Unemployed and demoralized. Should I go back to school?
June 23, 2014 7:08 PM   Subscribe

I just graduated from college. I have had absolutely zero luck finding a job. Should I go back to school for computer science?

Hey Internet. I graduated in May with an apparently useless degree (a B.S. in biology, in case that's relevant) from a good school in the Boston area. I'm still unemployed, despite networking and applying for all kinds of jobs and going on a few interviews. I haven't even been successful in finding a retail job. I'm just...really sad. I had to leave the Boston area, which I loved, and move back home. I was really involved in extracurricular activities in college, and it feels awful having an empty inbox and endless free time.

I do small projects in Python as a hobby, and I always enjoyed programming. I took two computer science classes in undergrad (an intro class and a data structures class), and I did well in them, but I've never been the sort of person who is "good" at math. I ended up talking myself out of taking more computer science courses in undergrad because of that. I regret it.

Also, everyone I know who stayed on and majored in computer science is happily employed.

Is it a dumb idea to go back to school for computer science? If not, what sort of a degree should I be looking for? A certificate, a second B.S., or something else? Are there classes or something that I should take to make sure that it's for me? Or some sort of programming bootcamp you'd recommend?

I'm living in the NY metro area for now, I have free time (see: unemployed), and I'm desperately looking for things to do (see: demoralized, lonely, unhappy).
posted by topoisomerase to Education (25 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, it's a dumb idea to go back to school for computer science. My husband is self-taught in programming and holds a good job with good money after only a year in the industry. I just read him this question and he said "Tell him to teach himself."

Don't go into more debt to find a job. You already have a degree. Many jobs only require a degree, not necessarily a degree in the field.

Teach yourself. Make some projects for resumes. Keep looking for jobs in the tech-ish industry. Even data entry can get you familiar with databases.

You've only been unemployed since May. I have a degree in my field, great experience, live in a larger city, and it still took me months to find a job where I am too. Many people here are willing to help with resumes, especially if you have some jobs in mind. Get a job, any job, and work on your resume.

Volunteering in a tech-type industry is also helpful. There are plenty of nonprofits that need tech help or data entry. From my husband's experience in the IT industry, many people don't have degrees, and he (and others he's talked to) find computer science degrees unhelpful/unneeded. YOU CAN DO IT! We're here to help if you need it, memail me.
posted by Crystalinne at 7:14 PM on June 23, 2014 [10 favorites]

Python is super useful for all sorts of lab jobs (not sure about bio specifically)... are you putting personal projects on the resume? That's totally valid.

Most software engineer jobs don't require a lot of math day to day.
posted by shownomercy at 7:20 PM on June 23, 2014

I think that you should recalibrate your expectations in terms of your job search, rather than go back to school right now. A rule of thumb is to expect to search for a month for every $10K of salary you expect to earn. I'm not sure about the Boston area, but when I was graduating along with a lot of students getting biology, public health, and biomedical engineering, etc, degrees in the Baltimore area a few years back, virtually everyone's entry-level jobs were $30-45K/yr. So until you've been searching for at least four months, I really don't think that you should even be worried or assume that anything's going wrong.

If you're getting to the interview level already, something is likely going right, and at least you know that your resume isn't the problem (if it were, they wouldn't have wasted time interviewing you. If you want to work on improving any part of your job search, I would concentrate on your interview skills, since it seems that nothing has progressed past that point between you and the companies you're applying to so far. But again, likely *nothing* is wrong, or at least nothing happening right now is proof that anything's wrong, and you just need to recalibrate your expectations rather than do anything differently.

I know that's a long time to wait, but in the meantime, volunteer, work on projects, and maybe you can even get an internship (preferably paid, but even if not). If you're able to get a side gig just to keep some money coming in (restaurants, retail, etc) then that's a great idea, but the economy is tightening up somewhat this year, and you're competing within an enormous labor market when you're going for entry-level unskilled or semi-skilled work, so don't beat yourself up if you can't land one of those jobs, either.
posted by rue72 at 7:25 PM on June 23, 2014 [6 favorites]

I've been thinking about this too - not about a CS degree, but about tech skills in general. I like my job, but can't stay in it forever and don't want to go into management.

