I will be the supreme ambassador between the humans and the machines!
May 4, 2009 11:05 AM   Subscribe

What are the possible pitfalls of my new life plan?

Okay, I've been accepted back into my alma mater (UWGB) with plans to pursue a second B.S. in Computer Science. My B.A. ended in 2002 with a double major in Humanistic Studies and English with an emphasis in Creative Writing. It has been a struggle to find employment in which my education is viewed as an asset. It's been a struggle to find work in which these skills are even relevant. In short, it's been a struggle.

I have four strong reasons for choosing to do this now. 1) The economy. Unemployment in my area is right around 10 percent and I am included in that number. Rather than hustling around trying to scrounge another unsatisfying job, I'd like to use this time to learn a new skill set. 2) Interest. I have always had interest in technology and programming, but never pursued it at any length because I had decided that I was terrible at math. I no longer think this is the case and have decided to stop limiting myself. 3) Weariness. I am just plain sick and tired of the the constant attempts to legitimize my previous coursework to employers. 4) Self-Actualization. I don't have any regrets and I don't wish to change the past. The pursuit of my B.A. and the places and friendships it has brought me have enriched my personal life in ways impossible to enumerate. But I feel a strong desire to study this field and am actively excited to overcome the obstacles which it presents.

Also, I have strong reason to believe that my previous degree will mesh well with my proposed degree. I see a very distinct and discernable value in the ability to communicate aspects of computer science in the layperson's tongue.

The pursuit of my prospective degree will not be anything like the pursuit of my first degree. There will be no general education classes. There will be no electives. I will be immersed in Comp Sci and supporting Math classes non-stop for approximately two and a half years. It will be intense. But that's kind of what's exciting me about it.

So now to the primary questions: What am I missing? Are there fundamental aspects of programming and computer science which I am not fully appreciating which should further inform this decision? Am I mistaken in my thoughts that the two degrees will combine well together? Do any of you have experience with a radical career course correction?

I look forward to any information you see fit to share with me. Please don't feel hemmed in by the specifics of this question. If you have information, anecdotal or otherwise, which you believe would inform this decision, please share it. If you require further information from me I will be actively monitoring this thread. Also, feel free to use the email in my profile to contact me if you prefer.

Thanks to all in advance.
posted by SinisterPurpose to Work & Money (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Why Comp Sci? That major would have made sense 15-years ago, but I'm not so sure about it nowadays where IT jobs are bifurcated between low end call center work and high end production.

And why a BA in Comp Sci? You're going to come out of that program competing with 21 year old college grads who will work for scratch...

Look into master's programs.
posted by wfrgms at 11:15 AM on May 4, 2009

Just a thought but have you thought of taking some business field as an alternative to C.S.? eg finance, accounting, marketing, or industrial relations. Your past education would be more relevant to that.
posted by canoehead at 11:20 AM on May 4, 2009

I went back to school and got a BS in CS. It was probably the smartest thing I did in my 20s.

That said, unemployment for people with a college degree is not 10%, it is 2%, and CS involves a lot of math (you will need ot get through calc2 or calc3, and then linear algebra and discrete math and statistics).
posted by rr at 11:22 AM on May 4, 2009

If you were counting on student loans to support yourself, be aware that it's very difficult to get loans for a second bachelor's degree. Make sure you figure out how you're paying for this before you do anything irrevocable. It's not impossible -- my sister got a second BS on loans (mostly private, I think) and it's been 100% worthwhile. But it was a challenge working out the funding at the time.
posted by katemonster at 11:29 AM on May 4, 2009

It may be worth looking into community college programs as well as undergrad degrees; could be cheaper, faster, and make you more marketable. (My brother-in-law was unemployed for about a year after getting a BSc in CS; he didn't wind up getting a job until he also went through a college program that included co-op terms.)

If you're interested in technical writing, there may even be college programs that are tailored to that field.
posted by cider at 11:33 AM on May 4, 2009

Your undergraduate degree would be an asset to graduate studies in the Learning Sciences (Comp Sci + Education), like this program at Northwestern. They don't seem to have problems finding employment.

Here are a variety of programs in that field.
posted by jeanmari at 11:38 AM on May 4, 2009

Interesting. I'm saddened to see that you have found little use for your humanities / creative writing degree.

What was your goal in getting your humanities degrees? (1) Are you unable to meet those goals, now? Or, (2) did you have no goals, but just wanted to get an interesting degree in something you enjoyed?

