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March 25, 2009 2:36 PM   Subscribe

What can an unskilled Computer Science student do for the summer?

I'm a college student majoring in Computer Science and I'm looking for a summer job (and it's getting desperate). I just completely failed at a semi-technical phone interview. I haven't taken programming-intensive computer science courses since last spring, but I couldn't answer basic questions about linked lists and Java objects. I didn't study in advance but when I tell myself "I'll study next time" I immediately think "I don't WANT a job I have to study for!"
When I was listening to all his tech questions I just wanted to ask the interviewer "So what good is my being able to tell you this gonna do in the long run?" I've had a CS internship or two and they have almost completely turned me off to pursuing any form of programming career. The only reason I'm looking into those kinds of jobs is that it's all I can find, and it's what a CS student is "supposed" to do.

When I program independently or for school projects, I use Google and Wikipedia regularly. I know enough to know what to look for. I know this probably does not qualify me as a "programmer" - but "programmer" seems to be the main kind of internship or job for CS students out there. I got into CS by doing basic web design and web programming, but I'm missing a lot of the skills most of the 'web developer' internships out there require. Plus I can't pass myself off as a web designer when I've hardly touched Photoshop. I'm motivated and could teach myself more, but during classes I don't have a lot of time and it's hard for me to get into it without a specific project to work on.

I've taken the bare minimum of CS classes in school and none of them are "real world" applications that would be useful in a corporate/IT setting. I'm never going to be good enough to be a software programmer and I'm hopeless with hardware. I have no idea what I want to do, other than wanting to do something "good," "helpful" or "useful." Except- I'm not good with teaching or working with people (I don't think I would make a stellar computer camp counselor, for example). I would be interested in research but I've been a part of a couple projects that have made me want to avoid it. I already know where I'm going to be living this summer (near a major city), so unfortunately I can't travel long distance for an opportunity like an REU.

I'm so frustrated! This is the general attitude I've had since I started my CS major - I can get by, but I'm not good enough. But I need a job! and a career! What can I possibly do this summer with a CS major and poor CS skills? Even if I can't find a decent internship this summer, what careers could I look into? I'm also interested in environmental science (my second major, that I picked up to take my mind off this mess). I just don't even know what I should be looking for or who I should be asking (my CS advisor sent me an amazing opportunity last year that actually worked out, but she's very busy and I can't express my frustrations to her over not wanting a "typical" CS job).
posted by sarahj to Work & Money (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you are having a bit of an identity crisis within your chosen major. Can you get a crap job to pay the bills and dabble in a course or two that will let you expand your horizons into something you're interested in?

I worked at the local swimming pool one summer in college -- I took the money from the kiddies at the window and read a lot of books. It paid really well for sitting on my butt and reading all day. Parks & rec jobs are great seasonal employment, but apply now.
posted by sararah at 2:54 PM on March 25, 2009

Three words of advice:

Change your major.

CS just isn't for you. It doesn't sound like you've got a knack for it, a passion for it, or even an interest in it. There's no shame in finding something you really love. If web design is your thing, I'm sure there's a digital design curriculum that might fit the bill. And if you don't know what you really love, spend a semester trying different things. French or biology or mathematics or literature.

Let's just assume you get your BSCS. What then? Trick a hiring manager into hiring you? You're going to be competing for a dwindling number of jobs against the guy one terminal over who did all the assignments and studied linked lists and BSP trees and can properly reference a pointer without a textbook open in front of him. Good luck there. But even if you do get the job with your charm and a nice aftershave, what then? Sit behind a terminal until you're 50 and middle management, miserable and doing what you hate?

If it's this bad now, don't expect it to magically get better, or for some mythical light-work high-pay CS job that ONLY YOU CAN DO to come along. It won't.

Change your major and find nirvana.

If, however, I am wrong and you do love computer science, but feel overwhelmed in your early academic career, let me add this: the job of a CS curriculum is not to teach you .NET or ASP or give you mad hire-me-now skills. That's what trade schools are for. What a BSCS will give you is a foundation upon which you can easily pick up these languages; a fundamental and almost philosophical understanding of computing and algorithms and complexity. But it's your job to build on this foundation. So if that's the case, don't give up. But it sounds like you're not really interested in doing that.

Find something you love, and do that instead. You'll be a lot happier.

(Addressing the "I need a job, now" question, try something in a different field. An amusement park, the zoo, restaurants... your job doesn't have to involve a compiler and a pot of coffee.)

Good luck!
posted by dbgrady at 3:08 PM on March 25, 2009

(Your name is Sarah. I doubt you'd be wearing aftershave. Sorry there.)
posted by dbgrady at 3:11 PM on March 25, 2009

Not knowing basic questions about linked lists and objects would be a warning sign to me, too. What year are you?

I agree with sararah, though, I think you need to do some soul searching about what you are trying to accomplish with a CS degree. Do you like the web stuff you were doing? Get a throwaway job for the summer then and try to brush up on those skills - volunteer to make a better website for a local charity or group, do a cool concept idea, etc.

