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Help me figure out what in the world I should do with my life.
October 14, 2012 7:36 PM   Subscribe

Should I change my major? Drop out of school to become a plumber or electrician? I need some advice.

So, right now I'm a comp sci major in the middle of my fifth semester. Problem is, I'm feeling really burnt out right now with regards to programming and math/science "left brained" stuff in general. I'm much more of a language oriented person than a math one (I got a 750 on the critical reading section of the SAT and a 660 on the math section), but I figured I might like programming and computer science because a lot of it has more in common with the kind of stuff you might learn in a formal logic class than calculus, though I'm not terrible at calculus or anything (though I could never be an engineer). Besides, I'd known law school was probably a bad decision all the way back in the fall of 2009 when I was first applying to colleges given my penchant for scouring the web for stuff to read about w/r/t politics and economics (I believe the earliest thing I read was this post from 2004), and I had no idea what I might do with a BA in philosophy or something otherwise. Also, I applied to UT Dallas as a safety school, and they gave me a full ride, so even though I could see the flaws in going here my parents did not and refused to pay for anything else. I'm not sure what it would be like to graduate with an economics degree (what I've been thinking about switching to) from this school, but I have a feeling it wouldn't be that great. Their comp sci program, on the other hand, is pretty excellent. Problem is, I never code at all on my own and this leaves me feeling rusty and burned out whenever I come back.

I'm taking a class right now called competitive learning in cs in which the professor assigns us a couple programming challenges from contests and encourages us to go to a couple. I've done terribly at these. If you were to ask me right now to write some pseudocode for a quicksort algorithm or something, I would be at a complete loss. I mean, I could study all that stuff prior to an interview or something, but somehow I feel like that's sort of defeating the purpose.

I've thought about biology/medical school, and I almost did that instead of comp sci right out of high school, but I absolutely despise the notion of being obsessive about my GPA and making sure my transcript is squeaky clean and all that, and there's just something about the American medical establishment generally that I find off-putting (e.g. interviewers for med school asking questions like "would you do medicine if it only paid $50,000 a year?"). Again, if I didn't seek out post-graduate education, what would I do with a B.S. in biology? Kiss doctor's asses as a drug rep to try and convince them to give my company's medicine to their patients?

I've done no internships so far and I actually had to drop my technical writing class because for some reason, no matter how hard I tried, I would fail to format stuff satisfactorily enough for the professor to give me anything above like a 50 on the assignments, so I don't even have a resume written. As you should be able to surmise from the previous sentence, I have a hard time getting anything done unless some external authority has put a due date on it.

At any rate, as I mentioned above, I enjoy reading stuff about politics and economics and that sort of stuff on the internet, and I particularly enjoy Paul Krugman's explanations of stuff for lay readers (this slate article was really great in helping me finally understanding how monetary policy works and what money is and how it's created). If it hadn't been for Paul (well, and also some major real world events that coincided with a period of my life during which I was still impressionable), I would still be the libertarian Reason-reading geek I was back a freshman in high school. Now I'm a metafilter-reading geek instead.

Anyway, my main goal in life right now is to become financially independent of my parents and I'm open to any and all suggestions as to the best way to go about doing that. My family would have major issues with my going into a blue collar trade and my older brother (an investment banker at Deutsche Bank for what it's worth) would not be very happy at all were I to try and switch into an economics degree from UT Dallas. There's a lot more to say about all that but I've already typed on long enough that I think we can call this a post.
posted by bookman117 to Work & Money (31 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think you might benefit from whatever sort of academic counseling your school might offer, particularly any "writing center" type of resources available to you.

It is clear from your question that you are a very bright person with many interests and are on some level struggling to figure out how to reconcile this with the silo system of a defined undergraduate major.

Ultimately I think what you need is some outside input on how you can make completing your CS degree and maintaining a decent GPA and interesting outside activities as painless and rewarding as possible. If you get your B.S. in comp sci and decide never to do comp sci work, fine - STEM majors in my opinion get more credit for their skill sets than humanities majors from employers in certain fields.

I switched my major at about the phase you are in (Biology to English) but I think in large part I defaulted into the path of least resistance. You're not bound by your degree - you can and should build up your skillset in other areas, including on your own time - but you will likely regret it if you do not get a degree and decide to plunge into a less renumerative and less flexible segment of the job market.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 7:46 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


my older brother (an investment banker at Deutsche Bank for what it's worth) would not be very happy at all were I to try and switch into an economics degree from UT Dallas.