Because if it's (2), then with your current plan, I think you may be making the same mistake. Getting a degree in something you enjoy, no matter what degree that is, can become useless if you don't have some sort of preconceived notion of what you are going to pursue. Do you want to work for Microsoft, Blizzard or your local government agency? If you are just aiming to get the degree but with no clear goal as to how you will use that degree, simply having a CS degree will be just as pointless as having a degree in English.

Having been both an English major and having taken computer science classes, I can tell you that I see little to no overlap or meshing between the two. Computer science is more like math and logic. But that doesn't mean you won't enjoy it.

Good luck, and aim high with your goals!
posted by jabberjaw at 11:38 AM on May 4, 2009

I'm with wfrgms. Study the main CS undergrad subjects (data structures, discrete math, et. al) over the summer and take the CS GRE this Fall. If you do all right, you can go straight into a Masters' program. This will take ~2 years rather than 4 and when you get out you'll have a big advantage over those 21-year-olds and a lot more freedom to find the job you're looking for.
posted by originalname37 at 11:42 AM on May 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Agree with those suggesting going for a Master's. BA/BS are the high school diplomas of 15 years ago. A Master's will make you WAY more employable. It's also much easier to get financial aid for a Master's program.

Take the BA-level math and then get a Master's in CS, Informatics, or Info. Science. Jobs in all are fairly easy to come by if a) you can communicate well (this is where your first BA becomes useful), and b) you're willing to relocate.
posted by coolguymichael at 11:49 AM on May 4, 2009

It's a little bit weird that you don't mention that whether you are actually in to programming/computers. You should get a CS degree because you love computers, not because its marketable. A lot of the guys I knew in the CS major that weren't genuinely deeply interested in computers ended up either dropping out of the major or getting subpar jobs (like crappy IT ones) afterward.
posted by blenderfish at 11:49 AM on May 4, 2009

I used my undergraduate hard-sciences major and my talent for writing to get a job doing technical writing and teaching technology courses. You are correct in thinking that it's a fairly unusual thing to be good at both writing and technology.

That said, what kind of job would you like to have once you graduate? A primarily-writing job with some technical aspects? A primarily-technical job with some communication aspects? It seems to me there are not very many places where you will use both skill sets equally, simply because both are time-consuming to get right and it's usually more efficient for people to specialize somewhat. Even writing about fairly complicated technical topics may not involve very much actual programming.

Which is to say, you should figure out what type of work you really want to be doing, in order to be sure that the skill set you're acquiring is the one that will help you get there. And try to think more about the actual skills you're picking up than about the formal degrees you'll acquire--the skills are the more important part, both from an employability and a personal fulfillment point of view.

One other related thought--if you want to get a job that makes use of your writing skills, you might want to take some writing electives just to keep your hand in. Two and a half years is a long time to leave a skill unexercised.
posted by fermion at 11:59 AM on May 4, 2009

I see a very distinct and discernable value in the ability to communicate aspects of computer science in the layperson's tongue.

If you want to be a technical writer, I think this is a good plan. If that's your goal, I'd recommend also doing the following:

- Take one or two courses in technical writing, or put together a plan for self-study. Creative writing is vastly different than technical writing.

- While in school, do thinks that will contribute to a portfolio. The portfolio is an absolute must-have to getting a tech writing job.

- Again as self-study, learn some of the software that technical writers use. At a minimum, learn Microsoft Word inside and out -- all of it, all its functionalities. Tech writers use other software as well, but this is a minimum.

- Join the Society for Technical Communication (STC). It's a professional organization. Go to the meetings, and meet others who do this for a living.

- Join the techwr-l listserv. You'll learn more there in your first years than you can imagine.
posted by Houstonian at 12:05 PM on May 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nthing a Master's program instead. You'll spend probably about the same amount of time in school but have a stronger degree. What about CS do you like? Are you actually interested in programming, or do you have a more general IT focus? If the latter, you could probably study for industry certifications (MCP, CDIA, Network+, whatever) cheaper, faster and with better employment results than an actual degree.

I see a very distinct and discernable value in the ability to communicate aspects of computer science in the layperson's tongue.

I came from a similar background as you. I finished college with a masters in social sciences but now work in IT. My first IT position was as "IT Documentation Specialist/Trainer" and that worked out really well. I had no IT background other than what was self-taught but was able to translate between tech-speak and laypersons terms very well. On the side while in that position, I learned a lot about server management, WANs, VPNs, Citrix, and more. That experience helped me get my current Systems Engineer position.
posted by JuiceBoxHero at 12:13 PM on May 4, 2009

Nthing getting a Master's if possible. A BS in CS will get your foot in a lot of doors, but a Master's would be better for the reasons mentioned above.

