Jonathan Carlson & What You Need To Know About College [Interview Pt2]

Continued from Part One. We recommend reading that first. Because things just make more sense in order.


Jonathan Carlson’s college experience of engineering isn’t what you see in movies, or read about. Until now. As you read in part one, his passion is the human body, and protecting human life against viruses.

I went in to undergrad fully convinced I was going to pursue a biology major and probably PhD. This desire largely stemmed from a fantastic AP biology class I had at Beaverton High. At the end of that class, my teacher, Richard Peterson, suggested I apply for a program sponsored by Earth Watch that sent a handful of high school students nationwide to 3 week “experiences” in various sciences. I ended up at the Stanford Human Genome Center at the height of the Human Genome Project. I was immediately hooked on genetics.

Open this photo. Bill Gates sitting not 15 feet from Jonathan Carlson, on panel. Follow Jonathan's advice and you might get to do something like this, too. And that's awesome.

It wasn’t until he took that one random CS class that he realized just how relevant computer science was to him. He wound up with a Bachelors degree in “Biology modified with Computer Science,” from Dartmouth University, and then moved to University of Washington for his Masters and Doctorate degrees.

And now he works at Microsoft Research, so you can tell it worked out for him.

Realize that he didn’t quite know what he was going to do with his life. He had a pretty good idea, that’s for sure. He’d found a passion. You should, too. Don’t let yourself get defaulted into some regular old code monkey, number cruncher position at a big office. Look into yourself and find something you legitimately care about. Jonathan was lucky and knew his passion before even entering college. Some people take longer, and that’s okay.

But no matter what your passion is, Jonathan has some advice for you about what to study. Remember, this is coming from a guy who wanted a PhD in biology, not CS:

Study computer science! It will (already does?) run the world, including the sciences. It is regrettable that CS is nearly absent in high school, and intro CS classes in both HS and college are nearly always dry and boring and focus on programming, which is really a very minor part of CS.  CS is the tool by which great science is and will be done.  It is the only way to make sense of massive amounts of data and it is rapidly accelerating the pace at which science across nearly all disciplines advances.  Whatever your interest, in science or outside, there is almost certainly a role for computer science. By studying both, you’ll put yourself in position for a an exciting and rewarding career! And, especially practical in this economy, there are far more CS jobs than there are skilled CS workers.

I would strongly caution against convincing yourself that you know what you want to study before you ever get to college. Very few people I know majored in what they originally thought they would. And at least one top college (MIT 10 years ago, not sure if this is still true) doesn’t even let you pick a major ’till sophomore or junior year, presumably because they’re tired of everyone changing majors in that time. Rather, look for a school where professor-student interaction and collaboration is common across the board. But beyond that, it’s important to find a place where you will have fun and learn a lot about yourself that has nothing at all to do with academics.

Jonathan has a somewhat unusual hobby. This man enjoys his pole vaulting. He decided in high school that basketball and baseball weren’t his things, and decided to listen to his high school chemistry teacher by trying the pole vault out. As it turns out, he met his wife doing the pole vault in college. Having hobbies are important, so find something you like!

But when it comes to choosing a school, he said that “having served on the admissions committee for grad programs, I can tell you that the most important thing academically is to find a place where you can do real research with professors. The better known the professor, the better.” Being on the admissions committee means he heard what people were saying when deciding who does and doesn’t get into grad school.

And the most talked-about subject? Research. So find someplace where you can do real research, and work hard to get in on it!

Finally, some words of wisdom. There’s a somewhat common belief among successful people, and that’s planning ahead for the long term. Before they do anything, they ask if this will help them out something like 10 years down the line. And they plan out their whole lives, sometimes. Jonathan believes in planning ahead, but has some insightful advice:

I’ve always been of the belief that you should plan 3-5 years out and look for what will maximize your interests now, while actively keeping yourself open to completely new directions.  Obviously, it’s good to have in mind the long term (not going to college because you can earn more money in the next 3 years working is really naïve except in the rarest of instances, which typically involve block buster startups), but aside from general long term goals, I can’t stress enough the importance of pursuing current interests to the fullest while always being open to new directions.

In other words, plan ahead. Lay out a road for yourself to travel down. But don’t pave too far ahead, and let the wind guide you. Look where it got him.

There’s only one way to find out how care it can get you.

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About Nick G

Nick has been a blogger since 2007 and is an English and Japanese major, though his roots are in engineering and the sciences. He tutors high school students in Math and English, and plans on becoming a Teacher. In his spare time Nick plays FPS, RTS and RPG computer games, Dungeons and Dragons (the tabletop version) and arcade dance games like DDR. He also likes reading sci-fi and fantasy novels, writing poetry and running. Nick plays drums for the band Tens and Twenties.
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One Response to Jonathan Carlson & What You Need To Know About College [Interview Pt2]

  1. Pingback: Jonathan Carlson & How CS And Biology Can Beat HIV [Interview Pt1] | Get Real

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