I have no idea what this means or why.

Computer Science and Engineering fields in general are the quickest ticket to a decent paying job right after graduation. You won't get rich doing it, but you'll make a relatively high salary and be able to live pretty well for Texas standards. It might not be your passion, but you'll find that for a lot of people in your field, it's not their passion either.

I mean, I could study all that stuff prior to an interview or something, but somehow I feel like that's sort of defeating the purpose.

The purpose is you getting a job, so studying would serve that purpose. This statement of yours is a theme that recurs throughout your question: you dislike hoop-jumping and don't want to do it (eg, your issues with med school, not liking the idea of being a drug rep, inability to conform your writing submissions to the formatting standards, etc.). What you need is some form of direction, and once you get that direction, you will be willing to do whatever it takes to get to your intended destination and be willing to jump through the necessary hoops to get it.
posted by deanc at 7:51 PM on October 14, 2012


How close are you to finishing your major and your general requirements? As I recall, once you finish all that stuff, there's still credits to be earned that can come from any department you choose. Is it too late in the semester to add/drop courses? Do you have any wiggle room in your schedule to add a "fun" course? If not this semester, could you tailor next semester to have a little more fun stuff in it? It doesn't sound like you are failing or having any major difficulties with your coursework; you're just exhausted. I'd encourage you to take care of yourself and keep on keeping on with your major. You can do it!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:55 PM on October 14, 2012


Have you thought about moving more towards design or ui and less toward coding? That way all your comp sci stuff you're doing now wouldn't be wasted.
posted by empath at 8:03 PM on October 14, 2012


The question you need to be asking yourself is not "What do I want to be," but "Who do I want to be?" You sound like you have a lot of diverse interests and I agree that you could benefit from academic counseling. However, you should also consider the quality of life that each career track will yield, from income to work environment to free time. The life of a plumber is quite different from the life of an investment banker. Both have their upsides and downsides. You should try to speak with people in these fields instead of relying on your perceptions of these careers.
posted by Andy's Gross Wart at 8:10 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


When you graduate with your CS degree, you can look forward to a field with a lot of outsourcing and H1-B visas. Electricians don't get outsourced.

A skilled electrician can do very well for himself, certainly better than many English majors. Don't let the blue-collar aspect turn you off. This is not to say that is what you should do with your life, but it is an alternative to your current track.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:11 PM on October 14, 2012


Seconding thinking about moving into UI design.
And seconding seeking out whatever kind of tutoring or counseling your college can provide. Most colleges provide free writing tutors who could have worked with you one-on-one to get that formatting right.

I think the most important piece of advice I can give personally is: do not make a decision about your major based on what your brother will or will not approve of. I did that and consider it one of the biggest mistakes of my life. There's no shame in being a plumber if you think you would be good at it and enjoy it, but also don't think of it as an escape from some other thing.
posted by bleep at 8:11 PM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


I was burnt out and exhausted at about the same point in my degree as you are (I was a linguistics major). I went to my school's counseling office for help, and advice on changing my major. The advisor pointed out that were I to change my major, I'd have many more required courses. She sat down with me and we mapped out a plan to complete my major with the absolute minimum of courses, and took advantage of as many non-departmental, cross-listed courses as possible. Then I made it my goal to pass those courses but otherwise not care about them. I used the rest of my courses to indulge in the kind of classes I'd likely never be able to take again: animation, film criticism, etc.

I suggest you do something similar. I think it was important that I got guidance from someone outside my department, whose goal was to get me through happy, not with the best grades or the perfect resume.

Several years out, I decided I wanted to go back to school. That's always an option. Right now your goal should just be to get through with as little debt as possible (which, given your free ride, means sticking with it at whatever GPA keeps you your scholarship).

Jumping through that hoop now means not being burdened with jumping through the thousand thousand hoops of paying off academic debt.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:11 PM on October 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


Have you thought about moving more towards design or ui and less toward coding? That way all your comp sci stuff you're doing now wouldn't be wasted.

Yes it will. You get asked CS questions in programming interviews and you get asked for a design portfolio to be a designer. They are completely different fields despite being used in the same products.

When you graduate with your CS degree, you can look forward to a field with a lot of outsourcing and H1-B visas. Electricians don't get outsourced.

