Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Advice To Students From Paul Graham

by AJ

Here are some quotes from an essay by Paul Graham.. in which he gives advice to University students. Paul is a computer programmer and entreprenuer... so much of his essay concerns the field of computers. I have changed the wording a bit to speak to all students:

(Parts of this essay began as replies to students who wrote to me with questions.)

Recently I've had several emails from computer science undergrads asking what to do in college. I might not be the best source of advice, because I was a philosophy major in college. But I took so many CS classes that most CS majors thought I was one. I was certainly a hacker, at least.

What should you do in college to become a good English speaker, programmer, business person, social worker, etc.? There are two main things you can do: become very good at your field, and learn a lot about specific, cool problems. These turn out to be equivalent, because each drives you to do the other.

The way to be good at your field is to work (a) a lot (b) on hard problems. And the way to make yourself work on hard problems is to work on some very engaging (interesting, exciting) project.

Odds are this project won't be a class assignment.

Another way to be good at your subject is to find other people who are good at it, and learn what they know. People tend to sort themselves into tribes according to the type of work they do and the tools they use, and some tribes are smarter than others. Look around you and see what the smart people seem to be working on; there's usually a reason.

Whatever the disadvantages of working by yourself, the advantage is that the project is all your own. You never have to compromise or ask anyone's permission, and if you have a new idea you can just sit down and start implementing it.


Of course college students have to think about more than just learning. There are also two practical problems to consider: jobs, and graduate school.

In theory a liberal education is not supposed to supply job training. But everyone knows this is a bit of a lie.

There is not a direct correlation between the skills you should learn in college and those you'll use in a job. You should aim slightly high in college.

The projects you do in classes differ in three critical ways from the ones you'll do in the real world: they're small; you get to start from scratch; and the problem is usually artificial and predetermined. In the real world, projects are bigger, tend to involve other existing projects, and often require you to figure out what the problem is before you can solve it.

You don't have to wait to leave (or even enter) college to learn these skills. If you want to learn how to deal with existing projects, for example, you can contribute to open-source projects. The sort of employer you want to work for will be as impressed by that as good grades on class assignments.

Grad School

What about grad school? Should you go? And how do you get into a good one?

A lot of my friends are CS professors now, so I have the inside story about admissions. It's quite different from college. At most colleges, admissions officers decide who gets in. For PhD programs, the professors do. And they try to do it well, because the people they admit are going to be working for them.

Apparently only recommendations really matter at the best schools. Standardized tests count for nothing, and grades for little. The essay is mostly an opportunity to disqualify yourself by saying something stupid. The only thing professors trust is recommendations, preferably from people they know.

So if you want to get into a PhD program, the key is to impress your professors. And from my friends who are professors I know what impresses them: not merely trying to impress them. They're not impressed by students who get good grades.

So the best thing you can do in college, whether you want to get into grad school or just be good at your field, is figure out what you truly like. It's impossible to trick problems into letting you solve them.

From this point, unless you want to go work for a big company, which is like reverting to high school, the only way forward is through doing what you love.