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Is it ok for me to have an interest in subjects or content beyond my course?

  1. Jan 13, 2016 #1
    I am in a course of Computer Science Engineering.

    I have noticed about by personal temperament that I learn better on my own than I do under authority. I learn better when I am reading books and studying on my own than when I am sitting in a class and listening to six hours of people talking.

    So, when I develop an interest in a subject, I learn a lot about it on my own. I had a lot of interest in Maths, not necessarily the Maths taught in college and in the second semester I realised I could indulge my need for learning on my own. Till that time, I always depended on school to learn subjects like Maths and Science and never thought I could do it on my own. With this revelation, I went down the rabbit hole. I started reading lots of Maths books. Books about Maths history (Journey Through Genius, A History of Mathematics by Victor Katz), books about recreational Maths(books by Ian Stewart, Martin Gardner, Ross Hosenberg), books about problem solving(Thinking Mathematically, Arthur Engel, Alan Schoenfeld, Sanjay Mahajan), and books about particular topics in Maths that I had no idea about like Visual Complex Analysis by Tristan Needham. There were many other books that I started reading. I should note that I never finished any of these books. I would read a little bit, and then get scared of not understanding something and then reading another book and returning to it once again (or sometimes not).

    I did this for the sheer joy of learning. I enjoyed studying Maths more than I ever did in all my school and pre-university years. In fact, for many years I did not enjoy studying Maths in school inspite of an inclination towards the subject in my early childhood. I often got intimidated by books like Arthur Engle which dealt with training for Olympiad. If I could not solve those basic problems, how could I hope to understand differential equations. However, my worry may have been misplaced because the Engineering Maths class in college which included differential equations needed a greater amount of mathematical knowledge, but not a greater amount of mathematical skill than the problem solving book.

    I was studying for the sheer joy of learning and nothing more. There was no concept of a minor so I couldn't tell anybody that I minored in Mathematics. Sometimes, this thought weighed me down. Inspite of all the effort I was putting in, it improved neither my résumé for further studies or for work. For some reason, saying "I read X number of books about the subject." does not have as much weight as saying "I completed a course in this subject", even though the former would yield a greater amount of knowledge and the latter would mostly include cramming and going past the exams. It worried me that after spending so much effort, my profile did not look any better than someone who didn't do any of that .

    Towards the end of the third semester, I developed a deep interest in psychology books. I could not stop reading them. So sometimes I wished I was in a psychology course. And then I thought that if I was, the emphasis both from the teachers and the university would so overwhelmingly be on marks and exams than on acquiring knowledge that I would be turned off and maybe have started reading computer science books ! Again, I feel bad that I have nothing to show for either a professional or academic résumé.

    This sometimes makes me feel guilty when I'm studying either psychology or Maths. There's a voice at the back of my mind telling me that every minute I'm spending on indulging my curiosity and thirst for learning is a minute I'm not spending on coursework. Ironically, if I wasn't studying what I like, I probably wouldn't have been studying at all. (Like in the first semester.) It's a paradox. If I have it in my mind that I have to only do coursework, I am immensely repelled. If I start studying what I like, then I study for a long time but I wistfully think it could have been spent on coursework to improve grades. It's also extremely defeating to look at the report card in view of all the effort I put in throughout the semester.

    I'd also like to go to graduate school because I like studying and would like to study some more instead of start a job straight away. Ideally, I'd like to go abroad so I can maybe formalise my knowledge of some subjects like psychology and mathematics and minor in them. But, that requires good grades.

    So my questions are

    1. Is it ok to have an interest like this or should I be spending all my time doing coursework ?

    2. If it is ok, what can I do with my interest that will give it some kind of quantifiable value that will enhance either my academic or professional résumé ?
    Last edited: Jan 13, 2016
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 13, 2016 #2
    I think that having an interest like this is brilliant, especially since you find so much joy in it. However, it's really important that you find a balance between your own studies and coursework. Grades are important, especially if you want to specialise in a narrower area of a subject later on in life.
    As for things you can do with your interest, have you looked at websites such as Future Learn? You can study free courses in whatever interests you and you can put these on your resume. Future Learn is linked to many different universities and colleges, so you can count on its courses being worthwhile.
    Hope I could help!
  4. Jan 13, 2016 #3
    Thank you for taking the time to read it and your encouragement. Whenever I think about any of the great computer scientists or software experts, I start feeling bad because those guys had single minded attention and I don't. So that makes me feel guilty about having other interests. It also kind of bothers me thinking about the ten thousand hour rule. Knowing I'll not be able to spend that many hours on any one subject since I'm studying other stuff too.

    I tried a few MOOCs but I always forget about it a few days later and don't complete it unfortunately. Do you have any other ideas ?
  5. Jan 15, 2016 #4
    There will always be more to learn. I think it is OK to take a break from coursework, but be mindful to be successful and competitive after you graduate, (whether it be for a job or follow-on academics), should prioritize coursework. Future graduate admission committees are going to have to assess your potential on academics related to your coursework or early research, in relation to your peers. They are not going to know how to assess your potential relative to your peers from the several activities and digressions, no matter how meritorious they are.

    I know I was often guilty of putting off coursework in order to read something "really interesting". (Physician; heal thyself). So I know that this is hard to hear.
    You probably know yourself better than anyone else. Ask yourself, "Am I avoiding or putting off coursework, that I should be doing?".

    You have to be honest. There is (almost) always a reckoning for too much diversion.
    Gladwell references the 10000 hours rule, but few of us will be Bill Gates, Mozart, Bobby Fischer or Bill Joy. Yet to be proficient, you need to expend a lot of time to your pursuit to be successful.
  6. Jan 15, 2016 #5


    Staff: Mentor

    It seems to me that you don't enjoy learning about the courses in your major, CSE. Maybe you should think about changing your major to something more agreeable to you. Another alternative is to take a break from university for a year or so, and getting a job. Being involved in the everyday world of work might give you some time to focus on what you really want to do with your life.
    It's not an "either/or" question, IMO. You should prioritize your time so that you spend the majority of your time on the courses you are taking, and if you have spare time, you can indulge your interests in other fields. From your other post, it appears that you are doing the opposite, spending the majority of your time on the things that capture your interest, with whatever time is left over on your coursework.

    Regarding priorities, some quotes from a couple others who have responded in this thread (emphasis added):
    Based on this thread and the other long thread you posted, it appears to me that you want us to validate your choice to spend most of your time reading stuff that interests you (e.g., psychology and mathematics) and little on the coursework of your major area (which you say "repels" you). I don't see that reading books on psychology will be an asset on your resume, and what you've described as your mathematics readings seem to be mostly "about" mathematics rather than mathematics itself.

    CS Engineering is not an easy discipline, which I think you are finding out. If this isn't what you want to do in life, find something else or take some time off from school until you can figure out what you want to do.
    Last edited: Jan 15, 2016
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