And now for something completely different…
January 16, 2012 5:26 PM   Subscribe

I did very well in my undergrad discipline, but want to pursue something entirely different. How best to make the move?

I graduated from a large public university last spring with a dual degree in economics and international relations. During my undergrad career, I studied abroad in a fascinating nonwestern country and learned its fascinating nonwestern language. I did very well (wrote an honors thesis, graduated summa cum laude, was named outstanding senior in my college), but I never worked very hard or felt challenged. School has always been easy, and I simply floated through another four years, buoyed by the sea of anonymous students at my big state school. Thanks to a generous scholarship, I graduated free of debt.

Studying economics left me deeply skeptical of the foundations of economic theory, human rationality and knowledge, and the value of abstract mathematical modeling. Attending college left me deeply skeptical of the incentives of universities and the efficacy of higher education. I may be biased, but I am extremely reluctant to take out debt to finance further education unless there is unambiguous future value.

Unfortunately, I need to learn more somehow. My lack of technical skills makes me feel immature and embarrased. My econ program was not mathematically rigorous and though I took a great econometrics course, my math education stopped at linear algebra. Math never came easy, but I suspect this was because I was never very disciplined about it. Similarly, I've recently picked up basic Python and Django programming, but feel limited by my quantitative weakness. When I speak with friends studying math and science, who have now moved on to masters and Phd programs, my degree feels a little bit like a fraud. Even worse, I feel like I couldn't hack the subjects they studied and settled for something easy.

I'm currently a Fulbright scholar in that fascinating nonwestern country, working on a political science project. It's interesting enough, but there seem to be diminishing returns to further specialization. As much as I enjoy it, I'm not sure I see myself studying this fascinating nonwestern country for the rest of my career.

In the last semester of my senior year, I took a great class that introduced me to a whole slew of wonderful ideas: cultural evolution, evolutionary game theory, complex systems, emergence. I am absolutely fascinated by evolution, especially as it applies to economics, philosophy, and the social sciences. But it seems too late to change my focus now.

As a good economist, I know not to be misled by the sunk cost fallacy. I shouldn't consider the time I've invested in past education when making decisions about the future. But I also know to consider path dependence: my future decisions are limited by the choices I've made in the past.

Studying computer science seems like an ideal sort-of-lateral move: a high-value subject where the quantitative stuff is focused on real problems. I feel flow when I'm programming in a way I don't anywhere else, and accomplishment when I build something that brings an idea of mine to life (even if my code sucks). Right now it's really hard—and I like that. It also seems applicable to many other disciplines, and evolutionary algorithms and computation seem cool. But I'm not sure how to make the move.

What else should I consider studying? Is further education even worth it, and is it possible to pay for it? (This seems to be the default setting for all my peers, but I can't shake the skepticism about cost outweighing benefits, and many of them are already >$100k in debt). How can I jump from one discipline to another in a higher education system shaped like a funnel? Will I even be a competitive applicant to quantitative disciplines? How can I fill in my deep deficiencies without another undergrad degree?

I have been very, very lucky, and I hope this question doesn't come off as haughty or entitled. Frankly, I don't think I've really deserved any of the accolades I've won, even though I've accomplished a lot on paper. Now I feel stuck, stupid, and unsure about what to do next. Your advice and insight will be appreciated. Anonymous because all young people are deeply paranoid about the future. Contact email:
posted by anonymous to Education (8 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Studying computer science at the graduate level does not equal coding. Coding is fun and satisfying in a way that most people of our age/experience don't get to experience otherwise, but that doesn't mean that graduate studies in computer science are what you want to do. In fact, the truth of the matter is that graduate students and researchers in most fields that are even vaguely quantitative nowadays end up doing a fair bit of coding -- even if it's just writing a shell script to manipulate a large dataset, you're likely to still get that "I built it!" satisfaction no matter what your field is.

