Masters degree worth it for career switch?
November 6, 2018 7:21 AM   Subscribe

What is the feasibility of switching into a new (tech/engineering) career by getting a masters degree in it? How much does quality of school matter? Or is it kind of a waste of time?

I recently went back to school and completed a BS in applied math. Now I'm working in a field which I don't love at all and wondering what I can do to potentially get out.

I'm wondering if it would be worth it to get a masters degree at one of the local state schools (Cal State Northridge or LA; though I would happily apply to better schools in the area like UCLA if I thought I had a chance of getting in). I would aim for something tech-y, either engineering (leaning toward civil or EE) or CS (I know this sounds kind of flighty, but rest assured I'm thinking quite intently on what I want to choose, and am mentioning this more to solicit guidance on prospects on switching into those particular fields when I get the masters). My goal would be to improve my resume so that I could get a skilled tech job where I'm working on technical projects of actual import, rather than what I'm currently doing. I would love to get a building job with LA or one of the surrounding cities, or at a tech company building interesting products/software.

I've thought about going for an MBA, but to me that seems more like a degree for people in management, and what I'd love to learn is how to DO something interesting. I've also thought about going to a coding boot camp, but I'm concerned that I wouldn't be able to get a good job AND that I'd be siloed away from good positions due to a lack of a real CS degree. I've ALSO thought about getting a masters in something more personally edifying than useful (English, poli sci, or a foreign language), but I'm not sure that I can justify spending the time or money before I've done something to improve my career prospects.

I did okay at my school (UC Irvine, better than 3.0 GPA), but didn't really build relationships with my professors so don't know if I'd be able to get good letters of recommendation. I would highly prefer to do a part-time masters, but if that's not really a thing I would see about saving money for a year or two to be able to fund going full-time. My biggest regret about getting a math degree is that I don't really do anything with any of the knowledge I learned in school, and it seems like getting a more tech/engineering degree would help to remedy that, as well as provide a path to a career where I also do these interesting things.

Has anyone else done this? Any advice?
posted by miltthetank to Education (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I work at a big tech company and I see candidates with the experience you describe all the time: some technical undergrad degree, a CS masters. Many have their undergrad in a foreign country and their masters at a US school, but I've seen it with American candidates too.

It's just 2 years and 50k-100k.

That said, do you know how to code at all? An applied math degree is sufficient to get over the hiring bar at most companies if you have coding skills or experience.
posted by GuyZero at 7:48 AM on November 6, 2018 [4 favorites]

Yeah a master's in CS is not the best way to become an adept programmer, and if you're already an adept programmer, you probably don't need it to get some kind of CS job. If that's the route you're looking at, I'd get some kind of experience before going back to school, where you'd learn more theoretical or high-level concepts (ever want to make your own OS?).

I did an engineering master's but my bachelor's was in the same flavor (bio). A lot probably depends on whether you have the prerequisites, and again, if you do, I'm not sure if you wouldn't be able to get an entry-level job already.

Work experience before taking the plunge, IMO, is a great thing. Plus, some companies help pay; especially universities in my experience.
posted by supercres at 7:58 AM on November 6, 2018 [5 favorites]

I will warn you that tech/engineering hiring dramatically skews towards young candidates, especially recent graduates with little on-the-job experience in the field. You don't mention your age but if you're e.g. 35 or older, you are already going to have a huge slog against candidates a decade or more younger. You'd even be at a disadvantage even if you had that 10 years of experience in the industry unless you were going into a team-lead or management position. It's not even remotely fair, but it is also what's happening on the ground. If you have grey hair, you are pretty fucked if you don't have a serious track record behind you.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:58 AM on November 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

What draws you to engineering and programming in particular? I’m not sure if my advice based on experience in an allied field (statistics) is relevant or not. I solve problems, I program, it’s pleasantly technical, and I haven’t yet faced age discrimination. I did find the MS valuable but was able to get a first job without it (ymmv). But if you don’t like the gig you got with an applied math degree, this also might not be for you.

Maybe more to the point, could it just be that the job you have now sucks? Never underestimate the effect a crappy workplace can have on your assessment of yourself and your profession (same goes for a good workplace!).
posted by eirias at 9:34 AM on November 6, 2018

My experience has been that (with the glaring exception of some very specific R&D work) a Masters in any engineering field is either not terribly valued by tech companies or not worth paying for out of pocket. Your undergrad degree could open up a lot of opportunities in the engineering space that you might not be aware of, too, especially if you have any sort of leadership experience and would want to continue doing that.

Civil engineering and EE are very, very different disciplines so be aware of what you really want to do and what it takes to get there. You'll probably need your PE license for any kind of civil engineering job which will take even more time and effort on top of a Masters. You're also very likely to "not do anything" with an engineering degree - many engineers don't end up working the exact disciplines they went to school for because there are a lot of niche specialties that don't fit in to neat 4-year degree programs.

I would encourage you to think about what you can do with your current degree and try to go from there. Find a mentor or talk to your college career placement office. Figure out what these "interesting things" are that you want to do, but also be aware that every technical job comes with a lot of BS - when I was in undergrad, I interviewed with the Jet Propulsion Lab and one of the interviewers told me his job was about 10% "real engineering" and 90% other tasking. Keep that in mind.
posted by backseatpilot at 9:44 AM on November 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

Are you a woman or a member of a visible minority group? I had a non-CS STEM B.S. and needed a M.S. in CS to get recruiters to take me seriously.

Once I had those magic letters on my resume, I started getting callbacks. (And I'm now employed as a developer.)

I'm at the same title and pay band as folks with undergrads in C.S., but I'm making over twice what I made in my old career, so I don't care. Ymmv.
posted by marfa, texas at 10:57 AM on November 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm thinking quite intently on what I want to choose, and am mentioning this more to solicit guidance on prospects on switching into those particular fields

Have you talked with people who have jobs that you imagine yourself having? Do you know what they do all day, and do those activities appeal to you?

You're trained in mathematics. Do you still like math? When you think about the possibility of using your math skills in a job, does that perk you up? Would you be interested in specifically using your skill as a public interest scientist/technologist -- for instance, as a watchdog for situations where math can help prove and fight inequality?

Is a free or low-cost programming or data science workshop happening near you anytime soon, so you could dip your toes in and see how it feels to improve your skills in this way?

You could -- with meetups, online resources, and hobby projects -- self-teach yourself enough to get a paid apprenticeship that would help lead to a full-time engineering role.

You do not need to get a master's degree for this. If you think you need an academic program to guide you and give you accountability and a credential, consider something like a post-baccalaureate certification instead -- that would be cheaper and shorter.
posted by brainwane at 3:02 PM on November 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

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