This is basically completely wrong. I don't know of another field that is more secure than software development. I have been a professional programmer for about a decade. I get contacted by random recruiters who would like me to interview at their companies at least weekly. I recently quit a job and had offers on the table from former colleagues' companies that I didn't even need to interview for. In the span of a week I had two interviews and three job offers. H1-B visas are irrelevant, there are more open jobs in this industry than employers can fill.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 8:22 PM on October 14, 2012 [7 favorites]


Nthing UI / web development. It's true that Amazon, Google, etc. might well ask you to pseudocode on a whiteboard, and it's true that design jobs have nothing to do with programming.

However, there's a vast middle ground where people without CS degrees are getting well-paying jobs with local employers to write (terrible) code for the web.

You're way ahead of them, because you've actually been trained to program, and you would only need to fix this:

I never code at all on my own

Since your main goal is to become financially independent and it sounds like you're OK with programming, even if it's not your passion, one reasonable solution would be to start writing code on your own.

Since you need someone setting deadlines for you, hire yourself out at a cheap rate, e.g. by browsing opportunities on oDesk or Craigslist, to do a part-time job in web development--something like developing a WordPress plugin.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 8:49 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


You sound really burnt out and down on everything, in general.

People get all het up about What Will You Do With That Major, but in reality aside from a few fields, it doesn't much matter what you major in. I have a completely impractical degree. I have never wanted for work. I'll never be rich, but I like what I do and have never had trouble finding my way, career-wise.

Go take a class in something you actually like. Not something your school has a "good" program in. Not something that will get you a high paying job. Not something your parents like.

Find something you like.

Maybe that one class will be your refuge from your practical left brainy "I want to be rich someday" CS degree. Maybe you'll flip out and switch majors. Who knows? But go find that class, enjoy it, and try to find some aspect of life you enjoy. Because you only get one. And it sounds like you're not terribly happy with how you're spending yours.
posted by Sara C. at 8:51 PM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


A friend of mine is a waiter. He didn't go to college at eighteen, he instead moved to the city and got a job waiting tables. He became completely financially independent at eighteen because he wanted to. He also put himself through a bachelor's degree. Because he wanted to. Now he is in a graduate program. Because he wants to be.

There is absolutely nothing stopping you from dropping out right now, telling your parents you're moving somewhere to work as a waiter/customer service rep/bartender, rent a small cheap apartment and live frugally. Bam. You're financially independent. Case closed.

But you're saying that you can't do that because your family would be mad? Then this isn't about being financially independent. You're saying, "How can I get a high-paying job after earning a bachelor's degree?" Totally different thing than being financially independent of your parents.

So my follow up questions to you:

1. Do you want to be in college at all?
2. Are you (not your brother, not your parents) going to be happy working a blue-collar or service sector job to support yourself?

Seems like you can't move on to the more nuanced questions of career/major until you answer these two.
posted by deathpanels at 9:16 PM on October 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


Problem is, I never code at all on my own and this leaves me feeling rusty and burned out whenever I come back.

I'm taking a class right now called competitive learning in cs in which the professor assigns us a couple programming challenges from contests and encourages us to go to a couple. I've done terribly at these. If you were to ask me right now to write some pseudocode for a quicksort algorithm or something, I would be at a complete loss. I mean, I could study all that stuff prior to an interview or something, but somehow I feel like that's sort of defeating the purpose.
IMO, programming and computer science are totally distinct skills. CS classes are like the History of Painting, while programming is how to hold the paintbrush, how much paint to apply, etc. Lots of CS people aren't great programmers at first but they usually can learn languages faster and have a deeper understanding of data structures and algorithms. In many cases, this knowledge is totally tangential to solving real problems in the workplace, which usually boil down to working with a shitty API that somebody else wrote. But I digress.

The only way to really improve at programming is to write a lot of programs. It's like whittling or juggling. Repetition is the only way to get better.
posted by deathpanels at 9:27 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I really feel for you. I started college as a math major at a college that was a terrible fit, and eventually transferred to a much better college where I was much happier and graduated as an English major.

my older brother (an investment banker at Deutsche Bank for what it's worth) would not be very happy at all were I to try and switch into an economics degree from UT Dallas

It's none of his business, or anyone's, for that matter. I can hear you trying to juggle your personal difficulties with your parents expectations and the general concern for how people will view you ("blue-collar," &c.), but what you realize when you graduate is that trying to make other people happy with these choices is meaningless. It will make you miserable. The only thing that matters is being at peace with yourself.

