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Fall 2019 Course Advice

Fall classes start tomorrow. My 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! 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.

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, you are doing it wrong. Note that, even if you don’t have the official prerequisites for a class, 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.

Skip STAT 201 if you took AP Statistics. Go straight to STAT 202 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 the more advanced classes. 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 134: Diving into the Deluge of Data. 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. You might consider skipping 134 and going directly to 136, but 134 seems to be a much better course than it was in the past, especially with the use of Python and the focus on data.

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 12 (?) 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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5 Comments To "Fall 2019 Course Advice"

#1 Comment By 89’er On September 2, 2019 @ 9:15 am

I like Dave’s advice with one caveat.

There is not a single professional opportunity that will not be harmed if you cannot write well.

Think of the power of not only being able to conduct or understand the statistical analysis but also of being able to explain it well in writing to colleagues and clients.

I have worked with folks from Princeton, Amherst and Midd in recent years, only thelord Jeff had writing skills that impressed.

And the more senior you get, the less hands on with the computer you will be expected to be (in most professional fields). Good public speaking and writing becomes more critical to your career in later years.

#2 Comment By Anon On September 2, 2019 @ 10:52 am

Taking a computer science course will do nothing to enhance your every-day computer skills. Knowing the theory behind coding is specialized knowledge and to suggest that it’s more important than writing is ridiculous. Maybe if you’re a baby boomer and don’t know how to use Excel it’d be helpful, but anyone enrolling at Williams nowadays has the tech-savvyness to adapt to any computer program a non-tech related employer might require.

#3 Comment By fendertweed On September 2, 2019 @ 12:46 pm

I like DDL’s advice, I won’t say how many of those I failed to follow (lol).

I particularly focus on No. 1 (you’ll likely never get such freedom to explore and learn again), and on @89’ers advice Re: writing.

I cringe when I read my Williams-era writing, but by the time Williams and law school got me, my writing ability made a significant difference in my career, both as a litigator and appellate lawyer, and as a lawyer and manager/policy adviser in a federal agency.

Good writers are hard to find, and are valuable.

#4 Comment By Frank Abagnale, Jr. On September 2, 2019 @ 6:40 pm

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 very much disagree with this. I would argue that on the contrary, the ability to write well is perhaps the single most important skill you can cultivate, not only for your professional life but also for your life in general. What we mean when we characterize writing as a “skill” is substantially more complex and variegated an object of cultivation than something like learning basic programmatic data analysis.

Even the most mathematically illiterate (especially, as Anon points out, everyone who would now be attending college for whom a foundational generalized tech-savviness has been well-ingrained culturally) can learn how to write basic algorithms in R and the basic principles behind coding Turing machines.

Writing, on the other hand, is really constituted by a way of seeing the world, interpreting the world, and being in the world. Writing well can’t be accomplished by following a set of instructions, or watching a video tutorial on YouTube, it requires years of dedicated production of written material and subsequent careful analysis (and reflection on said analysis) by a gifted writer (in this case, the excellent professors at Williams).

Now, you might think that despite the great benefits being able to write well bestows on your enjoyment of life, nonetheless programming is a more practical skill for the workplace. But the fact of the matter is that employers can’t and won’t train you to write well, but they can and do train people to program every day. As far as practicality goes, the opportunity cost of foregoing an education in writing at Williams (what is really an education in learning) is huge, and much greater than missing out on programming 101.

#5 Comment By fendertweed On September 3, 2019 @ 7:53 am

I agree w @FAJr.,

If you can’t write well you are at a significant disadvantage in many career and other situations.