Switching majors

Nov 16, 2016

* * *

This is how I switched from CS to Art halfway through my junior year at Stanford.

But first, a little background knowledge.

Growin’ up

I’ve always liked making things. I drew comics and made trading cards out of binder paper in elementary school. I took extracurricular drawing and painting classes through high school. My creations were consistently low fidelity and physical, grounded in pencil and paper.

I attended an after-school program in sixth grade, where I was introduced to Photoshop CS2 in their computer lab. I wasn’t sure what to do at first, but then I found a stock image of a rubber duck included with the program. I spent hours learning to use tools like the clone stamp, magic wand, and lasso to inflict horrifying genetic mutations on this duck.

Photoshop stock ducky

I made that duck into a cyclops, a doctor, Cyclops from Marvel, a robot, and on and on. That particular Windows XP desktop in the corner of the lab was littered with JPG files of duck permutations. I became interested in learning more complex tools because of this duck.

At the same after-school program, Jeffrey (who was one year older than me and was therefore in junior high and very smart) showed me how to create animated movies in PowerPoint. By using the basic shape and line tools, I could create stick figures and simple props on a slide. Then, I could duplicate that slide and adjust my character’s limbs by a few degrees. Through this process, I created numerous Dragonball Z fight scenes and even my own version of A Christmas Carol.[1]

This curiosity and confidence in learning and re-purposing tools led me to graphic design, photography, and film in high school.

Senior year of high school

When I was applying for colleges, I usually put film down as my predicted major. I did well in science and math classes, but they felt more like obligations forced upon me. I liked reading, but I didn’t like over-analyzing or reading things I didn’t want to. Like most people, I had been told that art was not a safe career. But film seemed all right.

I had been making films with my friend Sida ever since we entered our high school’s Rotary contest on water preservation. As I recall, we were the only ones who submitted, and we never got our prize money.

From there, we ended up doing student government campaign videos for our friends and more short films for ourselves. By senior year, we were co-executive producers of the school TV station and making fun music videos to promote school events. It was a huge part of my life that I really enjoyed, so it seemed like an obvious thing to pursue further in college.[2]

Stanford: Year One

When I finally decided to matriculate at Stanford, I was undecided in a major way. In terms of film, Stanford only offered Film Studies. I wanted to make, not study. So that was out. I had a vague inclination to look into Product Design, but I heard that classes were competitive to get into. I ended up taking some Mechanical Engineering/Product Design seminars, but I was still averse to what I had heard about the time-consuming, expensive, and tedious introductory courses. Besides, I didn’t have to be in a class to make something; I could just use the PRL whenever I wanted.

Still, I made steps toward at least completing the physics prerequisites before making the ultimate decision.

By spring quarter, I was no longer willing to deal with the physics prerequisites or any other class that had no bearing on what I wanted to do. I thought I was done with that kind of bullshit after leaving high school. Yet here I was, wasting precious hours of my time at Stanford, cooped up indoors struggling to take the derivative of some dumb electron. On week 7 of the 10-week quarter, I withdrew from Electricity & Magnetism.

So long, Product Design — I hardly knew ya

So what did that leave by process of elimination? Stanford’s #1 failsafe: Computer Science. I hadn’t taken any CS before coming to Stanford, but I was convinced by sheer quantity of praise to take the introductory CS106 series. And I was pretty decent at it! I would spend hours lost in flow state, tweaking variables and re-compiling my modified masterpieces. CS was about making stuff, but in a way that I had never experienced before. At the end of the quarter, Mehran Sahami showed a graph predicting unstoppable software engineer job demand forever and ever, which appealed to my vague frosh notion of job security.

So yeah. CS because why not?[3] I consummated the decision fall quarter of sophomore year so I could enroll in classes without being forced to meet with my pre-major adviser[4] and because I wanted to do the CS summer research program. I was told that CS majors had a better chance of getting in. What I should have been told was that CS majors who have taken more than two intro courses and also know the research professors first-hand have a better chance of getting in.

