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Help Me Feel Better About My Choice of Major
August 8, 2012 4:38 PM   Subscribe

Should I be studying what interests me (philosophy) or what is marketable/employable (computer science)?

In less than a month, I'll be off to a well-regarded public university to start prerequisites for a computer science major. I am worried because a) I have been going to community college for the last two years and classes will now become more difficult by an unknown margin and b) I know next to nothing about computers right now and imagine having difficulty with the math-laden pre-reqs.

I decided to take up pre-reqs for computer science after realizing the odds are not in my favor to succeed in studying philosophy (competitive grad school admittance, low number of openings for philosophy professors). My decision on class choices was made without too much thought on how well I'd actually do in them. It may be worth a mention that when I set a goal of transferring to this school from my community college, I had my sights set on studying philosophy. I only changed my mind after I was admitted and I thought a little more practically about the situation.

Now, it is close to the start of the semester and I am, again, leaning toward philosophy. I have a whole host of people close and not-so-close to me that think that I should study computer science because of the job prospects. That thought weighs heavy on my mind, but I doubt I will even get to a point of considering computer science-related jobs. There are two math classes as prerequisites (calc II and discrete math) and I have been historically bad at math, perhaps due to the fact I always thought "I'm never going to need to know this" and not studying.

I am not even quite sure if I'd enjoy a job in the field. I briefly tried learning java on codeacademy.com and thought it was interesting, but lost interest at a point where I needed more explanation than the website provided. I know a very little bit about how coding works due to my strong interest in webpage design when I was much younger (html and css/stylesheets). I was about 12-13 at that time and when my interest waned, I never picked it up again. My end goal with my possible computer science degree would be a job as a software developer. To be bluntly honest with you all and myself, I am still not quite sure what they do (as far as the day-to-day goes), but know the pay is good. (The pay/job security being my main motivation for deciding to pursue this major.)

On the philosophy side of this question: I have always been interested in "the big questions of life" (as I'm sure most people are). I enjoy reading a lot and analyze things to death (everything). I enjoy trying to see things from a different perspective than my own. I enjoy debate. I think all these things combined make me well-suited for philosophical study. My end goal would be to become a professor, but I have also seen philosophy majors go on to consulting, which also seems a suitable career path. Law school, without the thought of incurring mountainous debt, would be appealing of its own merit.

And so, I am left feeling torn. It is still not too late to enroll in phil. classes instead. An ideal, pragmatic approach would be to take computer science pre-reqs and if I don't do well or discover I have zero interest, than to switch to philosophy. However, if I tank my computer science classes, my GPA will plummet and so will my chances at a good grad school for philosophy. I feel like I have to make this decision now because the computer science program is very condensed and will be basically two straight years of computer science without electives. I would really like to graduate within two years and thus don't really have time to dabble.

Also, if anyone is wondering why I am not considering any other majors, I feel like I lack any real, marketable skills or have any other interests I could base a career off of. Computer science is at least, basically, a skilled trade compared to studying pure sciences or maths (again which I have no interest in).

What should I do? Welcoming any and all insights and opinions.
posted by sevenofspades to Education (59 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
Why not consider a minor in Philosophy?

I was a philosophy/English double major and I've been working in the IT world since I graduated.

Geek knowledge + advanced reasoning skills + ability to express thoughts well in a written manner = making you stand out from a lot of your competition.

While I may have done a few things differently in my education, I don't regret the Philosophy courses--they actually did end up being very marketable.
posted by monkeymcgee at 4:41 PM on August 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


Do you like money or happiness more?
posted by cmoj at 4:41 PM on August 8, 2012


Or, to rephrase cmoj, how heavily is your happiness based on money?

To some extent, everyone's happiness is based on having enough money to live by. Having been through a similar dilemma regarding the whole interest vs. employability major choice, and having now graduated, my recommendation would be comp sci major and philosophy minor.
posted by dragonfruit at 4:48 PM on August 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


I have seen many job openings with the prerequisite of a computer science degree. I have never seen any job openings list a philosophy degree as the prerequisite.

To give you some background, I majored in computer science, decided it wasn't for me, and now work in a corporate finance department. But I have never regretted my C.S. degree - it shows a high degree of technical aptitude that has opened many doors when I interviewed, even outside of my field.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 4:50 PM on August 8, 2012 [9 favorites]


I've known two philosophy undergrads who made the jump to law school after finishing their undergrad.
posted by smitt at 4:51 PM on August 8, 2012


Marketable.
posted by tristeza at 4:52 PM on August 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


Why not both? My brother majored in both and even did a couple years of a philosophy PHD. Decided it wasn't for him and now he's a programmer.
posted by 3FLryan at 4:53 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Speaking as someone who spends an awful lot of his time interviewing people for programmer jobs, I find that people who don't have a proper qualification, but have spent a lot of time hacking with their friends and learning are *far* superior programmers to people who have CS degrees but no practical experience.

Study whatever interests you enough that you'll get good grades in it, but spend your time working on hacker projects with hacker friends.
posted by colin_l at 4:53 PM on August 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


I am relatively confident that a modest amount of discretionary income from early-middle to late life will enable you to be a bit more consistently philosophical--unless you are predisposed to asceticism. I hope you can find a way to blend heart and mind--for me it was a behavioral science major and a minor in the philosophy of science. Best Wishes.
posted by rmhsinc at 4:55 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


But money is happiness!

Computer science doesn't have to be a skilled trade. In fact, there is an entire field of theoretical/mathematical CS that you could conceivably enjoy. In places it has connections to straight-up philosophy, such as decidability/computability. There is plenty of intellectual and, dare I say, deep stuff in CS, even if you individually never go beyond programming blinky ads on websites.

