What do when living a meaningful life is expensive?
March 1, 2015 4:53 PM   Subscribe

I am struggling with the lack of meaning and purpose in my life lately and, consequently, with my Computer Science coursework. I am feeling somewhat depressed, winter blues, etc., but I feel like I am going the wrong direction with my life and I have had that nagging feeling ever since I started at school again. I took this path to raise money for pursuing future studies in Psychology, but it has been a huge struggle so far. What should I do? (Further details inside.)

I am taking Computer Science classes at my college. If you look at my past posting history, in Fall 2012, I was at this college, taking CS classes, failed those classes, then dropped out for 1.5 years, tried some different things, and last semester was my first semester back. Good news: I passed the classes that I failed last time and was proud to overcome my fear of failure and try it again. Bad news: I was completely miserable doing it. You ever have a point where you’re so stressed you don’t even notice you’re alive anymore basically? It was like that. I had time for almost zero things other than schoolwork and was constantly worried about whether I’d pass at the end of the semester. I was very determined to pass those classes because it was my own personal goal -- I wanted to prove to myself I could do it -- but apart from making money with a CS degree, I didn’t really have any solid career plans. I had thoughts of wanting to do computer forensics as a part of law enforcement or work with the FBI but I have had a paradigm shift in the last few months and am no longer interested in either of those things.

From the beginning, this was not what I really wanted. When I registered for my classes that started last September, I had to write out a list of "Reasons To Study Computer Science” for myself, as motivation, which probably says a lot in itself. Most of them had to do with money, but my first reason was “getting to problem-solve all day”, and my last reason was that it would be an accomplishment to finish my degree in CS. I have never really cared about money; I have some personal goals that money would help get me toward, but I am not a person that needs “things”. However, I am extremely scared of being in debt and that was a large part of why I decided to study CS. School is so expensive and I wanted to make sure I’d be able to dig myself out of debt. I have never had any debt attached to my name and my parents are foolish with their money so I have visions of living in a box, eating cat food because I have student loans. I seriously have no idea how people manage life with loans without a high-paying job and the thought of being in that position, without exaggeration, terrifies me.

I have had an odyssey trying to get myself academically ready for the classes I have been taking. I started studying math, on my own and on my own time after work, starting from Pre-Calc in Fall 2013. Over last summer, I took an Intro to C++ class. So while I have only been enrolled in classes at my current university since last September, I have really been doing this school thing for a year and a half. In general, I am happy I have achieved the goals I set for myself — surpassing my previous failures — but beyond that, I don’t care. I had a conversation with my sister a few weeks ago and was able to articulate that feeling for the first time. I have an interest in programming and computers, but it is a passing interest, not something I am very passionate about. It feels very purposeless to me and it has been hard to concentrate on my schoolwork as I can’t help but keep thinking about how painful this all feels. I had a week where I was sick with a cold this semester and got behind on schoolwork and while I was trying to rest (and being a little thankful to have an excuse to take a break, to be honest) and catch up on what I could, I just had this thought of “why?” I looked to the future and thought: what am I really working towards?

In somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy I did horrible on the most recent exam in my CS class. It is one of those classes aimed to make you fail (I despise this method of educating people) and before these thoughts of dissatisfaction crept in, I was spending around 20 hours/week on this class alone (and realistically should be spending that amount of time or more currently). I did not study as much as I should have, but I only think I would have done marginally better if I had done so because I ran out of time before finishing the last, 20-point question on the exam, which was mostly to blame. This often happens in exams for technical coursework — I get hyper-focused on a question I don’t know and the clock is always in the back of the room, behind everyone, so I lose track of how much time I am wasting. I was diagnosed with ADD a long time ago but kind of thought it was bullshit. However, if I look at my working style, it makes a lot of sense. I have to set alarms at 60 minute intervals to keep track of time and/or keep on task and schedule my day really precisely for the same reason. It worked well last semester but this semester, I am tired of putting forth such tremendous effort for something I don’t feel very invested in (like I said, it was miserable) and so I haven’t been keeping the same excruciating work habits. I would have to do well above the probable average on the next exam to compensate, otherwise, it looks like I might end up having to retake the class. We have this project due the Friday after spring break (it is currently break) and I have a pit in my stomach just thinking about pushing this rock up the hill [of doing this really work-intensive project] only to have to repeat the stupid class again. I am really, really tired of having to repeat classes.

