Friday, March 21, 2008

Undergrad Issues These Days

The current executive of our School of Computer Science's undergraduate society, the Carleton Computer Science Society, recently held a town hall event. The idea with town halls is to round up as many undergraduate students as possible and discuss issues relevant to them. Concerns would be passed on to (and hopefully acted upon by) the school's administration and the society.

Though I am now a graduate student, I still attended, but this time around as Google Ambassador. I feel that these opportunities to have your voice heard are very beneficial to all students, but many don't bother to attend. Throw in some free pizza and the turnout is sure to excellent!

Some of the issues raised were important, and probably transcend our school. I thought I'd pick a couple and give my thoughts on them here.

First up is the co-op program. Co-op at Carleton used to exist solely in the School of Computer Science when it started in the early eighties. Now there are many programs across the university that have a co-op option, and co-op even has its own department.

To get a job through co-op, students look through a database of descriptions that are matched to the degree programs employers are looking to hire from. Employers have a relatively long time frame in which to submit their descriptions and ask for applications and resumes in return. So one company might have a deadline in late February while others might wait until early April. But here's the catch: students have only 48 hours after an offer is made to decide whether they want to accept it.

Some students voiced their concern over this. What if you wanted to see whether you were going to get an offer for another job you interviewed for, and that you wanted more, but you couldn't find out within the 48 hours? You risk losing the first offer on the chance of getting the second. If the more desirable offer ends up falling through, you end up back at square one.

The first thought is to wonder why we don't use the ranking system in place at other universities. In this model, there are rounds of applications and interviews. At the end of the round, both students and employers rank their top three choices (or so), and then students and employers are matched based on the ranks. Based on comments and complaints by several students I know who went through this ranking system, it is far from ideal as well, since the end goal is simply to match as many students as possible with employers.

So somebody suggested a compromise: either make sure bunches of offers are sent out together once a week, or make the acceptance deadline longer so students can wait on other offers. I like both these ideas. I was pretty lucky when I was in co-op, but I know far too many people who took jobs they were way overqualified for in fear of not finding another. Hopefully this suggestion makes it to the co-op office.

As a bit of a side note, I still hear many students say they don't bother enrolling in co-op because it's easy enough to find their own jobs, so why should they pay the fees and have the hassle of writing a work-term report? I don't know what it's like now, but in the past, it was often the case that some big-name companies generally only hired through the formal co-op program. In theory, the students who were eligible for co-op had achieved a certain scholastic standard, so they knew the pool of candidates would be better than the general student population. Also, for some companies, it used to be that actual co-op experience instead somehow counted for more than general summer job experience, or that being in their co-op program during school would be the only way to get in full time later. I'm really curious as to whether this is still the case anywhere.

On to the second issue. I was actually a bit surprised to see this as a recurring theme during the discussions. It turns out that students feel pretty disconnected from their profs. They have a hard time finding out about their research interests, and often don't feel comfortable approaching them outside of class (how approachable they end up being seems to depend at least partially on their teaching style in the classroom). Actually, I'm not as surprised about the disconnect as I am about how much they care about it.

Last year, when I was president, the CCSS started an initiative dubbed the Espresso Lunch. The idea actually came from a recently graduated alumnus who hoped we could provide an informal setting, supplemented with espresso and treats, where senior undergraduates, graduates, and professors would gather to discuss research interests. The lunches ran all last year and the first half of this year.

These events were moderately successful. In some cases, we managed to have profs bring interesting demos of their research, like their robots, or augmented reality setups. Students really flocked around to find out more in those cases. But other weeks, the same profs and students attended, and I'm not sure how much they really learned about each others' interests.

I really hope that next year's CCSS executive can come up with new ways to help bridge this gap between students and profs. Maybe they can hold slightly more formal research presentation days, so students can see more cool stuff like the robots. Perhaps a different few profs can present every month or two.

There are, of course, many other topics that were discussed at this edition of the town hall, but listing off more would just become boring. So I will leave you with these to ponder. Think about whether these are/were problems at your school, and how you might fix them. I'd be more than willing to pass on any suggestions you leave in the comments.

1 comments:

Serena said...

I'm not in the coop program but I was kinda surprised to hear that students complained about the 48-hour time frame to accept job offers. Realistically, when they graduate and are searching for a full-time job, this is what they are going to have to deal with "in the real world".

From my experience with job searching, companies either contact you too early or too late, but either way, most companies give a 48-hour time frame to accept or reject the offer. You are always going to be faced with the "should I accept the job offer now? or wait for another offer?" dilemma. Unfortunately it is just the way the job search works, no matter what field you are in. The sooner students realize this, the better off they will be in their future job searches.

I think the coop program already spoils students with the database of jobs. I'm not in the coop program (for other reasons) but I have been fortunate enough to find many good summer jobs. BUT by not being in the coop program, I have had to work extra hard to get the experience that I wanted.

I work my ass off revamping my resume/cover letter, and networking with potential employers. I strongly believe that good jobs don't come easily, and you have to work hard to get them. Or as some might say: "Luck is where preparation meets opportunity."

Many employers advertise that they "only hire coop students", and most of them do. However if you're lucky enough to meet the right people and work hard to get the job, I find that some companies are willing to hire non-coop students for coop positions.

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