Undergraduate Degree != Career ?
September 14, 2009 10:12 AM   Subscribe

What do I do when I graduate if I know I don't want to pursue my undergraduate field?

I'm currently a student at a Pretty Good University in the US and I'm (oh my god) going to graduate next year with a B.S. degree in Computer Science, a second major of Environmental Studies, and a minor. I'm doing everything I can to calm my anxiety about this (seeing a therapist, most likely going to get anti-anxiety medication this time), but I am so extremely worried about not knowing what I'm doing next that it's rendered me completely incapable of doing anything without an absolute emotional breakdown (tears, etc).

I decided halfway through my major and a couple internships that Computer Science wasn't what I wanted to do with my life, I didn't want to do research in a mathematical science and i didn't want to make a career out of being a programmer. So I studied abroad, picked a second major that was easy to fulfill and am still kind of slogging my way through my requirements, but I'm going to finish it all.

I overwhelmingly feel the need to be planning my next move. I'm trying to pick up "science-y" lab work to gain experience in something new. Ideally I would be able to find some kind of neat research fellowship for a year or so after graduation, and have that point me in the "right" direction (i.e. any direction), but I don't have the experience, connections, ideas, or anything to make this happen. If I go straight to working, I don't even know what kind of work I would want to look for. I have web programming to fall back on, which I was able to do professionally this summer, but that isn't something I want to make my goal.
I NEED HELP. I have gone to my school's career office countless times, taken one of those 'career advice' exams, which told me I would make a great software engineer (ARGH!), and I've spoken to or emailed almost everyone I can reach who I could get advice from on fellowships and stuff, but it keeps coming back to me needing to know what I want to do. My advisor is an extremely busy person whose specialty falls on the more mathy end of CS, and I don't really have advising- or rec-letter-writing-type relationships with any other professors.

I was advised in the career office that my reasons for wanting to go to grad school are, well, reasonable (I want a degree in something I like and want to use), but I don't know where to start with choosing programs, getting recommendation letters (I only really have my Very Busy advisor and my boss from my summer web development work- not good options), and so on. There are still things I want to try, but I don't have the time - my school created a poorly publicized 'brain science' major that overlaps with computer science, and I likely would have studied this if I had known about it soon enough. But, I don't have any experience or coursework in that area, so it would be kind of out of the blue if I applied for those types of grad programs. I would also lean towards biotechnology, but I don't really know anything about that either. I only really have one semester of 'open' courses where I can choose anything to study, but most of the classes I find super-interesting have prerequisites I haven't had the chance to take, and I will have already applied to grad school/fellowships/jobs by then anyway.

I've been told countless times that so so many people wind up in different fields than their undergraduate major, but most of my classmates seem to be on some kind of track already (The Computer Science majors I know are either going to grad school for it, or have their eye on a company they want to work for). I don't know what career I want to pursue, but I have ideas of what I would like to study, but not much more reason than "because a career in that field would be so interesting!" Most jobs I 'fit' the requirements for right now are programming-intensive or software-related and NOT not not what I want.

My question is, what should I do now, if I know that what I want to do after graduation is going to be different from my undergrad degree? What did you do when you figured out that your undergrad field wasn't what you wanted to continue with?
posted by sarahj to Education (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Don't worry too much. The average person changes career seven times in their lifetime.

You appear to have alot of breadth, much more than the average college grad. Also, your backgrounds in CS and environmental science are complementary and will be very useful. Topics in CS touches every facet of our lives and I believe there will be many opportunities to apply them to environmental science, or any other area of your choosing.

In case you are planning to go to graduate school, I present you with my
back-of-the envelope estimation on when you will be done.

Feel free to mefi me with questions, or simply to chat about this issue.

Best wishes! :)
posted by jchaw at 10:22 AM on September 14, 2009

About when I graduated (around last two years of my bachelor's degree) I was convinced that my choice of major was a mistake and that I ought to have studied something else, something that would have opened up more doors for me, that was more relevant, that was less stressful.

When I did graduate thankfully a position opened up - and when I worked there, again it looked as if this wasn't a very good place to have moved onto. Looking back years later, the degree and my job did work out, very nicely I am thankful to say.

So, IMO I don't think you should 'abandon ship', just yet. But I understand: You're under pressure. You're stressed out. You're *sick* and *tired* of programming. Of math. Of technical terms. Of the whole mess. I know of what I speak.

I think you ought to graduate in your field. Get the degree. Finish what you started. And get something else lined up. A job. It can be any job, but hopefully one that is a professional level position, at least semi-relevant to what you studied.

And negotiate the start date, to be maybe one or two months from your final day of classes. Get outdoors. Go camping. Unwind. De-stress.