It sounds like your interests are way too scattered right now to justify the time and expense of starting a grad degree. I'd recommend finding a job that isn't overly time consuming (if you really were a top econ student and received a Fulbright, you should have no trouble finding an entry level position in economic consulting or the like) and taking a few courses at a local university. Read a lot. Talk to your professors. You floated through undergrad, when some other people were actually figuring out what they like and what challenges them, so you need to take some extra time to do that before you enroll in a grad program (if ever).
posted by telegraph at 5:59 PM on January 16, 2012

Assuming you don't come from money, what do you want to do as a career? Start working towards that.
posted by anniecat at 5:59 PM on January 16, 2012

Actually, you seem a lot more sensible and considered than most people who apply to our graduate program:

- Be very suspicious of higher degrees that you pay for yourself: I'm highly conflicted about providing them even though in themselves they're world-class courses. I'd make an exception for medicine conversion and professional degrees, but even then make sure there's an evidence-based track record of graduate earnings or destinations so you can amortise your costs sensibly.

- You can definitely change direction/subject if you do decide to return to academia. Two things are very helpful - reading the application procedure for a course/university carefully and consulting with the academic in charge of graduate admissions about your qualification and background well in advance. Do it in writing if you have to, but don't go to any school where there are insurmountable barriers between prospective applicants and academics.

- If you need/want specific skills for a particular course, look at community college credits or a very reputable distance learning university. There have been a bunch of questions here on the green about these recently. The UK's Open University is a personal favourite, but not all its course modules are available to US residents - note than postgrad modules on differential equations, functional analysis etc. are, though.

- For better or worse, linear algebra is a better quantitative starting point than many postgraduate students I know who have been highly successful in both (evolutionary) biology and increasingly in the quantitative social sciences.

- As for what to study: background in economics, interest in humanity and social sciences via quantitative methods, faculty with languages, nascent programmer? I'd look at serious graduate programs in Anthropology, Political Science, Geography, Area/Development studies, International Relations (maybe).

- Make those qualifications on paper work for you. No harm in looking at the big schools with some funding.
posted by cromagnon at 6:01 PM on January 16, 2012

Sorry, posted too soon. I myself have a background in economics and was always sorry that I didn't take going into accounting seriously.

Do you have any work experience? It might do you some good to spend a few years working at some kind of consultancy, economic or management consulting. Why not just apply for a job and then use that experience figuring out what you don't want to do?
posted by anniecat at 6:04 PM on January 16, 2012

Yeah, me too. I should have emphasised that an interesting job would be a sensible option for a few years, and certainly isn't a barrier to further study. And I somehow skipped over your joint major in IR, so forget that bit...
posted by cromagnon at 6:07 PM on January 16, 2012

You ask "What else should I consider studying?" but I think you might be best served by learning on the job, at least until you have a more specific career goal where the cost/benefit of pursuing more formal education becomes clear. I have a couple humanities degrees and zero formal training in coding or CS, but I found my way into a series of part-time jobs where I got trained into a modest set of computer skills (various flavors of XML; SQL; PHP; plus I picked up the rudiments of HTML, CSS and XSLT on my own). Now I have a very cool and satisfying full-time job at a small software company where I sort of interface between the Real Developers and our clients, who are mostly researchers (we do the nuts-and-bolts development behind several academic digital projects). I'm able to understand the needs of both worlds, the academic world and the developers' world. Seeing our projects through from proposal to completion and knowing that I had a hand in their success gives me that sense of accomplishment that you speak of, which I have to say was hard to come by in grad school.
posted by Orinda at 7:39 PM on January 16, 2012

When I speak with friends studying math and science, who have now moved on to masters and Phd programs, my degree feels a little bit like a fraud. Even worse, I feel like I couldn't hack the subjects they studied and settled for something easy.

I think people whose experiences more match what you've studied can settle the rest of this better, but for this bit: don't do this. Don't compare yourself in this way to your friends. It won't help you achieve what you're looking for and will just eat up your time and energy.
posted by sweetkid at 7:47 PM on January 16, 2012

I think you should take a little time out from academia, get a job (not easy these days, I know), and give yourself a year to make a decision. You sound like you have very little "real world" experience. If you're interested in computer science, try getting some practical experience before committing to a degree.

Grad school is worth the money if it will move you forward in life.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 9:58 AM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

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