Iman Khan Blends Comp Sci and Cog Sci

Before settling into Rice University in Houston, Texas, Iman Khan had lived in the Philippines, Australia, and Canada. “Although I finished up high school in Houston, there was no doubt in my mind that I was going into the foreign service,” she said, “so I came in to Rice as political science major with a concentration on international relations and I was also interested in cognitive sciences.”

After her May 2017 graduation, she’s headed to Apple as a software engineer. So what prompted the change in direction? Khan said she had switched majors to Mathematical Economic Analysis and Cognitive Sciences in the spring of her freshman year, but she found that she was not suited to economics. Then she took COMP 140 to meet a cognitive sciences requirement in the first semester of her sophomore year.

Although she had never coded anything before, she understood everything in her computer science class while economics didn’t seem to make sense. Khan said, “I had a much better time in COMP 140, even when put in a team with two guys who had been coding since high school.”

She decided to take a second computer science course that spring; by the end of her sophomore year, she was committed to the CS major. “Even when I was still up at 2:00 a.m., I was enjoying what I was struggling through. It was hard, but I could see CS leading to a career path I’d like — so I’m now Comp Sci and Cog Sci.”

Several friends joined her in making the switch to CS at the beginning of their sophomore year. “We were all in the same TA sessions and ended up working together a lot. I had that solid group to study with and through them, I discovered CSters,” she said.

CSters is a student club that supports women in computer science, including helping members find internships as well as scholarships to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing annual conference.

Khan said it felt like a lot of her friends in CSters and the study group found internships after their sophomore year, but she wanted a study abroad experience. She said, “I’d never lived in Europe, and the summer after my sophomore year was going to be my only chance to study abroad, so I went to Denmark.”

She expected to find a comparable COMP class in Copenhagen that summer. “Instead, I ended up on the complete opposite end of the spectrum,” said Khan. “I took a Positive Psychology course and a course that put me right in the middle of the largest music festival in northwest Europe, Roskilde Festival, where I volunteered with international journalists.”

Her two years of Rice CS courses made her feel confident she would still have plenty of opportunities to find a suitable internship, so she dove into the international experience and absorbed as much of the local culture as possible. Later, the balance she strove for between her CS courses and her other interests paid off in her interviews.

But she did wonder if she would be at a disadvantage because she didn’t spend her spare time programming. Khan said, “One thing that got to me when I started in CS was the number of people who either started coding in high school or coded projects on the side for fun. I enjoy coding, but I get my fill in all the coursework. I have been really involved in other areas –RPC, Beer Bike Coordinator for Jones, the Jones Senior Committee. But the summer internship I had and the job I’m returning to after graduation is partially coding and partially using my cognitive science degree.”

She was also advised to spend a lot of time talking about her programming skills and projects, but found in her interviews that her extra-curricular projects were just as important. “I had a lot of interviews at Grace Hopper and they were fast,” she said. “It was like ‘talk about a coding project you are proud of’ then ‘now talk about what you do in your spare time’ and I always had a lot to talk about. My internship offer came out of those Grace Hopper interviews, and that led to my post-graduation offer.”

Her advice to other CS students or prospective CS students follows that theme. “Don’t worry if you don’t think you can code all the time. You don’t need to feel you are less of a CS student or that you don’t fit in; it’s not going to hinder you in your career. Yes, you need to seem dedicated, but you can use all your other interests. Make time to try out other things and other majors.”