When I was in your spot, I thought about dropping out too. A friend of mine considered dropping out and becoming a cabbie, but instead graduated with a Public Policy degree. Another friend dropped out of their Chemistry program and regretted it but has a wife and daughter now and can't go back yet. Dropping out is a big choice, and four years is a relatively tiny period of your life to get a piece of paper that will help you immensely in the general job market. A college education is a privilege in a lot of ways-- you can use it however you want. I'd suggest taking more courses that truly interest you, and seeing if you can segue into a different major.

It sounds like you're pretty passionate about politics and would do well in a political or econ-related major. You can speculate about what you would do with this or that degree forever, but what you need to do is identify your passion, look for a program that would serve that passion, and talk to your advisors and career center about internships, job placement, and other services that will help ease you into a career in the field you're interested in. I know a lot of policy/econ/poli sci majors, and they all found jobs after college they were pretty happy with, even if they've switched jobs since then or had to serve coffee for awhile to get there.

When I started out in math I felt the same way as you. I actually had to take some comp sci for my math major, and I got straight A's in both, but I never programmed on my own and I was terrible at Putnam problems and other competitive exercises. Once I switched majors, a tremendous burden was lifted off my shoulders. Now I'm a waitress with a B.A. in English from a prestigious college, and I really don't care. I feel much happier than I did planning to be an actuary or some other job where I'd be doing things I actually didn't like all day.

Also, could you switch to a comp sci minor? If you ever decide you wished you had stuck with it, you'd have that to show for yourself, plus my friends in programming jobs have mostly gotten their jobs by showing off their personal projects. You can always keep up with programming on your own. And an econ major with a comp sci minor is pretty respectable. It sounds like you're burnt out and you need a break and possibly a life change.

If you really hate the college you're at now and you're approaching 23, it may be possible for you to take some time off and transfer when you can file as an independent on your taxes. This will help you get the financial aid you need to go to a school you prefer. This is a big deal though, and something you should think through. I just bring it up because for some people, getting into a better college is the springboard for changing their life entirely.
posted by stoneandstar at 9:33 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, it's worth considering how relatively meaningless any individual degree is.

I work at a web company. I am a programmer. Among the most competent people that have similar positions to mine, one guy was a music major, one was a psychology major. It's hard to believe, but your major really doesn't matter as much as you think in school. Most major-dependent jobs require a professional degree anyway.
posted by deathpanels at 9:45 PM on October 14, 2012


I think you should do this thought experiment: let's say that you stopped being in school right now. What job would you apply for? What job would you apply for if you had the skills?

There's no way of assessing what your life's passion is right now; it could be so many things, in my opinion. It could be that you love a subject but don't like studying it. It could be that you loathe a subject but love the environment it allows you to work in.

It could be that you're in a good topic for you but need extra academic help, or that there are ways to combine CS with a few other topics that don't fit into a major but would actually be a good course of study for you. Or maybe it could be that you should do a second major or drop this one.

It's hard to really peg a major to a destiny. I would say really stop worrying about it unless absolutely necessary to make a choice-- this is one of those things it can be easy to worry about. But I guess I would ask yourself which marketable skills you're getting from a major. The more you have, the safer you will feel immediately after graduation.

I would not go the plumber/electrician route but that is just based on the wording of the question. There is not much about a real interest in either in there, and it's much easier to justify a choice when it gets hard if you can say, "there are parts of this I really like."

Just out of curiosity... what was wrong with the "would you be a doctor for 50K" question?
posted by kettleoffish at 9:58 PM on October 14, 2012


I work with a lot of people from our department of psychology: faculty members, graduate students, lab coordinators, and undergraduate assistants. I also occasionally sit in on graduate classes in the department.

Let me tell you: people in cognitive psychology have a million problems that can be solved (whether easily or not) with a bit of programming knowledge. It's not even specific programming knowledge, it's just the willingness to roll up your sleeves and learn something vaguely technical. This ranges across areas from data management to statistics to neuroimaging to whatever.

And a lot of the graduate students and even faculty say things like "I never learned this" or "this isn't what I do," and then they're either stuck or they need to beg for help. Because all the theoretical intuition in the world won't do them any good if they need to make a computer manage their numbers.

