Changing major from CS to stats: career advice?
December 26, 2017 12:34 PM   Subscribe

Changing major from CS to stats: career advice?

Asking on behalf of my sister:

I am currently enrolled in a Bachelors degree in CS with a stats minor. However for various reasons (mostly to do with the structure of my degree) I’m not really enjoying my degree and I’m thinking of changing to a stats major with a CS minor. But I really enjoy programming and I’m worried about how this would impact my potential future career options in programming. Any advice?
posted by supercrayon to Work & Money (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
One important factor is looking into the career services opportunities in both departments. Do they help facilitate internships? What about alumni networks? This is incredibly important for future employment.
On the surface, CS has more direct employability. Employers generally know what a CS graduate can do. Stats varies more. Because of this, internship opportunities would be even more important.

I'd also spend some time chatting with people in the stats major to see if they're happy.
posted by k8t at 12:43 PM on December 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

The first thing that comes to my mind is how your school's recruiting works. i.e. can you still attend the "engineering" career fair if you are a stats major? That is by far the easiest way to get your resume into the hands of a ton of companies, and also get your supply of t-shirts and water bottles for the year.

(on preview, everything k8t says)

If it's just one big scary course that is scaring your sister off, well, there are usually lots of resources and advice available for these types of courses. Alternately, are there combined degree programs that let you avoid such courses? e.g. because I took a ton more math courses and technically have a Math-CS degree, I didn't have to take the computational theory course.
posted by batter_my_heart at 12:47 PM on December 26, 2017

IMO (as a CS guy with a lot of stats classes who then went to CS grad school in Machine Learning and whose advisor was also a member of the Stats department) the default careers of the two degrees are pretty different. While it's possible to get a stats degree and then get a job as a software engineer, that path is tougher than doing so with a CS degree. In my interviewing experience, very few stats / applied math people who claim to be able to program are actually able to write clean, production-ready code; they may be able to piece scripts together but good software engineering is not something they have experience with. Obviously a lot of fresh CS grads are similarly challenged but it's not the same. The coursework emphasis is sufficiently different that just like you can't expect the average CS grad to understand measure theory (though some do), you can't expect the average Stats grad to do know complex algorithms or the impact of cache hierarchies on performance (though some do).

Of course, if you're thinking of doing a stats degree presumably the reason is that you're not interested in programming as a career and are more interested in the data analysis side. That's a great career but a different one. If, as your question asks you're concerned about your "potential future career options in programming" then I think you're rightfully concerned. You can definitely do the stats degree and still be a great programmer if you do extra CS coursework (maybe more than your minor requires) and shine in your interviews but if you're taking those extra classes, why not just do it through the CS dept?

Additionally, software development is a field where elite performers tend to be much better compensated and have better work conditions than the rest. That path starts with getting a good first job which is a stepping stone for the rest of your career. Unlike some other careers where the difference between elite and average jobs isn't very large, the value of aiming for the top in programming is pretty immense.

One question I encourage you to ask yourself is what interests you more, programming or data analysis? IE, when you're working on a project, do you find joy in writing code or are you mostly interested in the question you're trying to answer and code is just a tool to get there?
posted by bsdfish at 1:09 PM on December 26, 2017 [4 favorites]

Data Analytics is extremely hot right now. But like web development and graphic design in the '90s, it is possible that in a few years the field will be flooded by people with relevant skills who have realized that they can command better salaries and jobs with the Analytics title. On the other hand, lots of mid-sized organizations that can't afford to run their own engineering departments are likely to sill want in-house Analytics people attached to their Marketing, Operations, or IT departments.

In addition to the wider array of companies that may hire you, Analytics will give you a broader view into the organization that you join. Software Engineers benefit from focus, and people who take that path but have ambitious aspirations can find junior software engineering jobs confining.

Quick heuristic: if you are excited about building software, take the CS route. If you want to understand and help guide the transformation of how business is done, take the Stats route to a Data Analytics career. Make sure you learn R and SQL along the way, as well as any other tools that are offered to you.

