Academics, Careers, and How They Overlap

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The past couple weekends have been crazy for me. I went to MinneWIC, a conference for women in computing, two weeks ago, and UICC, the University of Iowa’s computing conference, last weekend. Both conferences were really eye-opening for me. There are a lot of different paths you can take with computer science, but most people I know fall into one of two categories: people who want to become an academic and people who want to work for a tech company. A couple weeks ago, I fell 100% into the latter category. Going to school for another decade felt like a waste of time, and I would much rather be involved in a start up that could be the next Facebook than in a classroom teaching undergraduates the fundamentals of computer science. While my views haven’t completely flipped since then, going to MinneWIC dramatically changed my opinion on doing research. Seeing all of the different projects that women in my field are working on exposed me to all the cool things you can do with technology, from creating programs to understand humor to using health care data analytics to save lives. I always thought that I should only focus on getting internships to succeed in my field, but now I think that I should do some research over the school year as well.

I know, for most of you this isn’t the most riveting stuff to read about, but the point of this post isn’t to convince all of you to become computer science majors. By the time you get to college, your homework isn’t limited to classroom assignments, but also involves carving out a career path as well. What I’ve learned over the past semester and a half is that it’s not going to kill you to consider options that are outside of your plan. In fact, college might be your only shot to do so, even if you think you have everything figured out. I think I used to be held back by fear, and that’s why I wouldn’t consider other possibilities. The thought of changing my major still terrifies me, since there are only so many spots in my schedule to take classes and I want to graduate in four years. But here’s the thing. You don’t have to throw away everything you’ve worked towards just because you see something that you might also enjoy. For example, I saw a project at MinneWIC that combined physics with computer science to create an animation of robots that mimicked the movements of particles. When you think about it, all innovation stems from a combination of interests, whether it be a company like SpaceX to a novel about a boy who discovers that he’s a wizard on his eleventh birthday. But how do you decide if pursuing an interest is worth your time? My approach is to think of yourself as a five year old. If there was something that you really wanted to try as a kid, you wouldn’t have been worried about if it could go on your resume, right? It wouldn’t have mattered if there were other things that you could have been doing to get ahead in another field, would it? By approaching my career possibilities with childlike curiosity, I have found a lot of intersections between computer science and other fields that I hadn’t even considered before college. Of course, there are restrictions to this philosophy, since college students still have grades to worry about, but I’ve found that I can always make time for one thing if I cut back on something else for a few days. It’s easy to fall into a monotonous cycle in college just like in high school, but by making the time to go to a conference or attend a lecture, not only will you keep life interesting but you’ll be inspired to work harder as well. So, as we count down the days to Spring Break, keep in mind that your life is not just about greeting through these next couple weeks. There’s still time to seize an opportunity that can better your life for good.