Studies in the Valley


A bit more than a month ago I moved to Santa Clara in California and started my program in Software Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University on the Silicon Valley Campus. I would like to share some of my experience that I gained after three weeks of an graduate student at CMU and in the Silicon Valley. To some degree, it is the kind of blog post I was looking for, when applying for programs and when preparing to move here. To another degree it tries to answer a common question I get from people back home: “How is studying over there?”

Arriving in the US

I have been to the US before multiple times and I have many American friends – so I have been exposed to much of the culture and mindset of the US before. But moving here is still a completely different story. Through Fulbright I met people that come over here from even more different cultures than me, like Asia and Middle East, and I cannot imagine how big the culture shock for them must be. For me there are obviously many little things that are different and I find mainly amusing and I can tease my US roommate about it. The two biggest differences I experienced are transportation and consumer rights. Let me explain.

I knew Switzerland was public transport heaven compared to the US. But I thought, well I was in the US before and sure it takes more time, but it is still feasible. Well, that thought was just naive. Public Transport in the big cities is decent but the quality and availability rapidly decreases once you leave the city. Once I arrived at my apartment I realized I needed a better way of transport instantly. So first I bought a bicycle and this allowed me to look for a car. I kind of expected that, but I was still very surprised on how essential a car is in the US once you get out of the city.

Buying a car brings me to the second point: Consumer rights. I feel like they are not existent in the US and this frightens me to this day. Buying a car was one of the most awful experiences I had. With my budget I was looking at a used car below 10’000 USD. When I realized that a) all sales are final in California and b) there is no warranty at all, I started to worry. And I can imagine it is similar for other big sales as well. The stories I hear from other people about their landlords are not pretty either. Or the amount of debt students are allowed (or should I say forced) to make is still hard for me to grasp.

Studying at Carnegie Mellon

Obviously the education system in the US is radically different than in most parts of Europe and in particular than in Switzerland. I spend all my life-savings on a three semester program and degree that I could have pursued in Switzerland for a the prize of my car. And that is already accounting for my scholarship. So what do I get for my money?

Well, first of all the obvious one: A name. And it seems that this counts for quite a lot in the US. I am certainly not yet that used to that. If people are asking about your alma mater in the US they are looking for a reputation. If people are asking for it in Switzerland, they are interested in where you picked up that weird dialect.

But to be fair, I do see differences in the quality of education which go beyond just the reputation. I assume many things originate from the fact that CMU Silicon Valley is a small and very specialized campus compared to other Universities. In general, I see the professors and staff taking a genuine interest in the student’s progress and well-being on campus. On a graduate level most of the relationships with professors feel more like a peer relationship rather than a professor-student relationship.

Second, the infrastructure available is impressive. From the infrastructure within the course (e.g. access to Amazon Web Services for the course on Cloud Computing; a new Beagle Bone Blacks for Foundations of Software Engineering) to the equipment for prototyping and research projects (3D printer, laser cutters etc.).

Third, the connection to the industry is very visible. As the university campus is on the NASA campus, there are obviously a couple of projects in collaboration with them. I will be starting a position working on a research project sponsored by Homeland Security. There are invitations to tech talks and conferences in the bay area on a weekly basis.

Last but not least, being placed in the hearth of the Silicon Valley is certainly a special experience all by itself. It is still weird driving by all the building complexes with Mozilla, Intel, Nvidia, Google and Microsoft logos. As CMU students we also get many recruiting opportunities from big companies to tiny start-ups. I am certainly looking forward to starting an internship next summer.

In closing, I remember having many doubts when preparing to move to the US. Did I choose the right university? The right program? Will I have the required skill-set? After three weeks of being a CMU graduate student, I can answer all of these questions with a genuine yes. But it will not be easy. When I look at my calendar and all the deadlines I already see me spending a lot of time in front of my computer getting all these projects done.