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Computer Science at Williams

A question from College Confidential.

Computer Science at Williams

a pretty simple question…how good is the computer science program at williams?

I cannot tell anything from the department webpage. In general LAC cs depts are not as good or respected as most universities, but I know Williams tends to be the exception to many rules.

There is little doubt that the Williams Math/Stat Department is one of, if not the, best among LACs. But I don’t know anything about how we compare on Computer Science. I have heard good things about various professors (shout out to my fan Professor Dudley Bailey) but also complaints that the department is too theoretical.

Informed opinions welcome.

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#1 Comment By dm ’10 On June 22, 2009 @ 1:44 pm

oops, ephblog ate my forwarding. let’s try that again:

I wrote a fairly long response to CSDude on CC, which I won’t repost here, but the summary is:

– Williams has very, very good CS for an LAC, with lots of profs who are fantastic teachers, and you can learn an enormous amount doing CS at Williams.
– ”Good for an LAC” does not mean “as good as MIT and other top schools” if you want a deep, rigorous, world-class CS education, and are willing to really dedicate yourself to getting one. That’s not really a bombshell, since it’s probably true of math (yes, even Williams math) and most sciences as well.

If I had any complaint about CS at Williams, actually, it would be that it’s not theoretical enough – but I might be in the minority there.

Also, I think you meant to refer to Prof. Bailey, not Prof. Dudley.

#2 Comment By Arjun On June 22, 2009 @ 9:38 pm

Alright, I’ll bite. This one is tempting. And even under my own name!

I’ll stand up for CS @ Williams and say that its world-class. I just finished my Junior year abroad doing the final year course at cambridge (this means I’ve “graduated” from cambridge in CS in all but name.) I hung out with a Caltech exchange student for a bit as well and we were definitely comparable in performance (and the caltech exchange program is competitive, so he wasn’t a straggler).

Before I hit the praise pedal, a few caveats: The course offerings are limited enough that unless you’re a double major you will find a bit of a barrier (i.e. 2 advanced electives a year, but if you’re the type that wants 3 or 4, you should question whether you want a liberal arts degree) towards the end. That is one of the reasons I went to Cambridge for a year – but mostly to spend time with my high school girlfriend. Secondly, you WILL miss out on electrical engineering stuff at Williams. I had a hard time catching up with fourier transforms, wavelet encodings etc, as that stuff just isn’t taught at Williams. Contrastingly, Williams probably has the best algorithms+theory courses and professor I have seen. Its really a level beyond in terms of formulating your thinking and giving you a solid base. I’d seriously look into it. Williams also has a decent intro to AI (but not much more than an intro given the scale and size of AI topics.) Again, I recommend Williams to get that amazing base of knowledge and core theoretical ability – not to “munchkin” in CS.

If you’re into computer science as opposed to cool CS hacking then Williams is a good place. I don’t know if its as good as MIT or Stanford, but then again, you might not get any personal attention at those places. (Usual liberal arts college vs large university arguments apply here). As much as Dave isn’t a theoretical person, a solid theory grounding will get you anywhere. Case in point: Google interviews are so rigorously algorithms based – but I had a really good time given my very good grounding in the subject. If Google has a crazy emphasis on theory, then it really cant be that detached from practice, can it? ;)

In terms of faculty, Williams is top notch. They’ve got really good teachers, just like the Math dept. If you’re into theoretical CS/mathy stuff, I dont know if theres a better program than a CS+Math double major at Williams. Even otherwise, its really good as well. I found that I was very competitive at Cambridge (against kids who’d studied nothing but CS for 2 years) at everything except the EE stuff (computer vision, information theory, image/video processing) but I chalk that down to not taking Real Analysis before my year abroad…

In terms of “placements” kids get internships/jobs at Google every year (I did, although I turned it down, and a couple of my friends did as well) and the top kids seem to be consistently going to top grad schools – so its certainly competitive on a national scale. Bottom line – I would pick Williams for CS over any schools except MIT and Stanford.

I’ve said a lot of garbled things, so I’ll stop now…

#3 Comment By Parent ’12 On June 22, 2009 @ 10:43 pm


You must have had a great junior year. What are you doing this summer? Travel?

As for the topic here, is EE covered in any way in Williams physics department?

#4 Comment By Guy Creese ’75 On June 23, 2009 @ 6:39 am

I have no insight into the quality of the Williams program but I can talk about the value of a top-notch program in the real world.

Heavy-duty computer science is a rarefied thing. While there are certainly companies (e.g., Google, Microsoft, your latest startup) and applications (e.g., operating systems, encryption, content filtering) that need deep thinking on really arcane problems, there are a lot of computer science applications (e.g., building a web page, system integration) that don’t.

In fact, the real power of a Williams education in computer science is in the non-computer science areas: psychology, learning how to write, learning how to think critically. A huge part of computer science in the real world is getting funding (internally and from VCs) and explaining the technology (to clueless upper management and the public). Having worked in the computer field for 30 years, I’m continually amazed at how much value comes from having a more rounded education.

In short, if you can combine deep computer science thinking with the ability to communicate clearly, that really sets you apart from the pack.

#5 Comment By Ronit On June 23, 2009 @ 10:25 am

@Guy Creese ‘75:

psychology, learning how to write, learning how to think critically.