There've been a few AskMe threads recommending where to go to learn and how to go about this... specfic learning resources etc. I've saved them on my phone which at the moment doesn't have data access (grrr). Anyway, if you MeMail me I'll send you links when I get home.

Don't incur more debt!

I cannot more highly recommend the blog Ask A Manager. And yeah, it's going to take you longer than you want to find work. And double yeah - no one in their right mind would hire me to do retail or be a waitress... it's tough. I always had good luck picking up babysitting and nanny gigs though - it can pay pretty well and you're in a good area for it, and you can study after the kids go to bed ;)
posted by jrobin276 at 7:33 PM on June 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

How long have you been looking for work? Since May? Two months isn't enough time to start panicking about qualifications - finding a job often takes longer than that. You're already at home, so you're not about to be evicted, that's a good position to be in - you have the stability to keep searching and stay focused. Job hunting will take a while, and it will be demoralizing and you just have to try to not let it get to you. Remember, a great position you might end up accepting might not even be open yet. Keep looking.

And in your spare time, keep working on projects and programming and expanding skills that you can put on a resume, or demonstrating that you're a self-starter, etc.

And do what you need to keep your spirits up. That's important too because it's often a long march, but I don't think we can tell you what makes you feel good. (If you're lucky, maybe there is some collaborative project or group that helps both develop skills and fill the social hole?)
posted by anonymisc at 7:39 PM on June 23, 2014 [6 favorites]

It can be a really demoralizing transition. Up to this point, there has been a clear path to approval and success: show up and do well at school. Job searching is much more soul-crushing because you know you could do the horrible jobs you are down to applying for, but you don't even hear anything back. In school you get tons of feedback about here you need to improve. In job searching, there are all kinds of things you may be doing wrong, from even finding jobs to apply for, to your resume or LinkedIn, or maybe your interview skills need help - and your feedback is usually just nothing.
posted by thelonius at 7:43 PM on June 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Seconding everything Crystalinne said.

Do you know how to multiply, add, subtract, and divide? Then you know as much math as I use on a daily basis, and I've worked as a programmer for 15 years. (If you got into games you might have to work with physics formulas, but you're not going to re-invent physics for each game- there are existing engines.) Programming, at the least the kind you'd do in an office job, is mostly about logic, not math.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:00 PM on June 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Don't go back to school for computer science just yet. Take some courses at General Assembly. Maybe the Python Data Science course?
posted by the jam at 8:06 PM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I strongly advise against using grad school to hide from the job market. Unless you're going because you know exactly why you want that degree, I think it's a bad idea.

Do you already write programs for fun? Are you self-directed, and have ideas for what you'd want to work on? Do you like working alongside other people and talking about programming?

If so, given that you're already in NYC, I'd recommend applying to Hacker School. It's free, a chance to spend 12 weeks working on becoming a better programmer, and they'll try to help you find a job in the field afterwards. (However, if you're an absolute beginner, it can still be hard to find a first job.)

Note: Admissions are selective, but not in the way you probably think. They publicly say exactly what they're looking for, so read all their blog entries if you're interested!
posted by Metasyntactic at 8:08 PM on June 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

If you graduated in May, you are being all kinds of impatient. I get it, I'm really impatient too. But you know how they keep talking about how the economy is garbage? They're not kidding. When I graduated, I took a campaign job for five months, worked at Barnes and Noble for about eight months while doing a paid internship for 3 months, got a "real" job where I worked for six months before finally, a year and a half after graduation, got a job where I stuck around and was happy-ish for five years.

It sounds like you're bored which again, I understand. I'd look into getting a temp gig if you need cash or look for a paid internship where you can do programming stuff if that's what interests you. But you do not need a degree in CS to do programming.

