I need to do something good with my life, preferably, using my degree somehow.
March 11, 2007 11:11 AM   Subscribe

How can I put my computer science degree to work helping people?

I graduated from college three years ago and accepted a position at a local software company. At first, I enjoyed the work and didn't mind the pacing, but that has changed. I dread going to work now because of a myriad of issues, stress being one of the foremost ones. It has taken me a long while to realize this, because I hate change, but I have to leave, because I feel like I am going crazy some days. A lot of what I hate at work is the overall corporate culture. I've done quite well there, but found it very unsatisfying as of late. I need to believe that what I'm doing is actually helping people somehow, not just generating more stock options.

I know I need to go back to school. I believe I would do well in a research-oriented position. But I'm uncertain that a straight computer science master's degree would cut it. My friends tell me to seek some sort of application of computer science, such as bioinformatics. That is a hot field right now, but neither biology nor chemistry interest me much. Physics could be interesting, but I haven't had much instruction in it. The social sciences, such as psychology, have always been extremely interesting to me. Cognitive science, for instance, intersects with computer science in some areas. However, I'd like to know what more of my options are. What are some other applications of computer science that focus on helping people?
posted by antareus to Education (16 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
A bunch of nonprofits don’t know what they are doing in regards to computers, databases and ESPECIALY websites. They hire out their services to places like Convio (in and of itself a pretty neat company) instead of actually knowing what they are doing in regards to informational databases and web based fundraising. As far as directly working with computers, there are all sorts of nonprofits who work directly towards awesome things like 100% internet access for the world or computer literacy for the underprivileged. There are always things to do to directly help people, albeit at a moderate pay cut.
posted by Faux Real at 11:28 AM on March 11, 2007

I recently sat through a presentation by the Peace Corps. They need I.T. people. It's a two year job. You don't get to choose where you go. You don't need to know a foreign language- they will give you that training. It doesn't pay a salary, but your room and board is covered. At the end of the two years they pay you $6,000 cash. The impression I got is that you would most likely be teaching a class or running a computer lab in a (safe) third world environment.
posted by JamesToast at 11:35 AM on March 11, 2007

You might consider looking at graduate programs in human-computer interaction (HCI). The concern is with making technologies accessible to people, which includes user interfaces for people with various types of disabilities, for example. HCI programs are interdisciplinary, usually housed in CS departments or information schools. Some examples: Value Sensitive Design lab at the University of Washington Information School; HCI program at Georgia Tech. The School of Information at the University of Michigan has a program called the Community Information Corps, as well as a master's program with an HCI specialization.
posted by needled at 11:50 AM on March 11, 2007

People with real computer skills can pretty much write their own ticket in library science, and librarianship is definitely a helping profession.
posted by MsMolly at 12:11 PM on March 11, 2007

Geek Corps
posted by k8t at 12:21 PM on March 11, 2007

Also, I was in a similar position as you a few years back. I tried "doing good" with my tech skills and quickly burnt out. I returned to the corporate world to use my tech skills and burnt out again.

Now I am in graduate school in communication (as a social science) and finding lots of interesting ways to use my tech knowledge in "useful" ways. It is extremely research heavy, but some "tech-y" things that my department is doing: using CAT scans to see the impact of first person shooter video games on aggression (cognition), looking at collective action via the internet, new media... click on a few faculty profiles (and here) to see what sort of stuff we're doing.
posted by k8t at 12:26 PM on March 11, 2007

Heck, I'm unsure of what a Master's in Computer Science entails. However, I can tell you that, even as someone who is a reasonably old hand with computers, I see a lot of instances of people who are just bright enough to get themselves in trouble, and more than a few cases where I could have benefitted from some rounding out of my education. Perhaps a master's in computer science, but then look at the social work types to see what it is they want/need might be where you could do some real work.
posted by adipocere at 12:37 PM on March 11, 2007

I'm a PHD student in Computer Science and my daily work is on a medical simulation system. Our group is developing and testing a system to let medical students learn the anatomy of the temporal bone region with the use of a graphics card and a 3D input device. Practice now is limited because it requires the use and destruction of cadavers.

I feel good about my work. More practice for students means fewer problems in surgeries. You said you didn't have much interest in chemistry or biology. I don't really have a whole lot of interest in medicine, but I work with doctors who do. You don't have to have too much knowledge in the base field if you're doing collaborative computer research for specific applications.
posted by demiurge at 1:07 PM on March 11, 2007

College may be the answer, but nonprofits certainly arent.

As someone who works with non-profits I can tell you that after the first few weeks the feeling of 'helping people' wears off pretty quickly. You will still be doing a job in a job-like environment that means just as much stress, same gossipy people, overwork, etc. as any other job. Except now you'll get lesser pay because of how non-profits traditionally pay out.

I would highly recommend first learning how to deal with stress. Its not easy and takes time, but its something you need to do. In the workaday world there's this assumption that things are fine and dandy in a non-profit. You couldnt be more wrong. Its usually more stressful and understaffed because of money issues.