While you are working, give yourself some time. Maybe 6 months, maybe 12, maybe 24. During this time think about your career. Think about what work you are doing.

If you get a software job, very well. Ask yourself, do I really want to do this? Coding in a company will be unlike cranking out code as part of assignments or class projects or as an intern. You'll be actually working. Not thinking about what work as a software engineer would be like, but what it *is* like.

And leverage from your environmental science. 'Green' and 'eco-friendly' are fashionable these days. Get your foot in the door of a relevant company using your ES skills, even if it's a programmer. Then see if you can network into another position. Or at least make contacts so when you go back to school, you know people who can employ you.

I'll finish by repeating that you sound very stressed out and confused, made worse because you're making yourself walk a tightrope, in that you *must* find some alternative to CS employment before you graduate. In such a frame of mind , it's not a good idea to be making long term career decisions. Again, finish your degree, get some other position or activity lined up, even if it's in CS/SW and give yourself some space and time to unwind and sort out what to do next.

posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 10:29 AM on September 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

I overwhelmingly feel the need to be planning my next move.

Herein lies the problem. What I would do now if I was convinced that my undergrad degree was not going to be relevant is ENJOY myself.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:30 AM on September 14, 2009

I just want to say that you actually have all of the time in the world. You only really should be worried about getting a job that will feed you. You can always go back to grad school. Waiting to decide in will make it more likely to be a considered and useful choice.

Personally, I had no idea what I wanted to do after my undergrad. It sort of felt like I was driving toward a cliff. Since I didn't know what I wanted to do, I did nothing. I worked in restaurants and a traveled ... a lot.

I'm not telling you to follow in my footsteps. Just try to remember that any degree is going to be a huge help in opening doors for when you do decide what you want to do.
posted by Gor-ella at 10:39 AM on September 14, 2009

There's a lot of potential uses for a computer science background in the sciences. Even if all it does is allow you to work with Matlab better when developing a model to analyze the data you're generating in your studies. There are any number of times I've spent using a program that didn't quite do what I wanted and wished I could improve it just a little. Even if it isn't what you want to do long-term, the ability to do modeling work in the sciences is a strong point in your search for a grad program.
posted by caution live frogs at 10:43 AM on September 14, 2009

My Bachelor's degree is in Acting. I knew by the end of my junior year that I no longer wanted to act; I looked into switching majors, but that would have required an additional year, and I couldn't afford it. I settled for a minor in what I really wanted, then, instead. And then I spent my senior year getting courses in my minor, and in learning alternate things in the same field as my major. My hunch was that, okay, I didn't want to act as such, but maybe there was something else in theater I could do. I tried to get as broad a field of training as I could so I could be as flexible as possible.

The point is: computer science is a skill, and you can take that skill and apply it to any industry. The environmental studies is also a dang broad field. Just off the top of my head, I'm thinking you might be able do any of the following with those degrees:

* Design web sites for green-business companies
* Design computer networks which use all environmentally sustainable hardware and equipment
* Start working with an eco-friendly architect trying to build "eco-friendly" luxury housing, helping them plan how to give the housing units WiFi or DSL or whatnot while retaining their eco-friendly commitment
* Tech support for small eco-business companies

That's just off the top of my head.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:47 AM on September 14, 2009

I was advised in the career office that my reasons for wanting to go to grad school are, well, reasonable

Well, they're not, if you don't know what you want to do.

Get a job. Live your life. Once you find something you really, really want to do it will be much easier for you to work towards it, be it graduate school, lab work, or something else.

It'll all be there in 3 years anyway...despite how it feels right now.
posted by kathrineg at 10:52 AM on September 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

I realized the summer before I graduated that I didn't really want to work in the field I was about to get a degree in (broadcast journalism, emphasis in radio and television news). I took a bit of a gap year--not doing nothing, but working multiple jobs to stay afloat and trying lots of things to figure out what it was that I DID want to do. It was one of those jobs that helped me figure out what I was passionate about (book publishing). After that first year, I ended up taking a job in radio for two years, but I knew that it wasn't what I would be doing forever. I learned some great skills that would easily transfer into the publishing world, and when I saw a chance to move, I jumped at it. Those skills helped explain away concern that my degree was in something else.

I didn't start grad school until I'd been in publishing for over a year, so that I could make sure I was certain about it. I wouldn't change a thing.

