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Spring 2018 Course Advice

Fall classes start tomorrow. Our advice:

Your major does not matter! One of the biggest confusions among Williams students is the belief that future employers care about your major, that, for example, studying economics helps you get a job in business. It doesn’t! So, major in what you love.

But future employers are often interested in two things. First, can you get the computer to do what you want it to do? Second, can you help them analyze data to make them more successful? Major in Dance (if you love dance) but take 4 or so classes in computer science and statistics. With that as background, you will be competitive with any of your Williams classmates when it comes time to apply for internships/jobs.

Take a tutorial every semester. The more tutorials you take, the better your Williams education will be. There are few plausible excuses for not taking a tutorial every semester. Although many tutorials are now filled, others are not. What about Racial-Sexual Violence with Joy James or Aesthetic Outrage with Stephen Tifft or Long Term Fiscal Challenges with Peter Heller?

Too many first years take a big intro class because they think they “should.” They shouldn’t! Even a “bad” tutorial at Williams is better than almost all intro courses. If you are a first year and you don’t take a tutorial like these, you are doing it wrong. Note that, even if you don’t have the official prerequisites for these classes, you should still enroll. The pre-reqs almost never matter and professors will always (?) let you into a tutorial with empty spots.

By the way, where can we find data about how popular tutorials are? For example, do most/all tutorials end up filled? How many students attempted to enroll in each one? More transparency!

Take STAT 201 (if you enter Williams with Math/Reading SAT scores below 1300, you might start with STAT 101). No topic is more helpful in starting your career, no matter your area of interest, than statistics. Students who take several statistics courses are much more likely to get the best summer internships and jobs after Williams. Also, the new Statistics major is amazing.

Also, consider skipping STAT 201 if you took AP Statistics. Go straight to STAT 364 instead. And don’t worry about the stupid math prerequisites that the department tries to put in your way. You don’t really need multivariate calculus for 201 or matrix algebra for 364. Those math tricks come up in a couple of questions on a couple of problem sets. Your friends (and some Khan Academy videos) will get you through it. If challenged, just tell people you took those classes in high school.

Take CSCI 136: Data Structures and Advanced Programming (if you enter Williams with Math/Reading SAT scores below 1300, you should start with CSCI 134). Being able to get the computer to do what you want it to do is much more important, to your future career, than most things, including, for example, the ability to write well.

The Computer Science Department seems to have re-arranged things a bit in terms of strongly recommending that students take 134 first. In the past 134 was a not very serious course which was a waste for students in the top half of ability, including anyone with any prior exposure to programming. Is that still the case? If so, skip it and go directly to 136.

Informed commentary welcome on the 134 versus 136 choice.

If a professor tries to tell you the class is full, just claim to be future major in that topic. Indeed, many students officially enroll as statistics or computer science majors sophomore year to ensure that they get into the classes they want. You can always drop a major later. Mendacity in the pursuit of quality classes is no vice.

See our previous discussions. Here are some thoughts from 11 (?) years ago about course selections for a career in finance.

What courses would you recommend? What was the best class you took at Williams?

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#1 Comment By frank uible On January 30, 2018 @ 8:12 am

Please justify why the taking of stat classes is so valuable! Post Williams (1960) I took a masters degree level introductory stat course at a good university (Western Reserve University) and found the course almost insultingly simple.

#2 Comment By JCE On January 30, 2018 @ 12:25 pm

How to lead your hedge fund to collapse taught by David Kane

#3 Comment By abl On January 30, 2018 @ 12:44 pm

I’d mostly second your advice. There is one big exception:

Being able to get the computer to do what you want it to do is much more important, to your future career, than most things, including, for example, the ability to write well.

I have held multiple jobs in multiple fields highly desirable to Eph grads. And, I hold at least one grad degree in an area that is, likewise, highly sought by Eph grads. In none of these jobs/degree(s) would anything that I could have hypothetically learned in a compsci class have been at all helpful. I would have been zero more likely to have been employed/admitted and I would have been zero more likely to have done a good job in that position. On the other hand, writing ability has consistently been the (or one of the) most important skills necessary for obtaining and succeeding in each of these jobs/degrees.

For a student who wants to be a programmer or work in tech (even as an entrepreneur or VC or elsewhere on the business side), compsci is somewhere between helpful and necessary. For most students, however, programming will be a far less beneficial skill than either writing or analytical ability. I would still recommend that students consider taking one compsci class at Williams–even if it will not be directly helpful to their career path, it’s probably still a good and interesting area to explore. It wouldn’t be the first or second course I’d recommend, but it’d be on a medium-length list.

