Can I salvage my college career in my final year?
August 20, 2016 12:16 AM   Subscribe

I'm about to enter my senior year of college as a Computer Science major with pretty much the worst profile possible: a just-above-being-kicked-out GPA, no internships or relevant experience, no extracurriculars, no well-developed skills. Is there any way I can make myself employable in the next 10 months?

Some background information on how it got to this point, if it's relevant. I started my freshman year pretty well: I joined half a dozen initiatives including student government, volunteering, research in robotics, et cetera. I was also a double major in a liberal arts field that I loved. I got to know a lot of very driven, accomplished people, but never really formed close friendships. I wasn't too worried about that since I haven't really had close friendships since elementary school and have learned to live without them.

I was mostly enjoying school, but my CS program was dominated by people who already had a lot of experience coding and who were getting internship interviews just a few weeks into the school year. I had very minimal programming experience and felt very behind, so I took on an extremely challenging workload in addition to the stuff outside of classes I was doing. By the end of the semester, I'd failed a class- and done well in my other classes, but my GPA was still well below 3.0.

The next semester was where it really fell apart. Even though I was taking a manageable course load this time, I ended up failing two classes, dropping one, getting a B- and C- in the others, and dropping the ball on pretty much all my other obligations. I found myself literally unable to do work; I would read a sentence in a textbook but nothing would really register mentally. I'm not really sure what caused this- one counselor suggested that I was depressed, which made sense to me when I looked it up, but when I talked to my university's health center the result was... inconclusive. My overall experience with trying to understand mental illnesses and whether or not I have any has been pretty complicated; a semester later, for example, I was diagnosed with social anxiety but I was sure that I had just been exaggerating my symptoms to the psychiatrist evaluating me so I didn't follow through on the treatment.

I got kicked out of the liberal arts major and several of the programs I'd been in by the end of the year. The following two semesters I took a reduced course load and dropped any and all outside work, and the result has been that I haven't failed any classes but also haven't done super-well academically. My GPA is still super-low. I took the summer pretty much off, working only on a personal project completely unrelated to programming. And now, since I'm graduating a year early, I'm facing the prospect of a full-time job search with literally nothing on my resume.

If there's anything I've become sure of over the past two years it's that I don't like programming or most of the tech industry, but it seems way too late to try and shift course. If I could shift course, however... I've realized over the past two years that I much, much prefer user interface design to coding, and it seems like a more realistic shift than trying to become a foreign service officer (my dream career in high school) or something. But it looks like a pretty hard career to break into, especially without a degree in the field.

I guess it comes down to: regardless of whether it's in programming, design, or some other job entirely, how can I get myself a job in the next ten months, given my profile? Side projects and building up a portfolio, I'm guessing? How do I explain the disaster that's been my college career?

Any general advice, really, would be useful. Thanks so much.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Why in the world are you graduating a year early? BY FAR the best thing you can do is reset your graduation to standard timing or even later, and use that added time to add to your resume and raise your GPA. On campus and off-campus interviewing of graduating seniors is a very important opportunity that will be hard to duplicate if you graduate early.

Are you in a prestigious program? A CS grad from a top program is employable pretty much regardless of his GPA and resume, but of course you'll need to present a much more confident profile than you do in this posting, so employers will assume your low GPA is the result of your loving to party or to do your own projects, rather than due to ...

If you have to graduate on the accelerated schedule, make your first year a de-facto senior year. Don't worry about paid employment -- move home if you have to -- and seek internships or volunteer opportunities that will buff up your qualifications.
posted by MattD at 1:07 AM on August 20, 2016 [21 favorites]

Disclaimer: I got a CS degree without coding experience going into it and got through it with a strong support network; I got an internship after sophomore summer despite not being sure of wanting to do CS, which evolved into a lovely job out of college. I have only worked at large tech companies. All my advice is skewed towards this path.

One point of confusion (same as MattD, it appears!): why are you graduating a year early? And what is your financial situation in general? The easiest route is to just have another year of school, whether that be with a fifth- (in your case, fourth-)year Master's program, or just not graduating early. That gives you a summer to have an internship, which will often parlay into a job.

How is your department / school's career services program? Regardless of whether you're going for an internship or a full time offer, you should show up to recruiting events and career fairs to drop off your resume. There may be free food and swag in it for you as well! Excellent recruiters will help you work on your resume, listen to you about your situation ("Hey, I'm really interested in working at company X, but I'm concerned about my GPA; would you have any advice?"), and help you make the most of it.

It can be scary if it feels like these events draw the gregarious, happy people of the department who make everything look easy, but you have to do it.