Here is the thing: call me a special snowflake, but I have noticed that I have had to have a purpose for doing almost anything I have done in my life and a damn good one. Peer pressure, parental pressure, societal pressure does not phase me. My university is highly-ranked and the environment is designed to be competitive (and indeed most students are very focused on their grades), which is good for getting internships and etc., but as I mentioned, I don’t think I want that anymore. What I would like to do, and what would have been my goal after saving up enough money from my future fancy-computer-science job, is to study psychology. I never took any research methods classes at my community college as they were not offered at the time, but I spend time thinking about possible experiments that could be run and theories for things, etc. There is meaning there to me. The more we understand other people, the more empathy we have, and the better a world we can create in the future based on this knowledge. Not only that, but I have seen first-hand the suffering severe mental illness can cause people and I feel moved to do something to try and fix it. I am idealistic perhaps but this is something important to me and that I believe in.

If my parents were rich, I probably would not be studying computer science and would not be asking this question. I would just study psychology and if for some reason I don’t do well (I had all As in community college psych classes, partly because I already knew most of the information) and/or can’t go to grad school right away/have to work as a research assistant for a year or two after graduating, it wouldn't matter because I wouldn't have loans hanging over my head. But instead I am worried about being eternally in debt for my endeavors. Realistically, I would have about $6,000 to $20,000 in debt at the worst-case, depending which semester I graduate. That seems like an enormous amount of money to me and I think research assistant jobs only pay around $24,000 per year and, of course, as a PhD student one is without any real income.

I feel like I am struggling toward someone else’s version of how to live a life and because of whatever peculiar makeup I have, my “ADD” or whatever, I cannot force myself to do things just for the sake of doing them. (I should also note this college thing is harder for me than most people, it seems, if you haven’t surmised from the above already; I only took 3 classes/12 credits both this semester and last, which is the bare-minimum to be a full-time student.) I thought I would be able to get my degree in CS, get my fancy job in a warmer climate, and then leave in 2-3 years, after saving a bit, to travel and/or start studies in psychology. However, it is just not that easy. I knew there would be work involved but I am having a hard time jumping through all these random hoops just to be able to (financially securely) do what I want in another few years. I am so fed up with all of this. Is there something wrong with me that I am having such a tough time executing this money-saving version of my life plan, such a tough time mustering up the motivation to devote 18-30 hours of each of my weeks to something I think is inherently meaningless? Or am I truly going down the wrong path in my life and my discomfort is somewhat valid? Should I “go confidently in the direction of my dreams”? I would feel a little disappointed that I didn’t put on my big-kid britches so to speak and get a computer science degree — I would feel disappointed thinking I’m not “tough enough” I think. I’m worried, in a stupid way, that it would appear that I am just picking up this psychology thing because I wasn’t smart enough to hack it in C.S. It is not my biggest concern, but something in the back of my mind; I wanted to prove to myself, in a way, that I could do something technical, but I just don’t have the drive to do so anymore. I mean, looking at what I have achieved so far, I think I am capable, if it were something I really felt a drive to do. I just don’t have much motivation left, and looking at possibly having to repeat this class, and then be in for 3 more (or 4 if I fail this class) semesters after that — I just feel so done.

Final note: I asked two of my friends for their advice and they said try seeing the school's career counselor, but I don't think they can tell me anything I am not aware of job-wise myself and am skeptical that they will just feed me the propaganda of "oh we are such a good school, you can get any kind of job once you graduate" etc etc. I am seeing a therapist for something unrelated and will bring all this up next time I go. I guess what I'm feeling might qualify as depression, but I think it is situational -- I am tired of this constant stress and constant deadlines etc. It is literally wearing me out.

Thanks for reading; I'm sorry this was so long and sorry for the never-ending college questions. Any advice would be appreciated; I'm feeling pretty lost and tired of spinning this around and around in my head.

TLDR: Should I (attempt to) keep chugging along, repeating courses as necessary if need be (as I have had to in the past) in computer science? Even if devoting myself to what seems like a meaningless pursuit to me for the sake of money makes me miserable? Or do I change course, work as hard as I can toward a career in research psychology and let the chips fall as they may if things don't work out the way I planned? What does one do when the career they'd like to pursue costs money they don't have and will take a long time to pay back as a consequence of pursuing that career?
posted by sevenofspades to Education (18 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Is there some job within research psychology that could get you some exposure without having to start taking classes? I know nothing of the field, so this may be a stupid question, but if you could find a way to get some hands-on experience with people in the field, you may also be able to figure out if this is something you want to do.