It must be terrifying to graduate into such a bad economy, but don't feel pressured to find your perfect job right out of college. I had changed careers once before I'd been out of school for three years--it's not such a big deal to start off in one place and transition into something else. It helps if you can pick jobs that will help you develop skills that can cross into different fields, but it's not required. I met a man last weekend who was a programmer for fifteen years before the company fell apart; he's now a librarian.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 11:05 AM on September 14, 2009

What did you do when you figured out that your undergrad field wasn't what you wanted to continue with? (sarahj)

Dicked around, mostly. Enjoyed myself. Fell in love. Threw myself into my extracurriculars, one of which (theater) became what I decided would be my profession.

Graduated with no plans, traveled for a month or so, then returned home (in the South) and applied for theater jobs (in the Northeast). Took the first job that popped up near my college town, and moved back there. Realized I'd made a huge mistake (note to self: never go into marketing again), stuck it out for five months, then quit.

Got by on freelance projects of varying kinds for a few months, decided I wanted to move to New York (or, rather, remembered that I had always wanted to live in New York), and, still having no idea what I wanted to do with my life, looked for internships in a number of fields, none of which I was passionate about. But that didn't matter; I just needed something to get me into the city.

Moved to New York in June (a year after graduation) for a book publishing internship ($25/day), discovered I loved it, and started applying for editorial assistant jobs. Found one mid-September, and I've been doing it for two years. Unless the industry completely falls apart, I'll probably be doing it for the rest of my career.
posted by ocherdraco at 11:06 AM on September 14, 2009

Ha. Peanut and I both went the normal book publishing route: we fell into it.
posted by ocherdraco at 11:07 AM on September 14, 2009

(And that, really, is the entire point of my post: you'll fall into several things. Eventually, you'll love one of them.)
posted by ocherdraco at 11:07 AM on September 14, 2009

A lot of the people I know with Computer Science degrees, who do not want to do programming, are business analysts. The trick to doing that job well (and getting good jobs with upward mobility) is to understand programming and something else because the business analyst is the person who is between the development team and the business -- analyzing the business needs, with an eye to what's possible for the development team to do, and guiding the development team to make sure the business is getting what it needs. You are perfectly positioned with your dual degrees. Many companies have in-house systems for environmental issues related to their business. They need someone who understands how apps work, and who also understands environmental issues. It's a possibility you should consider.
posted by Houstonian at 11:13 AM on September 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've been told countless times that so so many people wind up in different fields than their undergraduate major, but most of my classmates seem to be on some kind of track already (The Computer Science majors I know are either going to grad school for it, or have their eye on a company they want to work for).

Computer Science is like that. It's one of the few fields these days where you can expect to graduate with a job in the field already lined up. And that makes people reluctant to jump ship. ("Sure, I hate this stuff, but I've got a sweet job offer already. It would be stupid to turn it down. I'll just suffer through it for a few years while I figure out what I really want to do." Flash forward a few decades....)

But in most other fields, people do jump around more, and that's okay. For example, I know a few people who majored in Environmental Studies (or Macrobiology, or Ecology, or something similar). They're all in their late 20s or early 30s, and they're all doing work that they like and that's relevant to their degree. But they all took sort of circuitous routes to get there. One got a job as an office temp after graduation, built up some administrative chops, and now has a job coordinating the different environmental impact tests that have to be done on oil wells. A few got jobs working with kids, and eventually built up enough experience there that they could get serious jobs in environmental education — one's an education coordinator for a state park; another takes underprivileged kids on camping trips for a living, which isn't so prestigious but she's having a blast doing it. One spent a few years as a line cook, got interested in organic food, and is now doing Ph.D. research in Kenya on agroforestry.

You can't plan out shit like that. And that's actually sort of liberating, because it means you don't have to plan it out, and you can stop kicking yourself for not having it planned out. My grad student friend did not say to himself, at the start of his senior year, "Gee, I bet if I start doing food service to make some cash, it'll lead straight to a job researching trees in East Africa." He just went one step at a time, looking for opportunities and taking them when they came along.

Katherineg is right, though. You should not go to grad school just because you have no better ideas. That is a good way to wind up even more stressed than you are now. Plenty of people just fall into a cool job; basically nobody "just falls into" a good experience in graduate school. It's one of the few areas of adult life where you really do need a good plan going in.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:16 AM on September 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

You shouldn't go to grad school unless you are absolutely certain about what you want to go for. Otherwise it is a huge waste of time and money. That said, I don't think you'll really decide in time to start grad school next year.