Do your courses have TA office hours? Are there departmental jobs (lab monitor, for the CS department labs, e.g.) that you could apply for? That was how I made most of my friends / mentors during college -- being very confused at office hours and commiserating on the job. On the other hand, you probably have more insight into learning computer science than you give yourself credit for; you would probably be an excellent tutor / mentor for a freshman who wants to do CS but has no coding experience.

The idea is to get a nice stable job (or internship that turns into a job) for a few years at a company that will pay for your certificate / degree in Human-Computer Interaction, or have opportunities for you to pivot into a UX role. Fortunately, these large companies all interview roughly the same way, in the style of an algorithms oral exam, so you just have to learn those routines. See some of my previous answers for advice on algorithms interviews. That said, if you haven't taken an algorithms course and a systems course, do it now.

I would not try to build a portfolio or start contributing to projects on GitHub. It's nice if the spirit moves you, but a CS degree is largely replacement for these things, as far as job-seeking goes.
posted by batter_my_heart at 1:20 AM on August 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

A classmate of mine didn't do well as a CS major and switched to a humanities major half-way through college, just barely hit a GPA adequate to graduate, worked his way up through the ranks of tech support, and for the last decade or so has been one of the most highly-paid and successful people I went to school with working as a sort of Tech Support Special Forces "fixer" brought in to situations that require a sophisticated understanding of both the technical and business sides of an operation. I don't think his academic record has ever been an issue.
posted by XMLicious at 4:15 AM on August 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

I don't like programming or most of the tech industry

I'd say you have a pretty good basis to know whether or not you like programming at this point, but if you've not been interning or co-oping, but what is the basis for saying you dislike the tech industry? Life in most computer science departments is very different than the industry.

To echo other people, you don't need to graduate this year. Rushing out into a workplace that you're likely to fail in can be more expensive than taking an extra year in school, especially if you can land a paid internship.

Do you have any actual passion for UX or is it just the best fallback plan you can come up with? If it's the latter, I'd give serious thought to shifting your classwork for the fall to something that is a pathway to being a foreign service officer and then transfer departments before the spring.

If you are genuinely interested in UX, you need to build a portfolio that you can show prospective employers. I would pass on hiring someone with a college degree in CS and no portfolio applying for a UX position because I'd assume that they don't want to program but want a lucrative job and thought that user design would be easy and people like that tend to be underperformers.
posted by Candleman at 5:26 AM on August 20, 2016

What is your dream career now? Can you do a year at community college while working a job related to that and then transfer back? I see no point in getting a degree you don't like a year early.

Slow down! Feel free to take a whole year off and work some random jobs. Feel free to volunteer in a political campaign. Emoloyers like all if these slow down activities.

Try to figure out what you like and how to get it. I encourage you to quit this BS and work on finding a major and side jobs you like.
posted by Kalmya at 6:11 AM on August 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Addressing some concerns, from perspective of a tech company hiring person.

- I have never looked at a candidate gpa, ever. Even for recent grads or interns. Not once. You will have nothing to explain. Don't even put it on your resume.
- grad programs do care about gpa, but care also about strong project and thesis plans.
- CS is a very fine fallback degree for nearly any field.
- hci is part of cs, and can cover some pieces of UX. Fwiw, UX as engineer may pay more than UX as designer even if the work is exactly the same. That boundary is plenty fluid.
- you have plenty of time to make a lot of choices. If coasting at college for a year opens up another internship chance, consider it.
- you sound way down in the weeds right now. I assure you that nothing is written, and in hindsight, the impact will be less. Your job is not to be the best cs person in your dept. You are not an imposter. Your skills and learning have value that aren't well reflected by your current gpa and such.
- you are showing some very strong strategic skills by questioning your path, and deciding how to best move it in a direction. Maybe the obvious front door narrative didn't happen. So what? You are here now, and boldly getting ready to make well thought out choices. That is awesome.
posted by gregglind at 6:17 AM on August 20, 2016 [4 favorites]

I want to know more about this personal project that you spent the whole summer working on. Can you contact a mod and have them post something about that? What skills did you use on that project? Are there other personal projects that you've done that you've found really satisfying and engrossing? I'm also curious about what, specifically, is appealing about being a foreign service officer.

I'm a college academic advisor, and I'm probably not supposed to tell you that grades often don't matter, but a lot of the most successful people I know were mediocre college students. I'm more worried about your lack of experience, partly because you don't have a lot to put on a resume, but more because it doesn't sound like you've done the necessary exploring to start thinking about what you want out of a job and a career. So what can you do over the next 10 months to start that exploration process?