Still, I stuck with CS. What else was I supposed to do?

Something else that I could do

My top priority growing up was completing schoolwork. After work was done, I could do cool, fun stuff like filming or playing guitar. This strategy worked in high school, where I could start homework in class while the teacher was talking and finish in a few hours after I got back.[5]

However, my courseloads at Stanford were increasingly pushing out time to do cool, fun stuff. As the quarters rolled by, it felt more and more like I was taking CS courses just to check the boxes. And you know how I feel about taking classes I don’t want to take…

Rewind to senior year of high school. Besides Stanford, I was also considering USC for film school (it was actually the first acceptance letter I got). Every now and then, I found myself wondering:

What if I had just gone with film?

I still really liked the idea of directing a film or creating characters at Pixar, but my portfolio was getting lamer and more outdated by the second.[6]

But it was too late. Transferring felt like a huge step back. Besides, I had my qualms about USC when I visited for their Admit Weekend program, and I have a feeling I would have regretted passing up Stanford in that alternate timeline. The grass is always greener on the other side.

During winter break of junior year, I was telling all this to my old friend, Sida. Besides the workload, I felt like an anonymous drop in the CS bucket when people asked me what I majored in. My major felt like a label, a shorthand proxy for who I was as a person. Whenever those two letters left my lips, I could see myself being placed immediately into the “typical nerdy Asian“ box with no chance to defend myself. And if there’s one thing that I can’t stand, it’s being labeled as typical. You’d think I would have learned some humility by coming to Stanford, but I just found ways to rationalize and differentiate myself from my incredible peers so I could avoid comparing myself directly against them. I clung to my artistic persona like a raft in the Sea of Identity Crises.

At this point, I had learned about coterming, and getting a master’s degree in a year seemed like a good deal. I told Sida I might apply for the CS coterm, but it felt redundant to do both CS for undergrad and graduate school.

My friend Lawrence (who was one year older than me and was therefore a senior and very smart) had switched majors from CS to Product Design and also got into the CS coterm. We had talked about his decision one breezy day at the Summer Palace in Beijing last year, but I hadn’t considered that his move could apply to me as well.

As I was talking to Sida though, the idea suddenly bubbled up in my head. What if I switched majors to Art Studio and then applied for the CS coterm? If I was having such a hard time finding time to make cool stuff between classes, what if I just made cool stuff for classes? I would have no more excuses!

Art wasn’t a practical degree, but I had the CS coterm as my security blanket. It would be my lifeline if things didn’t work out.[7]

With this thought in my mind, I opened up my 4-year plan Excel spreadsheet on the last day of winter break and created a new tab: “Art + CS!!!“

Making the switch

I pulled requirements from both departments and slotted them into rows and columns like a life-or-death round of Tetris. It looked feasible to complete on time (i.e. one additional year after undergrad), so I enrolled in three art classes and one CS class (plus a history class). Still, I had a hard time sleeping that night. What if I was too old to switch majors? What if I couldn’t find an adviser? If I didn’t get into the coterm, would I be okay with just having an Art Studio degree?

The first day of school, I walked into the office of the Art department adviser and told her I wanted to declare a major in Art Practice. 20 minutes later, I was out the door and officially declared.

What if I was too old to switch majors?

Still, I needed an adviser. My first art class of the quarter was Art & Electronics with Gail Wight, who promptly agreed to be my adviser.

What if I couldn’t find an adviser?

All right, so my first two fears were easily resolved. The last one was trickier.

Actually applying

I spent the next couple days biking back and forth between the Gates CS building and the Cummings Art building to figure out my different options and to learn the steps for applying to the coterm. I considered the newly-announced CS + Art joint major but decided I was too old to squeeze that many units in. Plus, a bachelor’s + a master’s is better than just a bachelor’s, right? Right??

