Imagine completing your undergraduate degree in three years. To pull it off, you would have to take six courses per semester plus two summer courses—with no breaks. Most people run the risk of burning out, and even if you don’t, such an intense schedule can take a toll on your social life and grades. However, that’s exactly what Giang Bui, a computer science and management major, decided to do. After joining the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) during the 2021-22 academic year, she will be graduating with the class of 2024 this June.
Bui had a few reasons for graduating early, but her main reason was the opportunity cost of education. “If I stay for one more year, I will lose time and money. If I graduate early, I can take the next step,” she explains. In her two years at UTM, she became a Dean’s List Scholar, the president of the Google Developer Student Club, and a teaching assistant for both management and computer science courses. Bui also became a researcher, first authoring a paper, titled “Prior Programming Experience: A Persistent Performance Gap in CS1 and CS2,” published by the Special Interest Group in Computer Science Education (SIGCSE). She presented this paper during the SIGCSE’s Technical Symposium in Computer Science Education this past summer.
In her first year, Bui joined UTM’s Computer Science Student Community as a tech officer and worked on Viaplanner, a tool that helps U of T students plan their schedules seamlessly. “Working with a team of four upper-year students and a professor helped me develop my technical skills and teamwork,” reminisces Bui. The project also helped her form strong connections with the team and “opened doors for her future.”
One of the doors led to an opportunity to conduct computer science research. “At first, I had zero experience with research. I had no idea what I would do with [it]. I was always focused on being a computer engineer. I just applied on a whim, and wanted to try a new experience,” shares Bui. Her research focused on how prior experience in computer science affects student performance in introductory computer science courses. The inspiration for Bui’s research came from her students. “I’ve spent my whole life as a student, and I have been a [teaching assistant], so I have seen a lot of people struggle when it comes to computer science, and there are a lot of factors that contribute to this. So, I want to make it easier for [them]—that was the centre of my research,” adds Bui. With help from her graduate student mentor, Naaz Shibia, and her professors, Andrew Petersen and Michael Liut, Bui eventually published her paper in the SIGCSE.
The SIGCSE was a turning point for Bui. She was nervous at first. “There were so many people at the conference, so many grad students, and even my professors from UTM and [University of Toronto St. George]—I was like, what am I going to do here? How am I going to present in front of them?” Despite her worries, she enjoyed the conference. In addition to presenting her research, Bui was a student volunteer at the conference and helped speakers present their research—a fulfilling experience. “It was interesting to meet other grad students and researchers and understand what inspired their own research and what they plan to do in the future,” she explains.
Bui also mentioned how exciting it was to meet well-known researchers. She had been reading their papers prior to the event and was ecstatic at the chance to finally talk to them in person. At last, when it came to her presentation, she was inspired by the questions asked by the other researchers: “Their questions gave me ideas for what to do in the future, like measuring the confidence of students when taking a course.”
Bui also presented her paper at UTM’s 2023 Summer Undergraduate Research Fair (SURF). Comparing SURF to the SIGCSE, Bui revealed she had to change how she presented her information. “I had to talk in a way that everyone could understand because not everyone had the same background in computer science. I also wanted to make sure everyone could take something away from my presentation, regardless of their major,” she adds.
These experiences propelled Bui to apply for graduate school and pursue a PhD in computer science, specializing in human-computer science interactions. Her internship at Citibank helped her make up her mind about her career plans. “From my internship, I realized I wasn’t interested in being a software engineer. I could do it, but it wasn’t where my passion was. I was more interested in research, specifically investigating student difficulties interacting with technology and improving those interactions. It’s what I love, and something I can do for students, and potentially all the people,” she says.
For other students who also want to follow her path into research, Bui suggested two ways to get started. First, she suggests looking into the research and publications of our professors. If someone’s work sparks your interest, talk to the professor and see if there are any projects, work studies, or independent studies they could include you in. However, she notes that it is harder to get a higher-level research position, like a paid research assistant position, since professors may prefer working with more experienced students. Second, she suggests joining a course like a Research Opportunity Program (ROP)—which is what Bui did! “ROP’s are a great way to start fresh and gain more experience,” she stresses.
Bui encourages students to find their interests through research, clubs, or internships. She stresses that the risk of rejection may exist, but that you’ll “never know if you never apply.” This advice seems particularly apt coming from Bui. Throughout her time at UTM, she has been going for every opportunity offered to her, utilizing them to develop herself and reach her goals. It was with this mindset that she started her journey as a researcher and realized that it was her true passion.