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Master's in disaster
August 31, 2012 5:50 AM   Subscribe

What's the 'right' reason for taking a master's course?

I got myself an English degree four years ago and it's been about as useful as you imagine it would be. So I've applied for a conversion masters in computer science; a one-year course that teaches java programming and other stuff. It's going to cost about £5000, plus £8000 in living costs. I'm funding it myself. My particular reason for taking it is that I want to better my chances of getting a job, and I want to force myself out of home into a new environment.

Everyone keeps telling me that it's a bad idea; I have to be "certain" about what I'm going to do with it before I take it; I have to "want" to be a programmer, and know what the job of a programmer is like before I commit myself; otherwise it's going to be a waste of my life savings.

So how do you tell when you have the answers to these questions? I've done an online course in javascript (two hours a day for about a month so far) and found it to be fairly intuitive and not a bad way to pass the time; I maintain the tills at the restaurant I work at (programming new stuff in, tweaking settings etc. - I taught myself to work it and I much prefer doing that to serving customers), and I spend basically all my spare time on computers. Is that enough "wanting" to take the course?

Other advice I've been given: at previous interviews (editorial positions, bar management work) I've been rejected because I come across as "looking for just any job, not THIS job in particular." Which is accurate; I can't think of any particular goal I have in mind past moving out of the parents' house and getting on with life. I feel attracted to IT because I use computers and because an understanding of computers sounds much better to people than "read shakespeare for three years", but I'm not at the level of love where I've been making my own programs in my spare time or anything. I don't know if that's because I really don't "care enough" or whether, upon gaining some programming savvy, it would turn out that hey, actually, I've got a new love here.

My family also tell me it's not my qualifications that are the problem, it's the fact I have the personality of a brick and I never show enthusiasm. Also true; I've no hobbies to speak of and go out like once every two months when I can't think up any more reasons to not go. (I disagree with the assessment that my qualifications aren't the problem, though, because, well, it's an English degree. I genuinely can't think of anything on the course I didn't know before I started.) Part of wanting to take the course is that it's shift me out the house and into the company of people who also like computing and general geekiness, and I could pick up new hobbies there.

Also a friend of mine who programs computer games for a living says he thinks the course would be good if I have a specific goal in mind, but otherwise useless; my specific goal is "um, job as a programmer. Or a technical writer, because, you know, vaguely proficient writing skills." Which is obviously not specific, but how specific does one's goal have to be before your goal can be actually labelled as "specific"?

Sooo... what would be the way forward here? If you were at the stage of "thinks he might do okay in this industry, programmed a bit, so yeah" where do you go from there? Or is it more a case of "your only problem is flakiness, just bite the bit and effing go for it, damn it"?
posted by Fen to Education (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I can answer this!

I too have an undergraduate English degree. I started working in Telecommunications and found it fascinating, I began to migrate into becoming a data engineer. I was offered a chance by my employer to get an MBA (at their expense) so I did. I didn't really have any "end-goals" in mind, I merely followed my interests.

As long as you are not going into debt to fund this course, I see no reason not to follow YOUR interests.

You've dipped your toe into the pool and find that the subject is interesting and you believe that the once your graduate that you'll be qualified to do work that you'll enjoy and that will be available to you.

I believe that once you start the course, you'll discover the type of programming you're good at, and that you enjoy, and that will shape your decision for any future employment.

Now, as for interviewing, you have to fake enthusiasm. Even if you're applying to a fast food restaurant, you have to make the interviewer believe that the only thing you ever wanted to do in life is be the voice at the other end of the clown.

So what if you waste your £13,000? You're young, you can earn more money. What if it turns out that you're turned on by programming and that you've found your niche? What if it leads to great jobs at great pay? I like the odds personally.

Now, you have to evaluate whether or not the program is in fact a good one. What is their placement rate for graduates? If it's crap then don't bother. You can be underemployed for free, you don't need another degree for that. Ask to speak to recent graduates and see if they believe that it was a worthwhile endeavor.

Good Luck!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:01 AM on August 31, 2012


>>My particular reason for taking it is that I want to better my chances of getting a job
That there's a good reason, I'd call that the right reason, maybe the only right reason even.

>> it's the fact I have the personality of a brick and I never show enthusiasm.
That's bad.