(I'm speaking from a USA / Silicon Valley perspective. I'm an engineering manager who has Software Engineers, SE Managers, Data Analysts, Data Engineers and Data Scientists as direct or indirect reports right now)
posted by b1tr0t at 1:48 PM on December 26, 2017

Look into data science / analytics / business intelligence? Data Science is basically a stats / CS hybrid, so a stats degree would help. In my area (I've worked in market research and education) a stats degree is valuable. If you love statistics, maybe consider a different career path then programming. If you are set on being a programmer, then get the CS degree.
posted by Valancy Rachel at 2:53 PM on December 26, 2017

Figure out how to turn it into a data science degree for the big bucks.... Seems to be one of the super hot career tracks at the moment
posted by TheAdamist at 5:31 PM on December 26, 2017

CS+Stats in any combo, toss in some PowerPoint skills and presentation abilities = high end data analyst/scientist! I work for a Fortune 500 that regularly brings in people with your skillset (plus the PowerPoint/presentation skills to make things easily digestable for execs) to do some serious work, and they get paid very, very well.

If you can do any work in the "big data" technologies, ESPECIALLY emerging ones, you're golden.
posted by erst at 6:49 PM on December 26, 2017

Depends on what "not really enjoying my degree" means. If you enjoy programming but not the process of earning a cs degree but think you'll enjoy stats more as a degree program... I'm honestly perplexed and worry that the thing you're not enjoying is the people and not the content? Because for many many people the worst parts of a cs degree are the math parts which are only going to be more in a stats degree.
If it's the people you don't like, consider trying to stick it out, if only that you like the content of the major and getting chased off would suck. But you can certainly have a great, lucrative career as a programming statistician. Just be sure you really like the math part before you go this route.
posted by ch1x0r at 7:01 PM on December 26, 2017

(Full disclosure: As an undergrad I double majored in CS and Pure Mathematics. I later chose to continue to a Master's in CS.)

If you want to be a programmer, having a Stats major and a CS minor is going to put you in line behind everyone who applies with a BSc in CS. Now, there is a lot of demand out there for programmers so maybe that's not such a hurdle. Conversely if you want to get into a more stats-y job (by which I mean the kind of jobs that typically list a bachelor's degree in stats as a wishlist item/requirement), having a CS degree is going to make you more useful compared to people with Stats majors and little by the way of programming skills. In other words, you can cross that aisle more easily than the reverse, except in areas which very equally desire both skills (at which point both your choices are fine).

You say you want to switch to a stats major because of the structure of your degree. While you don't elaborate on what that means (do you have to take courses in subjects you don't like or aren't interested in? Trust me, it will make you a better programmer to know a little bit about AI or compilers or VLSI hardware design), it strikes me as a little shortsighted. Putting up with some amount of discomfort due to your degree structure in the short term (i.e., your last couple years of college, say) will seem like nothing at all down the road. On the other hand if you bail on the degree that would be required for what you really want to do, you're going to kick yourself for it later.
posted by axiom at 7:03 PM on December 26, 2017

Yeah, let me put it another way: "Data science" means you get to compete with the ocean of people who took some Udemy courses online, Econ majors who are good at talking, and med students who decided they would like to enjoy life and decided "Public Health! Wait, no, I also want to get paid! Well, I have most of the credits already..."

CS means you get to build the emerging big data techniques that Stats people use.

Seriously, make sure your sister is talking to every department undergraduate group, Women in Computer Science group, is friends with her TAs, has friends in her classes, has regular meetings with her advisor -- I suspect it's ONE BIG SCARY COURSE that is actually not so scary (or avoidable, but she'll kick herself later, speaking from experience).
posted by batter_my_heart at 7:28 PM on December 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

A good tiebreaker might be that CS is much easier than stats to pick up in a non-academic environment. This is true both in terms of actually learning the skills, and in terms of being able to convince folks that you have said skills. Lots of engineering staff at my sizable, SF-based tech employer have a completely unrelated degree, or none at all—including myself.

If your sister majors in statistics, and turns out not to like it, it seems much easier to fall back on CS/programming than the reverse.
posted by vasi at 2:54 PM on December 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

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