What you should do is graduate and get a job, any job, and learn to support yourself outside of school. If you don't like the first job you get, then get a different job. That's how the working world works. Outside of your job you can try new things and figure out what you like. If you end up wanting to go to grad school, then apply. If you don't meet pre-reqs then you can take them part time while working.
posted by WeekendJen at 11:21 AM on September 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Keep in mind, too, that grad schools are going to be super-competitive for at least a few years as the economy makes school look very tempting. If you can avoid the rush you might be able to get into a better school and/or get better funding.
posted by kathrineg at 11:23 AM on September 14, 2009

I too fell into my current profession (for which I went to graduate school six years after I got my Bachelors) by working a couple different jobs almost wholly unrelated to my degree and finding I had a talent for it. The best advice I can give you given your current situation is:

1) Find ways to relax. The more stressed out about this you are, the harder it will be to see the path you want to take. If you spend time doing things you really like to do, it may also help you find a way to start a career that you really like.

2) Be open. As others have said, you can apply your skillset to nearly any industry these days and if you are open when you're looking around, you may find a company or work environment you really enjoy and that will lead to other things. Another part to being open is just diving into a position you can do, but aren't sure you really want to do. Work experience is really important (so is eating) and as I said, it can lead to other things you can't even imagine right now.

3) Do NOT go to graduate school until you have figured out what it is that you want to do. People don't really care what you got your bachelors in if you have the right skillset for a job, but pursuing a professional degree in something is another matter. It's also expensive so make sure it's a good investment on your part. As I mentioned, I went after working for several years and I am glad I did! I had no clue what I would wind up doing right out of undergrad.

Good luck! The decision you make right now is not the rest of your life. You have time to test the waters, explore a little, find out who you are. Everything will be ok!
posted by Kimberly at 11:28 AM on September 14, 2009

I feel you. I really do. I just graduated (as of this month) with my b.a. in linguistics (with honors! the thesis may have had something to do with my year-long conniption), and I'm now looking at heading into health, scoping out nurse practitioner programs.

This last year was a mess of fulfilling research fellowship crises and dealing with personal crises, but on top of all that, I really understand the anxiety of "wait! wait! I wanted to study this! and that! What am I doing? Why didn't I study this before? Help!!". Also, doing this thesis and realizing that I didn't want to continue linguistics (at least for now), but had to finish it anyway .. it's not a great feeling, I understand.

I wonder if part of this is getting prepared for a series of these crises throughout life, and learning how to deal with them: did I make the right choice? Is this what I want to do? Have I locked myself into something? Are these doors in my life closing forever? What if I want to go to graduate school in linguistics, am I screwed? What about the circus?!"

More practically: I know a lot of folks who transitioned from one area of focus to another by picking up classes at the local community college in a gap year (or three) before applying to graduate school. If you got your computer science degree, what about trying to find a job doing network/computer work for a lab? I remember the lab that one of my research fellows worked in was always really hurting for computer-savvy people who could deal with the massive amounts of data and modeling that they needed special programs for, as well as controlling the robots and equipment.

As for my own anxiety and dealing with going into a field very different than my first: I'm satisfying my love of hard sciences by working through my nursing school pre-reqs at the local community college, took my GREs (take them while your study skills are fresh! the scores are good for 5 years at most colleges). I'm trying to get relevant job experience and volunteer experience to try to round out my application, and prove that this change of focus is serious.

Don't be scared by this cultural narrative of "you have to know what you want to do with the rest of your life". I know I look around and I think that all my classmates are on-track with their lives and know exactly what they're doing for the rest of their life .. but then I call them up and hang out, and they're just as scared and unsure about the future as I am.

Something that also helps me is that I really admire my dad, who has had an extremely varied life and continues to do all sorts of different things. My dad is 50 years old and still doesn't know what he wants to be when he grows up. And that really inspires me to think that things will be OK.

I've got my fingers crossed for you!
posted by circle_b at 11:55 AM on September 14, 2009

I'd warn you that the further away from CS / math you go, the more your background dictates what you'll be doing. Because analysis is permeating everything, and programming is the tool to automate that analysis. Biologist grad student with a CS undergrad? You'll end up doing everything computer-ey for some geneticist. And you'll be on your own; maintaining an FTP site to publish their research data, fixing perl scripts some professor wrote for their last paper and websites.

And you'll be underfunded, because this stuff is required but not germane to the PI's research interest. Lab equipment? Sure. Proper disk mirroring and backups, to make sure the data that lab equipment generates survives more than 3 years? Not in the budget.

The good news is you'll probably be able to hit grad schools and get paid tuition+stipend to hack it. And you won't be in the cubical office peon environment you may perhaps fear, with metrics and deadlines and eye-bleedingly boring projects.

Alternatively, you could just go to law school like everyone else who hates their prospects.
posted by pwnguin at 9:53 PM on September 14, 2009

Law school sounds like a horrible idea unless you decide that you really want to become a patent lawyer...it is more competitive than ever and the job market is brutal.
posted by kathrineg at 7:22 AM on September 15, 2009

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