If you want to find meaning in helping others than pretty much the last thing people need is computer help. In fact the last thing I want to hear at work from an affiliate office is "One of our tech guys made a bunch of changes here and now x and y doesnt work." Mr Tech Volunteer never documents anything, has no idea what the software we run does, and cares little about doing a good job. Or Mr Tech Guy told them more than a few things that are completely wrong.

What many non-profits need is manual labor, fundraising, and data entry. Yes, its boring and tedious, but you said you wanted to help. You can do this in your spare time. Easily.

Sorry, but the assumption that you can turn your job into this super fulfilling leisure non-profit job full of meaning and great people is an adult fantasy. Its the equivalent of a teenager ready to run away to Hollywood to become the next big thing. You will not be designing a new linux distro that will solve both world hunger and lack of meaning in life. Sorry.

Now, if you really want to help people first help yourself. How are your debts? Have you paid off everything you can? How are your loved ones? Who needs you help? Have you been a good brother, sister, son, daughter, friend? etc? Or get the heck out of any long-hours hard-working tech job.
posted by damn dirty ape at 1:30 PM on March 11, 2007

I'd agree with demiurge on this one. I too have have worked over the years in and around healthcare and pharmaceuticals. It adds a real dimension to how Information Technology is relevant to people's well being when applied to the context of Clinical Trials, Patient Information Systems or the "wet" side of the equation such as "In Silica"-type reseach.

By the sounds of it, I'm much further through my career than you. But, through mergers and acquisitions I've ended up working for a company that does fantastic IT work but without the direct context of helping society or people. It's dried up my passion for what I can offer in a big way. Time for a change.
posted by michswiss at 1:36 PM on March 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

damn dirty ape. Non-profits might not be the way to go, I worked at one for 4 years, childrens welfare, hard as, burnt out towards the end. You're right about the pay and the boredom as well. But it doesn't mean that you can't find a way to apply technology skills to an industry that resonates with the need to give something back.

In my case, I moved into management consulting to the life sciences industry, consulting on issues that best leveraged IT solutions and systems. And I've made a pretty darned good living at it as well.
posted by michswiss at 2:05 PM on March 11, 2007

Be sure to rule out the possibility that you just don't like that company, not the whole field, before you make a giant step in changing careers. (I mention this because your question seems to talk about burning out, corporate culture, and so on, and not the actual work you're doing.)

That said, if you don't mind the pay cut and more politics than you could ever imagine (including unions!), you could always work in academentia as an administrative employee rather than as a researcher; universities and colleges have roughly the same IT/development needs that private companies do.
posted by mendel at 2:17 PM on March 11, 2007

I have a similar desire/mindset that you do.. however I dont have a degree (so I REALLY need to go back to school). However I do have about 15 years experiences in the IT field.

I'm taking a year "off" and a couple of the projects I'm working on involve helping the local Chamber of Commerce. Granted, they are a non-profit, and I dont honestly expect to make a whole bunch of money, BUT it'll be good experience .
posted by jmnugent at 3:43 PM on March 11, 2007

I'm not an expert in bioinformatics, but from what I understand, certain applications actually require very little knowledge of biology. I know bioinformaticians who really aren't into biology at all. (I'm hoping someone more knowledgeable on this topic than I am will jump in and give their thoughts.)
posted by wireless at 4:59 PM on March 11, 2007

I have a bachelor's in CS and work at a non-profit. I've never worked in the corporate world, so I'm just going off what I hear, but I think damn dirty ape is right that non-profits are not as removed from the corporate world as people might think, that there issues with understaffing, etc. But, ah, I'm not quite as bothered about that. :) I also worked for a while as a programmer in a university after graduating, which was similar. In both cases, my work is/was usually a couple degrees removed from the people who were benefiting, but I personally never completely lost track of that fact. Some days are better than others about that. On the whole, though, I like it, despite the baggage that comes with it. I think working in such an environment is worth considering. Medical stuff sounds cool too.

Depending on what you're really concerned about, I would also second mendel's suggestion that you make sure it's not just the company. I definitely think you don't need to go back to school, if computer stuff is what you want to do.
posted by brett at 6:32 PM on March 11, 2007

I've considered the same question recently, having completed my BS in CS in December. I got lucky; I'm in my third week of an amazingly cool paid internship with a non-profit in D.C. helping to build open-source software that, as near as I can tell, is actually going to help make the world a better place. One nice thing about doing code-monkey work for a non-profit is that you're not part of a large code-monkey bureaucracy- in my case, it's just me and one other full time developer. Plus, I work with lots of interesting, enthusiastic people.

Once this gig ends, I'm off to the Peace Corps. I haven't gotten a specific placement yet, but I've been told more than once that they have a particular need for IT people. Unfortunately, this plan has a large opportunity cost in terms of potential income, but I'm still naively idealistic and all that. I found my current position on idealist.org, if that helps.

I considered Geek Corps, but was dissuaded by their FAQ, which indicates that they strongly prefer candidates with 5+ years of professional experience.
posted by gsteff at 11:09 PM on March 11, 2007

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