Got a generous job offer but am having trouble deciding
September 4, 2015 7:21 AM   Subscribe

I'm a recent college grad about to start a master's in computer science. I'm in a very fortunate position in that I've been interning at a national lab in New Mexico this summer and have been offered a fellowship that would cover my tuition, pay me a stipend while in school, and give me a full time job after graduation. But I'm not sure that this is what I want for my career.

In exchange for the tuition and stipend, I'd be agreeing to commit to work for the company 2 months for every month I'm in school after I graduate (so ~3 years if it takes me 1.5 years to do my masters). If I don't fulfill that obligation I'd have to pay the tuition (but not the stipend) back. Financially, I'm currently debt free and with my savings and family support I could probably get through grad school debt free as well. So the money here would be nice to have, but not strictly necessary and I could find other ways to finance my education (I enjoy teaching and would actually like to try being a TA).

I've thought about the pros and cons that matter to me here and so far this is what I've come up with.

1. Work/Life balance is great here. I could have 3 day weekends every other week and working here over the summer I've had time to do a lot of outdoor activities, read, take online classes, and generally do what I want in my free time. I've had time to really get into good habits regarding my health in terms of sleeping, working out (I've managed to lose over 20 pounds this summer) and meditating regularly. Some of that might change as I'm just an intern now but work/life balance seems to be the norm here.

2. Salary after graduation would be near 6 figures is what I'm told and the cost of living is very low here compared to jobs in more technology focused areas. I'm generally pretty frugal and don't have a lot of material needs so I'd be probably be happy with a fraction of that amount, but the security would provide some peace of mind.

3. I find applying for jobs to be stressful and time consuming so it would be nice to avoid that during school

4. I'd be working with lots of smart people on interesting problems. The people here are pretty nice and I like my would-be manager. It's a good mix of academia and industry without the intense pressure to publish or produce profits.

5. The weather is pleasant and there's virtually no traffic here

1. The mission of the company primarily deals with national security and nuclear weapons, which honestly makes me a bit uneasy. I'm told lots of people have careers here that don't involve weapons, but it makes it hard for me to be totally proud of where I work.

2. I think my dream career is to be working for a well known major technology company like Google that has brilliant people and work I care about. But I haven't had a chance to experience it yet and work/life balance is pretty important to me and I've heard mixed things about it at more well known tech firms. I'd also like to experience working in a place with more things to do and with a larger tech community, which is kind of lacking here.

3. The company has really smart researchers but is somewhat lacking in good software engineering, so I'm not sure I'd have as many people to learn from in terms of writing good, robust code.

4. I'm from southern California so I'd be moving away from friends, family, and a big city and starting over. I don't have a lot of social needs and I'm pretty good about making new friends so this is manageable but I could imagine getting lonely as well.

5. The offer requires that I do a master's thesis. That's a little intimidating and I'm not especially motivated to do one at this point, which I hear is a good way to have a bad experience in grad school.

I recognize I'm in an incredibly privileged and fortunate position to be in and whatever I decide I should be okay but it's still nerve wracking to be making a decision that in part determines the next 5-6 years of my life (I'm 26 now, so this decision would take me into my 30s, which is weird feeling). In any case, I'm stuck and I would like some help making a decision. Has anybody here had to make a similar decision (primarily as it pertains to taking a nice job but one that isn't your dream job and/or one that you have moral qualms about)? Or have experience doing a master's thesis and whether that'd be worth it? If so, what factors affected your decision and how did it work out?

Another thing I've been told recently is that other people who have gone through this program will sometimes leave the company early and have their new employer buy out the money they have to pay back. This seems like a good compromise in some ways but I'd feel rather dishonest doing it.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Oh hello. I think I lived where you are talking about in high school. My dad works at the Lab. Do not underestimate what a godforsaken, middle of nowhere place it is.
posted by MadMadam at 7:33 AM on September 4, 2015

To your ethical concerns: In a past life I worked with a bunch of people who came out of various national labs (both US and other). Although basically all of these places got their start designing weapons to kill huge numbers of people, today that's a tiny proportion of even the nuclear work that goes on in these places. For one example, a former colleague was a physicist at the Chinese equivalent of Los Alamos, working in the nuclear weapons area, but he spent his entire time there coming up with technical means to verify that states are complying with their obligations under arms control treaties. (More directly relevant, the US hasn't designed or built a new nuclear weapon in over 20 years, and there's actually real concern that we're losing critical expertise as the few people who have actually done that work start to die off.) The days of Edward Teller sitting around a lab and spitballing ways to build bigger and bigger bombs are long gone.
posted by firechicago at 7:57 AM on September 4, 2015 [4 favorites]

I am not you, and so can only answer for myself, however I am a lot farther along into my career, and so I have the benefit of hindsight in my assessment.

This sounds like a great opportunity to me. I've known people who have worked at a particular national lab in NM, and they've loved it. Additionally, the clear priority you are seeing with respect to work/life balance at this facility is a good thing, and not as common as one would hope in the tech industry.