>> he thinks the course would be good if I have a specific goal in mind, but otherwise useless
Yes, he is write. Your degree will mean nothing. Imagine yourself hiring a Java programmer. You have a stack of 100 resumes. You look at one that says "English Major" and then "Computer Science" and NOTHING ELSE. You toss it. There's gotta be something else there that shows you were working hard, living and breathing this stuff. Web sites, internships, volunteer work, extra projects, SOMETHING ELSE.

You will need to work your ass off to make it worth the money and time, you will need to work on your own and learn more than what school will teach you.
posted by Blake at 6:04 AM on August 31, 2012


There is no right reason. My reason for pursing a master's degree was unemployment during the recession of 90-91. I can't say if it has ever been of any value to me, but it kept me quite busy while I had nothing else useful to do.

but how specific does one's goal have to be before your goal can be actually labelled as "specific"?

Broad, sort of "that way, over there" general direction, subject to change with the wind, I think is good enough. Every career goal I ever had has been profoundly influenced by the job opportunities available to me when I was looking for work. I would never have steered a course when ended me where I am.

You look at one that says "English Major" and then "Computer Science" and NOTHING ELSE.

And it is vastly more intriguing that the one that just says "English Major" or just "Computer Science" and nothing else and there are plenty of those.
posted by three blind mice at 6:10 AM on August 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


There's no one right reason, I agree.

But I fear that because you've not found anything you've really given a damn about enough to be even semi-passionate about, that this could end up being a year long money pit that doesn't get you any closer to your ultimate goal of getting a better job.

I'd almost say that investing £13,000 in a nice long soul-searching sabbatical might be better worth it than this degree. Maybe work on your personality and interviewing skills.
posted by inturnaround at 6:27 AM on August 31, 2012


Personally I'd probably want to spend some time doing even just one programming project of my own before going into this, just to be sure this is THE thing you want to throw your life savings at. Build an extension for Wordpress or Joomla or something. Doesn't have to be anything major. Re-build something that exists already if you can't actually think of a project. The point would just be to think about whether you'd be happy spending 40 hours a week doing this kind of thinking and working. Depending on where you focus, too (I'm thinking especially of web stuff which I have familiarity with; perhaps someone else can comment more generally), IT can be a field where you need to work to keep your skills up to date; so you'll want to be at peace with and certain of the knowledge that you like it enough to deal with constantly re-skilling to remain competitive.

Not sure if this suits, but the Introduction to Computer Science course running (free) via here may or may not help you with your decision-making. From what I understand, they're running these courses as a trial of online delivery which is why they're free.
posted by springbound at 6:34 AM on August 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wanting better chances of employment is a fine reason for a Masters in CS.

Do that, AND have someone give you mock job interview after interview until you can relax enough in it to show your underlying interest in the thing being discussed. You have curiosity and ambition, as shown in your self-study pursuit of programming, let these qualities show together.
posted by zippy at 7:26 AM on August 31, 2012


This rings alarm bells (I'm closely involved with an MSc course). If you want to develop this as a career then it will help a bit, but as people have said, nowhere near as much as a stack of programming experience with successful outcomes on your CV. Of course getting that experience is the key, so the question really becomes "will this masters teach me to program as efficiently as other ways of spending my time?" and I can't help but think the answer to that is no. I'd probably be looking for a self-paced Python course to do in your non-work time, plus once you're up and running start contributing to FOSS projects in an area you find interesting. Geo/mapping stuff is hot in Python right now, and phone app development can be fun and useful to others? Maybe aim to build a few small business web apps as a cheap consultant for the experience? Then, once you know you like it, you can sink the cash on certification or qualifications when you know exactly what you want them to show that you can do.

If you do decide on the Masters though, then usual caveats apply: talk to the course director, check up on the destinations and feedback from alumni, check the contact time and resources provided, and be aware that some courses can be cash cows for struggling departments even at big universities. Be positively skeptical, and if you don't start in September this year it's no big deal.
posted by cromagnon at 7:29 AM on August 31, 2012


You could do the "get out of the house and meeting people with geeky interests" without the class, you know. Hit up Meetup, find local hacker groups. Maybe dabble with Python or Ruby, the user communities of those languages can be pretty lively.

Start reading programmerly sites. Hacker News, /r/programming (and the reddit communities for whatever languages you like). Get a sense for what people talk about when they talk about why they like to hack, maybe someone will say something that lights up your brain and makes you say "that's what I want to do with code".