If you really like environmental science that much, maybe you should just major solely in that and consider your CS background as a bonus for future employees (do a minor instead if you have enough credits already). Can you talk to your environmental science profs and get an idea of summer/job opportunities there?
posted by warble at 3:16 PM on March 25, 2009

Yeah, you need to change majors. I was a CS major my freshman year and quickly realized that it wasn't at all interesting to me--my problem was that I wanted to work with hardware directly instead of the theoretical nature of CS. I changed to Computer Engineering and I'm much, much happier there.
posted by DMan at 3:17 PM on March 25, 2009

The only CS-related career I can think of that doesn't necessarily involve a lot of programming is QA/testing. (And even there, many places would need you to program a little.) But I do think it is possible to be good at QA without being a great programmer, so that might be something to look into.

But I also agree with dbgrady and everyone else: if you don't like the field, and you don't think you're good at it, there's just no point. Having a degree doesn't give you a career; having skills gives you a career. If you don't think you can get skilled enough at programming, then find something else to be skilled at, preferably something you actually enjoy. How about an environmental science-related summer job? (Park ranger, maybe?)
posted by equalpants at 3:34 PM on March 25, 2009

Really? so it's programmer or bust? my internships are really what real life is like? crap.

The way my school's program works is environmental is a second major, and it requires a first major. Engineering here is a competitive and time-intensive program that I would be interested in (tried a class or two, failed and had to drop) but am not good at (much like CS) and it's too late for me to switch to it anyway, I would have had to decide that a long time ago.

I only have a couple credits left before I'm done with the CS major so I can't drop... I am interested in it, despite what it sounds like, I just keep getting stuck with professors I find boring and electives that take WAY too much time, and finding these weird internships where the manager says "oh, I didn't realize we had an intern, what are we going to give her to do?" People keep telling me I'll find something I like in CS so that's why I'm asking!
posted by sarahj at 3:35 PM on March 25, 2009

You didn't say what year you are, but if it's not too late, change your major. Seriously. Don't take a major just because it'll get you a high-paying job; it will only do that PROVIDED that you work your butt off for the degree.

You mentioned you've done web design and programming. Do you have a knack for pretty, usable websites? Do you like messing around with CSS and all that HTML stuff? Then go for it! Majoring in art or graphics design, or anything similar, will give you a head start as a designer of some sort, and it helps with web design. You'll have to learn the technical stuff on your own (afaik), but there are tons of resources out there to help self-teachers.

I don't know about your school, but at mine, we have CS classes on user interface design and even Ruby on Rails. See if you can find CS classes that are less technical. This is a far shot, though. CS just isn't very... creative, in the artistic sense of the word.

I really feel your pain. I'm graduating this semester with a CS degree, and it's the only thing I regret in Berkeley, though I'm fairly good with programming. It's not too late for you (if this isn't your last year).
posted by curagea at 3:37 PM on March 25, 2009

Getting a Comp Sci degree does not mean you have to have a career in programming. Maybe you should expand your search. Does your college have a career center? They can help you with where to look, and probably have a list of internships laying around somewhere.

You sound like I did when I graduated. I didn't know what else I wanted to do, so I stuck with my major, and now roughly a decade later I'm miserable and looking for a career change. You could change your major if you know of a field you'd rather work in. But if you are like me, you won't have a clue as to what that might be. So you could also stick it out in Comp Sci, putting in extra effort to learn some basics, and look around for a programming alternative. You will probably end up changing careers if you pick this path though. And if you choose to stick it out, you need to work at picking up some skills outside of class. Hands on might work better than books, but you're going to have to work at it.

But that doesn't solve your immediate problem: getting a summer job. So expand your search beyond programming, and maybe even beyond computer science in general, and maybe you'll find more options.
posted by rakaidan at 3:43 PM on March 25, 2009

Oops, should have previewed.

Okay, so you can't change majors. What I'm doing in my last semester is gritting my teeth and finishing my courses, despite not having a lot of interest in the major. Try to do that. It stinks, I know, but you can't really do anything about it if you're stuck in the major.

Program management sounds like the type of position for you, if you like to boss people around. It doesn't involve a lot of programming, if any at all, and you get to do more design stuff. I'm not too keen on the little details of PM, but from I know from a friend who interned at Microsoft, you barely touch the keyboard. It's kinda tough to get into PM though.

Regarding getting a summer job this year, a menial job will probably be your only option: data entry, waiting tables, working at a bookstore, etc. MeFi-mail me if you want more advice.
posted by curagea at 3:47 PM on March 25, 2009

Real world programming jobs are just the opposite of the internship you describe, in that you'll be piled with a tremendous amount of work and be expected to accomplish it in an very short amount of time, rinse and repeat, which does not sound like your strong suit. If you're hired as a junior programmer straight out of school, you won't be expected to be John Carmack, but you will be expected to work very, very hard and learn very, very fast. You'll probably be hired on a probationary basis, so you really can't afford to be listless or sound clueless in team meetings. If you're about to enter "the real world", you're simply going to have to work a lot harder.

