rounded" even though it seems like general social trends suggest that one become a narrow specialist.

.
Thursday, January 15, 2004

Also I should point out that I've been a programmer for 8 years (6 of them as a consultant) and will be attending Harvard Law School in the fall.

.
Thursday, January 15, 2004

Pursue the degree that you want.  Employers will value this degree -- or at least, the right employers will value this degree.  If you are concerned that the name of the degree is misleading, then further explain it in parenthesis on your resume.

There is no reason to believe, based solely on the name of their degree, that a given person is a "get things done" type of person.  The real test is, "Has the person gotten anything done?"  Once you get your first job, you will be judged primarily by your work record and your degree name is a distant second.

My career is quirky, and no one should ever try to mimic my choices, but having said that, my degrees were in music history and orchestral conducting. 

Good luck.

Ran Whittle
Thursday, January 15, 2004

I have a Mathematics-Computer Science degree and it hasn't really seem to have hurt me in any way.

The thing is, on your resume, Mathematics-Computer Science is deliciously ambiguous.  Did you get a degree in Mathematics-Computer Science or did you get two degrees?

Either way, if you want to code and get jobs coding, code while you are in school and demonstrate that you can, in fact, code, instead of being thought of as somebody who doesn't get things done.

The real part that hurts is a masters or a PhD.  Then you are actively needing to fight the reputation as somebody who can't Get Things Done.

Flamebait Sr.
Thursday, January 15, 2004

Warren,

You are going to be at a tremendous advantage with such a degree.

Eg: The finacial industry where a lot of ppl with backgrounds in the sciences & math work.

The ability to get an industrial placement depends on your coursework, previous internships, and how youmarket yourself.

All the luck.

Prakash S
Thursday, January 15, 2004

Oh another thing, don't take course just to get a department honours, take courses that interest and challenge you. Also like someone else suggested - take courses which have absolutely nothing to do with your field of study (wine tasting, music, etc) or a couple of business courses.

Prakash S
Thursday, January 15, 2004


Like another poster said, a Math/CS degree probably carries as much weight as just CS.

I have a BS in Math with a computer science concentration; it hasn't held me back.

what school?  I went to salisbury ... www.ssu.edu :-)

I think the "big-name-ness" of your school will help more than the dual nature degree thing - to some employers, a new grad with a BS in CS from SSU would be less valuable than a business degree with a CS minor from MIT or carnegie mellon ...

YYMV ...

regards,

Matt H.
Thursday, January 15, 2004

I went to the University of Waterloo and have a joint B.Math in Applied Math and Computer Science.

At one point, my manager, my manager's manager, my team's general manager and my team's vice president all had math/CS degrees from Waterloo. 

We recruit the math department undergrads heavily, obviously.  In fact, if you divide up all Microsoft employees who were hired right out of school into groups based on what school they went to, the largest group would be Waterloo students, and the majority of those would be Math/CS degrees.  We're everywhere.

Long story short, having a Math/CS degree seems to be a pretty good way to get ahead at Microsoft.  But of course, your mileage may vary.

Eric Lippert
Thursday, January 15, 2004

Forget the CS. Major in Mathematics. A pure maths degree is equivalent to a CS degree for hiring purposes at most places (other than backwards business software dungeons).

Then round out your education with something complementary, like Art, Ancient History, student government, or a night job as a bartender at a trendy nightclub.

Mathematician
Thursday, January 15, 2004

IMHO, I wouldn't worry about any distinctions between Mathematics-C.S. and C.S.  One of the best engineers I ever hired had a degree in biology, and he beat out several other candidates with C.S. degrees.

There are no absolute categorical truths about employers.  It's a matter of probabilities and p values.  Different employers look for different things. At one extreme is the Ivy Leaguer who prefers hiring fellow Ivy Leaguers. You'll be fine with either option.

My advice to you is to go to college to learn.  It's your chance to learn and your chance to take charge of your education.  Take advantage of that.  Be picky about an advisor. Shop around. Don't be afraid to switch advisors if you can. Find yourself a really good mentor.

Before you know it you will graduate,  your life will become a blur, and you'll be wishing you had a lot more time to read--and a lot more time to do a lot of things. :-)

oh well, whatever, nevermind...
Thursday, January 15, 2004

Any employer who would consider a "vanilla" CS
degree to be more valuable than a math+CS degree
is a moron and you wouldn't want to work there anyway.

foobarista
Friday, January 16, 2004

The words on the resume is nothing.

It is the experience you gained on that major that is VERY important.  If you are able to provide some algorithm you created using intensitive mathematics to your future clients/employers - then you got it made.

"BS in blah blah blah."

Big deal.

"I programmed a team of robotic soccer players and won the international contest at CMU last spring."

Woah!

-T.J.

T.J.
Friday, January 16, 2004

It is pretty hard to generalize.  I work with 3 PH D's who get more stuff done than probably anyone.  The best of them also happens to be over 50 which seems like a death sentence in this industry.  I would probably just question the applicant on the program. 


Friday, January 16, 2004

*  Recent Topics

*  Fog Creek Home