A couple of ideas:

You're interested in user interface design. Can you do an informational interview with someone in that field and ask them what they're looking for in an entry-level hire and what they think you could do to be competitive? I wouldn't just think about what you can do over the next ten months: you could also take a job doing something else right out of college and then continue to work towards your goal by gaining skills and experience at that job or in your free time. I know that informational interviews are terrifying, and they're even more terrifying for those of us with social anxiety, but they can be a really helpful way to get information and start building your network.

Have you talked to the career advisors at your university? They may not be great (they are probably not great), but it's worth making an appointment. Ask them about resources. Is there a network of alumni who have agreed to talk to current students?

Finally, I think you are really selling yourself short about your achievements. You've had a lot of challenges: you started a CS program without much programing experience; it sounds like you've been dealing with some mental health stuff; you had some academic setbacks. Most people would have quit. They would have switched to an easier major or dropped out of school altogether. My experience is that most people who start CS programs without significant coding experience don't last past the first semester. You are graduating with a CS degree, and that is nothing to sneeze at. Even if you never use it in your career, getting that degree shows really impressive persistence and resilience. You have *nothing* to apologize for.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:18 AM on August 20, 2016 [4 favorites]

Use your project to get a job. Otherwise, you'll be stuck working your way up from entry level or unrelated jobs.
posted by GiveUpNed at 7:54 AM on August 20, 2016

Followup from the anon OP:
Thank you guys for all the advice, I really do appreciate it. I forgot to do this last time, but here's a throwaway email address if anyone wants it:

Here are some answers to the questions:

Graduating early?

I was a good student in high school and graduated with enough AP credit to graduate in two years, actually, if I hadn't double majored inititally and failed/dropped so many classes. I think that was part of the reason, in hindsight, I did badly that first semester- I was thrown into upper-div classes without the work ethic for it.

The major reason is cost. I can't justify dropping 20k on another year; I had scholarships my freshman year but for obvious reasons I haven't been able to get any more; I haven't been working because the the amount of hours it would take to really make a dent in the cost of tuition and living seems like it would cut into the academics I'm already struggling with; and I can't get loans (personal reasons I can't bend on). So I'm basically living off my parents, which makes me feel like shit. It would be worse if I added another year because that's the year my brother enters college, so it'd be a double impact on them.

And I have to admit a small part is pride- I worked really hard in high school to get that credit and it seems like a waste if I don't use it. Plus, course-wise, I honestly don't know what I'd do with that year- I'll be finished with everything I need next year, even taking the minimum number of classes I need to reach full-time status.

I would love to do a master's program, but it looks impossible with my GPA. Plus, if I'm going to do additional schooling, I'd prefer it be in a field I actually want to stay in and advance in- right now it looks like I'll focus on getting a programming job but I'll probably try to shift to another career, one I'd actually like, in a few years once I feel more financially stable.

Prestigious program?

It's a state flagship that's I guess just below the top four? Google/Microsoft/Amazon etc all recruit heavily from it.

Life in most computer science departments is very different than the industry.

That's the thing though, I've always liked my professors. What I don't like are the classmates who look down on anyone who hasn't been coding since they were three or who isn't making 100k+, and the recruiters who always seem to lead with, "we're looking for a coding ninja rockstar!"

By contrast, I mostly enjoyed my foray into research (the only thing I didn't like, honestly, was the programming part) and my classes (I like computer science; I just don't like coding). But the glimpses I've gotten of the industry have been overwhelmingly negative. I'm a woman, too, so I've also heard a lot of horror stories from other women.


The major projects (the one I've been listing on my resume) that I've done are:
-A hide-and-seek program for robots using reinforcement learning, done all in C++. This was part of my work in the research lab. The code is absolute spaghetti code so I'm not comfortable showing it to recruiters.
-A very minimalist Scratch-style blocks-based programming language for laypeople to use to control our school's robots. Also in C++, also part of my work in the research lab. This was a partner project, I did most of the design and was in charge of the backend. This is pretty much the reason why I'm interested in UX design, I had a lot of fun designing it (and my other projects). But it's also a lot of spaghetti code I'm not sure I'm comfortable showing.
-A text-based puzzle game. It's very simple from a technical standpoint but won a lot of praise for its design and writing, including Best Game Design out of 25 or so projects from a panel of judges from the games industry.
-The single most complex project I've done was over last summer: an interactive explanation of hash tables which included in-browser code exercises and a visualization engine for the code written. I got a lot of practice with D3 out of it. I posted it to reddit when it came out and got around ~5000 views, but one of the technologies it relied on broke a few weeks later (browser updates) and it didn't really seem worth trying to replace it since a lot of the feedback was negative.