When you say you "spend all your spare time on computers", does that mean you spend it hacking, or that you spend all your time idly browsing the web? There's a huge difference.

All that said, if you've got HALF an interest in this, it's better than the lack of ANY interest you seem to have in anything else. Whether or not this one-year program is a good starting point, I'm not sure - Java is not exactly an exciting language, and one year will not give you much, but if you're the kind of person who needs the external structure of school to pick stuff up, then do it.
posted by egypturnash at 7:35 AM on August 31, 2012


Also I hear a lot of praise for Learn Python the Hard Way. Do the exercises!
posted by egypturnash at 7:36 AM on August 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


About 10-12 years ago now, I got a Master's degree in a computer science related field, and I feel strongly that it was the best decision that I ever made for myself. Now I make much more money and I still get to consistently work on interesting and engaging projects. For me, getting the degree was absolutely the right thing to do.

It still wasn't a magical path to eternal happiness though. I got a job in the new field pretty quick, but I still dealt with boredom and ennui at times. It's taken me many years of post-degree experience to finally start figuring out what job situations really work for me and what I need to do to keep myself on that path.

Summary: YES, go for it. It can be an incredibly great first step, but it will also take more work to get yourself where you really want to be.
posted by mmmmbobo at 7:41 AM on August 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Everyone keeps telling me that it's a bad idea; I have to be "certain" about what I'm going to do with it before I take it; I have to "want" to be a programmer, and know what the job of a programmer is like before I commit myself; otherwise it's going to be a waste of my life savings.

Eh... being a programmer is "just a job" for a lot of people. It's a skill. You can learn the skill and get a job doing it.

I have the personality of a brick and I never show enthusiasm. Also true; I've no hobbies to speak of and go out like once every two months when I can't think up any more reasons to not go.

This is a genuine problem

(I disagree with the assessment that my qualifications aren't the problem, though, because, well, it's an English degree.

Plenty of people with English degrees have jobs-- many of them have good jobs. But that's because along with their degree, they focused on their job and career plans while they were studying.
posted by deanc at 8:06 AM on August 31, 2012


Do you still enjoy the pursuits of the English degree? You might look into the intersecting field of Humanities Computing and see if there are some interesting problems that excite you. While it is possible to find programming exciting most times it is applied subject area that makes the job interesting.
posted by dgran at 8:16 AM on August 31, 2012


Why would you not find a technical writing job? It would seem to match your interests: the intersection of programming and literature.
posted by davidpriest.ca at 8:28 AM on August 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I got BA in English and History 20 years ago and had no problems finding jobs in software: starting in tech support, moving to QA and then to development. Getting hired for the dev job was interesting. They were more interested in what I could do and "has a degree" was a "we have to satisfy HR" checkbox for them. People with no degrees had harder hurdles, but any degree was good enough.

I'm halfway through a professional masters program in Software Engineering and it's for a specific career goal: to become a software architect. On top of the 20 years of software experience, the advanced degree in the field helps me get there. In addition, my employer pays for half of it and an advanced degree is a requirement for certain promotions, so it's part of the career ladder.

Also, the courses are filling in some holes in my experience and forcing me to apply the things I know and create some programs that I can use to show employers that I can program.
posted by Mad_Carew at 9:58 AM on August 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


What Ruthless Bunny said, and more. The placement record is critical, but not just generically -- you need it have demonstrated success for people like you. They need to be able to show you people who applied with a humanities BA and the same (or lower) programming chops and relevant work experience as you, and who graduated with a job which you would be happy to have at a salary which can cover the debt and leave you ahead every month. Do not be distracted by result that are achieved for people who are differently situated from you.
posted by MattD at 10:59 AM on August 31, 2012


As someone struggling under mountains of student debt, I tell people not to go for an advanced degree unless a) they have a spare $20,000 they're looking to lose or b) they are angling for a SPECIFIC job which they can only qualify for with an advanced degree.

I got a Master's because I figured it was the next step for a smart person, and I needed a distraction from my fertility issues. afterward, I spent a long time unemployed and eventually landed a decent job that has nothing to do with my education. And I had full funding and graduated at the very top.
posted by arcticwoman at 11:13 AM on August 31, 2012


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