Specializing in Your Undergrad

source: http://usgraduatesblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/Untitled.jpg

While studying Computer Science and really any subject, the first two years consist mostly of foundational theory courses. While I was taking my basic programming and Computer Science courses my freshman year, I explored the grander subjects of the field. I fell in love with working with large datasets and creating data-driven software. I researched the subjects that my school offered in this area and came up with a quick list of relevant upper level courses. From there I created my own track before my university announced a ‘Data Science’ concentration within the Computer Science major. This lead me to consider how other students viewed upper level courses within other fields.

A screenshot of the ‘Academic Pathway’ for a Physics major at UMBC

Many students do not plan or put much effort in how their upper levels will prime them for certain fields. They see the topics as another disarray of courses to take to eventually graduate. This is not how students graduating within a field should feel about their degree. Student’s should leave their university with a passion for the subject and find a niche that piqued their interest. This will not only benefit student retention (graduate school) but will create a pipeline of valuable professionals in the workforce.

Long term planning is a must for those professionals who want to be industry ready by the time they graduate. During my internship this summer working at a defense contracting company, I could see the need for individuals with strong backgrounds in multiple subfields of Computer Science such as Artificial Intelligence, Cybersecurity, and Operating Systems. I learned of a need for those who understood Natural Language Processing (NPL) and decided to make it a priority to take a course in the subject. Universities must have an ear to the ground when it comes to these needed niches.

An example job description that requires specialization for workforce employment

Matching the subfield to a student can be difficult, to say the least. Many students will begin a major with little prior knowledge. Priming students through dedicated lectures mapping the field can help address this challenge. A student who learns that they can apply their programming skills to cancer research can tailor their education to be properly versed in Bioinformatics. A student who is studying Sociology and is passionate about the environment can find a niche within Environmental Sociology. A biology student who has spent their life wondering what exactly life on Mars would be like could be exposed to the possibilities of Astrobiology. The examples go on for interdisciplinary and niche topics matching the complexity of rising problems. For those within higher education, this can show to be a great retention tool for students.

For a student to find what they are passionate about and formalizing their interest through a track within a major allows the student to have a less ambiguous pathway to graduation. For many, the formulation of these upper levels’ potential is lost due to the lack of structure. Departments owe it to their students to prime them within their undergraduate studies to be ready to perform various roles needed within industry, government, or research through undergraduate specialization.