Computer Science Graduate School; Question Asked. Question Answered.

This is a random picture that I shot while in France. It has nothing to do with this entry but it felt weird to have a post without a picture.

Anyway, I got this question from a friendly internet stranger and I did my best to address it.

Hey man, I messaged you a while back as I was brainstorming ways to propel into a digital nomad career after finishing undergrad this May. In the meantime, I’ve read some more (most) of your blog and your last article ‘grinding’ made me reconsider some things as I think of what to pursue next.

I’m going to share some of my current (naive) thinking and, if you have a chance, I’d love to hear what some of your thoughts are. It seems like you’ve done (and continue to do) some pretty cool stuff, so please share some wisdom.

So I study physics, with some low-level coursework in CS and EE. This year, however, I’m involved in a really cool engineering project working on solar panels, and it’s gotten me interested in power electronics. What’s more, I took a class called “digital design and computer architecture” and it’s the coolest stuff ever. It makes me think I want to be a chip designer, or at least take more classes in that direction.

So now I’m planning (considering?) enrolling in a MS in EE/ECE program, and am considering Ga Tech’s MS in ECE program (at their campus in Shenzhen, China). At the moment, I’m weighing this against a job offer as a new grad software engineer (with a company that immediately pays for me to get an MS in CS, but it comes with the significant drawback that that’s at least two years that I won’t be living abroad). The goals that I’m working toward (eventually) are location-independent career, do some really cool science/engineering/inventing and save up money to reach financial independence asap.

Previously, I was thinking that a digital nomad career means landing a software job in which I can live abroad indefinitely (telecommuting for a company or something of that sort). But I really enjoy working with hardware, although it seems that that requires spending a lot of time in one place. And if I want to make good money, it also seems that one place needs to be in the US. (Is this accurate up until this point?)

So how do you balance the grind? After three years are up, are you going to not work until your savings run out and spend that time traveling? I’ve heard that if one takes a hiatus from working, it makes it difficult to find work in the future/convince employers that you’re going to stick around if they hire you.

At the moment, it seems to be that some pros of enrolling in a MS in EE/ECE would be 1. it’s cool stuff and I want to learn (and do) it all 2. if I live in Shenzhen, I could then hop over to Korea for an internship with Samsung (Korean is on my list of languages to learn) 3. I would be able to live in China for the next year rather than living in urban US but cons would be 1. taking out more loans for education 2. continuing to have neither money nor industry software experience 3. would EE/ECE help me land a fully-remote well-paying (in USD) job?

But, on the flip side, taking a boring, domestic software engineering job would 1. get me a free MS in CS from a prestigious private university (another question on prestige later) 2. get me a couple years of industry experience, programming in both .NET and javascript, skills that hopefully(!) will help me land a cool remote job afterward 3. allow me to pay off all loans and leave me with a lump of cash for 3-4 years of open-ended travel afterward

Another question – does university prestige actually mean anything in terms of getting a cool job and good pay? (eg weighing MS ECE at GaTech vs Columbia)

So I just threw a bunch of my thoughts/questions out there, looking forward to hearing from you. Thanks!

Hey dude, thanks for the questions. I appreciate them because it helps me to reframe where I currently am and what I am currently doing. I may miss some, but I’ll try to address as many of your q’s as I can.

I balance the work grind by accepting and being okay with the fact that there is some measure of sacrifice required to achieve my goals. I don’t think the grind that I’m on is sustainable for the long term but there is a part of me that does enjoy it. You need to consider this when you choose between CS and EE. When you are crushing 10 to 12 hour days and spinning on a problem, you want it to be on something that stimulates you otherwise it is just plain soul crushing. If you think software engineering is boring now, how will you feel about it when you’ve worked 70 hour weeks for several weeks straight?

You will have no issues finding a job no matter how long the hiatus if you are good at what you do and your resume backs this up with accomplishments. This means being goal oriented and disciplined with your work and being methodical in building your resume. In my career I took no less than three projects at three separate companies from inception to completion. The stuff I worked on is out there in the world doing stuff and a day doesn’t go by where I don’t see something that I had a hand in creating. In building my resume I wanted to make a clear statement that I am committed to delivering successful projects. The thought is that even if a company sees you as a short-term lease they’d be foolish to pass on someone with a proven track record. I want to make clear that nothing that I’ve done is outlandishly difficult or exceptional for the decent engineer. It’s actually quite mundane. The trick to it is that I executed a multi-year plan to build a cohesive message with my resume and it facilitates my lifestyle.

In terms of the prestige difference between Georgia Tech and Columbia for engineering and prestige in general, I’d say it’s a non-issue. Even as I say this, my inner-engineer would put Tech ahead of Columbia for ECE and CS. In any case, outside of the top three schools (MIT, Stanford, UC Berkeley) which are exceptional, anything with name recognition in the top 50 or so is mostly a wash in the industry. Fun fact. I was enrolled in grad school at Columbia before continuing my degree at a middling top 20-to-30-ish engineering school in Boston. Did I lose a couple of points in the prestige dick measuring contest? Sure. Did my career take a hit? Nope.

So your choices are an MS in EE/ECE at Georgia Tech in Shenzen or a software job and free graduate education. I’m not going to beat around the bush and give you some wishy washy both are good choices kind of answer. I’m going to give you my honest appraisal. Go to Shenzen and get that degree. It seems like you are smart and well put together. Don’t sweat the tuition bill that you’ll easily pay off later. The education, experience, funky bars, cute girls, and perhaps some crazy adventures are waiting for you in Shenzen (says the guy that is busy grinding away in an office in Austin). It’s pretty clear that you aren’t very enthusiastic about software engineering and that it is more of a means to an end. I don’t see the upside of going down this path aside from monetary benefit. You have the rest of your life to make money.

I’m going to read between the lines a bit. Broadly speaking you are looking for the right choice in terms of security and not failing and falling flat on your face. Let me tell you this. No amount of passage of time or number in the bank account will ever truly make you feel secure when making a decision like this. Confidence in your competence and ability to produce good work is what gives you the courage to take a non-traditional path in life. This is cultivated through educating yourself and being disciplined and systematic in investing in your personal growth. You do this and a couple years, a few grad degrees, a few trips to jail(maybe), and a few countries later and you’ll find that you’ve crafted yourself a pretty badass lifestyle.

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