I was told I had a decent shot, given my grades from the CS classes I had taken. But, I still needed three recommendation letters, plus I had to take the GRE before the application deadline at the end of the quarter. Luckily, I had started assisting on research under Professor James Landay, so he seemed like a good person to ask for the letter. I asked Gail to vouch for me on the artistic front, and I got Julie Zelenski, queen of systems and C, to write the final one because I got an A- in her doozy of a class.

As the quarter winded down, I took a practice GRE a week before the actual one, and then I did my best in a little cubicle at the San Jose test center. My results arrived a few weeks later. I did really well in the reading and writing portions of the exam, but I was only in the 76th percentile for math. I wasn’t too worried because I was told the GRE was just a formality for the coterm, but that percentile certainly wasn’t going to improve my chances.

In any event, all I could do was wait to hear back about my application. I decided that even if I didn’t get into the CS coterm, I wouldn’t revert to CS for undergrad. The quarter had its ups and downs, but I was making things that were truly personal instead of academic exercises in implementing CS concepts that already existed. I would figure something out.

Halfway through spring quarter, I received an email with the subject line:

Coterm congratulations

What if I didn’t get into the coterm?

The Takeaway

Being undecided isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it might be worse to stubbornly stick to a choice and live your life dictated by your 18-year old self.[8]

As it stands, I’m glad I took the chance. The friends I told were all incredibly supportive, but I was expecting a lot more resistance from the various Stanford entities. I wanted to be the hero of an underdog story, but I was met with either support or benign apathy. The lesson here is that the world isn’t out to get you because you’re not a big deal. This leaves you free to take risks and prove the world wrong!

There’s plenty that I didn’t expect to learn about art, and there are lots of benefits to the CS coterm over the undergraduate major. When people ask me what I’m studying, it feels a bit more representative now when I can say, “CS and art.“

  1. Well, based off of Mickey’s Christmas Carol, which I had on VHS at the time.  ↩

  2. If film wasn’t an option at a college I was applying to, I would put down business because I had done a summer program at Wharton. I had no idea what was going on when we learned about finance or the stock market, but I liked working on a team to develop a business out of an idea. As I said, I like making things.  ↩

  3. I had also explored law and consulting as potential career paths, but those didn’t directly correspond to majors. Those will be stories for another day.  ↩

  4. The pre-major advisers at Stanford are pretty hit-or-miss if you’re undecided or have artistic interests. It seemed like my friends with strong engineering or scientific interests would end up with the chair of the EE department or a Nobel laureate in physics as their PMA. Meanwhile, I met with a Stanford musician/music teacher in his foam-covered practice room on the second floor of the Braun music building. He was a nice guy and always gave me free tickets to his concerts, but he couldn’t help me navigate the complexities of freshmen year in any way. Frosh aren’t allowed to enroll in classes without first meeting with their PMAs, which makes sense if the PMA can provide guidance on which classes to take. In my case, it was more like being forced to visit my grandma every quarter for a quick chat about my life, but this grandma controlled whether or not I could continue my academic career.  ↩

  5. Plus, I literally didn’t have a social life in high school. My best friend in junior high, Max, moved to a different high school, and I was terrified by how many more people there were in high school compared to junior high. Everyone seemed to have established friend groups already. For lunch, I would usually eat and work in a friendly classroom or just walk home for lunch and walk back before fifth period. It took me until junior year to notice that my classmates didn’t immediately go home after the final school bell rang — they just hung out. I prefer simplifying my life, and removing the often-volatile social factor from my life was the decision I made out of fear. In case anyone is wondering, I’ve become way more social since then. Hit ya boy up.  ↩

  6. I didn’t even know that art school was a thing when I was applying for colleges. Would I have gotten into Calarts? Probably not. But at least I could have tried. I have more recent thoughts on this. Coming soon!  ↩

  7. I have more recent thoughts on this too. Coming soon!  ↩

  8. On a related note, Comfort with Uncertainty  ↩

drop me a line at blog@kevinzhai.com!