Burn Rate

Use Your Runway

I’ve been working on Spark, Torch’s mentorship program, where I’ve been fortunate enough to meet the next generation of precocious NYU CS students. With a few of these students, they’ve mentioned the standard ambitious plans such as double majors, masters degrees, and graduating early. I’ve tackled the first two, so why not the last?

Graduating early is a very understandable plan. College is expensive—skipping a year could save you a massive chunk of cash. And if you’re truly set on it, then go ahead. However there’s some caveats.

Shorter Runway

I like to visualize college as a runway. It’s an opportunity to learn what you want, meet who you want and generally do what you want to best prepare yourself for your adult life. You should come out of college with some momentum and a plan.

If you choose to graduate in three years, then you’re effectively cutting your runway short. This means that whatever you want to accomplish, social, professional or otherwise, needs to pushed up. Want two internships before graduating? Better start looking freshman year. Want to apply to grad school? You’ll need to look at research opportunities as early as possible.

School != Classes

One mistake that some people make is assuming that all they need is the degree. They decide to speed run college, get the degree and get out. For some majors that very well may be a decent solution, but for CS that’s not ideal. I’d argue that internships and practical experience are equally important as classes. I’ve met my fair share of people who have graduated without work experience and struggled to find jobs post-grad.

To graduate in three years, you generally need to give something up. You’ll need to take more CS classes than normal, or you’ll need to take classes over break. This can cut into your precious internship/extracurricular time. If you find yourself deciding between graduating early and taking an internship, I’d take the internship.

Learn More Than The Major

Another issue I take with graduating early is that it usually prevents taking non-CS, non-core classes. I’ve written about the joy of humanities before, but even if you’re genuinely a whole hearted STEM person, there’s a whole bunch of cool classes you could take. I’ve talked about how I’m against double majors, but that doesn’t mean I’m against learning various subjects. You could take some data science courses, or some graduate CS courses. You could learn some math or some physics. Frankly NYU’s CS major is not that rigorous, so graduating with the bare minimum won’t give you a lot.

Meeting People

A big big part of college is meeting people, both socially and professionally. NYU is a school with a talented student body in a variety of fields. I’d recommend doing your best, even during coronavirus, to meet people and develop connections. Networking gets a bad rap, but it does pay to know really smart, really interesting people. You can get referrals, career advice, even potential partners if you want to do a startup or other venture.

Also you should be having fun! Nobody should have their college experience be just studying and work. Even during a pandemic, you can find fun, safe activities to do.

The Right Reasons

One theme that I’ve touched upon in other posts is the idea of credentialism. A lot of students tend to judge themselves through accomplishments like getting a masters degree, doing a double major, graduating in three years. This is sort of understandable as credentialism is the name of the game for college admissions. Being president of five clubs while taking 10 APs does genuinely help your college applications. But the same isn’t true in college. Sure, projects and past jobs will help you get internships, but nobody cares if you graduate in three years. At best, it’ll get you to the interview, at which point you’ll be like anybody else. Same with a masters degree and same with a double major.

None of these things are inherently bad, but make sure you’re doing them because of genuine reasons. Not due to credentialism, not due to ego and certainly not due to autopilot.

Mental Health

As with any ambitious academic pursuit, graduating in three years can strain your mental health. You’ll likely have to take 20 credits a semester, likely all mandatory, challenging classes. You’ll probably have less time to socialize and have fun. Is it worth it? Probably not. Your mental health is worth more than the saved tuition or the credential.

Some of you may not be used to thinking about your mental health. I know that my high school had a culture of ignoring mental health for the sake of getting ahead. You should understand that this is not sustainable. Eventually, sometime, somewhere, your mental health will catch up to you. And all that you’ve worked for will be pointless if you’re miserable.

Not to mention mental health is a pragmatic concern. If you do face mental health issues such as burn out, depression, etc., you might find yourself in danger of withdrawing from school or having to do another semester. This isn’t the end of the world—your mental health is more important than school—but it does make the cost/benefit analysis a little trickier.

I remember warning a younger classmate from my high school about mental health, and he responded that he just thrives in high pressure environments. And coming out of high school, I can see why he’d believe that. He survived an intense school, with extreme amounts of work and managed to gain acceptance into a prestigious college. He could very well be the rare breed of person to thrive in high pressure environments.

But what if he’s wrong? What happens then? Most likely he’ll burn out. Perhaps it’ll be a slow, measured burn out or a fast, dramatic one.

And besides, even people who “thrive in high pressure environments” can burn out. Everybody has their breaking point with work. Even if you went through four years of intense work, you might not make it through eight.

I don’t mean this to imply that you can’t accomplish great things or be super ambitious. But what’s lost is that ambition is a marathon, not a sprint. Great works are accomplished on the scale of decades, not years. If you try to burn through your physical resources to attain a short term goal, well you’ll miss the forest for the trees.

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