Also, Computer Science isn't the only way to make money. If you're taking courses to make money to take more courses, why not go into a job you might like better and sock away some funds?
posted by xingcat at 5:01 PM on March 1, 2015

I'm only guessing, but I don't think the problem is computer science. You say you need to have a reason to do something other than external pressure, which to some extent of course makes sense, but no matter what job you have, you need to be able to sometimes get yourself to work even when you don't want to. Do you think that CS is really unsuited for the way your brain works, or is it just that you struggle to focus on the work? If it's the latter, I think you should focus on finding solutions for that. I don't work in tech, but there are multitudes of ways to make it meaningful (social enterprises that work on world challenges, for example). And it seems like a much easier field to find a job in. That doesn't mean that psychology might not be a better fit for you! But what stands out to me is the fact that you seem to be struggling with the schoolwork in a way that may not be completely related to its difficulty.
posted by three_red_balloons at 5:23 PM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Good grief, just study psychology! Psychologists make decent money, put your loans on IBR when you graduate it'll be fine. If you need extra cash do something on the side... Wait tables, bartend, babysit, study massage, be a counsellor and see a few patients.

There's plenty of people who think CS is fun, and they'll be increasingly hard to compete with.
posted by jrobin276 at 5:28 PM on March 1, 2015 [16 favorites]

Can you take psychology classes without majoring in psychology? Because I think a lot of psychology research labs would VERY MUCH welcome someone with quantitative computer science skills. You might be able to get a job in psychology research with a BS in CS. Maybe not the highest paying job, but enough to help you decide if you want to pursue further studies.

The nice thing about CS is that practically everybody needs someone who can code. I think you should stick with the CS major but take as many psych classes as you can. You can probably even keep taking psych classes after you graduate, at night or on weekends, paying as you go. Working full time while going to school isn't easy or fun but it's absolutely possible.
posted by mskyle at 5:44 PM on March 1, 2015 [6 favorites]

Why do you want to study psychology? The only thing I see in your post that may answer this is a vague interest in answering questions and solving problems and studying humans. That is NOT unique to psychology. I feel like you are putting the pursuit of psychology on a pedestal without really understanding much about how it might fulfill you in the long run.

As a side note, perhaps you should look into career paths that combine psychology and computer science. Human-Computer Interaction is an excellent field for that combo, and it pays really well.
posted by joan_holloway at 5:47 PM on March 1, 2015 [8 favorites]

Hey, what did you do during the year and a half you were out of school? Because I think you need some time to figure out who you are and what you want, and it seems as though you haven't been able to do that yet.

It seems as though right now, you're making a lot of decisions based on what you think you're supposed to want, or what other people seem to want for you. I think you need to figure out what you actually want for yourself. And I think it'll probably be easier, and certainly less expensive, to do that away from school for a while, but you need to figure out why you weren't able to do that the last time you took time off.

But whatever you do, I think you're not ready yet to make a decision about what you want to be. And that's okay. You need to, for lack of a better term for it, "find yourself." Then, when you know a little more about who you really are and what you actually want, then I think you'll be in a better position to figure out what you want to do for a living and how you want to spend your time here on earth.

(I didn't figure out what I wanted to be until I was 30. My life is awesome now. But I needed that time, my 20s, to figure it out, and even though there were times when I felt like I was falling behind my peers who knew what they wanted already, I'm so glad I took that time to figure myself out before spending a ton of money to get educated for a career when I wasn't ready to know yet what career I wanted.)
posted by decathecting at 5:59 PM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Why not try to look into a form of quantitative psychology or psychometrics? A psychologist with programming skills, as someone mentioned above would probably be appreciated in/as an MA program.
posted by bquarters at 6:01 PM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Study psychology, if that's what you love and if you'll regret not doing it. If you do wind up loving it and do well, you might just become a research psychologist. Or, you might tag on a shorter, more vocational qualification after that. Or you might do an MPH or an MA in health administration (or an MSc in statistics) and do something else. In all those cases, you'll at least have a degree, which is the minimum bar of entry for too many jobs, and you'll have enjoyed getting it.
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:04 PM on March 1, 2015

Here are some things I recommend doing.

1) Go talk to your school's Disability Services office, bring them your old ADD diagnosis, and arrange the accomodations you need for exams. Extra time and a quiet room are standard, and I bet you could get a clock or a timer if you need one.

