Masters in comp sci?
April 28, 2014 2:16 PM   Subscribe

I started my undergraduate career as a math/comp sci major, and did that for two years at two different schools (transferred to a better school after my first year). At my second school, I went through some rough emotional times, and changed my major for several reasons...

1) I was having a rough time getting enough sleep and waking up for class, attending class because I was anxious, &c. My mental health was all over the map and I was trying to cope. I'm much healthier now and more in control of my time. Needless to say, an English major was easier under the previous circumstances.

2) I thought I owed it to myself to study literature full-time, because it's my passion and my true talent. Given a time where being a lit professor was a less laughable idea, I would be a lit professor. (This is not my current aspiration due to the job market.)

3) I liked math and comp sci, but didn't think I wanted to do a PhD in math-- and at the time I was pretty set on doing a PhD.

Anyway, if you haven't guessed already, I really regret it! I learned so much about the world and systems from my first two years doing math and computer science, and despite my love of literature, I think I chose the wrong path. For two reasons: I think math/comp sci was a great education for understanding the world, and I think I would've had better job prospects/higher earnings.

So, rather than pursing an English PhD as previously planned, I'm considering doing a 1-year master's degree in computer science as a way to learn fundamentals I missed out on and begin a career path. I have already chosen the program-- it's at a top-tier university, but not one which is particularly well known in computer science. (In the top 40 for graduate studies in comp sci.) The reason I've chosen it is because I work at this university and I will get a 50% discount on tuition. This will still put me in some debt, but not a lot. I could pay it off in 2-3 years, faster with a better career. Also, the program is based around evening classes, so I would not have a problem scheduling it around my job.

I'm at the beginning of my career now, in a job where my rudimentary programming skills are really useful (I do light programming/editing at my job), and I wish they were much more advanced. I started learning Python for work (I won't be using it much), and I felt a twinge-- I want to be back in that game again! I'd much rather work on the tech side of things than the "people" side of things. This program is clearly designed for professionals, so I'm not sure how to understand/approach that.

My main question is: Would a program like this one be a useful jumping point in my career? What do employers usually think about these kinds of programs? To be frank, I'm no math/programming genius, but I do enjoy problem solving and enjoyed the Java classes I took as a freshman. I taught myself HTML/CSS as a teen, and though I've never been super engineer-y, I think it's a more interesting challenge than most of the jobs I've been considering with an English degree. Gradewise, I got all A's in math and computer science at my first university (where classes were moderately easy), and got A's in the honors calculus/analysis program at my second university (where classes were moderately hard), though near the end during my depression I did get one bad grade. I currently have a little student debt (< $5,000) which I am aggressively paying off.
posted by stoneandstar to Work & Money (3 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think your plan of a career transition sounds great for you, given the way you describe your interests, so go for it.

This program does seem to be costly ($50 to $60K? even cut in half, that's quite a lot) and will take all of your evenings for a year or two, which is a serious outlay of your resources, so it makes sense to consider whether it is the best or only way to meet your goals. Programming is a very pragmatic field and I would say a project portfolio and/or resume with programming experience on it is both necessary and sufficient to finding a job.

An alternate plan could be: take the next year and do all the self-learning you can via free tools at Kahn Academy, Codacademy, etc; give yourself some projects to do, put them online on github to build a portfolio, gradually ramp them up in terms of sophistication; find some open source packages and start contributing to them when you're ready. Meanwhile, join some tech-centric meetups and social functions, figure out what companies are doing what these days, find people who seem to be doing the kind of things you want to do and take them out for lunch and ask for career advice.

My hunch is you may be farther along this path than you think you are -- you are already a programmer, by your own description, if perhaps at the junior end of the scale -- and while the certification wouldn't hurt, you may not need it. Better to spend your time building things than working through coursework. And also if you push out into the community, you'll get a better sense of whether coursework and a degree is a reasonable next move or not.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:33 PM on April 28, 2014

Best answer: I've heard good things about the UChicago program (assuming that's the one you are considering). However, many, though not all, compsci masters programs are geared at working professionals looking to focus their skills in one sub-field of computing; they are typically not oriented toward career changers, so if you don't have any experience in a software engineering field this may not be the ideal program for you. I think it's worth thinking about what you hope to get out of the program, and where you want to go with it.

There are much, much more affordable ways of picking up the skills in this curriculum if you are coming in with little or no work experience and hoping to get an entry-level job as an engineer (or "web developer" or "data scientist" or whatever). Assuming you are in Chicago, there are a number of vocational training programs designed as crash-courses like Dev Bootcamp that I imagine are much more affordable than even half-off UChicago tuition, and I daresay you hardly need to pay that kind of money to learn web development. I actually work for a tech company in Chicago and we've recently hired a few graduates of such programs as "apprentices" – pre-entry level quasi-interns, brought in with the assumption they'll be hired on full-time as entry-level if all is well after six months.

All of which is to say, yes, you can do this, but you don't need to necessarily shell out the cash for a masters just yet – maybe go for that after you've gotten your feet wet and know where you want to focus. YMMV, of course, but if you are at all interested, shoot me a PM and I'll write a more detailed summary of some of these programs and companies in the area that may interest you. I also know maybe a half-dozen people at my workplace who have made a similar transition who I could tap for more detail on what it was like for them.
posted by deathpanels at 8:37 PM on April 28, 2014

Before you decide to spend lots of time and money on this, be sure it's what you want to do. The day to day lives of many working programmers are not really about "interesting challenges" or "understanding the world".

Maybe explore the world of math / stats / computing a bit more, identify more exactly where in those fields you'd like to work, and check with people doing that work what it's really like in practice.

The MSc you're looking at would probably help you with certain types of employers, and for certain kinds of jobs. But depending on where you want to get to, it might not be the best use of your time and money.
posted by philipy at 10:00 AM on April 29, 2014

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