Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Choosing majors, how I got it wrong

When I went into university, I knew exactly what I wanted to do: double major in Pure Math and Actuarial Science, finish as many actuarial exams as I can (got one done in high school), and have both good background theoretical knowledge, decent practical knowledge, and some experience -- all before I graduate. Perfect plan. Alas, I hated my position as an Actuarial Intern at Towers Watson (called Towers Perrin at the time), so it was back to square one: I had no idea what my major should be.

My reason for majoring in Pure Math was that out of everything that was interesting to me, it was the most difficult thing for me to learn. I precluded CS as a potential major, mostly because practical programming knowledge was something I've seen people picking up without formal training. Also, the first few CS courses were terrible: extremely slow lectures, slides, profs going on and on about "The Design Recipe" to make sure you format your comments a certain way... Granted these are junior level CS courses, but I didn't have the patience to see what upper year CS courses are like. (Actually, I tried to sit in on a second year CS course. I walked in as the prof was writing down all the powers of 2 on the board to explain the difference between a 'byte', 'kilobyte' and 'megabyte'. The students dutifully copied it down in their notes. I left.)

I decided not to major in Statistics for the same reason. It would be more fun to learn it on my own. The first two courses in statistics were not impressive, either, and I didn't want the structure of courses to kill my interest.

Combinatorics and Optimization would have been an interesting choice. I think I decided against it because the name was too long.*

So I chose Pure Math and Applied Math. Again, Pure Math was an obvious choice, just because it's so fun. Why I chose Applied Math is still a mystery for me. It was probably the only thing left on my list. (Maybe also something to do with physics being important and understanding dynamic systems being potentially beneficial?)

Regardless, I thought this was fine. I'd be learning what I want the way I want.

Unfortunately, I missed one important thing.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about what distinguishes experts from non-experts. He found that what sets experts apart is the enormous amount of time they have spent learning and practicing. He claims that the magic number of hour of practice that would make you an expert is 10,000 hours. That's a lot of hours.

Yet if you choose the right field, the hours you spend listening to lectures, doing assignments, and solving exam problems count as hours learning/practicing; they count against the 10,000 hours. This means that if you choose a suitable major that is well aligned with your goals, then it would help you in getting closer to becoming an expert: regardless of how bad the prof is or how terrible the lectures are, you are going to spend more time on the subjects covered in the course. In the grand scheme of things, the bad profs and bad structure are not as important, just because having those hours under your belt is what really counts.

This is probably something very obvious for most people -- I hope it is, and that you made better choices than me. I suppose had way more skepticism for post-secondary education than appropriate.

*Long story. I was trying to fit a minor in some how, but heard some rumour about how only certain number of characters would fit on your degree, and decided not to risk it. Make sense, doesn't it?

End of Entry