Yup. As a non computer scientist who has worked with computer science grads from both Williams and elsewhere, I cannot overstate the value of these human interaction and communication skills. A computer scientist who can also communicate with normal human beings, and understand their needs, is an extremely valuable asset to any company. Your typical grad from Random Institute of Technology who spent all four years doing CompSci and Math does not, typically, have these skills.

Many are the times when I’ve wished that the programmers/IT consultants I work with daily had taken some literature or psychology or philosophy classes.

#6 Comment By frank uible On June 23, 2009 @ 10:39 am

Until I attended Williams College, I didn’t know how to spell cybernaut, but now that I have I is one.

#7 Comment By Alexander Woo On June 23, 2009 @ 1:05 pm

Computer science can be taught in the context of the liberal arts, or in the context of engineering. If you’re an engineering type, no doubt you’ll find CS at Williams, like just about any other aspect of a Williams education, too theoretical.

#8 Comment By student10 On June 23, 2009 @ 3:59 pm

Arjun and Parent 12- you can get some of the EE stuff in the physics department- at least those two topics Arjun mentioned are taught in in Waves and Optics class. Also, if you are really interested in Engineering and want to have a partial Williams Experience, there’s always the Williams-Columbia program http://www.williams.edu/Physics/programs/eng.html . Not that I know anyone who is doing it or has done it, but it exists…

#9 Comment By hwc On June 23, 2009 @ 10:04 pm

RE: #8

Almost nobody at liberal arts colleges actually does these 3/2 programs. The Willipedia entry only lists two known Williams students who did the Columbia program — none in the last five senior classes.

There are lots of reasons why these programs are so unattractive: transfering before senior year, paying for five years of college, trying to do engineering without ever taking an engineering course for the first three years. Even the Wellesley/MIT program, where Wellesley undergrads can take courses at MIT all along has few, if any, takers.

There’s the list of liberal arts colleges that offer the same Columbia 3-2 program:

Adelphi University, Garden City, NY
Albertson College, Caldwell, ID
Albion College, Albion, MI
Alfred University, Alfred, NY
Allegheny College, Meadville, PA
Arcadia University, Glenside, PA
Augustana College, Sioux Falls, SD
Austin College, Sherman, TX
Baldwin-Wallace College, Berea, OH
Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY
Barnard College, New York, NY
Bates College, Lewiston, ME
Beloit College, Beloit, WI
Bethany College, Bethany, WV
Birmingham-Southern College, Birmingham, AL
Bowdoin College, Brunswick, ME
Brandeis University, Waltham, MA
Carleton College, Northfield, MN
Carroll College, Helena, MT
Centenary College of Louisiana, Shreveport, LA
Centre College, Danville, KY
Claremont McKenna College, Claremont, CA
Clark University, Worcester, MA
Colgate University, Hamilton, NY
College of Notre Dame, Baltimore, MD
College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA
College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA
Colorado College, Colorado Springs, CO
Columbia College, New York, NY
Davidson College, Davidson, NC
Denison University, Granville, OH
DePauw University, Greencastle, IN
Dillard University, New Orleans, LO
Doane College, Crete, NE
Drew University, Madison, NJ
Earlham College, Richmond, IN
Eckerd College, St. Petersburg, FL
Elon College, NC
Fairfield University, Fairfield, CT
Fordham University, Bronx, NY
Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, PA
Georgetown University, Washington, DC
Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, PA
Grinnell College, Grinnell, IA
Hamilton College, Clinton, NY
Hartwick College, Oneonta, NY
Hastings College, Hastings, NE
Hendrix College, Conway, AR
Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, NY
Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY
Illinois Wesleyan University, Bloomington, IL
Jacksonville University, Jacksonville, FL
Juniata College, Huntingdon, PA
Kansas Wesleyan University, Salina, KS
Knox College, Galeburg, IL
Lawrence University, Appleton, WI
Lewis and Clark College, Portland, OR
Loyola University Chicago, Chicago, IL
Manchester College North Manchester, IN
Marietta College, Marietta, OH
Miami University, Oxford, OH
Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT
Millsaps College, Jackson, MI
Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA
Muhlenberg College, Allentown, PA
Nebraska Wesleyan University, Lincoln, NE
Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH
Occidental College, Los Angeles, CA
Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, WA
Pitzer College, Claremont, CA
Providence College, Providence, RI
Queens College, Flushing, NY
Randolph-Macon College, Ashland, VA
Reed College, Portland, OR
Rollins College, Winter Park, FL
St. John Fisher College, Rochester, NY
St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY
Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY
School of General Studies, Columbia University, New York, NY
Scripps College, Claremont, CA
Seattle Pacific University, Seattle, WA
Simon’s Rock College of Bard, Great Barrington, MA
Spelman College, Atlanta, GA
State University of New York, Fredonia, NY
State University of New York, Geneseo, NY
State University of New York, Binghamton, NY
Sweet Briar College, Sweet Briar, VA
University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, WA
University of Richmond, Richmond, VA
University of the South, Sewanee, TN
University of the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas, VI
Ursinus College, Collegeville, PA
Wabash College, Crawfordsville, IN
Washington and Jefferson College, Washington, PA
Washington and Lee University, Lexington, VA
Wells College, Aurora, NY
Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT
Whitman College, Walla Walla, WA
Whitworth College, Spokane, WA
Willamette University, Salem, OR
William Jewell College, Liberty, MO
Williams College, Williamstown, MA
Wittenberg University, Springfield, OH
Wofford College, Spartanburg, SC
Yeshiva University, New York, NY