And then there are the few who either come from computing backgrounds or just bravely taught themselves the rudiments of Matlab, or shell scripting, or R, or whatever it is they need. They are so much more productive! They can tackle problems that daunt others. Sometimes they're extremely simple problems where you can easily automate away hours of error-prone and mind-numbing drudgery, but which those other assistants or students do by hand because that's the best they can do.

An engineer I know sometimes grumbles that it takes a week to train an engineer to do psychology, but it takes a lifetime to train a psychologist to do engineering.

Think about it: that thing that you do, even if you don't think you're very good at it, is absolute magic in the eyes of a huge number of people. Even with relatively minimal skills, you can benefit a lot of people, probably right at your own school. Your set of skills is applicable to an infinite array of potentially interesting projects. It's not all dull programming, it reaches into every discipline you can imagine.

Seriously, someone I know just went and got a kid from high school to help with coding around the lab, they were so desperate for even semi-skilled help.

In summary: even if you don't think you're very good, you've got so much you can use to help others. You just have to help them find you.
posted by Nomyte at 10:15 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Are you in a CS program or a CSE/CSEE program? If the latter, you might consider making your own major, because engineering school degrees can really be painful if you have interests in other areas, as the curriculum for an eng. degree may not leave room for that advanced comparative lit / philosophy course that would make the other half of your brain happy.

TL;DR: individualized majors can be an excellent thing.
posted by zippy at 10:17 PM on October 14, 2012


These are all great answers that provide excellent food for thought. I normally don't really comment in my asks except to provide additional information, but I feel like I have to address this:
Just out of curiosity... what was wrong with the "would you be a doctor for 50K" question?
In the American context, this is basically asking someone "would you martyr yourself for the cause of helping other people with their health problems?"

You have to not only get a bachelor's, you also have to go to med school for four years as well as residency. Not only that, but you better be damn sure that your gpa is as spotless as possible while trying to retake as few classes as possible. Basically, you have to spend your entire twenties absolutely dedicated to studying and finance yourself through scholarships/loans/grants/family money along the way, all the while tuition keeps going up and up and up everywhere.

If this question were posed to a British high school senior (or whatever their secondary equivalent is) during an interview for admissions to the post-secondary medical school for the NHS, that would be understandable. In fact, if our system was set up like theirs I probably would have studied medicine. I think it's insane what people who want to be doctors here have to go through, and given all of this you're going to ask someone if they'd be willing make as much as some middle manager somewhere or something? Does everyone who wants to be a doctor have to be willing to crucify themselves for the Cause of Medicine? Frankly, I might have a little bit of trouble controlling myself if someone were to ask me that question during an interview. Those med school applicants who ace this question by giving a convincing affirmative answer are either really good at being completely fake towards someone who's really pissing them off or they're Ghandi.
posted by bookman117 at 10:42 PM on October 14, 2012


Are you in a CS program or a CSE/CSEE program?
No, just CS. Like I said, my calc skills aren't good enough to hack it in an engineering program.
posted by bookman117 at 10:52 PM on October 14, 2012


There is almost zero chance you would ever need to write a sorting algorithm for work unless you get a job that is essentially guy who writes sorting algorithms for standard libraries or become a legit computer scientist.

You might like being a software architect more than churning out code all day.

Keep in mind programming a creative endeavor. You are writing poetry to communicate with a machine. Professional programming is nothing like classroom programming.I can barely add and I do ok. Remember, as with any craft it will take you years to get any good at it.
posted by Ad hominem at 12:26 AM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was in the same position as you in my 5th semester of undergrad, although in different fields. I was studying music, but had slowly discovered that the hard-core practice and focus needed to succeed was lacking. Although I love/loved music, and wasn't even too bad at it, I didn't fit in with my music-obsessed peers - maybe how you feel with your computer/programming obsessed peers, especially in this competitive learning course.

It also occurred to me some time around my 5th semester that it wasn't just the drive that was lacking. I was more or less subconsciously drawn to other fields that had something to do with "service to society." Subjects like music demand that the musician focus primarily on themselves and their own individual skills, and I felt that for myself, I'd rather be developing other skills that could help others or society at large in a more "direct" or "generally applicable" way. ("quotes" because I know it's debatable... but I think you know what I mean).