BTW, I got super depressed after college. If you did too, you would definitely not be the first. But, if you can learn to become more comfortable with The Unknown, that's something that will serve you in whatever you do next. Do stuff you like right now. Read books for fun. Volunteer. Write. Breathe. It'll be okay.
posted by kat518 at 8:20 PM on June 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'll go against the grain here and say that yes, going to school for computer science is probably worth it. Depends on how much it costs you, but:

I graduated with a bachelor's in CS three years ago, and I can honestly say that studying CS was one of the best decisions I ever made.

I hit six figures just a few years after graduating. I get to work on interesting problems with very smart people, and I work about 40-45 hours a week. The job market is good enough that I can live nearly anywhere I want. I am tremendously grateful for this every single day, it still feels surreal.

In my experience, the best employers are significantly more likely to hire a programmer with a CS degree than one without. This may be less true if you're a seasoned developer with years and years of experience, but my company won't even consider junior developers without a degree. Amazon/Google/Microsoft are similar, I believe.

Plus, many CS programs incorporate co-op jobs which A) help pay for school and B) give you a rock-solid resume the moment you graduate.

If you're willing/able to live on the beautiful west coast of Canada for a few years, UBC has an excellent two-year Bachelor of Computer Science program for people who already have a bachelor's. Feel free to MeMail me if you have any questions!
posted by ripley_ at 8:32 PM on June 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

This thread has a lot of good advice about CS degrees.
posted by ripley_ at 8:49 PM on June 23, 2014

My vote is against the hacker academies. I recently interviewed to teach web development at one of the above-mentioned places and withdrew when I found it too sketchy and for-profit for my tastes.

Don't let math hold you back. There is so much free info out there on the Web and ways to get into programming. The only reason General Assembly was created was to get in on a market in which there is an out-of-control demand in certain cities for people who know a modest amount of coding.
posted by johngoren at 9:11 PM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

A significant difference between the CS job market of 1994 and the CS job market of 2014 is that the story of the degree-less people is different. The distribution has a fatter tail, it is become bimodal: I know a man working without his degree at Google and getting paid $200,000 at 23 without a college degree... He started programming at 4 and has been continuously programming from 4 to 14 hours a day for the entire duration. He programs compilers on the weekends, one a weekend, usually. Do you have a time machine?

There are grand hiring programs hiring thousands, but they are mostly for the CS grads of schools like Berkeley, Stanford and MIT, CMU and Caltech, not because they are a reliable source of good people but because they are a reliable source of people who are not terrible. Nobody is hiring thousands of college dropouts and biology degrees systematically.

The distribution of hacker academies and for-profit organizations is highly unequal. There are ones which will legitimately set you up as a legitimate programmer in highly prestigious places. You can count them on the fingers of one hand, maybe two.

Math is to programming as math is to biology. There are large sub-fields where it is absolutely essential, and large sub-fields where it is absolutely essential in actuality and people insist that it isn't. Nobody who doesn't have an understanding of nonlinear dynamical systems has any business getting into modern evolutionary biology, but there you go. This means that people with provable mathematics backgrounds will probably be hired before you on those sorts of jobs, unless you are willing to embark on a journey of probably 5 or so year's time. This is probably incompatible with your situation.

The first principle towards hope in the situation of unemployment is to realize that the situation is temporary and specific: it is not permanent and it need not pervade your life and identity. This has nothing to do with any positive feelings, but how you handle the inevitable powerlessness and possibly despair. This is the explanatory style explanation for depression, and it is indeed the case that you can expect some depressive feelings out of unemployment, perhaps overwhelming ones. Therapy is expensive, but hope is cheap, although cognitive behavioral therapy will give you techniques to get to this point. Morale is important, specifically in performance in clutch situations as come up often in the job hunt.

Another important way out of helplessness is in the Dweckian formulation of mindset theory. That is, morale in learning depends deeply upon disbelieving in the idea that innate traits have anything to do with anything. Instead, you must believe that success depends upon hard work and effort, not luck or any innate trait.