I have strong reason to believe that my previous degree will mesh well with my proposed degree. I see a very distinct and discernable value in the ability to communicate aspects of computer science in the layperson's tongue.

It depends on what you want to do. If you want to find a job writing code, which arguably your CS degree will prepare you for the most, you probably won't need much of your previous background. I've worked with people from various different places and backgrounds, and as long as someone has the technical skills to do the job then even just being fluent in English is not really a requirement. That's not to say that there aren't any jobs where your background would be a major plus, just that if you randomly pick a CS-related job from a job listing then it probably won't have much weight.

One thing worth mentioning about CS programs, is that most of the core concepts of Computer Science won't directly help you in any given job. A good program will teach you a lot more about problem solving and theoretical concepts in general rather than specific technologies like C# or SQL. That's part of the reason why when you get interviews for entry-level programming jobs you're likely to get some questions asking you to solve simple puzzles rather than a lot of specific technical questions (although you'll need to be able to answer those, too). You should try to make sure you take advantage of courses that involve technical projects similar to what you want to do for a career, but most likely you'll also need to find or start your own projects outside of class to get the kind of experience that will help you get hired somewhere. I landed my first programming job out of college directly based on hobby projects I worked on for a popular programming language that I never used in a CS course.
posted by burnmp3s at 12:33 PM on May 4, 2009

Are there fundamental aspects of programming and computer science which I am not fully appreciating which should further inform this decision?

Aside from your stated interest in programming and computers, I think you need to consider what getting a job in that field entails. For example, do you enjoy sitting in an office / cubicle for hours on end? Do you enjoy starting into a computer screen for 8 hours a day? For a lot of people, those things are absolute dealbreakers.

I am not very good at math (and good for you for not letting that stop you!), but I got my CS degree and landed a job as a programmer. I credit my strengths in logical thinking and problem solving for getting me this far, and I believe those traits would benefit any programmer. Do you have those traits?

Lastly, I agree with everyone else saying that the best approach would be to decide what job you would ultimately like, and work backwards from there to figure out what additional education would benefit you most. Good luck!

(On preview, also agreeing with everything burnmp3s just said.)
posted by geeky at 12:50 PM on May 4, 2009

I think it's a great idea. Web development, for example, is one of the few areas where there are still a dearth of truly qualified people (trust me, I interview; most people who call themselves "developers" are horrible), and if you can make a real go at it, you can be successful.

I started as a VA/Psychology double-major, ended up with a Digital Arts & Media independent major (50/50 creative/technical), studied my butt of independently to shore up my coding, and now I'm a web developer with the ability to meet with clients, create marketing plans, produce multimedia features, etc., all things that my start as a creative gave me that differentiate me from the pack.

Lots of industries are just now figuring out how to move to the web, or how to capitalize on others' web efforts, and that means we're a long way off from not needing new blood with new ideas.
posted by billpena at 1:48 PM on May 4, 2009

How much programming have you actually done? The way you mention having an interest in "technology and programming" worries me, because technology and programming are two vastly different, only slightly related things. Lots of people get into CS because they're a "computer whiz" among their friends; they're the one who knows how to fix things, make webpages, etc. Programming is a very different activity from that stuff, and lots of those people struggle with it. So if you've already done some programming and you think it's fun, then you're in good shape; you should have a blast. If the "computer whiz" description applies to you, though, I think you should actually try some programming first, just so you know what you're getting into.

I don't think the English degree will mesh all that well with CS. Not that it won't help career-wise, of course; surely there are employers out there who would like a CS/English combination. But that applies to any two degrees; I don't think there's anything particularly synergistic about those two degrees. Most programming jobs will not require enough writing to make an English degree useful, and technical writing is pretty different from creative writing anyway.

Could you maybe post some examples of programming-type stuff you've done? I think the answer to this question varies wildly for different levels of experience.
posted by equalpants at 3:23 PM on May 4, 2009

I guess it's time for me to throw an update at this thread. In the ever popular reverse order:

How much programming have you actually done?

I've started to learn about programming with python, obviously some html, and basic when I was a child.

Each time I make my way into the learning process I enjoy it and then life throws me a curve and I have to reprioritize how I spend my free time. Enjoy the programming, I do, yes. I enjoy understanding computers on that level.

I credit my strengths in logical thinking and problem solving for getting me this far, and I believe those traits would benefit any programmer. Do you have those traits?

I do possess those traits and would enjoy the opportunity to utilize them in a career field.