2) Read up on concepts at the intersection of computer science and psychology: User Experience design, Artificial Intelligence, maybe natural language parsing . . . There may be something out there that uses both the skills you are building now and the psychology skills you want to build.

3) Look at your university's catalog and figure out how many more classes you would need for a computer science minor, how many more classes you would need for a psychology minor, and how many more classes you would need for a psychology major. The CS minor is enough to get you a programming job, if you even want a programming job. Then go talk to the psych department and add either a minor or the major.

4) Have you taken a statistics class? Is it a class that counts toward the psychology minor or major? If not, is there a statistics class you can take next term that will count toward the psychology minor or major?

5) Chill out about your loans. I had $5k in student loans after undergrad, deferred them all through grad school (you know that grad students don't have to pay toward federal loans, right?), and then paid them off in my first two years out of grad school. If you hit $20k in debt, it might take you ten years to pay off instead of two, but this is NOT something that will follow you to your grave, even if you take a low-paid, helping-profession job out of school, such as case management.
posted by yarntheory at 6:55 PM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Since it's been asked and upon re-reading my question I don't think I really explained this part well: I spent my time away from school volunteering on a crisis line (because of my interest in psychology, possibly counseling at the time) and working in a law office (as that was something I had also considered career-wise). I also learned a bit of Python programming language, and SQL, incidentally, and I liked programming well enough. By the end of my time volunteering and the end of my time away, though, I realized I would much rather be heading back to study psychology, but for fear of the poorhouse, I set that at as my eventual goal instead of my immediate one.

I think it is more the volume of the work than the actual difficulty. I like having a balanced life and function better that way. The amount of work in CS feels excessive to me. (And this class in particular is notorious for taking up ridiculous amounts of time.) I have taken liberal arts classes here and the workload is nowhere near as high. Acquaintances from other less-prestigious schools haven't experienced the same either, even in CS. FWIW, I would never take a tech job that expected one to work under the same conditions: constant pressure and deadlines, consistent 50 hour work weeks -- no matter the pay.

Also, at the very least, I have realized I need to file for extra time on exams and spent Thursday afternoon trying to contact the therapist that diagnosed me (6 years ago...) to fax over the necessary paperwork. I have a feeling I may have to spend some time dogging them. (And unfortunately, trying to get a diagnosis through the school has a month-long waiting list.)
posted by sevenofspades at 7:09 PM on March 1, 2015

Whatever field you end up in, I think cultivating some programming skills would be helpful (even English professors are doing computerized text analysis now!), and they can go on your resume even without coursework.

I think you should go for the major that gives you the least stress. If it seems like psychology has a healthier work culture than CS/engineering at your school, you should probably do it. Especially if you enjoy the material. It really sounds like most of your problem here is just that you're stuck in a bad, stressful situation, and you're burnt out; that will make you hate anything, not just CS.

I don't think the choice is CS and a lucrative programming job, or psych and either tenure or penury. I think that with a psych degree, if you work on the right stuff, you can have a set of skills that are valuable in answering the questions you care about, in answering the questions your future PhD adviser might care about, and in a wide variety of non-psych-related industries. You should consider seeking out psych-related internships/campus jobs/projects that require a lot of computerized modeling and data analysis. (Since you already know Python, learn about the Python scientific stack (easiest way is to google "Anaconda continuum analytics" and install it). It's great, as good as R or anything else.)

That stuff is useful for any psychology researcher, and if you get good at it, it leaves the door open to reinvent yourself as a "data scientist". If you aren't familiar, it's a new and lucrative job in industry that involves computerized statistical modeling and interpretation and presentation of the results. It's almost as good as "software engineer" as far as job market supply/demand. So if you don't get into good grad schools, or you get your PhD only to find an impossible academic job market, there's a very cushy landing.

I think this is more feasible than getting a degree that you will only ever use for 3 years until you can go back and get your real degree.

And on preview: take intro stats ASAP. yes. And Python+SQL are two valuable skills; cultivate them. (Also, as general advice, linear algebra is an unbelievably useful math course that will crop up in basically every field that is even slightly quantitative. It could be worth taking. Typically taken after calculus but doesn't actually use any calculus.)
posted by vogon_poet at 7:28 PM on March 1, 2015 [7 favorites]

I agree that psychology and CS are not two totally opposite choices. A lot of applied psychology uses coding, analyses, and data, and CS would come in handy, even if it's only one piece of it. Could you even go into UX or UI with whatever degree you end up with of the two? If you look at the research areas here, you find some topics that are psychology + CS: such as behavioral science, human-computer interaction.