In the grand scheme of things, three years is not a long time to be at one company, especially early in your career. My advice would be to accept this opportunity and see if you love it enough to overcome the negatives (and see if you were right about them). If you decide you'd prefer to be somewhere else, you have some great experience to add to your resume when looking for your next career move.

Good luck in whatever you choose. It sounds like you're doing the right thing in thinking through your options!
posted by blurker at 8:05 AM on September 4, 2015 [5 favorites]

It sounds like you can say no with few negative consequences. You should say no.

Maybe someone else needs this opportunity, so you'll be helping them.
posted by amtho at 8:29 AM on September 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

My experience with having a MS in CS after 6 years of working in industry is that the MS is really there to bootstrap you into the area you want to be in. Thus, if you get a master's degree and then go work in an area you're not interested in, you're effectively wasting the degree. The master's degree itself is not really worth that much in terms of salary/promotion unless you want to teach at a university. On the other hand, if scientific computing is the sort of thing you want to do, you have a really wonderful opportunity in front of you. So, it depends on how interested you are in the work.

I chose to do a master's thesis because it would give me something to talk about with potential employers. It showed I could do independent study and development on a large project. It also gave me some idea of what the academic research world is like and what it takes to write a thesis. It was and has been helpful; I've talked about it in nearly every interview I've been in. It helps that it was research on a system that a lot of developers want to hear about. I would say that these were the benefits of getting my master's degree, ranked in level of importance:
1) Getting to do a big independent project (my thesis) which also helped me with (2)
2) Helping me understand the way research in computer science in my subfield works, both through my thesis and through study groups. This helped enrich my knowledge--I can now make my way through a research paper the way I would a programming book or blog.
3) Coursework--It was great to take a deeper look at areas I was interested in. I had great classes in both distributed systems and parallel computation, both of which have helped me out in my career (data engineer focusing on analytics).
4) Befriending and being exposed to really talented people who were doing and thinking about interesting things.
5) Exposure to more companies, because I was at a more highly ranked school than my alma mater.

So I would say that doing a master's thesis is pretty valuable. I know it sounds like a lot to handle, but if you tackle it a little bit every day and make it into an organic part of your time there, you can do it. The first thing I would do coming in is to do some thinking about what kind of research you'd be interested in doing, and talking to everyone in the department who is involved in that to find out what it's like.

As someone who took the first job offered out of grad school because I hated going through the job application process: you should go through the job application process anyway. By putting off the inevitable, I made it harder for myself when I realized that I didn't like my job or the direction it was taking my career in and wanted out. It's much easier to study for whiteboard coding when you have a flexible schedule, an algorithms class or two still fresh in your memory, and classmates to practice with. Also, it can be confidence deflating to be flustered by simple interview questions when you've been working for years. There's less pressure to be polished when you're just starting out, so take advantage of it and practice. Interviews only get better with practice, so start early, interview in multiple places, and give yourself options if at all possible! Even if you choose to go with the lab in the end, knowing your market value is really valuable.

Anyway, congratulations on the fellowship and good luck with your decision! If you have further questions, feel free to MeMail me.
posted by rhythm and booze at 8:44 AM on September 4, 2015 [6 favorites]

Do not underestimate what a godforsaken, middle of nowhere place it is.

And potential health issues. A friend who grew up around there has similar immune disorders to people I grew up with and currently live with from the area.

I'd do a search on the main city name and outlying community names with common words that might yield results such as cancer rates and immune diseases. Use that research to evaluate your potential risk. I grew up in the south west but with my now shitty lungs I'd not live there again; dust, hantavirus, valley fever worry me as I catch everything; and we've got an immunocompromised member of our household with asthma as well.
posted by tilde at 10:19 AM on September 4, 2015

When I went to graduate school, I got a fellowship that paid tuition and a stipend for the full two years -- with the catch that I had to work for an equivalent period of time (so two years) in a specific industry. For me this was worth it because I didn't have any other way to pay for an expensive graduate program (to be honest, if I hadn't gotten the fellowship I probably wouldn't have gone to grad school). I ultimately enjoyed where I worked, but it definitely limited my scope/potential following graduation.

I originally clicked on this question to answer "duh, yes, take the money -- loans are for chumps," but your case is completely different. You have savings/support. You do not need to do this, and you should not take this opportunity. Your skills are extremely marketable, and you don't need to lock in a job right this second. This would not only limit you now, but also will make you miss super important networking opportunities (in the field that you actually want) at the start of your career.
posted by aaanastasia at 11:26 AM on September 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

On the other hand, there is no life/work balance to speak of in Silicon Valley/SF tech startups. How do I know this? All the job ads boast about the fact that the companies offer catered dinners every night. That is a hint about what you will be expected to do at Google and companies that want to be like Google: Work your ass off at all times. So don't take the job if you don't want it. It doesn't matter if other people think it's great, let them take it. But also be very careful about what company you do jump into if you genuinely care about your free time. Because free time is a baffling concept to many in the industry and I'm not kidding.
posted by Bella Donna at 10:25 PM on September 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

There are many other places that might offer this better to you, and if the financial incentive is not essential to you, why not look elsewhere?
posted by nickggully at 9:09 AM on September 5, 2015

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