Thanks to everyone whose thrown in on this topic so far. I hope I've made the picture a little clearer.
posted by SinisterPurpose at 5:58 PM on May 4, 2009

People have said you should be thinking about what--exactly--you want to do with your degree...and this is absolutely true. Unless you just *love* computers and math and logic and all that stuff, like you spend all your spare time with it, reading digital logic books before you go to bed and while you go to the bathroom, you will not get much further "studying computer science" than an IT job which your English degree already qualifies you for.

If on the other hand you have decided, after much introspection and such, that you want to make a concerted effort to be a web developer or whatever, you could use a CS degree to help you toward that goal--but it will only help. It's not like you learn web developing in CS programs. At least not usually. Definitely think a lot about this. If you are going to be a programmer for real, that is a big commitment--you have a whole lot to learn, way more than you will ever learn in school, and as people have said, it has absolutely 100% nothing to do with the wonderful literature you have no doubt read.

I say this as somebody who has just finished trudging through 2 years of math and CS courses. I'm going to be graduating in English, for better or worse :)
posted by flavor at 6:32 PM on May 4, 2009

Creative writing is vastly different than technical writing.
This is true, but you can make the transition. I highly recommend the Microsoft Manual of Style and Developing Quality Technical Information if you're interested in tech writing.

- While in school, do thinks that will contribute to a portfolio. The portfolio is an absolute must-have to getting a tech writing job.
I've never been asked to provide a portfolio for a tech writing job. My current employer does not ask for a portfolio or samples when they interview people. My previous employer asked for samples only if the applicant made it through the first round of interviews.

- Again as self-study, learn some of the software that technical writers use. At a minimum, learn Microsoft Word inside and out -- all of it, all its functionalities. Tech writers use other software as well, but this is a minimum.

Adobe FrameMaker is another big one. It's probably also a good idea to learn a lot about content management systems, XML, and DITA/topic-based authoring. An excellent way to set yourself apart from other applicants is to know tools deeply.

I have a bachelor degree in English (concentration in creative writing) and a bachelor degree in Management Information Systems (half business classes and half technical classes, so, not exactly CS). I earned them simultaneously, started my career as a programmer, and then transitioned into technical writing (software-focused).

I think my degrees complement each other perfectly. Developers really appreciate technical writers who are actually, you know, interested in software (I've met quite a few writers who are barely comfortable sending e-mails). Readers appreciate writers who can filter information and communicate it clearly. And I don't have to worry about convincing interviewers that I'm passionate about communication and technology.

I have worked for a company that wouldn't even consider an applicant with a degree other than CS or MIS/CIS for a technical position, unless the applicant had like 10+ years of programming/IT-type experience. I have no idea how unusual that is, but I'm not so sure any company would be enthusiastic about hiring a self-taught programmer or IT staffer. And I know I was never enthusiastic about hiring a self-taught technical writer. But that can be where a portfolio or writing samples could help you out a lot.
posted by transporter accident amy at 2:17 AM on May 5, 2009

Do you actually _like_ to program computers, or design things of value that involve computers (e.g. websites, software applications, computer systems, games, iPhone apps, open source software...)? Before going for a degree I'd test out whether you actually enjoy these things and want to do them all day for years on end. Luckily, unlike many other fields, knowledge in this field is very accessible, and it's as close as the computers section of your local bookstore (focus on high quality books like O'Reilly, ignore anything titled "Learn ___ in 21 days". And stop by the textbooks section to look at books on algorithms and data structures). Also, be aware that much of what you learn in a traditional Computer Science major is theoretical, mathematical, and geared toward computer science research, and NOT about programming or making the kind of things I've described above. Nor is it about making money with computers, working at a startup, nor is it about IT. There are other programs (such as masters' degrees offered by NYU Tisch in Interactive Telecommunications, Carnegie Mellon in Entertainment Technology) geared more toward the creative uses of computers, as well as those focused more on IT management (such as an executive master's degree offered by Columbia). What you need to understand about the field of computer science is that unless you work as some sort of researcher or heads-down coder, you are going to need a complement of other skills that are not taught in a CS program to make yourself valuable and do anything other than coding -- these can include software project management, business, human factors, usability, cognitive science, information architecture, interpersonal skills, systems design, domain expertise in the particular business you're applying your computer skills, and many others.
posted by lsemel at 9:12 PM on May 5, 2009

Oh, a couple other words of advice:
- Go for the master's degree
- Don't work in an IT department, ever. Any job that involves "supporting" technology sucks.
- Look for jobs in companies where technology is the core focus, i.e. the thing you are working on or programming is the thing being sold to your customers.
- Explore the other types of programs other than traditional CS to see if those are a better fit for you.
- Study the subject on your own and get good it through your own projects because what you learn in class isn't enough.
posted by lsemel at 9:18 PM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

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