Should I stay or should I go now? (school)
January 17, 2012 11:44 AM   Subscribe

Graduate with BS in biology or stay longer for CS (at state school)?

Weighing the merits of staying in school a little longer.

TL;DR: Stay in school longer to do comp sci stuff or bail and get a job?
Skip to the bottom for a quick summary of options

I’m set to graduate this May with a degree is biology. I’ve done so with out incurring any debt in fact I’ve socked away a sum of money equivalent to what most people average in student loan debt. My concern comes in finding a job after school. Initially, my plan was to go to graduate school in cell biology or evolutionary ecology. I have (had?) some specific interests in those fields that I would like to scratch. I volunteered in a biochemistry lab for a year and a half (applied stuff) along with evolutionary ecology lab over the summer. I have good references and a competitive GPA for most of the programs I was considering. However, research isn’t for me, at least not right now. At some point over the summer (busting ass doing field work as an REU) I realized that my free time wasn’t spent hypothesizing the habitability of different environments due to soil regime changes or the (terrible) project my boss/advisor assigned. This leads to alternative one: graduate and find a job. It might take a while but I could probably find something I don’t hate, but first satisfying my wanderlust and traveling.

In contrast I’ve always been interested in computers and enjoy programming quite a bit. I spend more time than I should thinking about data structure implementations and finite-state automata. However, I don’t have much formal experience. To resolve this I’m taking intro CS courses during this my senior year, and although they have been mind-numbingly banal they’ve been enjoyable. I’m auditing an upper-level course this semester as well and enjoy it. I’ve intended to start contributing to some open source projects soon, but it feels like a big leap in my ability.

So here is the rub: I could delay my graduation AND (not 100% on this) continue to get the large grants I get for being poor, specifically the Washington State Need Grant and Pell Grant all which have expiry periods that would allow for another year.

My options from that point are picking up a minor in CS after one semester and try and get a bio/cs job (which I’ve heard there is demand for but my cursory search doesn’t turn up much, which makes me think it might be similar to the “demand” for librarians that resulted in half of America getting a MLIS in 2006 /snark).

Alternatively, I could go an additional two years and pay for one of those years out of pocket and get a second degree in CS (which at my current school is another 60 credits). Staying longer would take a degree of asceticism (pun!) but doable. Part of me thinks I’d do this to maintain a state of moratorium. Finally, I could go to graduate school in computational biology (probably not up to snuff yet) or bioinformatics (few schools I’m interested in offer a MS and compelling advisors, with notable exceptions). If I did this I’d delay a year and wander. Possibly seek gainful employment for a couple years before I applied.

Maybe I should just leave programming as a hobby.

Alt 1: Graduate -> Job … (-> Bioinformatics masters)
Alt 2: Delay graduation -> CS Minor -> Graduate -> No job? [probably free, but it’s a minor who cares?]
Alt 3: Delay graduation -> CS Degree -> Get job with eyes closed [~$10000]
Alt 4: ?

What’s the best option? And more importantly why? I’m in the Portland-metro area if relevant exact location discernable with close reading.

Relevant past thread:
What can I do with a BS in biology
posted by EsotericAlgorithm to Education (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
My options from that point are picking up a minor in CS after one semester and try and get a bio/cs job (which I’ve heard there is demand for but my cursory search doesn’t turn up much, which makes me think it might be similar to the “demand” for librarians that resulted in half of America getting a MLIS in 2006 /snark)

It really depends on the job climate and how things work at a particular company, but a CS minor might get your foot in the door for a lot of the same entry-level general programming jobs that a BS in CS would. A typical CS degree program does teach you a lot of the kinds of problem solving abilities that are important in the real world and gives you a solid foundation of knowledge around how computers work, but what makes a good programmer is generally just being a good problem solver and having a lot of experience writing code. Most CS grads straight out of college do not have a ton of experience writing code so it wouldn't take a huge amount of effort on your part to get to that level if you already have the problem-solving skills for it.