In your place I would figure out how much wiggle room two years of university provided me (you do have two more years, right?). Explore whether it's feasible to pursue a double major or a major/minor arrangement.
posted by Nomyte at 4:57 PM on August 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Philosophy and CS actually overlap way more than you might realize. Especially if you can work in some classes in theoretical CS and mathematical logic into your CS degree (maybe AI too?). I recommend reading Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter if you want to see what the overlap looks like. Examining "the big questions" from a CS perspective can be very interesting.

As for being bad at math: the kind of math you learn in CS classes like discrete math is very different from what you've done previously. There's very little computation involved (that's the computer's job). It's mostly learning to reason mathematically and construct solid proofs. Calc II will probably be a challenge for you, but not insurmountable if you study.

Are you sure there's no room for electives at all? It might be worth spreading things out to three years, although obviously the cost is an issue. A minor in philosophy would help you stand out. It basically proves you can write well, which is a serious problem for many technical people. Plus, it's hard to register for required classes at many public schools, and 3 years would give you more breathing room in that area. Plus, if you spread out your CS classes, you'll have more time to study if they're hard for you.

I think the biggest issue is: did you enjoy what little coding you've done? Was it at all fun to you? If not, you're going to hate your CS major and you're better off with philosophy. Otherwise, it's probably best to go for the CS major. Even once out of school, there's nothing stopping you from reading about philosophy if you like it a lot, while I'm guessing if you majored in philosophy you'd never have the motivation to train yourself in IT or something.

Plus, a CS degree doesn't preclude going to law school. If you take the right classes, that could also open up the opportunity to be a patent lawyer.
posted by vogon_poet at 4:57 PM on August 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


Firstly -- philosophy PhDs may be looking at a dire academic job market, BUT a BA in philosophy is not an impractical degree. The University of Toronto did a study a few years ago, and found that the most employable major in either arts or science was philosophy (yes, more employable than a CompSci degree or any of the sciences - I don't know if Engineering (a different faculty) was included). Philosophy students are given a very rigorous training in reading, writing, and logic, and employers like that. My friend walked into a really good consulting job with a Philosophy BA.

If you think you would like working in computers as well, do a double major -- I can imagine that the two would complement each other very well (especially if you enjoy logic - programming is applied logic). But Comp Sci degrees are also no automatic ticket to employment. I have tiny numbers, but alongside my gainfully employed Philosophy friend, I have out of work friends with Comp Sci degrees who have been looking for programming jobs for a long time.

If you are really worried about your GPA, find out if you can take any of the pre-requisite or computer sciences courses on a pass-fail basis in a pinch. At my uni, you could switch to pass/fail about half-way through the course, at the same point where you could drop the course. That way, you could experiment with courses in different areas without permanent consequences.

Finally - never trust anything that random people on the internet tell you about job markets, unless they work in human resources research or something. NONE of us know where the jobs will be in 2-4 years. Talk to the people in your university career centre, talk to people in positions that you would like to work in or companies/organizations that you would like to work at.
posted by jb at 4:58 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Do computer science. Take philosophy electives if you can, and read the works of philosophy that interest you -- they'll be much more affordable and enjoyable if you have a job.

(This comes from the perspective of someone who made the other choice, and is facing the consequences of pursuing an impractical degree...)
posted by Edna Million at 5:00 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


This question would be easier to answer if we knew which university, because the degree of difficulty you will encounter varies widely. At some places, if you are not an expert in C and its dialects before entering as a freshman (let alone as a transfer), you will get creamed. At others, you can skate through without ever writing a single line of significant code.
posted by Ardiril at 5:01 PM on August 8, 2012


I briefly tried learning java on codeacademy.com and thought it was interesting, but lost interest at a point where I needed more explanation than the website provided.

This really sticks out to me. In day-to-day software engineering (which is what most Computer Science grads end up doing), an excellent programmer is one who goes out and does whatever it takes to learn how to solve a problem, whether that's asking on Stack Overflow, Googling, or asking coworkers. If you lose interest when you can't solve a problem with what's in front of you, that's troubling. You sound like you have a thirst for knowledge, but maybe not in this field.
posted by zsazsa at 5:02 PM on August 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


I have seen many job openings with the prerequisite of a computer science degree. I have never seen any job openings list a philosophy degree as the prerequisite.

That just says that computer science can lead to certain closed professions, not that your employment prospects are improved by computer science.

I've also seen a lot more job openings that require food safety certification than a Masters in History, but my Masters opens up better employment prospects than food safety - it's just not explicitly spelled out.
posted by jb at 5:04 PM on August 8, 2012


Marketable. Marketable, marketable, marketable. Money cannot buy happiness, but it can sure as shit buy free TIME, which you can FILL with happiness. If you have to take two buses for three hours each way to work nine hours at a mind-numbing menial job, you will not have a lot of time free for hobbies - you'll be working, commuting or collapsing. If you have a more lucrative computer science job, you will - once established in your profession - have free time, paid vacations/sick days, etc. - all of which you can fill with college courses, conferences, projects, clubs, etc. Trust me on this - I'm in IT. It isn't my life, and it DOES finance a lot of very cool hobbies.
posted by julthumbscrew at 5:08 PM on August 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Study both.

Philosophy of mind covers a lot of computation theory.
posted by twblalock at 5:17 PM on August 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


I feel like I recommend this all the time, but that's only because it changed my life. Take the Johnson O'Connor Aptitude Test, and they'll tell you what kinds of jobs you will be good at. This may include things you'd never considered before... or things you didn't even know were careers. Their philosophy is not to do what you love, but that you will love doing things you're good at. It's kind of expensive, like ~$600 IIRC, but that's a heck of a lot cheaper than a college degree in the wrong field.
posted by hishtafel at 5:18 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


One way is as follows. Look at the computer science department. Then, look for faculty whose research interests include user-centered design, and in particular the following topics:

- participatory design
- computer-supported cooperative work
- communities of practice
- activity theory
- design research

There are also other topics. But the point is that many of these topics have interesting and solid philosophical roots, especially if you read some of the original thinkers. Pelle Ehn's work on participatory design, for instance, combines Marx, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein. Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger's work on communities of practice has some Marxist roots, for example, as does some of Yrjö Engeström's activity theory.