One systematic illusion in the process of learning itself is in the attitude towards difficulty, the attitude towards recall, the attitude towards pace and the attitude towards variegation. A systematic illusion in autodidactism is that one can get away with doing easier things, that one can get away with merely reading instead of doing recall - programming for oneself, doing problems -, that one can get away with pacing oneself in big chunks of time, and that one can get away with learning one thing at a time instead of a variety of things at once. The binding illusion that backs all of these illusions is that people are not accurate introspectors of how well they learn. Is this incompatible with the evidence of your life? It is not incompatible with the evidence of mine.

Two opposing phenomena should inform your selection. The harder the material, the more you will learn. If you do not have the pre-requisites to understand the material, you will not learn anything. The virtue of having an organization to say that you fail is that you will be able to cleave closer to the liminal state of being at the edge of your ability. The downside is that you actually might fail.

Now let us get onto advice specifically about computer science.

If you are to take it as a career, call it a career and do it for some time. Ten years? However so long that it takes. You will become a programmer.

Do not read a book unless it is for a project. Get a project. Do not fail to get a project. The project will inform your learning, and be the start of a portfolio. But you will end up reading parts of many books, and read some books thoroughly.

If (when) you get stuck in that project, the way to get past the wall is much the same way to garner hope elsewhere: to know that your problems are temporary, not permanent, and that they are specific, not pervasive, not identity-forming. The way to make the problems temporary is to get resources, to ask people. To ask people in a manner like this.

I'm going to drop a fairly obscure paper here and you may or may not read it and wonder what the hell I'm saying. It is not the case that I am saying nothing, and I'm not recommending that you become an entrepreneur. It's a paper that has something to say about the nature of things.

Time. Knowledge. Words. Some advice from Might. Some advice from Stucchio.

Free programming books. Here's a book list of non-free books. Here is a good source for mathematics pertinent to some aspects of programming.

This is about 1/100 of my full collection of links, although most of those are fairly arcane. The natural next question to ask, is where to start. This is why you should not read a single book before you get a project. Therefore, the simpler, first block is what kind of project to get. What is the nature of this block? Surely, it must be temporary, not permanent, it must be specific, not pervasive...
posted by curuinor at 10:08 PM on June 23, 2014 [18 favorites]

Man if I could write even the tiniest bit of python I'd be training to be a bioinformatician so fast your head would spin. There is a lot you can learn online, there are often accredited courses available also online, there are trainee level jobs, or you can just go do a graduate degree in the field. shownomercy is also correct that python is super useful for all kinds of lab things, particularly if you look into bioengineering or biotechnology. Programming and data handling are sought after skills for biologists (especially if you have wet lab experience also), definitely make sure you play them up.

So if you do want to do more training make sure you investigate the full range of what is available to you. I know people who moved from biology into pure programming and are happy, that is definitely an option, I also know many more who did some kind of combination and are more securely employed than I'll ever be. A BSc in biology is not at all a useless degree, you have a lot of options to follow up on.
posted by shelleycat at 11:28 PM on June 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Hi - so sorry to read you are unhappy and struggling right now. A few things struck me while reading...

First, just wanted to chime in about the math thing - if you have lots of free time, why not spend part of this time improving your math skills, regardless of your decision about the CS degree?

From my own experience, I was also not a "math person" at all when I learned some Python a few years ago.
Stopped for a while, learned a LOT of math in the meantime, and came back to programming in Python, C, and Matlab recently for my degree courses. It was hugely helpful!
It really enriches your perspective on your own programs, as well as opens whole new worlds of interesting projects and problems to solve.

And second, about getting a 2nd degree itself - that's what I ended up doing (maybe you guessed already from the first part), in my case, 2nd Bachelor's. I don't regret my decision at all, but I have to be honest... sometimes I dream of being in your position - at least, the free time part!

