Size matters - and I don't mean the department downstairs
You don’t know what you want or need to learn, that’s why you’re doing a degree, and so you need to be able to switch to topics you discover an interest in or use for. That means a bigger department is often better for you if this means you can choose between more options. Of course that implies wisdom and luck in your decisions, so it is not without risk.
For all their talk of helping you get a good job on graduation, careers departments at UK universities are pathetically under-resourced. In my years as a headhunter, no one ever has said to me: “I was really helped by my university careers department.” The business schools are rather better, realising that if they’re selling expensive courses, they need to make damned sure their grads gets jobs. One tip is to drop in on them when graduation looms.
That’s not to say some don’t use the inadequate resources to make themselves a reputation; the worst being Imperial College London which apparently resents their graduates getting jobs without going through firms that form close partnerships with staff - and so wrote to me and other recruiters forbidding us from advertising jobs to their graduates and stating terms that would violate many of the contracts recruiters have as standard.
So just ignore the bit of any prospectus that talks of the excellence of their careers department.
Beer is good
Your decision on where exactly you're going to study computer science is going to affect your life on the same scale as whom you marry, unless you’re dim-witted enough to let your parents choose who sleeps with you, and that requires more than a carefully orchestrated meeting with an academic and some flattering pictures on the walls.
You need the story straight from people doing the course - and that means at the very minimum a visit to the campus that's not organised by the university, and some time in the bar. You don’t have to drink there, but meeting real students helps your research greatly.
Departmental secretaries are a good starting point: throw yourself on their mercy and ask where or when you could meet some students over a coffee, beer or cake. You should also look at the web-pages of the student union or the one for the comp-sci students' society, although these are often out of date. Usually you will find the admin staff are helpful, but if the CS department isn’t supportive then this is bad sign of their attitude to you in the years to come.
Ask the students about the quality of teaching. Not just the lectures, but how they tutor you when you hit a problem or think of a cool new idea. Follow up with questions like:
How over-crowded are the facilities?
Phrase it that way; you’re digging for dirt here.
What sort of speakers do you get from industry?
These are good for both insight and contacts for jobs Can you suggest projects, or must you only do the ones you are assigned? You’re probably not the next Mark Zuckerberg but you want that option, just in case
Are the techs there to help, or is their sole mission to stop you doing things?
Running university IT isn’t easy - you're trying to enable experimentation without falling into chaos. Often the balance is wrong.
What is the drop-out rate?
Unis are very coy about this. Some won’t tell you, and the students won’t know exact numbers but their impression is the best data you will get. The follow up, of course, being “why?”
What cool stuff is happening?
Beyond the bread and butter of logic, algorithms, coding, proofs et al, there is usually some sort of “buzz”. Or at least there should be. Some places simply teach and go home.
What sort of jobs have previous grads got?
This last one will have been answered by the marketing spiel, but they will cherry pick the best outcomes and at least a third of the cherries will be women. Since statistically you’re not female you need to get less spin.
Or to be more accurate, girl, singular. Girls taking A-level computing are so few that it’s likely only one of you will read this piece and frankly you won’t like it (the article, not the course). The good-ish news is that according to the stats, the pay gap between male and female IT pros is about the lowest of any career. You are choosing a career where nearly everyone, especially at the high-end, are male. However, I must be clear that statistically you are far more likely to give up this line of work than a man. If you’re a bloke, then you need to understand that the ratio of girls on your course is not a useful indicator of much at all.
Also the ratios are so awful in general that the only stat that matters is the university as a whole, and secondly my observation as a recruiter is that the more women want to do some career, the less the average person in that career gets out of it.
Finally, you want to both enjoy the experience of university and the life you are buying into afterwards; you will never regret the effort you put into getting beyond the spin. ®
Dominic Connor is a City Headhunter, you can connect to him on LinkedIn.