As for this summer's project- it's just a video, it's not really something I can parlay into any sort of career.

Dream career.

The real dream career would be something that combines education/information + entertainment + multimedia. Whether it's educational games or data/information journalism or education technology or something like what Vi Hart does on youtube. The summer project is related to this.

Basically everything that I've done has led back to this: I love creative work like writing (my single most rewarding class has been a writing class), I'm extremely passionate about education (I was a mentor and school volunteer before getting kicked out of the former and dropping the latter, and loved doing both), and I'd like to put my technical experience to use. I have no idea what the path to this sort of thing would be, though.

Foreign Service

I did debate in high school and discovered that I really, really enjoy politics and government (considered majoring in it for a while but dismissed it as impractical, plus I'm not really interested in the candidate side of politics, but the practical policy side). On the lifestyle side, I love travel and going to different countries and the chance at getting some really great stories to tell people back home. My main reservation is that I don't necessarily always agree with US foreign policy, but I could stick to consular or economic work which is generally less controversial. It's not my dream career anymore, but I would definitely, definitely prefer it to a programming job. But I doubt I have a chance as-is, the job is known for being difficult to get and that's with the applicable experience.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:09 AM on August 20, 2016

OP, I was exactly where you are 20 years ago. Totally burned out, I literally could not force myself to open a book or step foot in a classroom, I was completely crispy. This is what I would recommend.

First: Christ, take a year off. You sound like you are fried beyond belief. At least take a semester. Nothing says "You are obviously on the wrong path for you" like failing classes, getting kicked out of programs, and having a crappy GPA.

This is not a character flaw, this is an indication that you are in the wrong place. College is for you to learn what your vocation could be. That's what you're paying for, not to compete against fellow students. You've discovered an affinity for UI--great. I'm in UI and I love it. Tons of things to do in this field.

Second: You've been trying to push yourself to have the same experience as someone who is YEARS ahead of you. If you were learning piano, would you be upset that you couldn't play as well as a professional musician? If you just started playing baseball, would you be upset that you weren't as good as the kids in your class who were being scouted by the MLB and who were there on athletic scholarships, because they've been playing since they were 5? Then why are you comparing your "learning how to code" self with people who were years ahead of you in their professional development? That's crazy. Everyone had to learn, everyone had to start with the basics. You got started later than they did--so the hell what. Trust me, the industry doesn't care. But you are NOT required to make up, in a year or two, what took them MANY years to accomplish. You are not the Mozart of coding, don't expect yourself to be. This stuff takes time to learn and be good at. There are no shortcuts. Your classmates are not geniuses or prodigies. I mean maybe they are, but they still had to put in the time and the work. They just caught an earlier bus and are ahead of you in line. It has nothing to do with you or your ability.

Third: Remember, technology constantly changes. There is no point where you "missed the boat" that your classmates caught. Fine, they are being recruited for the skills they have right now, but I absolutely promise you that five years from now, there will be new technology that companies want, and everyone is going to have to decide whether they want to learn that too, or stick with their expertise and hope that it's still marketable for a while, or whatever.

This is a constant cycle in technology, you specialize, you work on projects that use the skills you have, and you acquire new skills in order to improve your marketability. You are not losing ground at all by taking longer to finish your degree, because what's hot right now could very well be obsolete when you finish. In the long run, your classmates' 2-year head start is not going to matter in the slightest. Staying on top of development trends is what matters. Even if you were exactly where your classmates were, and you preferred one platform when they preferred another, your career directions would already have diverged. They may as well be in a completely different major, that's how wide the field is.

Fourth: Okay, so let's say you agree to take some time off. Use this year to explore UI design as a field. Look at what programs are involved. Check out job listings and look at what skill sets are in demand. See if it sounds Iike something you would want to do, and what aspects appeal to you. If you're up to learning new stuff, try some of the software programs and see if you like it. Remember, this is what you will be doing at a job. Not "awesome amazing projects that get you noticed by companies", but the day-to-day boring shit of tweaking and testing, and thinking of different ways to position elements. If you don't genuinely like the grunt work, then that's not the direction for you either.

Remember that, regardless of your GPA, you still learned things. That knowledge didn't just evaporate, and will be useful skills on your resume.

So, let's say you like UI grunt work and decide to go ahead with it.

This is what I did. I would recommend doing some or all of this.