The two years I spent learning various things, math among them, to transition from arts to engineering, and working 3/4 time at a rather undemanding job was an extremely productive and happy period. I was able to sort out what I really wanted, and didn't go broke doing it! Hooray!
Now I have to spend a lot of time learning quite a few things I'm not particularly interested in, and getting graded on it. It's fine, but if I weren't sure about this path, I know I would be really struggling. And I am a bit nostalgic for those old times...

And on the topic of doing things you're possibly not interested in, I would very carefully check out the actual content of CS degrees.
Disclaimer - I study something completely different than CS so don't know this myself, but many programmer-type students at my school were disappointed to find out that our CS degree was a lot less about programming software itself and much more about hardware, algorithms, data structures, lots of related math, etc.
Maybe give a non-OOP language like C a shot to get a taste of it, especially coming from Python - having to manage memory was an eye-opener for me when I first learned C.
And others may know more about this, but there are many interdisciplinary degree programs that could use your bio skills and programming (Bioinformatics comes to mind), if CS itself doesn't turn out to suit for whatever reason.

So, in summary, I like the idea of throwing yourself into programming for a while (and maybe a bit of math too!), just to be absolutely sure before committing yourself financially and otherwise. Memail me if you have any questions, good luck to you!
posted by Pieprz at 1:05 AM on June 24, 2014

Computer science requires surprisingly little math. I'm terrible at most math (stats being the one exception), and I got myself a CS degree and a kick-ass job - don't be concerned if you're not a mathy person.

As far as what to actually take, if you don't mind moving to Philly (or commuting there from NY, which is nasty but possible) UPenn offers a great CS masters degree for people who didn't major in CS. I have a friend who just graduated the program and he swears by it.
posted by Itaxpica at 6:23 AM on June 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

You graduated in May? So that's what, a month, maybe six weeks ago? I literally know no one who found a job that quickly after graduating from undergrad. Anyone who was working a month or so out was working fallback jobs that they already held while still in college - stuff like retail, or restaurants, or tutoring. Most were just not working at all. This includes many people who graduated in the mid-2000s, so before the recession got really bad, and one person with a compsci degree from a top school.

If you want to look into CS, by all means do so, and you've got some great advice here. But the post-college period of un/under-employment is basically a rite of passage these days. It sucks, but that's the way it is.
posted by breakin' the law at 7:12 AM on June 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Whoa there. You've been out of school 2 months tops, had interviews, and are upset because you're unemployed? I don't even think you've given the positions you've interviewed for enough time to give you an offer. These days a month between an interview and an offer is not rare.

Don't go into debt to go back to school this soon. Keep pounding the pavement and try to teach yourself new skills. There's about 8 billion programming classes on Coursera and the like to get your feet wet and give you more beginners to talk to.
posted by WeekendJen at 7:45 AM on June 24, 2014

Don't go back to school. That's a cop out.

Do teach yourself programming in your spare time.

If you want to work in Biology, start with USAjobs.org.There are 186 openings now. One might be a fit. Sort by Minimum Salary and you'll find all the listings for Biological Technician. Some are for Bureau of Land Management. Also, don't be put off by the appearance of low wages, there are great benefits, raises every year, and once you get your foot in the door, you can move around to other assignments.

Federal Government jobs take a while to get on with, but once you do...it's a sweet, sweet thing.

Now, get a regular minimum wage job or two, just to have money coming in and to get you out of the house. Sign up for church Softball, or other leauge sports.

Get out, hang with friends, live your life.

You can't put everything on hold until you get a job. You have to make the effort to get up and get out. It's weird at first, but then, you'll realize, 'hey, this is my life I'm living!'
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:15 AM on June 24, 2014

I dropped out of a biology degree, worked like crazy learning stuff for about 9 months, and had my first programming job less than a year later. I'm a lot better at software development than I am at biology, as I suspected.

I'm seconding "get a project". Without a specific target it's pretty much impossible to really get your teeth into the details of any specific language or technology. It doesn't have to be an amazing world-changing idea, just something - anything.