Along those lines, the one course I’d suggest adding to your list is an intro-level philosophy course. Phil 101 and 102 at Williams do a really nice job of introducing students to a set of philosophers that they probably should know a little about while also teaching (as much as can be taught in one class, at least) the sort of analytical reasoning that will prove crucial to the vast majority of Williams grads in their careers/post-grad studies. Intro econ is also helpful for understanding the world (much more so than stats, although the skills you learn are probably a bit less directly portable).

#4 Comment By frank uible On January 30, 2018 @ 1:08 pm

But is it not true that stat courses have not the same advantages as computer science ones?

#5 Comment By abl On January 30, 2018 @ 1:30 pm

But is it not true that stat courses have not the same advantages as computer science ones?

What do you mean?

#6 Comment By anonymous On January 30, 2018 @ 2:56 pm

Many colleges do mandatory math and writing entrance exams for remediation if necessary. Does Williams do this?

#7 Comment By frank uible On January 30, 2018 @ 3:12 pm

David makes as his initial point the desirability of stat courses (which I asked him to justify) but then makes the taking of math courses part of the justification.

#8 Comment By abl On January 30, 2018 @ 3:15 pm

Many colleges do mandatory math and writing entrance exams for remediation if necessary. Does Williams do this?

I believe Williams does do something like this.

#9 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On January 30, 2018 @ 3:34 pm

In none of these jobs/degree(s) would anything that I could have hypothetically learned in a compsci class have been at all helpful.

True, but orthogonal to the claim I am making.

Consider 100 students, identical in all respects except that 50 follow my advice (4 stat/cs classes) and 50 do not (4 classes in other stuff). My empirical claim is that the first group will, on average, do better in getting an internship after junior year and a job after senior year than the second group.

Of course, some individual students in the first group will do poorly and many in the second group will do great. I am talking about averages and expectations.

Do you disagree?

#10 Comment By abl On January 30, 2018 @ 4:45 pm

Consider 100 students, identical in all respects except that 50 follow my advice (4 stat/cs classes) and 50 do not (4 classes in other stuff). My empirical claim is that the first group will, on average, do better in getting an internship after junior year and a job after senior year than the second group.

Do you disagree?

I probably don’t disagree with that illustration. But that strikes me as an incorrect illustration of the claim you made. Part of the reason why I don’t disagree with that statement is because a randomly selected pool of 50 students at Williams will likely include a handful of students who want to do CS-related work. Another part of why I don’t disagree with that statement is that I think that a CS class is probably going to be more helpful/useful than the average Williams class–but our point of dispute is whether they are more helpful than a class that is going to help a student get better at writing. (Specifically, our dispute is over whether the sort of computer fluency you get from a CS class is a more helpful skill than the ability to write well for the average non-CS-oriented Williams student.)

Again, I want to reiterate: we agree that CS is a highly useful class for a non-negligible number of Williams students–some of whom are not currently taking any CS classes. I only strongly disagree that “[b]eing able to get the computer to do what you want it to do is much more important, to your future career, than most things, including, for example, the ability to write well” is good general advice. I feel strongly that the opposite is true: writing well and thinking analytically are the two most important skills for the average Williams student to hone in college. (And that is part of why I agree with you that tutorials–which are excellent in both respects–are so amazing.)

#11 Comment By Dick Swart On January 30, 2018 @ 5:35 pm

I only strongly disagree that “[b]eing able to get the computer to do what you want it to do is much more important, to your future career, than most things, including, for example, the ability to write well” is good general advice. I feel strongly that the opposite is true: writing well and thinking analytically are the two most important skills for the average Williams student to hone in college.

I know I am from the old Williams, but the point in heavy type (above) is what I thought a liberal arts education is all about!

#12 Comment By Comp Sci Major On February 3, 2018 @ 4:33 pm

CS 134 is definitely necessary to do well (and possibly even enroll) in 136, unless students have received a score of 5 on the computer science AP.

The CS AP is not very rigorous, but it’s more about having had the opportunity to work with code a little bit before you jump into 136. A lot of students do poorly in 134 or end up pass-failing it as it is; I definitely wouldn’t recommend anyone without programming experience try to jump straight in to 136 (it’s true that you don’t get much actual theory until 136, but I still think 134 is valuable).

I would also add that, because the CS department is very understaffed (CS profs teach the most student-hours of any dept; almost 4 times more than the lowest department) it’s pretty much impossible to get into 134 or 136 after freshman year. Sadly, space is so limited that only students who seem likely to major can usually get a seat.