Maybe you feel the same pull. I got that sense from your post - your interest in the lay-oriented writings of Paul Krugman for example, or saying that you could see yourself becoming a doctor in better academic circumstances.

In my case, I ended up doing as ocherdraco did and recommended - taking a crapload of "fun but unrelated" courses to fulfill my GE requirements and treating my music classes as important, but not top priority. I also dropped from a performance major to a general music major which lightened my load but didn't "waste" too many units. Perhaps you could also find some kind of lateral-move-major. I had to work a lot with academic counselors and Uni guidelines to manage everything but it was 100% worth it.

In my 5th-8th semesters, I ended up getting a minor in Linguistics (almost just through GE requirements) which was fun, and discovered my true passion in environmental engineering by taking an "Environmental Engineering for Non-Engineers" course and later, a geology course ( both also GE-fulfilling). 4 years out, I'm back in school to study that.
If I had dropped out at that point (which I certainly considered, as you are) I would have never discovered other passions that I hadn't put a name to before. That is a real privilege - take advantage of this time. If you're not concerned about GPA (I was) then it's even easier. Good luck!
posted by Pieprz at 1:25 AM on October 15, 2012


It seems like you have something against going through all of the systematic, rote things that the rest of us have to do to get where we want to be. (Preparing before interviews, deal with silly interview questions, format your paper properly, write a resume, kiss up if you want to sell something.) Unless you're already independently wealthy, you have to play by the rules of the game.

My cousin's son is an electrician and that was a good six years of training/apprenticeship to get where he is now. And he was just able to get his own place this year. The blue collar trades that you're mentioning going into as an escape from the formality of schooling or for quick independence require that you complete your tasks correctly and to exact specifications for safety's sake. And so you keep your job. You don't just strap on a toolbelt and derp your way through the day.

Finish your free-ride degree (I have one too -- in TV/Radio of all things -- and I've never worked in those fields) and work on becoming more detail-oriented, even if it makes you tear your hair out. Take those extra 'fun' classes like ochodraco and Pieprz mentioned and see if you hit something that you'd be so dedicated too that you'd get paid crap to do it.

(I'd want my doctor to be dedicated to the 'Cause of Medicine' just like I want my electrician to be dedicated to making sure my wiring doesn't flake and burn my house down.)
posted by kimberussell at 4:53 AM on October 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Again, if I didn't seek out post-graduate education, what would I do with a B.S. in biology? Kiss doctor's asses as a drug rep to try and convince them to give my company's medicine to their patients?

If you were me, you'd go to work in the IT field and eventually become a coder. No, really. I have a BS in Biology and have worked in IT since about 3 months after I graduated.

Talk to an advisor, see how many credits you have left. You might want to try sticking it out - as others have noted above, it's not always important what your major was, just that you got the piece of paper. Is it fair? No. Is it sane? Not really. Does it make your life a helluva lot easier if you have that piece of paper? Oh yes. I have several friends I've watched struggle through their career, because they have a helluva time being hired for jobs, and are often passed over for promotion, simply because they have to check the "Some College" box on applications, instead of the "College Degree" box.
posted by RogueTech at 5:01 AM on October 15, 2012


You say you are in your 5th semester, but not how close you are to graduating. I know UT A&M has a 5 year program. Many universities have 4 year programs. If you have enough gen ed credits (from AP tests, for example), you might even be one semester from finishing your degree. If you just started your degree, and you already hate it, realize that a.) the classes you took are not necessarily representative of the degree and that b.) you've basically invested nothing in the degree and should feel free to just drop it and move onto another degree. If you are close to finishing the degree (under one year left), I would just suck it up and finish the degree, possibly get a job and figure the rest out later.

There's nothing wrong preparing for an interview. It shows that you care. I can't tell you how many people have "failed to shine" during technical interviews because... well, they didn't study. For example, you should know the different powers of two. If you worked in software engineering (not as a "programmer" or "IT guy") you'd know that. Since you haven't memorized it from work experience, yes, you should memorize it so your interviewer can talk to you about real design concepts without wasting time on walking you through how logarithms work.

You mention you don't know how to program. The thing is: Nobody learns how to program in school. That's what internships are for. Yes, you can get one after have a year in the program (after having taken intro). It won't be at a Fortune 500 company, but they'll still pay you several grand a month for a summer job for you to learn how to program. It's a sweet deal, but you will have to spend a good amount of time job hunting at career fairs and so forth. There was an earlier AskMefi question about how to get a computer science internship.

