Advice from a computer science graduate

In the coming weeks there will be an influx of new students starting their computer science degrees. I was in that situation 15 years ago when I started at the Department (now School) of Computer Science at the University of Manchester. It was a fairly daunting experience, even for someone who lived locally and so wasn’t faced with the task of finding their way around a new city, so here is some advice on how to get the most out of your time studying computer science.

Do something different

Most universities will allow you to take at least one module per year from a department other than the one you are registered with, even if you are doing a single honours degree. Some even encourage this – look out for a department for interdisciplinary studies to see if there is specific support available.

Even if you don’t want to formally take another module, you may be able to attend lectures and tutorials without having to take exams or hand in coursework. It’s a good idea to ask first, but I’ve never met a lecturer who was anything other than delighted that a student wants to turn up out of choice.

You could also consider going off at a tangent and following up your computer science degree with a masters in a completely different subject – I switched to ancient history before going back to computer science again. Some people thought this was odd, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and it’s provided an interesting talking point for interviews. As a direct result, I’ve also been involved in the Manchester Classical Association as well as giving talks on Roman and Greek history.

Join societies

All universities have student societies covering a range of topics from sport to debating – though arguably many are simply an excuse for going drinking with like-minded people. Don’t limit yourself to ones connected with your department, most of the friends I made at university whom I’m still in touch with were from societies covering interests unrelated to my degree.

Talk to lecturers

Universities are full of people who are national or even international experts in their field. For example, I was taught computer architecture by none other than Steve Furber, one of the designers of the BBC Micro and the precursor to the chip which powers most modern smartphones and tablets.

Most lecturers are passionate about their areas of teaching and research and are more than happy to talk to enthusiastic undergraduates (if they’re not, avoid their subjects as they’re probably not a good teacher). There was one lecturer who everyone was terrified of asking a question because he didn’t suffer fools gladly (or at all for that matter), but when I went to ask him about a third year project he couldn’t have been more helpful – going as far as to offer me the unrestricted loan of any of his books on the subject.

Experience trumps degree class

By all means aim for a first, and congratulations if you manage to achieve one, but I think getting some real world experience is more important. If you’re able to stay around over the summer period, look out for vacation studentships, which pay you to work on university projects. Not only are these great experience to add to your CV, you’ll also make useful contacts and you don’t have to learn the ropes of a completely new work environment.

Get help if you need it

If you’re struggling with life at university, make sure you get help early on. Many universities and student unions offer free counselling to students, and there’s far more awareness of mental health nowadays. You can also get help via the NHS, but you might find that the waiting times are longer.