Navigating Computer Science and Software Engineering, Erik Nykl Finds His Niche
Earning a rewarding college degree without racking up a mountain of student-loan debt? To many young adults, this may sound too good to be true. But Erik Nykl is doing just that, as an Ohio University grad student in computer science. He will graduate with his Master’s by the end of 2013 and have no grad-school debt to show for it—the state of Ohio picked up the tab for all of his two-year program and left him paying only for his student health insurance and a few small fees for campus services.
Not only can he program, Eric Nykl can also lift large tires.
“Grad school for computer science is relatively cheap,” he says. “There is always a way for someone to pay your tuition.”
The demand in today’s society for graduates with computer-software expertise remains critical, and states will finance those college students who pursue it. Nykl encourages all young people who have interest in computer science or its related discipline, software engineering, to look for scholarship and fellowship options. Those options are plentiful.
That’s especially good in his case, since he’ll still have a doctorate to pursue after his grad-school program—Nykl’s long-term goal is to become a computer-science professor. Given the solid growth in tech jobs, professors in his line of study are certainly needed and, like most other categories of highly-sought professionals, can command enviable salaries. Nationwide, according to the sources that Nykl has consulted, a first-year professor starts at a minimum of $60,000 to $70,000 a year.
“There is always a way for someone to pay your tuition.” ~Nykl
From Software Engineering to Computer Science
Nykl distinguishes between software engineering and computer science, having completed study in each. He earned a four-year degree in Software Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville before coming to Ohio.
Software engineering taught him the technical nitty-gritty of how software programs work and how to design them, troubleshoot them, and optimize their features and performance. It’s a practical field that one applies to make things that perform real-life functions.
Moving into computer science, Nykl discovered a greater emphasis on the conceptual. Computer science explores theories of software and computer operations, and it requires Nykl and his classmates to undertake volumes of in-depth research.
“There were some things I didn’t get to learn as a software engineer, like some theoretical and science-y stuff,” he says. “Coming to computer science, I get to learn all that stuff.”
Computer science also grounded him more deeply in algorithms, the step-by-step instructions for solving problems that a programmer adds to a software program so that it will know how to carry out given functions. Algorithms are a critically important component of software, he explains.
“If you can make a faster algorithm, a company can sell it and make billions of dollars,” he says.
"Software Engineering is a practical field that one applies to make things that perform real-life functions. Computer science explores theories of software and computer operations." - Nykl
Later on in the two-year program, Nykl found his niche of choice in graphics. He is now completing a Master’s thesis on graphics concepts.
“Getting into academia, one thing I learned is that when you’re looking at a research field, you’ve got to find what you’re interested in and, secondly, find what improvements can be made,” he says. “The whole goal is getting new knowledge and creating it.”
The Value of Software Engineering
Although Nykl prefers computer science, he gives much credit to his four-year undergraduate education in software engineering. Software engineers gain practical skills and an in-depth understanding for how to put systems together, and he feels strongly that training in these assets makes him a better computer-science scholar.
He remembers one day when he and his brother, who is also an Ohio University student, impressed a number of computer-science classmates by setting up an impromptu wireless connection. He sat at a laptop and carried on a clear conversation, via a radio receiver, with his brother as his brother walked around the computer-science building and talked into a radio transmitter.
“I’ve had other students say they were impressed with the practical skills I had going into the program,” he says.
He also recalls several research projects that selected him to participate on them primarily because of his software-engineering acumen. They include a part-time job within the school’s Industrial Engineering, operating graphics programs to facilitate construction of aircraft components. He applied his knowledge to tweak the programs and boost their performance.
In another instance, a grad student in Ohio University athletic-training program sought out his help to design a Microsoft Connect application that would monitor individual athletes’ knee joints and track their movements to determine their particular risks for ACL tears, a common injury that sabotages many young athletes’ sports ambitions.
“I could see a school buying it, and those who are prone, they could prescribe them some preventive exercises,” Nykl says. “An ACL is a devastating thing to injure. Avoiding that would be great.”
Some computer-science students earn their degrees without ever actually working a computer, save for typing and emailing. That would be impossible for a software-engineering student, and it is out of the question for Nykl. He loves the real-life programming work of a software engineer, and he looks forward to using his computer-science career to not only study software programs, but to operate them and create things with them, as well.
“Coming from a practical background, I want to stick with practical research. The best part of what I get to do is deal with a project that people can use right away,” he says.
Deciding Your Own Path
Nykl has done a lot of serious thinking to figure out what aspects of computer software most appealed to him and how he might work with them in his career. He advises every student interested in software to, in like fashion, give their own tastes serious consideration.
"Worst case, it’s going to be a great experience."
What inspires him may be completely different from what inspires someone else. But in all, he is very pleased with the academic path that he has chosen and encourages anyone to think about it, too.
“If you like doing research projects, go for it (computer science),” he says. At the worst case, it’s going to be a great experience.”