Seconding an earlier responder that the software industry is extremely stable right now and pays really well for not having to get a terminal degree (law, medicine).

As for being burnt out... I'm sorry, it happens in most competitive majors. Some of my friends took a term off and traveled. Or took a term not doing any in-major coursework. If you're lucky, you love doing things that make money. If you're not lucky, you get to choose one or the other. Fact of the matter is, though, if you're going to do something you don't love, computer science is pretty good. It's white collar, pays well, good hours, and has great growth potential. If you're going to do what you love... well, you haven't even figured out what you love yet. I'm a practical person, so it's my belief that you'd be best off in the meanwhile by having a job where you can comfortably support yourself.

You say you're a "language type person", but not anything specific. Do you want to write fiction? Become a journalist? If you don't like abstract "left-brained" math, I highly, highly doubt you would enjoy economics. Sure, intro econ is fairly straightforward with straight lines, but not the advanced stuff.

And I have several friends going into medicine and/or public health. They do it because they love it. They'd do it even if they don't end up making more than middle management. By saying that "Would you do it even if it only pays $50k" is a ridiculous question, I would say that you should be disqualified from med school. You are clearly looking for a "fast track" to a successful career (or at least, that would be your only reason for going to med school). Well, there isn't one. Even if you were doing something you love, you'd still have to work your ass off and probably get burnt out in order to be really successful.

If you find that doing computer science all day is unfulfilling, pick up a hobby. Do woodworking (like I'm trying out). Or photography. Or travel and write a blog. I have a friend who keeps a cooking blog. You still have spare time. You can still take other classes alongside you in-major ones.

I have a hard time getting anything done unless some external authority has put a due date on it.

Learn to stop doing this. This may need another AskMefi question. But this is NOT okay and will cause you a lot of grief while it's true.

Anyway, my main goal in life right now is to become financially independent of my parents and I'm open to any and all suggestions as to the best way to go about doing that.

If that's the case, and you think you can actually successfully graduate with a comp sci degree, do so. It's okay to need help (e.g. study groups led by graduate students). But if you are seriously thinking you won't graduate, then there's no point.

But if being financially independent is really your biggest goal, you CAN also just be a waiter. Just beware that you probably won't have a very high standard of living.

Honestly, you sound like you want an easy out (financially). There isn't one. With very, very few exceptions in the world, you either work hard and maybe become successful. Or you don't.
posted by ethidda at 5:03 AM on October 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


"This statement of yours is a theme that recurs throughout your question: you dislike hoop-jumping and don't want to do it"

This jumped out at me too. Almost like you think having to try at things is inauthentic, and you reject authorities who fail to recognize your skills without you jumping through their hoops. Common problem for smart kids. The fact is that the world won't recognize how smart you are unless you jump through various hoops and do a certain amount of scut work. There is not going to be a career path that doesn't involve doing some scut work. Some forms you will find more or less tolerable, but for most people, in most professions, there's some "paying your dues." Maybe you do that by working hard in undergrad and med school. Maybe you do it by taking on the tedious, repetitive work nobody else wants your first couple years out of school. But you do it at some point.

What kind of employment have you had up until this point? It's hard to make suggestions for you because your question sounds like you only have the haziest idea of what jobs entail (you know WHY doctors have so much education, right?) and you're more interested in a good salary and a prestigious title than in the actual work. I don't think you have to be passionate about your work, but you have to find it tolerable, and without knowing anything about the actual work, you can't know if it'll be tolerable.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:06 AM on October 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


There is almost zero chance you would ever need to write a sorting algorithm for work unless you get a job that is essentially guy who writes sorting algorithms for standard libraries or become a legit computer scientist.

The question isn't about writing a sorting algorithm because your career will be full of doing that. It's about testing a few things: were you paying attention in algorithms class closely enough that you remember how quicksort works and that you know not to use bubble sort? Do you have care and attention to detail to ensure that you don't run into off-by-one or fence post problems when writing the code? And, finally, knowing ahead of time that you were asked about these sorts of things, are you willing and able to brush up on it do that you can knowledgeably and competently on the topic when called to? Today you have to do that in front of someone who controls your job. Tomorrow you'll have to do that in front of a client who wants to know his money is being spent wisely.