I'm aware that if you do the undergrad CS degree it will probably have less of a philosophical angle in it, but if you can find a good faculty mentor, you may get to take part in some cool projects, and look at some cool design theory, and might get a good senior/capstone project out of it. A minor in philosophy would not hurt.

If you're willing to post the name of the school and dept. you're looking at, I can take a look at their web site to see if I recognize anyone who might be useful (or memail if you want).
posted by carter at 5:19 PM on August 8, 2012


It sounds like you don't really know what either job would be like. I'd highly recommend at least talking to a few professional programmers and a few philosophy professors to get a better idea.

If you want to contribute to philosophy, you'd ideally get a technical degree as well. The interesting philosophical questions about life are now within the domain of sciences such as neuroscience, physics, and theoretical computer science.

I'd recommend computer science because it's easy to go from computer science to philosophy, but hard to go from philosophy to computer science.
posted by sninctown at 5:22 PM on August 8, 2012


Consider taking Philiosophy as a minor.

If you would like to major in it, it is super important to know: If your degree is not going to get you a job, what else are you doing that will???

I graduated with an honours degree in Film Studies and Political Science. I knew this degree would never get me a job (I wrote my thesis on Disney's Beauty and The Beast for frig's sake), so the entire course of my degree I was working, hard, to make sure than when I graduated I would be hireable, and moreover, I would me more hire-able than all my BA graduates and all the people competing with me who had vocational degrees, and perhaps internships as part of their degrees. I was much more competitive than them, because I worked my arse off at it, and it was vital.

Yet I still struggled to get a "real" job when I made the transition into a salaried career, and there was no recession at the time.

Young people are often encouraged to pursue a high school model ("Do you what you love! Follow your passion!"), rather than to think about the actual high school experience ("Lots of meaningless drudge work for people you neither understand nor respect! Having small amounts of fun but more fun on the weekends with friends and stuff!"). Working life, for most people, is the latter, not the former. There are prices to following your passion as a career that go beyond the competitiveness and having to be generally excellence*.

Financial stability and security are but one of them, and when you've been through life with working parents providing that, it's easy to underestimate it. And easy to underestimate how much satisfaction you can get from a "real" job, and also from following your passions in your spare time, and the realisation that your passions will develop and change over your life and career probably many times.

In summary: whatever you choose to do, make sure that you're doing something that will make you more hireable than both graduates in your degree, and graduates in general, cause you will be competing directly against them; a degree is not a job license, it will be hard to get a job after graduation whichever path you choose, but the more esoteric the path, the harder it will be.

*You're probably not generally excellent, fyi, in super competitive fields like philosophy, regardless of what your high school experience and parents etc may have told you. I'm sorry but there it is, it's a numbers game. The people with those boring jobs, they didn't want them either. No one starts out wanting to do the boring jobs
posted by smoke at 5:29 PM on August 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


As a friend of quite a few philosophy majors, I can tell you that from a social standpoint, you're better off not making it a focus of your life because it can make you into a profoundly irritating person to be around. Go with comp sci.
posted by Hello Darling at 5:34 PM on August 8, 2012


If you can afford to study philosophy, then do it. Studying philosophy is a wonderful experience. I did it. And, you will find some job that suits - most people don't work in the field of their BA major.

But do not go into debt for philosophy. Your post does not mention student loans or debt from getting your degree. If you are taking student loans, then you need a plan - and philosophy does not offer any plan-able career path. Don't foolishly mortgage away your future for a few years of philosophy now.

But - if you can afford it, then definitely study philosophy.
posted by Flood at 5:38 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I majored in philosophy and it has helped me...not at all. Someone commented that lots of phil grads go on to law school but it's not because philosophy degrees are helpful to law school applicants but rather that most philosophy grads have no idea what else to do with their degree. Myself and many other lawyers I know followed that path (see also: political science).

Go for the computer science degree. You can read philosophical texts in your spare time.
posted by Pomo at 5:40 PM on August 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Philosophy prof here, with just a few things to add or emphasize---

1). You've never taken a philosophy class. Take one before you worry too much about this question.

2). Philosophy BAs are actually pretty employable, though not *in philosophy*. Phil majors also rock the LSAT, GMAT, etc. (better than ANY major other than physics, iirc). Google "philosophy major jobs" or something -- I'd find a good resource but I'm on my phone.

3). Really, your major need not dictate your college experience, or your future. Major in philosophy and take a lot of comp sci. Or vice versa. Who cares, really?
posted by kestrel251 at 5:41 PM on August 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


i have an expensive philosophy degree. no employer has ever leapt across the table during an interview in excitement over that fact. but i can also program computers, and that has landed me every real, well-paying, non-shitty job i've had since graduating college.

after i graduated 5 years ago, i moved to san francisco. i have a lot of friends here who work in web development and seem to enjoy themselves--they do creative work and get paid loads of money!--so i tried to teach myself web development. i would do some ruby on rails tutorial, make a little toy app, and shelve it immediately. i dabbled in CSS and HTML. i made a few websites that have rotted away from inattention. i got a book about databases. none of it stuck. i shrugged, figured i just wasn't that good at computers or programming, and that it wasn't my bag.

but it turns out that i hate web development. i just don't care about making websites, blinky sexy javascript, ruby on rails hype, startup BS, none of that. someone introduced me to linux and python and systems administration and everything just lit up for me. THIS was home. ah, /home, sweet /home. if i had taken CS classes in college, i might have figured this out way sooner, without spending a lot of money on a fancy liberal arts degree.

i guess the lesson is that computer science is a HUGE field, and that almost anywhere you make your home in it, there is money to be found. get the CS degree, minor in philosophy, and you will always, always have a job.
posted by guybrush_threepwood at 5:42 PM on August 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


Nthing the suggestion that philosophy and computer science make a great pair for a major/minor or double major, particularly if you aren't completely sure about computer science. As someone who is occasionally responsible for hiring people, I can say that I would definitely pay attention and give extra points to someone who had studied both computer science and philosophy, even though the jobs I'm hiring for are not directly related to either. The combination tells me that you can think logically and precisely and that you're probably a decently well-rounded person.