I think your options are a lot more than you think.
posted by ichomp at 8:41 PM on March 1, 2015

If it's too much of a grind, you can lighten your course load. In college, it's perfectly acceptable to take longer than four years to graduate. I'll be honest, I didn't read the entire question because it was really long, even by AskMeFi standards, but I get the impression that school and juggling multiple projects and priorities simultaneously is not your bag. I feel like the grass is always greener, and you may tell yourself things will be different if you switch majors to psychology, but will it really be any easier? Will you suddenly be good at school? Psychology doesn't seem any easier than computer science to me, and I'm not sure you'll magically have a clearer career path with psychology either if you haven't managed one with computer science. When I was in college, I felt like most kids were unsure of exactly what they were going to do until at least their senior year, when they started focusing more on internships and less on school, but many cases they didn't know even after graduation.

Given the time and money you've spent on your computer science degree, I would personally get that degree and graduate, and then try to apply what you've learned to what you're interested in. I think computer science intersects with a lot of stuff, including psychology. Most (or at least many) people I know got degrees in fields other than the ones their careers are in now. Also, since you sound like you hate the concept of school, I would get your degree and get out as soon as you can, which also means getting a degree in computer science.

You are looking at this situation as if every credit in computer science you get is adding another bar to a cage you're building around yourself, but in actually it's the opposite -- getting the degree, in my opinion, will give you options and the freedom to live the kind of life you want sooner rather than later. It doesn't sound like changing course and staying in school even longer will help. Try to change your perspective and you might feel less overwhelmed.
posted by AppleTurnover at 9:40 PM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

To address something you brought up in your update: I am a software developer. I almost never work more than 40 hours a week, and when I do it's more because I am excited about a project/obsessing over a problem that I want to solve than it is because I am pressured by my boss or team to do so. Not all software jobs are go-go-go work-hard play-hard 60-hour-week nonsense. I work on software for banks with a team of gentle nerds.

The main reason I think you should finish the computer science degree is because it's something you think you can finish roughly on time. You have a lot more options with a degree than you do without a degree, and mostly no one cares what your degree is in. Getting a degree gives you loads more options. Getting a psych degree would give you a lot of the same options but it would take longer and might not be any more pleasant.
posted by mskyle at 5:25 AM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Please talk to your therapist about this "if I don't do X, I'm going to end up miserable" type of thinking. It's called catastrophizing, and it's not a reasonable way to plan your life.

Please, please talk to the career counselor. You're paying for their job with your tuition, and you risk nothing from conversation with them, so you should take advantage of the service now, while you have access.
posted by zennie at 6:26 AM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Hi, me from the late 1990s! How's it going?

In a similar position, I switched to psychology but stuck with enough computer science to get a minor in it. That was a really good idea. That made me a very valuable commodity as a research assistant and then a lab manager in multiple psychology labs. I didn't even really have to do anything computer-science-y, just having that on my resume opened a bunch of doors and then I occasionally said vaguely intelligent things about databases and people thought I was a genius. Also it was a surprisingly rare and valuable skill to be able to translate between the pure-tech people and the pure-social-science people on my research teams. Plus, I didn't feel so badly about 'wasting' the time or effort on the courses I had taken, and the one or two additional course weren't so mentally burdensome when I knew they were nearly the end.

If you can finish the CS degree but add a psych minor, or flip-flop the two, you're going to find some interesting doors opened to you in fields like human-computer interaction, and/or you can find yourself a hot commodity in psychology research labs. Maybe you're making this an all-or-nothing proposition when it doesn't have to be.
posted by Stacey at 8:43 AM on March 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

1. Study Psychology.
2. Keep an eye out for jobs withthe government, using your psychology degree (public health centers, work with veterans?)
3. Use IBR and possible loan forgiveness (see government job, above).
4. Keep your cheddar.
posted by WeekendJen at 9:44 AM on March 2, 2015

Vogon_poet said everything I came here to say, but in addition to "data scientist" you could also look into behavioral economics. Basically, psychology with money (or "resources"), very amenable to a quantitative approach, and you can work in marketing/finance when you get out.
posted by katya.lysander at 5:26 PM on March 2, 2015

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