Jeremy Abroad

Reflections after getting a Master’s in Operations Research from Columbia University

March 26, 2014

I just finished the Master’s program in operations research from the School of Engineering & Applied Science (SEAS) at Columbia University. I probably never should have been accepted because I don’t care about operations research, but education is a business and they figured it was worth the (government) money.

For reference: I did my undergrad in math at a state school.

First Impression: All my classmates were international, mostly from China

Nearly everyone in my department (Industrial Engineering & Operations Research) was from China. This is true not only of IEOR, but of graduate engineering in general. After China, the most common countries were France, India, and Greece. There is a definite language barrier and the ethnicities often tended to stick to themselves and speak their own language, though they were always friendly.

I don’t exaggerate when I say that I could probably count the number of Americans in my class on two hands (one hand for white or black people) out of a class of 100-200 students.

(I don’t mean to imply that this is a good or bad thing - I enjoy meeting people from other countries because they have different perspectives and it’s interesting learning about their cultures. I only bring this up because I don’t think most Americans are aware how few Americans there are in graduate school engineering)

Everyone wants to work in finance or consulting

This is mostly due to selection bias, but as quoted from a classmate who also did her undergrad there, “Columbia brainwashes you into working in finance or consulting” (she got her chemical engineering degree and is now an investment banker).

It’s a huge shame that our brightest minds are lured into working in such socially useless industries rather than doing more meaningful work. But that’s the topic for another post.

Recruiting, particularly in finance, is great. But most companies only want undergrads

It’s incredible how ridiculously structured corporate recruiting is. Having a Master’s usually counts against you for the “prestigious” jobs. Although there are lots of great jobs on Columbia’s campus recruiting platform, filtering out jobs that don’t allow applications from grad students eliminates about 80% of them.

  • Operations research classes aren’t a walk in the park. Especially true for “Stochastic Models”.
  • Most OR students are financial engineering rejects (myself included) and don’t care about OR. Even the ones who applied to OR generally don’t care about OR. I’ve noticed that graduate students in math tend to be disengaged from their work because the work often has little relevance to reality. Even the classes that appear relevant aren’t, serving as little more than theoretical masturbation (eg. game theory).
  • Most engineering PhD students want out and advise against making the same “mistake” they did (admittedly this is from a small sample size)
  • Master’s students are the cash cow of the university. I was told by a PhD student on the engineering council that when the school faces budget constraints, one of the first things they do is expand Master’s programs.
  • Operations Research and “Management Science & Engineering” are the same degrees. Just that in the latter, you’re more restricted in your coursework, forced to take “Operations Consulting”, and have a slightly higher probably of getting into business school courses.

Being able to take 4 classes in whatever area/school you want is awesome

Out of the 10 classes you have to take, 4 can be in whatever school you want (another engineering department, business school, School of International and Public Relations, etc). I sampled some SIPA courses and spent my electives in the business school. Which leads me to…

I’d rather be a business school student

Business school students have it so much better than engineering masters students.

First of all: the amount of work required is relatively a joke. In engineering, you have weekly problem sets that probably take a minimum of five hours to complete per class. In the B-school, you might have an assignment every 2–3 weeks and it’ll take maybe an hour if you’re unlucky. The work is a hell of a lot easier, and in my opinion, a hell of a lot more interesting.

And to top it all off, your grades in B-school don’t matter! There’s a non-disclosure policy, which means that potential employers don’t get to see your grades. So students don’t really need to do anything.

I remember once studying in Butler (the business school library) and then having my table get taken over by B-school students. They spent the whole time talking about their elaborate international vacation plans.

There are a lot of brilliant professors

This was what I found most valuable of the B-school courses. A lot of the professors are just total ballers in their fields.

Now I’m going to discuss some more general impressions I got of Columbia University overall

  • Everyone (except the B-school) is overworked
  • There are a lot of Asians (I’m allowed to say this because I’m Asian)
  • There is a lot of pressure to take the typical elite school path of going into high finance, with consulting a close second.
  • The gym is subpar and the football team always loses.
  • The girls around campus are actually pretty attractive.
  • Morningside Heights is its own little bubble

Morningside Heights doesn’t even feel like New York. Some people like it, I hated it. I never really felt like I lived in New York City living in Morningside Heights. As a fellow classmate from India summed it up: “I watch videos of NYC in my apartment wishing I lived there.” The grass really is greener downtown, and going down there is a pain in the ass.

Although I never felt in danger at Columbia, it’s definitely not the safest area. You hear stories of people occasionally getting harassed and robbed. I never personally experienced it and it’s definitely rare, but it does happen. There are a lot of bums up there. Once one of them yelled a racial slur at my Asian American friend as we were walking. That infuriated me, but what can you do?

Anyways I’d had enough of Morningside Heights and eventually moved downtown to East Village, where I spent my last semester. The commute was definitely annoying - being 45 minutes and two transfers - but to me it was worth it.

Overall my experience was good. I got what I wanted out of it, which was mainly the name, living in NYC, and more time to figure out what to do with my life. In a couple months I’m going to pay for it in the form of debt. That’s going to suck.

I really wish I had been interested in entrepreneurship sooner. The resources at Columbia for that sort of thing are tremendous. At one point my friend told me about Steve Blank’s Lean Launchpad class. At the time I didn’t care. Now I’ve realized I’ve missed out on a great opportunity. But that’s life. I’ll have to carve my own path.

In another post I’ll talk about the actual stuff I learned, and why most of it was a waste of time.

Jeremy Bernier

Written by Jeremy Bernier who left the NYC rat race to travel the world, work remotely, and find the meaning of life.