1. Leave your current school. Enroll in a community college.
2. Take the classes you failed over again, if they're offered. Take beginning design classes, if they're offered (they almost certainly will be). Things like color theory and typography and basic HTML. Get As.
3. Research a college with a good UI program.
4. Develop a few portfolio pieces. Make up some fake businesses and do fake UI work for those fake businesses. If you know anyone who needs a real website, offer to build it. This will be instrumental for informing you whether you enjoy the grunt work of UI too. This is what you would be doing as a professional.
5. Take your community college-rehabilitated GPA and your portfolio pieces and transfer to the school with the UI program that you like. Your applicable credits from your current school will transfer with you, your crappy GPA will not. Your awesome GPA won't either, but that's what gets your transfer application accepted.
6. You will start at the UI college with a clean slate.

If you decide to stay at your current school, you can either retake the classes you failed and/or got unsatisfactory grades in, which will cost you more money, and you will not see as much of a GPA boost as you would doing the transfer thing. That might not matter, depends on which employers care about GPA and which don't, on whether you want to go to grad school, etc. You would probably take the same amount of time to graduate either way. That is entirely up to you, whether you have a goal to graduate with a high GPA or if you prefer to stay at this school, it is all about how YOU want your educational experience to finish up. It is your money and your life, you should do what YOU feel is the best approach.

You are young, you have plenty of time to develop your skill set and build projects, companies hire all the time and you are not missing out on any glorious once-in-a-lifetime dream jobs or anything. It is better to do this WELL than to do it FAST.
posted by Autumnheart at 11:37 AM on August 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

How do I explain the disaster that's been my college career?

I have a CS degree.

Look, if I understand correctly, all you have to do is pass your classes this year and you will have finished a college degree in three years with no debt? Believe me that is a fantastic position to be in. And I would like to emphasize the point: I am not a person prone to exaggeration. So... make sure this happens.

Relax. Don't panic. Keep up with your school work. Keep up with the friends and the people you like - because it will keep you sane and because friends sometimes get jobs places that will hire you, too.

Now, you do seem like a very motivated person, a very high achieving person. And you very much should have a list of things you can do when you have time to help look for work, and help advance your career. But remember that graduating comes first, and if that doesn't leave time to cross much off your list (and it may not,) don't beat yourself up over that. Because the real point of having that list of things, too, is to keep you sane and keep you from panicking about jobs so you can graduate.

The one thing I would say that would be a lot harder to put off is talking to your professors, finding out what they know about the tech industry, and how you can find the sectors of the tech industry that are more suited to you. Maybe seeing if, like ArbitraryAndCapricious suggested, they can get you informational interviews with people whose career paths might be more up your alley. Because you are very wise to avoid anyone and any company who wants to sell programmers as rockstars.
posted by Zalzidrax at 11:40 AM on August 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

The real dream career would be something that combines education/information + entertainment + multimedia. Whether it's educational games or data/information journalism or education technology or something like what Vi Hart does on youtube. The summer project is related to this.

Basically everything that I've done has led back to this: I love creative work like writing (my single most rewarding class has been a writing class), I'm extremely passionate about education (I was a mentor and school volunteer before getting kicked out of the former and dropping the latter, and loved doing both), and I'd like to put my technical experience to use. I have no idea what the path to this sort of thing would be, though.

Consider applying to companies like Udacity, Khan Academy, Coursera, or technical bootcamps. They have an undersupply of technically capable people who want to work as curriculum developers or teachers instead of as programmers.
posted by value of information at 2:52 PM on August 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm an instructional technologist at a university. No one will ever get rich doing this, but it's not a terrible living. I don't do any programming at all. The must I do with code is poking around our documentation website. We work in the administration of the school's LMS and support for that is a big chunk of the day to day work but beyond that we spend a lot of time helping faculty use technology in their classes in a way that is pedagogically sound and aligns best to their objectives. Any more, there are groups similar to mine at most major universities. Some are more tech focused (more inside the nuts and bolts of the care and feeding of the LMS and its servers) some are more like ours, more focused on supporting faculty in their teaching missions.

You went get paid like a rock star ninja code-crusher, but university benefits plans tend to be outstanding. Same with the work/life balance. Memail me if you want to know more about this line of work.
posted by soren_lorensen at 3:33 PM on August 20, 2016

Would you be interested in teaching high school computer science? Or working for a nonprofit that teaches coding skills?
posted by yarntheory at 5:10 AM on August 21, 2016

OP I'm a bit late to the thread, but noticed your Foreign Service comment - I have a technical background (engineering, not computer science) and ended up going this route. Feel free to memail me if you're considering it - it's definitely not for everyone for many reasons, but it also has its perks.
posted by photo guy at 5:53 PM on August 22, 2016

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