But I'm still not sure you actually want to go into computer science based on everything you've said, and that's a pretty rough major to subject yourself to if you don't enjoy it. Everyone saying that you should go for the practical major does have a valid point, but here's the thing: for a lot of jobs, your major isn't important - it's just that having that sheet of paper means you don't get ruled out on a technicality.

I have an English degree and I manage a database for a living. I have a friend with an M.A. in philosophy who works at a search engine company. Lots of people with liberal arts majors end up working in technical fields. If you don't like computer science, don't study it - but do follow smoke's excellent advice about finding ways to set yourself apart regardless of what you end up studying.
posted by jessypie at 5:44 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


you're loading yourself up with pressure for no apparent reason. you've got this idea that you want to graduate in two years - why? - dunno - just do... it doesn't make sense. you will be in a much better position to make a decision if you give yourself - what, six months? a year? to think about it and try different things out. it seriously doesn't make sense that you think you have to decide the rest of your life right now - it doesn't work that way.
posted by facetious at 5:48 PM on August 8, 2012


You do not need to pay anyone to study philosophy, so if you choose a BA Philosophy, you will be spending, say, $50,000 to live and study philosophy for two years, only to be qualified to work at Starbucks. You could stay in community college, get a degree in a trade (accounting, etc), study philosophy in your free time or audit expensive college classes for free, be qualified for a decent career, and have 30,000 more dollars. And, what would you do with the extra $30k?

Unless the school is free or close to it, I'd change to a cheaper school where I can try lots of different fields while I figured out what I liked or could at least tolerate. I watched other students spend an extra 2-3 years racking up debt before finally finding something tolerable -- better they had done that at a cheaper school than the most expensive public school in the state.
posted by flimflam at 5:51 PM on August 8, 2012


A few scattered thoughts that I hope will help you...

I'm a software engineer. Most of my peers majored in Computer Science, and it's a common prerequisite. I majored in business and realized I didn't know what to do with it after college, and that all of the options seemed really boring. I fell back on software, which was a hobby for me, and ended up getting an entry-level job and working my way up despite the lack of a relevant degree. Most of my peers have their CS degrees, but I work for an English major, and previously worked for a computer science major. A coworker of mine has his J.D. but decided he hated it and became a programmer.

I took some Computer Science classes in high school. I hated it. I took the AP exam in computer science, and got a 1 -- the same score I would have gotten if I answered the questions by just tracing my hand on the paper and handing it in. The course was so focused on boring stuff I didn't care about, and ethereal concepts, that I saw it as this ultra-boring discipline. It's actually a really fun and exciting industry.

As far as what programmers do on a daily basis -- it hugely varies. Out of college, I worked at a startup, helping with the software for a niche social network. I'd meet with project managers and talk about the new features they wanted and how we could implement them. I'd implement those things, sometimes by myself, sometimes sitting with a group of peers and doing it very collaboratively. Some days I'd work on really "back-end" coding doing credit-card processing, other days I'd work on front-end stuff, like trying to fix up the graphics on our website or tweaking some styling. I'd work with customer service when they had tech support issues they couldn't understand, and help debug issues customers saw. (The past-tense example is because I've since taken a job with more of a weird role that's really not pertinent.) I have friends who are developers and that do very different things, though. There are user-experience specialists and designers and QA testers and mobile app developers.

All this said, I would be surprised if your school's CS department didn't have someone that would be excited to talk to you and answer your questions. (Though I would also be surprised if your school's philosophy department didn't have someone that would be excited to talk to you about job prospects and whatnot.)

I would nth the comments about the best developers being people who are really passionate about it. If you're doing it just for the money, you might never be very good at it, and you might never find out how interesting and fun it can actually be. But the fact that you found some examples on a website boring and frustrating doesn't mean anything, I don't think. Remember that I decided not to pursue computer science in college because my APCS course in high school showed me how boring it could be. I've since accidentally discovered how interesting it can be, when the task is a real one, versus writing an essay question about how I would use inheritance to model plant taxonomy, or writing an efficient sorting algorithm on the board. You state that you love reading, analyzing things to death, and trying to consider things from different perspectives. Those, to me, are hallmarks of an excellent programmer.

Despite the fact that college is insanely expensive and that creates a lot of pressure to get through it as quickly as you can, I think you'd be remiss if you didn't explore both options a bit. You can change your major along the way, and you can change careers later, but now's really the ideal time to figure out what it is that you actually want and what you enjoy.
posted by fogster at 6:01 PM on August 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's difficult to forecast which sectors will have jobs 4 years, 10 years or longer. A decade ago programming was a pretty safe bet. Now there's a significant amount of work done offshore. A CS degree isn't a guarantee.

On the other hand, philosophy definitely isn't a ticket to a job. I have a philosophy minor and it's wowed exactly no one - including grad school and doctoral admissions. I absolutely think it helped me develop my analytic skills in a way that made me successful at future jobs. A philosophy degree has value, but it's hard to fit it to a job posting.