The medical school question is similar. First of all , during residency and fellowship, you WILL be practicing medicine for 50,000/yr. So there's that. But the question is really about whether you would want to be a doctor if it were a middle class service profession, rather than a means of climbing closer to the top of the status hierarchy.

As I said, the hostility to these particular situations represents a hostility to the hoop-jumping process. I don't think any of us really, really wanted to take the SATs or answer interviewer questions, but we did it because we really wanted to get into college.

That hostility is understandable-- if I were applying to 6 jobs, and one of them had the requirement that I hop up and down on one leg, I would definitely skip that one. But if I really, REALLY wanted to work there, I would practice my hopping skills to make it happen.
posted by deanc at 7:04 AM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Almost like you think having to try at things is inauthentic, and you reject authorities who fail to recognize your skills without you jumping through their hoops. Common problem for smart kids. The fact is that the world won't recognize how smart you are unless you jump through various hoops and do a certain amount of scut work. There is not going to be a career path that doesn't involve doing some scut work.
Oh god yes. As a former smart kid, I can confirm this. If you've spent your high school career doing your homework 20 minutes before class and never studying and getting 99% scores on exams, you become inured to the feeling of succeeding effortlessly. Trying hard to get an A on the exam is for other people. Your proof of your special vaulted status in the world is that you can get great grades with very little effort. Years of this warps your perception of the relationship between effort and outcome. Until you finally make it far enough along that you run into material that doesn't come naturally to you. I cannot begin to tell you how much I am still struggling to deal with this realization in my own life. It's like in superhero movies when the hero gets shot and he looks down at the blood with horror, realizing that he is merely human after all.

The thing is, once you get past introductory college course work, nobody learns the stuff automatically. It's always going to be work from here on out. It feels unfair, but that's how it is. Same with jobs, even blue-collar trade jobs. You start out confused and frustrated, then you ask for help, you study what you're missing, and you eventually figure it out and expand your skills. You have to do work, basically. The smart kid ethos is anti-work, because work implies not automatically understanding something.

bookman117, I also note a tone of defeat in your response:
my calc skills aren't good enough to hack it in an engineering program.
So you invest in extra study materials, or tutoring, or you re-take some calc classes until you get better. That is, if you want to get better.
posted by deathpanels at 8:29 AM on October 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


There are some interesting studies on effort. The kind of people who tend to be the most successful in life are those who view failure as a lack of effort rather than intelligence. Those who view it as a failure of intelligence give up far faster than their peers, are unwilling to tackle hard problems, and jump from thing to thing when the going gets tough.

You sound very solidly in the second category right now. You're "too bad at calc" to be an engineering major, and you don't know the quicksort algorithm off the top of your head, so you must not be good at CS? Both of these issues are easily remedied with a little effort.

Another resource you might want to look at is the study hacks blog. Cal Newport (a successful computer science professor) argues fairly convincingly that finding your passion is terrible advice for a successful career. It should give you some food for thought.
posted by zug at 9:53 AM on October 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Keep in mind that statistics indicate that people with college degrees earn significantly more money over their lifetime than those without college degrees. Of course there are many exceptions, but a lot of doors will be closed to you, rightly or wrongly, without a college degree. So one way you might think about it is it doesn't matter as much what major you have as it does that you earn a degree. Many people travel a winding path to their ultimate career and often that career is not all that closely related to their college major. For many people, college is about learning to how to learn, how to think, how to analyze. Most job-related skills are actually learned on the job. So my advice would be to try to stick it out to get a degree, in whatever major you choose, and try to get an internship in a field you are interested in so you can get a jumpstart on developing some real-world skills and making some contacts. Networking and social skills are super important, sometimes even more important than good grades.
posted by Dansaman at 10:03 AM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is a bit of an aside, but the 11 years it takes to become a doctor in the US is comparable to the 10 to 15 years it takes to become a doctor in the UK. And unlike the US, where just about any BA/BS and a competitive MCAT score can get you into medical school, would-be doctors in the UK can't just jump straight into postgraduate training; they have to complete a specific undergraduate degree to qualify, making their educational path less flexible than what's available to their American peers. As deanc points out, doctors in the US start out making a solidly middle-class salary, as do their counterparts abroad, so being asked whether you're not you're in it for the money is a valid question.
posted by evoque at 1:12 PM on October 15, 2012


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