Here's one idea: There's a Ludum Dare in 59 days. By then you could learn more Python (PyGame), make some practice games (pong clone, basic platformer, etc), get up to speed on whatever you don't currently know about graphic/sound editing, source control and code organisation in general. If someone gave me a CV with a LD entry on it, along with a link to the source and real-time commit history on github, that would get me interested at the very least. It probably won't get you a job in game development right away (and maybe you don't even want one - massive stress) but nobody will be able to say you can't code.
posted by dickasso at 9:06 AM on June 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Make a website that's part CV part coding projects. Search for citizen science projects you can contribute to.

http://www.topcoder.com/ has lots of code challenges
posted by browolf at 9:36 AM on June 24, 2014

I do small projects in Python as a hobby, and I always enjoyed programming.

This is really a good sign that you could find a career in software rewarding -- not a perfect predictor, and like anything else, stuff you enjoy doing as a hobby takes on a different character when you're doing it for someone else for money. But it's a good sign.

Are you putting your hobby projects up somewhere where people can see them, like Github or a personal website? Are you blogging about what you enjoy about them and what you've learned?

Have you considered browsing through Python projects on Github (perhaps, particularly, those related to a field of interest, like bio), finding one that needs help/additional features and contributing?

Have you considered looking for a software internship (perhaps paid)? The fact that you're a recent grad probably puts you in the right cohort for it.
posted by weston at 10:24 AM on June 24, 2014

It took me 9 months to find my most recent job, and I'm 7 years out of school. It's just going to take a while, that's the new reality. In some cases, 2 months isn't even enough time for a hiring department to get back to you with a decision.

You just need to be patient. Make sure your resume is sparkling and your interview skills/prep are sharp. Treat the job search like a full time job. Get some hobbies and do some fun things to take your mind off of this current struggle. Volunteer somewhere. Before you know it, you're going to be employed somewhere, and then you'll pine for all this free time.
posted by naju at 1:28 PM on June 24, 2014

Back when I graduated (2006), I heard that the average time a college graduate receives a job is 6 months. It took me 3 months to land mine, and it felt interminable. In the process, I turned down a lab tech job that sounded very rudimentary, paid poorly, and was ethically dubious gruntwork (animal testing, which I'm for in limited principle, but I think would drain me quickly).

There were days when I wanted a job, any job, and wished I was an underpaid, soul-free animal testing technician. But I eventually landed a job that, while not a "dream job", was interesting and forced me to learn a lot.

I didn't know where to look and I didn't know how to sell myself. In your resume and cover letter, I'd focus on the Python programming, special projects you did in school, and work experience. Every biology undergraduate has a basic understanding of lab skill and the cell cycle, so you have to focus on your strengths. A lot of companies or labs need computer literacy because of the massive amount of data created, stored, and mandated to be within a validated computer database.

I work in the medical device industry as a Quality Engineer, and I have a degree in microbiology. I'd suggest sending your resume to some device companies; Boston Scientific is an obvious choice if you wish to return to Boston, Medtronic is the largest in the world, St. Jude, Covidien, etc. Look under Quality Assurance, though there may be data analyst jobs available in clinical research or even manufacturing.

Also, temper your expectations. A lot of programmers I know have very concrete results of their work, which is not always the case in a lab or a desk job; there are days when it feels like I move paper, which will not seem as cool as, I don't know, programming a website or game. It takes some work to see the big picture, especially at an entry-level job.

But you have a very diverse skill set, which is excellent. This means you understand biology and have been trained to think scientifically, which is not always the case with programmers. On the other hand, most basic lab techs don't know squat about programming or where their data goes. You are of use to companies/universities/people with money, and I've learned that my expertise is fulfilling in a way I would not be if I landed my "dream job" (which is probably historian/blogger). Read So Good They Can't Ignore You if you want to be convinced that gaining skills is more valuable than immediate external fulfillment. I agree with the author's philosophy.

Send me a DM if you want to look into the medical device industry or want resume help. And good luck! Hunting for jobs, even with experience and a stable job as a backup, suuuuuuucks.
posted by Turkey Glue at 4:25 PM on June 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

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