Computer Science is a non-starter since you aren't interested in programming or upper level maths. Philosophy isn't going to get you a job. There's a big world out that and you should look for other marketable degrees. Do topic such as accounting or entrepreneurship interest you? How about healthcare? Not necessarily doctor or nurse, but maybe nutrition or physical therapy?

What interests do you have that could yield a career? Major in that.
posted by 26.2 at 6:02 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


You're considering a major in a subject for which you have zero interest, aptitude, or enthusiasm...because you think it'll make getting a job in that field a safe bet? Oh dear, this is by no means the "practical" decision.

Look, pushing yourself to take a few classes in subjects that aren't your cup of tea is a good way to feed your intellect, but resigning yourself to gritting your teeth and struggling through it as a major is unlikely to give you awesome long-term job prospects in computer science. This isn't vocational training, your major isn't something that you "do," it's something that you use. There may be a better tool for you.

If philosophy seems hopelessly pie-in-the-sky, why don't you split the difference and start out as a communications major and see where that takes you? It's marketable, there's a technical side, a "big questions" side, and it gels with that interest in web design you had, too.

P.S. The subject of your undergraduate degree is not actually very important, it's rarely a prerequisite for a job EXCEPT in some technical fields.
posted by desuetude at 6:03 PM on August 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


I have a B.A. in Philosophy. It was what I was truly interested in and at the time I bought a line of thinking that said a broad-based liberal arts degree would lay the groundwork for almost anything I wanted to go into afterwards. That was untrue. It was basically a waste of my parents' hard-earned money.

Major in Philosophy only if you definitely will be going to law school. Minor in it if you want, or just read the great philosophers on your own after college.

You won't know whether you can hack CS until you try it. It's worth a try. I feel you re: "difficulty with the math-laden pre-reqs." If that proves to be a deal-breaker, consider a business degree. I wish I had.
posted by voodoochile at 6:04 PM on August 8, 2012


I had a point when I wanted to leave CS for History. My history professor convinced me to keep history as a minor and major in CS, which I did, and I have a successful career as a programmer. But by the time I was a freshman in college I had been programming for 5 years.

Honestly, if you're not good at the math and you're not interested in problem solving, don't be a computer programmer. I said in another thread - programming is problem solving. If that's not your deal, don't go into the field. You won't be happy and the people you work with won't be happy and the people who have to fix the code you write won't be happy. My CS class started out with 7 full sections of ~30 people each, and went down to 2 sections of ~20 people each by the final required classes. The large majority weren't computer programmers and found other majors. Math is a measure of how good of a logical/analytical thinker you are.

Not sure about the philosophy side of the equation. But if you aren't interested in it, well ... I can't advise you to be a programmer.
posted by graymouser at 6:17 PM on August 8, 2012


I am 3FLRyan's aforementioned brother. I double majored in computer science and philosophy, went to a top 25 philosophy phd program for three years, quit, and now work as a web developer, building exciting products at a company you've heard of. Some thoughts:

Before I went to college, I was dead certain that I wanted to major in English. I took my first semester to try out classes in four other fields. CS and philosophy were really hard, and everything else I tried was too easy-that's how I wound up with the double major. I liked having to work hard to make good grades. Don't be afraid to try out other stuff. Take some science classes, etc. Your school probably has some outside-the-major course requirements; make sure everything that you take hits one of those and you won't waste any time with taking courses you don't need. This doesn't fit your two year plan, but you should do it if at all possible. Majoring in something with practical value is a good idea, but CS is not the only career-oriented major. Especially since it sounds like you have some concerns about whether you can handle the rigor.

If you can't get a B in Calc II and discrete math, programming is probably not for you. You can take that as a benchmark before you get into the meat of the curriculum.

If you are not the best or one of the best philosophy students at your school, a career in philosophy is not for you. Think of it like trying to be a professional athlete: professional athletes, even the worst ones, are dominant in high school and college. Like pursuing athletics, pursue a major in philosophy without the expectation that a career as a professional philosopher is the endpoint.

A lot of entry-level jobs are round-peg-into-round-hole and hiring managers won't know what to do with your philosophy degree when your resume hits the table. That guy up there talking about what you'll do with the extra 30k when you learn your trade, he's not hiring philosophy majors. Think of this as a feature, not a bug-companies that you'll want to work for will get excited at the prospect of hiring philosophy majors, for reasons others have stated. You'll have to do more legwork to find these sorts of opportunities, but the opportunities will be greater when you find them.
posted by Kwine at 6:17 PM on August 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


You're getting answers all over the map. Here's one more random data point.

I currently work as a web developer. Salaried, for a major university. I love it.

My background is philosophy. In fact, I have a Ph.D. in philosophy. And I think that, particularly for someone who is philosophically inclined, philosophy is excellent preparation for a career in programming. It teaches you logic, taxonomy, and systematic critical thinking, with a healthy dose of perspective. If I were to hazard a guess at my most valuable skill from my employers' point of view, it wouldn't be my programming skills. I think those are up to snuff but I doubt they're stellar. It would be the fact that I can see the big picture. I am, for everyone from the IT geek to the departmental secretary, easy to work with, because my real expertise is not so much in the technology, but in the larger system of human values that that technology supposedly serves. (And it damn well does serve it when I get my hands on it.)

Philosophical training is rigorous training in rationality. You can apply that to programming or law or any other field that prioritizes thinking.

But I agree with kestrel251 first point wholeheartedly: Take a philosophy class before you decide it's the major for you.
posted by bricoleur at 6:26 PM on August 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm a CS grad who also enjoys reading about philosophy on my spare time (and I have a lot of it because of the CS job I have now). I'm not too passionate about software development but enjoy problem solving. Try a CS Intro class or two and see if you like it, preferably with a focus on algorithm design and not just language syntax. Java is not the most exciting to self study either; Python maybe a better language to start at. If you don't like problem solving though then you should probably look elsewhere.

