Words, bits, or what?
January 15, 2013 9:48 AM   Subscribe

After a torturously long stint in grad school, I’m trying to figure out what to do next. The only things on my resume are my education, a couple of summer jobs from the early 00’s, grad-student stuff (TAing, running a colloquium for a few years), and some part-time adjuncting. Should I 1) try to get a job in publishing or some other word-related field, or 2) pursue my burgeoning interest in computer programming? (If you’ve got a plausible 3, I’d love to hear it.)

Ten and a half years ago, I went straight from undergrad into a Ph.D. program in English lit. After a few years in the program, it began to dawn on me that I didn't really want to be a professor of English, but it took me until last fall to work up the nerve to tell anyone about it (for reasons I'm discussing with the therapist I recently started seeing). Now I'm trying to finish up my thesis as quickly as possible while thinking about what to do next. My non-academic work experience is basically nil. I have only a vague idea of what sorts of jobs there are in the world or how you get a good one. I’m planning on talking to my school’s Career Services people about job-search mechanics, but right now I’m trying to figure out what kind of job I want to aim for.

I've been telling people that I might want to work in publishing, but that's mostly because I feel stupid saying "I’m not sure what I want to do," and publishing seems like a field where a person with an English degree could plausibly find tolerable employment. I wouldn't mind working in publishing, but I have no active desire to do so.

For the past year and a half or so, I've been getting increasingly interested in computer programming—not for any particular reason, just because it's fascinating to me. I didn't take any CS classes in college, but now I really wish I had. I've taken a bunch of Udacity and Coursera courses, taught myself the basics of a half-dozen or so programming languages, and read a handful of books (most notably Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs and the Kernighan/Ritchie C book; right now I'm halfway through Cormen et al's Introduction to Algorithms). It's getting to the point where I'm idly thinking about whether I could turn this interest to some practical purpose, but I’m not sure how to do that without spending several more years in school. I have no experience programming anything but little toy projects and apps for myself, none of which would impress anyone if I put them up on Github or whatever.

My extremely patient wife has a great (non-academic) job that pays enough to support both of us in the short term, so if necessary I could spend some time as an intern or volunteer or student. However, it would be nice if I could start contributing some money to the household sooner rather than later—more money than the peanuts I’ve been making as a part-time adjunct, that is. We live in NYC and have no kids.

So should I try to get a job in a field I’m at least sort of vaguely qualified for and keep the computer stuff as a hobby, or should I focus on trying to turn myself into an employable programmer even if it means another few years of apprenticeship?
posted by DaDaDaDave to Work & Money (7 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I have only a vague idea of what sorts of jobs there are in the world or how you get a good one.

This was me when I returned to Canada after spending 10 years in Japan.

I think you should at least try out computer programming. There are more jobs than in publishing, that's for sure, and even if you don't like being a programmer, you can always switch to something else.

The thing about the tech industry is that tech firms like to hire people with technical aptitude. If you want to do a non-hardcore technical job (project mgmt, marketing, product mgmt) it's easier to get hired if you have worked in the tech industry before.

So you might like programming, and if you don't like it you can transition to something else.

Check out a diploma program at a local community college. You'll be on a workterm in less than a year, and can probably find a job in two years.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:58 AM on January 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Ebook development comes to mind as a possibility at the intersection of publishing and programming. It's very very light programming (HTML and CSS in the books themselves, possibly some scripting to build tools or whatever), but most publishing people are very nontechnical, so what you already know would make you a hero in their eyes. A sample ebook project would be nothing to whip up.

One place publishers seem to be hiring is in the digital area, and I think you could also set yourself up as, say, a consultant to people who want to self-publish ebooks.

That said, publishing is an increasingly small, difficult to get into, and underpaid profession, so absent a compulsion to work in that field, I wouldn't.
posted by teditrix at 10:10 AM on January 15, 2013

For what it's worth, I desperately wanted to work in publishing and couldn't get a full-time position immediately after graduating. At this point, with 4 years of fairly-unrelated work experience, the salary looks pitifully low, and I doubt anyone would hire me for an entry-level position since I've been working so long. I imagine the same would be true for you, and that you'd be overqualified with a PhD.

In my current job in the legal field I do quite a bit of writing and reading--it might be worth considering what exactly it is about publishing that appeals to you, and see if you could find it in other fields, maybe at a nonprofit or gov't agency.
posted by mlle valentine at 10:39 AM on January 15, 2013

If you think you would like and can become good at programming, I would seriously consider pursuing that over a career in publishing. The peanuts you will make in publishing will likely be barely any better than the peanuts you make as a part-time adjunct (I have worked as both, btw). You might talk to someone in the CS department at your current institution to find out how much remedial work it would take to get consideration for admission into a master's program.
posted by drlith at 11:32 AM on January 15, 2013

Thanks for the answers, everyone! A couple more things that may be relevant:

1. Publishing is really just a kind of placeholder idea for me. My thought process was pretty much "I love books but don't want to teach literature, and my writing and editing skills are reasonably well-honed. Hey, publishing!" I'm all too aware that publishing is a tough field to get into, especially in New York. This would bother me more if I actually wanted to work in publishing, rather than just being willing to work in publishing. I think I would be equally happy working for, say, a non-profit (especially a non-profit connected to something I care about—environmental issues, poverty, standard left-lib stuff), but I know absolutely nothing about the non-profit world, whereas I know next to nothing about publishing. (I've had one very informal informational interview with an editor at a small press; everything else I know comes from blogs and job listings.) If anyone has a link to some good information about what kinds of jobs exist in the non-profit world and what kinds of people get those jobs, I'd be very grateful.

2. I have some math/science aptitude and background, though my skills are rusty. I did two years of a physics degree before switching to English, and I've always done about equally well in math/sci and humanities classes, at least grade-wise. (I have amusing memories of helping my CS-major roommate with his linear algebra homework.) I pick up new skills pretty quickly. So I'm fairly sure I could become at least competent at programming; I'm less sure of my ability to convince anyone else of that.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 12:13 PM on January 15, 2013

For nonprofit jobs, I mostly looked at Idealist. I've seen a bunch of publications-type positions posted there that appeal to me (editing journals/doing research/etc for various social justice organizations). That may be a good place to start, to see what kind of job descriptions interest you. Then maybe check out the websites for the organizations that made the postings, and see if there are any other intriguing jobs listed. Sorry I can't provide any more specific suggestions; I hope someone else will!
posted by mlle valentine at 7:00 PM on January 15, 2013

taught myself the basics of a half-dozen or so programming languages, and read a handful of books (most notably Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs and the Kernighan/Ritchie C book; right now I'm halfway through Cormen et al's Introduction to Algorithms). (DaDaDaDave)

My guess is that you would have serious gaps in your academic CS knowledge, but in terms of introductions to the basics of programming, you could do a lot worse than "6 languages, SICP, K&R, and half of CLR." That's a dynamically-typed high-level functional language with garbage collection, a statically-typed low-level imperative language with manual memory management, and pretty much the standard textbook on algorithms.

Does your graduate program let you take undergrad courses at your university? I would use those to fill in the gaps some, and then either go for a master's or jump right into the interviewing.
posted by d. z. wang at 8:33 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

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