It's not necessarily "programmer or bust", but if you want to stay on the purer side of computer science -- algorithmic complexity or whatever -- you're going to have to do grad school. It sounds as though your grades won't permit that, but if they do, you say you don't want to teach. This is not much to work with.

You're at the end of your CS education, you have no CS abilities, and no CS goals. Your question is probably beyond the scope of AskMeFi.

If you can't change majors, my advice is to get into an MBA program and aim for management.

(I do not mean for any of this to sound impolite; just frank.)
posted by dbgrady at 3:58 PM on March 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

At my university there are a bunch of advisors at the career center for helping people find internships and jobs that they'd like. I know how it is to be sort of a square peg in a round major hole, including not-so-helpful major advising, and if I didn't already have a job I'd probably be poking the career center people.

Not good at "working with people"? If you're better at working with adults than children, you might want to think about an internship in product/project management or community management, where familiarity with programming is very helpful but not the focus of the job. It's more about communication, strategic thinking, organization, etc. If you can write better than the average programmer, that's a valuable skill.
posted by dreamyshade at 4:04 PM on March 25, 2009

Really? so it's programmer or bust? my internships are really what real life is like? crap.

It's true that the skills taught in a CS program are, for the most part, useful only for programming jobs. But having a CS degree does not prevent you from acquiring other skills, useful for other jobs.

You seem to be thinking: "if CS is my major, I have to be a programmer." But that's not how it works; it's more like "if I know how to program, then I have to be a programmer, or else go back to square one and learn how to do something else."

The point is that having the major is nothing; having the skills is everything. If you truly don't have the skills, you're still at square one, regardless of whether or not you have a diploma. So as long as you're at square one, forget about looking for a summer job that's CS-related, and just look for anything, in any random field, that 1. looks fun and 2. you think you can be good at. Whenever you're good at something--anything--that's a potential career for you.

The bad news is that a degree doesn't give you a career. The good news is that a degree doesn't determine your career.
posted by equalpants at 4:12 PM on March 25, 2009

Well you've told us a lot about what you don't like about the CS major and job prospects, but can you tell us what you do like? Maybe that would help us point you in the right direction.

If you have some web skills, you could try freelancing as a web developer. I did that for almost a year after I graduated with my CS degree while I couldn't find a job. There seems to be no shortage of small businesses needing someone who can make them a website. Start by asking friends and family if they or anyone they know needs a website. (This is also a good way to build web skills outside of class, FWIW.)

Have you tried looking for jobs at the university? A professor may need a summer assistant, or maybe there is a student job on campus where you can build your skills. Try your campus newspaper, if they have a website. My university also had a Career and Academic Planning department that hosted career fairs, posted job listings, and offered career counseling for students.

In the realm of general advice, not loving and not excelling in your CS classes doesn't necessarily mean you're not cut out for it. I was never the best in my class when it came to Java or C++ and at the time I found a lot of my classes to be a frustrating waste of time. But I found a niche (web programming) that I enjoyed for the immediate results and visual feedback and I pursued that. You need to pinpoint what it is you like about CS or programming or computers in general in order to determine what kind of career would suit you.
posted by geeky at 4:26 PM on March 25, 2009

It's not really 'programmer or bust.' Off the top of my head there's program management (where you lead or manage projects), technical writing, and QA/testing. The former might not be for you since you say you're not good at working with people, but you can give it a try. QA might be worth trying just to see if it's up your alley.

Not wanting to study to get a job is silly. It's not like all the learning in your life is restricted to schools and after you graduate you'll never do it again.

I do agree though that you might be much happier finding a job that isn't CS-related. If you're interested in environmental science, see if you can get a summer job at an ES lab (your CS skills might come in handy there). But also consider doing something completely unrelated. If you go to your career services office, they might have some information about what sorts of jobs graduates with CS degrees have taken.
posted by trig at 11:42 PM on March 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I didn't study in advance but when I tell myself "I'll study next time" I immediately think "I don't WANT a job I have to study for!"

I hate to be frank, but it sounds like you don't really want to do hard work into anything seemingly abstract, which might also explain why you didn't do particularly well in your engineering courses. CS is a very practically-oriented major, and if you're not spending extra-curricular time doing CS-related things, then you aren't going to be good at it. The vocationally (and academically) successful CS students I know spend a reasonable amount of time outside the classroom programming and expanding their skillsets.

I've taken the bare minimum of CS classes in school and none of them are "real world" applications that would be useful in a corporate/IT setting.

This is the way that a good undergraduate CS program is supposed to work. They teach you to think intelligently about computation, algorithms and program design in a somewhat generalized context, but applying those ideas is largely up to you. Unfortunately, this is probably more true of CS than it is of almost any other undergrad science major.
posted by thisjax at 7:34 AM on March 26, 2009

If you add some business and communication skills to your toolbox, you might find a career in requirements / business analysis rather than programming. But really, it sounds like you're in the wrong major.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:08 AM on March 26, 2009

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