You can also buy/borrow books on philosophy and learn on your own time. Check your local meetup for groups like Socrates Cafe where you'll get to meet like minded people for discussions and debates.

Have a look and see if your college/university offers Cognitive Science, a multidisciplinary study including philosophy, psychology, AI, linguistics, and more. That was something I'd considered once, but I was too far into my degree to switch.
posted by lucia_engel at 6:33 PM on August 8, 2012


If you haven't taken Calc II, are you even going to be able to finish a CS degree in 2 years?

I briefly tried learning java on codeacademy.com and thought it was interesting, but lost interest at a point where I needed more explanation than the website provided.

I half agree with the person who said this was a major red flag, but the other half of me is thinking that it's such an artificial scenario that of course you didn't learn Java, you had no reason to (i.e. you hadn't invented some project to use to learn Java).

I think you need to figure out how employable philosophy majors actually are. I think they're employable in the same way that pure math majors are. No company cares about your knowledge of Nietzsche, just like no company cares about, oh, any course I took as an undergrad. They do, however, care that you can think--it's much easier to teach someone background information than it is to teach someone to think. Go talk to the philosophy department and ask them what jobs people got (and how they got them).

If your choices are good philosophy major or mediocre CS major, you could well be better off being a good philosophy major.
posted by hoyland at 6:35 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Are you paying for school? If so, go with Comp Sci (or just don't go, which is a viable option); if not, go with philosophy.
posted by daboo at 6:40 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Double major.
posted by violetk at 7:22 PM on August 8, 2012


You have already conducted an experiment or two to determine your interest in programming; the answer is that you do not appear to care much for it. I suggest one further experiment, wherein you do not try to learn to code or to learn the principles of computer science, but instead try to solve a particular problem of interest to you. For example, I'm thinking about learning to write apps for the iPhone because I want to try using one as a toy spectrometer for teaching undergrad physics lab courses (it appears some optical science apps have been written for the device, but none I liked). Programming -- you've actually described the career of a programmer/computer engineer/software engineer, rather than someone who studies computer science qua science -- is largely about problem solving. You may find that you have the mindset that gets started on a problem, dig into it, then look up in surprise to find you've been working at it for fourteen hours and you've just invented a diagrammatic method to analyze part of your problem.

If you love that, get the CS degree.

But if you don't, DO NOT MAJOR IN CS TO GET A CS JOB THAT WILL BORE YOU. Your generation will probably work ten hours a day, five days a week. Don't let yourself be bored all that time.

MeFi skews pretty hard toward the IT/programming end of things. A lot of the heads in this thread telling you to get the marketable degree and then enjoy yourself on the weekends with your scads of cash aren't doing a good job of imagining themselves in a career that they find tedious and painful. A good Saturday doesn't make up for five shitty days -- it actually just seems to make people hate the days til the next Saturday even more.

On top of which, CSish jobs are really transportable. They'll go overseas. Not all of them, but enough that the salary will, compared to those of other professions, surely start to decline. As many have said, it is impossible to predict where the jobs will be in a decade. But it seems unlikely that globalization will leave untouched jobs in an industry that is all about global connectivity. You can't have a plumber in Karachi fix your sink in Mountain View, but he can probably write a lot of code for your new web app.

Lastly, CS people often talk about how their education prepared them to be jack-of-all-trades types, who can be dropped into any job and figure it out. In my own pure science field this is seen as a bunch of bullshit. Don't believe the hype. It's a technical education, but it often has a real engineery mindset that goes with it. In the sciences, sometimes the divide-and-conquer-(with pre-solved solutions) philosophy does not work.

Don't worry too much about GPA. In the sciences, a great letter of rec is wildly more important. I can't imagine it is so terribly different in humanities? Professors will literally call their friends up and tell them to get you into their program if you really are hot shit. Increasingly, undergraduate coursework seems secondary in the transition into grad school. Get involved in a research project ASAP. If its a field you want to work in, there's no time to start like the present.
posted by samofidelis at 7:39 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Register for Logic 101, which should be in the philosophy department. Logic is an important skill no matter what you do next. You'll also find out quickly that the type of philosophy that's taught at your college may be much more rigorous than what you're imagining when you think about "big questions", much more math-like. This might be a useful bridge to get you feeling more like rigorous thinking is something you enjoy after all.

If you want to be a consultant, beef up your math skills in addition to your writing/argument skills.

Go talk to the philosophy department's director of undergraduate studies and see what advice they give you about what courses would match your interests in philosophy. Ditto for the CS department - what progression of courses would they recommend for someone with your background/interests?

if I tank my computer science classes, my GPA will plummet and so will my chances at a good grad school for philosophy.

Well, no. Grad school admissions for philosophy does not care that much about your overall GPA. It requires:
-excellent letters of recommendation from recognized philosophy faculty or a recognized school, speaking to your skill in philosophy
-excellent writing sample (a philosophy paper that is very highly polished)
-strong GRE score
-good GPA, with an excellent GPA in philosophy courses

BUT -- You are correct that grad school admissions and especially the job market for philosophy professor positions is incredibly tight. Unless someone has said to you "you are the best philosophy student I've ever had", it is a reach.

But of course, it's worth taking philosophy courses and learning to think better, and how to read the philosophical works that you want to continue reading once you're out of school. Courses that give you the skills to pursue your actual interests are hugely, lifelong valuable, even if you don't end up majoring in that subject. So do, definitely make room for at least one philosophy course while you're in college. Ask around to other students which are the profs with the best reputations for engaging teaching, thoughtful comments, etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:58 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Another point:
If you have had trouble sticking with math/CS course in the past due to not doing the work, be sure to take advantage of all the support resources your school will offer. Go to TA tutoring hours, go to your professors' office hours and ask questions about problems you have run into on the homework. Take steps to help yourself succeed.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:13 PM on August 8, 2012


I say this over and over in college major threads, but I really do believe it.

