Answers for Prospective Undergraduates

Every fall I get emails from prospective undergraduates asking questions about UMass and our programs in CICS.

These questions and requests are usually one or more of the following:

  • How would you rate the X at UMass, where X is one or more of:

    • undergraduate life
    • the undergraduate CS program
    • the faculty in CS
  • Tell me why I should I choose UMass over other schools.

  • Will I get to take a class with a particular professor?

  • Will I get a top internship/job placement?

  • Will I get to do undergraduate research?

This post is a collection of my thoughts on these topics.

(In particular, it is not a reflection of UMass’s or CICS’s official positions on these questions, which you can learn more about here and here, respectively.)

Rate undergraduate life at UMass. I dunno, it seems fine? Students in my classes seem to like it, for the most part. You’re asking an old man this question! It was fine when I was an undergraduate here more than 20 years ago but things are different now.

The factual stuff I can tell you is more about buildings than student life. Like many schools, over the last 10-15 years UMass has spent a bunch of money upgrading facilities that are student-facing. The food is fantastic. The new rec center is mostly great (only three power racks? what the actual eff?). Newer classrooms are like spaceships. The new dorms have %&*(ing air conditioning! There is wireless (for better or for worse) basically everywhere. This is all great, and way better than the clown show that was going on back in the mid-90s, when we were reduced to stringing ethernet between dorm windows or putting up with whacko 19.2 digital modems.

Rate the undergraduate CS program at UMass. Mostly good, though of course the classes I teach are particularly amazeballs.

More seriously: Like the programs at most larger schools, there’s some lag in the curriculum’s adaptation to what is currently hot in CS, but there’s reasonably good coverage of most students’ areas of interest in upper-level electives, and that’s something you might not get at a smaller liberal-arts school.

One reason to pick a larger school like UMass over a school with a smaller CS program is the depth and breadth of course offerings available. The other side of this tradeoff is that generally the enrollment in CS courses is much higher at a school like UMass, so you’ll get less individual faculty attention than you might at a smaller school.

Rate the CS faculty. You’re asking me to judge my colleagues publicly. Come on. Go look at US News and World Report, or RateMyProfessor, or whatever.

More candidly: Just like anywhere, there are people with different strengths, weaknesses, and areas where they choose to focus their energy. The administration is definitely cognizant of these factors, and generally does a good job of matching faculty interest and teaching skills with appropriate classes.

For tenure-line faculty, there can be a real tension when allocating time between teaching and research, though many bring their research into the classroom and students really benefit from it.

UMass is somewhat unusual among our peer institutions in that we don’t have “disposable adjuncts” – poorly treated faculty who are hired on a contingent basis. Instead we have “lecturers,” faculty who focus their energy on teaching and who have competitive pay and job security. (At some schools they have the title “Teaching Professor,” though for various legal reasons we don’t do that here, yet.) Many of our introductory CS courses are taught by teaching faculty, people who are specifically interested in the teaching of undergraduate CS courses. As such, they tend to be higher quality than you might expect from naively looking at the numbers.

Why should I choose UMass? There’s a lot packed into this question.

First, you should know that like all reasonably-ranked CS programs, UMass’s is overrun by applicants. High-schoolers applying, transfer students from other colleges, and internal applicants to the major – in all of these areas, there has been and continues to be more applicants than we generally have seats for.

Here at UMass we’re doing everything we can to expand our capacity, as we take our role as a public university providing access to all seriously. But it remains the case that no-one here or at a comparable program is likely to spend significant amounts of their time wooing you to choose them or explaining why they stand out from the crowd. This is especially true if you’re even asking this question. A particular University might do so (especially if you’re from out-of-state and willing to pay full tuition), but that’s a different story and above my pay grade.

Speaking of that: If you just have a generic interest in CS and/or programming, then UMass is a great deal – for in-state students. If you are from out-of-state, then it’s a less compelling value proposition. Your own state school is likely fine, and in some cases ranked competitively or above UMass. Lookin’ at you, UIUC, UC-B, etc.

If there’s something specific to the UMass program you’re interested in, that may change the calculus somewhat and induce you to come here from out-of-state. For example, if you want access to faculty and classes in areas where our faculty are well-known, or if you want to join our Informatics program, or if you’re an international student looking to come to the US, or if your own state school doesn’t accept you because it’s too exclusive, etc. Lookin’ at you, UC-B, etc.

Why would you choose UMass over a liberal arts college? Because you want the breadth and depth we (or any large, world-class university) can offer, not just in CS but in many academic areas. The other side of this tradeoff, though, is that you’re unlikely to get the individual faculty attention that is a selling point at most smaller colleges. Another reason to choose a large University is that things change! You might discover that what you really enjoy about CS is the mathematical aspect, and want to change majors to Mathematical Computing. Or, you might discover a passion for medieval English literature, or comparative political science, or epidemiology, or biostatistics, or who knows what else. A large school can give you the opportunity to pursue any of these interests in a way that a small school cannot.

Will I get to take a class with a particular professor? Hard to know the future! Check the teaching schedule for what they’ve done historically. You can also write to them and ask if they expect to be teaching the course you’re interested in some particular future year. It’s unlikely they’ll be certain, but they can at least let you know if they’re planning to be on sabbatical or the like that year.

Will I get a top internship/job placement? Hard to know the future! Many of our students get placed in great spots. We have an entire staff who work with students on job preparation and the like. Learn more at CICS Careers.

Will I get to do undergraduate research? (Often paired with “can I get into a top graduate school after completing UMass’s program?”) Maybe!

Some faculty love working with undergraduates and have or make the time to do so. This is often but not always done through the Honors College’s various programs that encourage undergraduate research.

But in the interests of full disclosure, faculty in “hot” areas are generally overrun with students asking to work with them, and tenure-line faculty in particular need to optimize their time usage for getting tenure as much as possible. Generally, this means working with graduate students, not undergraduates. But, some faculty who generally don’t work with undergrads directly still have lab setups where grad students work with undergrads. And these same hot areas tend to have associated student clubs that provide a structured way to dive into a subject area outside of classes and direct faculty interaction.

In terms of graduate school, assuming you’re talking about a PhD program, one of the best things you can do is work with someone – ideally a faculty member or senior graduate student – on a research project and to make a meaningful contribution to it. Their letter in support of your application will be worth far more than a good transcript and/or generic letter of support from your undergraduate advisor. (MS programs tend to be easier to get into; for most students, good grades from a reasonable undergraduate institution are typically enough.)