I would suggest trying to write your own phone app or something like that as a good real world project to help develop and test your programming skills, especially if you spend a while maintaining it and adding new features based on feedback from users. That would also be a good test yourself for trying to figure out if you actually like the sorts of things you have to deal with in the real world as a programmer (such as dealing with changing requirements and fixing bugs) or if you just like learning the theory. At least for me if you spent a significant amount of effort outside of class working on programming projects and seemed to really enjoy it, I would be more likely to hire you with a CS minor than a recent grad with a degree in CS who only wrote code for in-class assignments. I have no idea what the actual climate for programming jobs is like in your area right now though, and it's definitely easier to be considered for entry-level programming jobs if you have a CS degree.
posted by burnmp3s at 12:57 PM on January 17, 2012

I'd pick up the CS minor and then go straight into a bioinformatics/computational biology MS or PhD program.

try and get a bio/cs job (which I’ve heard there is demand for but my cursory search doesn’t turn up much,

What are you looking for? "Biostatistician" or "bioinformatics" turns up plenty of results in job listings (I am not your career counselor, please see your university career office, etc.). Granted, I think the heyday of bioinformatics, when people were finishing up PhDs in 4 years or less because every tiny thing was a big contribution to the field that had never been done before, was in the early-to-mid 2000s. But all that means is that the field is now mature and employers are actually paying people money to be bioinformatics specialists, now.
posted by deanc at 1:02 PM on January 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

I currently work in the realm of high-throughput sequencing, a field that went from zero in 2005 to something like $750M in 2011 and over $1B this year. (Having been involved in it since late 2006 has been a great thing for my career.)

The demand for folks with bioinformatics expertise (we're talking Perl and Bioconductor, perhaps some SQL and Java, or other skillsets like .NET or Ruby) is going through a renaissance - there was a huge boom in the late 1990's / early 2000's (completion of the human genome project = lots of bifx startups = high demand for those skills) and with NGS there's quite the demand for these skills in combining a biological background with CS.

I agree with the vote of 'get a CS minor' then 'go for an MS or PhD in CS', as that will take you very far. To satisfy the wanderlust, weave in a summer abroad or engineer a study abroad semester, and go to a place so different than the Pacific Northwest (Seychelles? Tristan da Cunha? Nevermind, there may not be affiliated universities in those places, but you get the idea of going somewhere very different...) so that when you come back you'll be able to know the familiar places for the first time.

There will be NO LETUP of the need for bioinformatics folks in the near or mid-future (see articles on 'Big Data'), whether it is in a dedicated CS context (such as what is needed in the business world of Amazon or Google for example), or in the specialty field like bioinformatics with whole-genome data overlaid with whole transcriptome data overlaid with transcription factor binding sites (genome-wide of course, and tens or hundreds of factors involved) along with HiC DNA conformation data, and of course that rich dataset has to be modeled over many discrete timepoints from many discrete experiments, in the future at the single-cell level.

All of which will require a deeper understanding of statistics in your computational model, but I hope you do get the idea that there's a ton of data that needs to be analyzed, and many folks I know in the bifx field are highly valued for their expertise.

If you want more of my particulars do feel free to contact me via Mefi Mail.
posted by scooterdog at 1:52 PM on January 17, 2012

Since it sounds like you're not headed straight to grad school in the fall, a "capstone" undergrad summer program that integrates CS and ecology, like this Eco-Informatics internship at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest, might be a good way to get more practical experience and a better sense of the mix of field work, CS, and statistics that would be required for graduate work in this field. With your prior research experience, you'd be very competitive for programs like this.
posted by dialetheia at 2:25 PM on January 17, 2012

It is important to keep in mind that as a bio-statistician/bioinformatics person the degree won't matter as much as the skills, do you currently speak any programming languages?

You would probably be better served learning those skills in a reputable Masters or PhD. program. It sounds like you would be competitive enough for one and they would pay you to do it more than Pell and WSNG grants would while you get a much more meaningful degree. People like to complain about grad school, but in the sciences its a pretty neat gig for a young person these days.

The only problem with this is that it is already January and you haven't applied or even asked for letters of rec that polite month ahead of time. With this in mind scooterdog's advice seems appropriate.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:36 PM on January 17, 2012

From a CS major who is now in the workforce: delay graduation, get a CS minor, and do two internships in CS during this summer and next.
posted by 200burritos at 6:50 PM on January 17, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice so far everyone. The phone app is a good idea, I have written a couple web-based applications but they were never fully fleshed out just the sort of thing to scratch an itch. I don't mean to come across as a total neophyte either I know python and C fluently, and know a couple others to the extent where I could bang something out with documentation at hand, just probably rather slow.

The Eco-Informatics internship is interesting I'll look into it.

I think you are alright that in regards to graduate school being something I should consider. This coming Fall is not a likely scenario.

I'll definitely get a minor and try and land a internship this summer. Any other suggestions or comments are welcome.
posted by EsotericAlgorithm at 8:03 PM on January 17, 2012

Maybe field ecology isn't your thing, but you could still do research in computational biology. The BEACON Center at Michigan State, Texas, Washington, NCA&T, and Idaho might be good for someone with your mix of interests in evolutionary biology and computer science.
posted by Ian Scuffling at 12:26 AM on January 18, 2012

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