It's a lot easier to end up with a degree if you're studying something you enjoy.

I majored in anthropology. It's not my life's passion. Seven years later, I do not work in the field of anthropology, either as an academic or in some commercial application of my degree. But I enjoyed studying anthropology and it was easy enough to get a degree in that.

Granted I graduated into a better job market, but I did not find it that difficult to get a job that interested me and paid a living wage with my anthropology degree.

If you have no interest in computer science and aren't even sure if you're good at it, don't major in it just because maybe somewhere down the road it'll get you a job. Because it won't get you a job if you consistently flunk your CS classes or fail to actually finish the degree.
posted by Sara C. at 8:41 PM on August 8, 2012


Do you like money or happiness more?

Oh man. I think this phrasing kind of assumes that doing CS will bring you (mostly) money and doing philosophy will bring you (mostly) happiness. I think that could not possibly be more off the mark.

I think majoring in philosophy will make you happy for the next two years, and then it will make you miserable for quite a few years after that (inability to find anything else but an entry level, minimum wage job having zero to do with philosophy, or, grad school followed by inability to find anything else but close to minimum wage adjunct work, if you're even that lucky) and then, after those years of misery, you are going to need to figure something else out, which could very well be going for the "money" option after all. Just then you will be 10 years older or more.

So -- I am not even quite sure if I'd enjoy a job in the field. -- my crystal ball says you probably would not enjoy the jobs you'd get after receiving your philosophy degree either. Only difference would be you would probably also not enjoy the other parts of your life too, the ones requiring money like your housing situation, your social life, and so on.

Sorry. We need educational reform badly.

There are two math classes as prerequisites (calc II and discrete math) and I have been historically bad at math, perhaps due to the fact I always thought "I'm never going to need to know this" and not studying.

If your main concern is your grades and your math ability, I believe you have WAY more control over those things than you think. Unless you have some kind of math-related learning disability which most people do not (and even if you do, you can be evaluated and receive treatment for it, so if you think that could be a possibility get on it now), there is ZERO reason for anyone not to receive top grades in math. (Uh, unless the class is graded on a curve, I suppose). Here is the way to get good grades in math: practice. That is the secret. Practice A LOT. Do all of the assigned exercises in the section. Then, do all the exercises in the section that weren't assigned, as well. Go on the internet and find more problems to do. Do them BEFORE the lecture so during the lecture you can follow along more easily. Then work through them again afterwards. GET A TUTOR. Go to office hours regularly. Join a study group and attend it every time it meets, making sure you have the exercises completed beforehand. If you do all of the above diligently, and you do not have a learning-disability, you will get good grades in math. Doing well in math does not require magic or some kind of esoteric secrets, it is is actually rather easy and straightforward. Practice.
posted by cairdeas at 11:18 PM on August 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


Presumably, you've done your gen-eds and are getting ready to do actual coursework in your major(s). Recommendation: in your first semester, take one of the math pre-reqs, take one philosophy course that looks appealing to you, take one CS course that does not have the math pre-req that you are getting, and take an introductory (but quantitative/formal) logic course in the philosophy department. Make sure that the logic course is going to mostly focus on things like truth tables and natural deduction, as opposed to informal fallacies. If it does that -- for example if it looks vaguely like this course -- then modulo notation, you will find what you learned useful for CS/CompE classes as well.

Ideally, you will repeat this basic process again in your second semester (unless your experience with CS and/or philosophy is really, really bad): satisfy a pre-req, take at least one course in each major, and look for a fourth class that has content shared across the two disciplines. (The shared content class might not even be in either department. For example, you might take a game theory course in an economics department.) Then see how your interests go after that. You may find that one year of exploring classes in each major gives you a very clear answer as to whether you want to do philosophy, CS, both, or neither.

If you want to share what university you will be at, we might be able to give more specific and detailed advice about classes to take.

Also, you really should talk to the undergraduate academic advisors in the philosophy and CS departments at your soon-to-be school. Do it now by email if you are not nearby the campus enough to see them in person.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 12:26 AM on August 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


If you don't want to spend your life writing code, don't go to school to learn to write code.

I don't know anything about philosophy, but I do know people who got into web development because they heard it was easy money. They don't tend to last long in the field.
posted by ook at 4:24 AM on August 9, 2012


As others have said, philosophy and CS can overlap nicely. Listen to Jonathan Livengood for practical advice (he knows what he's talking about).
posted by daisystomper at 5:32 AM on August 9, 2012


Jonathan Livengood 's advice really does sound good. The graduate logic class I took once has been more useful to me in my computing career than many CS classes were. That class was a requirement for philosophy grad students, but also had a number of CS students in it.
posted by thelonius at 6:08 AM on August 9, 2012


You said: My end goal would be to become a professor.

I have a PhD in philosophy and I'm on the job market right now. There are no jobs. From the beginning, I've been about as pessimistic as you can be about the job prospects in academia, and I was still shocked by how brutal the market is. The Eastern APA (i.e. the main job interviewing fair) is like something out of Bosch.

LobsterMitten: the job market for philosophy professor positions is incredibly tight. Unless someone has said to you "you are the best philosophy student I've ever had", it is a reach.

And then it's still a reach.
posted by Beardman at 6:57 AM on August 9, 2012 [7 favorites]


I majored in English in college because I loved it and I wanted to be an English Teacher. The way I picked my classes was to figure out what I needed to graduate, did the bare minimum of those, and then took as much poetry, literature, rhetoric, etc., as I could cram in. I had a ball! I got As and Bs in my major and really terrible grades in my other courses. After three years my GPA was 2.0. (Going to Arizona State, living on campus next to fraternities didn't help.)

I left school, moved to San Francisco, went to work and after about a year, I went back to school. The fastest way to complete a degree was to finish up in English, which I did.

I got a job with a phone company, and learned a shit-ton of technical stuff. It was interesting to me and I had an aptitude for it. I moved up, learned more and became an engineer. No formal university training, but on-the-job training.

In my travels, I was given an aptitude test and it turns out that I have a head for Accounting and Finance (no one was more astonished than I was). My job twisted my arm until I agreed to get an MBA on their dime. And I did.

I worked for the phone company for a total of 24 years. I got an enormous separation package, and then I decided to learn a new piece of Software.

Now my job is as an Administrator and Analyst specializing in this software. I love it, it's great fun. It ticks all my boxes.

My hobby? Reading, writing and offering awesome advice on Ask Metafilter.

My advice is if you HAVE to declare a major, declare one. Doesn't really matter which. In your first couple of semesters, take a wide variety of classes. One philosophy, one CS, do one in Accounting or Finance (you never know, it might turn you on.)

If you take a full load, the good news is you can cram a bunch of different classes into one semester. Also, if one really sucks, you can drop it, and still be on schedule.

If my story tells you anything it's that you never know where your aptitude will take you. If you had told me when I was 16 and starting college that I would end up a Data Engineer I would have laughed in your face.

The best way to see what you are good at is to experience as many things as you can. You don't have to decide right now, this minute for the rest of your life.

If you feel that Philosophy and Computer Science are the top contenders, then cool, follow the path for both of them. But don't be surprised if that geography requirement fascinates you and you take off in a completely different direction.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:04 AM on August 9, 2012


I have a PhD in philosophy and I'm on the job market right now. There are no jobs.

This is, sadly, very true. Sorry to hear that you're having trouble finding something, Beardman.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 7:30 AM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I attend a business school with a strong hi-tech focus. There is an undergraduate major in the business school called "Information Systems." It's different from both computer science (an elite, highly selective major at our university) and "informatics" (which I believe used to be part of library science here but has since been spun off into its own school). It is my understanding that the graduates with the business school IS degree are highly employable in technical roles. They do some programming in the major but its certainly not at the intense, theoretical, comp sci major level. Perhaps there is an option like that available at the university you are entering? Perhaps you could pair up a major like that with a minor or major in philosophy.
posted by stowaway at 11:13 AM on August 9, 2012


Re-reading your question -- just spotted that you mentioned consulting. These IS majors I mentioned? They are hot commodities for the big consulting firms. Talk to career services at your university - if you are interested in consulting they should be able to tell you which majors the firms recruit from.
posted by stowaway at 11:17 AM on August 9, 2012


My Grandpa always said to me: "You're a bright kid. You should study computers. I tell you, that's where the future is."

Instead, I got a degree in communications/journalism.

Now that I'm married with kids, I sometimes envy people who majored in something more marketable. I opine that I *could* have done a computer job, and if I did, I would be making a lot more money. On days that my bank account is empty, I think "Should've listened to Grandpa."

Having said that, my life is perfectly fine. I love my wife and kids and my job is enjoyable. I just know that if I knew then what I know now, I probably would have chosen a more marketable field of study.
posted by tacodave at 3:51 PM on August 9, 2012


> You can also buy/borrow books on philosophy and learn on your own time.

This is true of any major except for the applied sciences, no?

Philosophy as a college major doesn't really deserve its reputation for being useless, though the etymology of the word perhaps does it no favors in that respect. Every major includes a healthy dose of the philosophies which have had the greatest impact on that field, but this is framed as theory rather than philosophy.
posted by desuetude at 9:47 PM on August 9, 2012


Thank you all for your thoughtful and insightful answers. I was surprised and grateful so many of you responded.

As an update, it is funny how things don't turn out the way you think they will sometimes. I am actually somewhat enjoying the subject matter of my computer science classes more than I thought I would. I ended up dropping Calculus II a week ago (they moved wayyy too fast through the material for me at this time) and am taking a philosophy class in its place. Surprisingly, I thought I would find my philosophy class more stimulating than I find it now, though it may be the particular course. (I did take a phil. class in community college, too).

I am finding my comp. sci. classes not insurmountable, but still very challenging, but that seems common even for those who have some programming experience and/or even took the prerequisite course. Rumor has it these are the "weeder" courses. My conundrum of wanting to graduate quickly has resolved itself. I have decided it's better to graduate in 5 semesters just to make sure I have enough time to succeed in all my classes. (And next semester, I plan on taking some easier classes with Calculus II so I can handle the major workload of it. I will also be studying calculus hard during the winter break....)

I couldn't believe the amount of philosophy majors who posted saying they later went into computer science/programming. Now, I can see philosophy and computer science actually interrelate quite a bit. I suppose one could say computers are just machines built on logic.

Also, as an aside for those who might stumble upon this later: imo, it is probably best to study something more practical, even (or especially) if you are afraid it will be too difficult. I am meeting many people who chose humanities majors saying "I have no idea what I'm going to do with my life." This is often accompanied by a tone of frustration. I am also meeting a number of people who are almost finished with their concentration (senior-level) and are staying an extra year or two to finish with a more practical major. These two things really stunned me.

So, in light of all this, I have pretty much decided on computer science as a major and maybe a philosophy minor.

Thanks again to everyone. I hope this thread might be useful to someone else in the future.
posted by sevenofspades at 10:22 AM on September 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thanks for letting us know. I really enjoy hearing how AskMe questions got resolved - I wish more people would follow up as you did.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 12:25 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


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