Is it BS to get a B.CS when all I want is a MFA?
July 31, 2007 12:20 PM   Subscribe

Should I go back for a second Bachelors Degree in Computer Science when all I want to do is write stories?

4 years ago, I graduated with a powerful BFA. This is mighty, and scared away all employers. In order to sooth them, I pretended to be a simple 'webmaster', and some how landed myself a job at this company.

And Luck was not done with me yet, as she made it clear I was good at this, and strangely knowledgeable. One year in, I had self-taught myself enough to leave job and work freelance part-time, as both as a web and desktop developer. This is great because I pay the bills, and have a lot of time to do the thing I like doing (the BFA is mighty) and I always seem to find enough work to prosper. Only downside - I definitely don't love the work - but it lets me live a happy life.

But - sometimes - in the dark of the night, I wonder if my luck will run out someday, that I'll find myself looking for steady work in a field I have no degree. Just a client list, and a potpourri of skills.

And I think: Maybe you should just go get that B. CS, pal, as an insurance policy. You know, while you are young and life is simple. And you'll be able to write and eat forever!

But then I think: I still want to go to Grad School for my MFA, (Which is far mightier and scarier then a BFA) and I don't want to wait until I'm old and tired to do so. I love stories, not computers!

and then I think: A lot of what they are going to teach me, I feel I already know. Maybe not the advanced stuff, but how many times is someone going to teach me about OOP, and database design, and a dozen sort algorithms like its a new thing? I have spent several years now, teaching myself much of this, and using it daily. Is there a big difference?

So in sum: Is getting that B.CS worth it to someone who wants an MFA? Am I wrong to assume that my education has been comparable to B.CS? Is it worth having to be RETAUGHT things in order to get a degree?
posted by mrgreyisyelling to Education (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If all you want to do is write stories, then write stories. Many people manage to earn a living that way.

Decide on the direction of your life, instead of the moves. Strategy first, not tactics. If you want to be a programmer, go for the B.CS; if you want to be a scholar or english teacher, get the MFA.

If you want to write stories -- write stories. Now. Tomorrow. Ever after. You will always find a way to eat. If you get driven, you might just pay the bills with your writing.
posted by ScarletPumpernickel at 12:33 PM on July 31, 2007

Do not get a second bachelor's degree. You're not interested in the work, and the cost of the degree (deferred income + tuition and fees + interest on any debt you accumulated) will be significant.

If you really feel a sense of dread and foreboding without a computer degree, go for a masters. I'm not sure which field would be best (software engineering? something in design?), but you should be able to get into a program somewhere.

I'm assuming you're in the United States. I don't have any sense for higher education in other countries.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:33 PM on July 31, 2007

I think the crux of the problem lies in your desire for security versus doing what you love. Personally, I think doing what you're passionate about (especially if you're in a comfortable position if things don't work out) is the most important pursuit.

That being said, perhaps the real question should be - do you need a CS degree to ensure an acceptable level of security. I don't think you do, necessarily. In general, your professional accomplishments are far shinier than your formal education. The fact that you're self-taught may be seen by some as a character strength. If you are producing work that will stand out and be regarded highly, than I don't think the degree is necessary.

My advice - seek out prestigious and challenging work in web design. Document your accomplishments very well. Keep in touch with past employers and customers to use as references. Keep learning. And most importantly - pursue your writing dreams.
posted by kingtaj at 12:37 PM on July 31, 2007

Any decent computer science degree programme will require you to be able to at least begin to develop your own approaches to problems. Don't underestimate the amount of creativity required to do computer science (as opposed to computing)... There is also a lot of theory (complexity, formal methods, etc.) that you will not have encountered in your day-to-day job. Full disclosure: I am a computer scientist.
posted by gene_machine at 12:37 PM on July 31, 2007

If you're in the U.S., I'm not sure why you would go back for a bachelors rather than a masters--either one will take you about 2 years (or 3 years doing it part-time at night) and cost roughly the same amount of money. Not that I particularly think you need to go back at all for a field like computer science.

But if you do go back, you should definitely be thinking of a masters rather than a B.A. or B.S. Don't be worried by the fact that you don't have a bachelors in computer science; I'm currently getting my masters in a field that I failed to take even a single undergraduate course in. A bachelors in any field + decent GRE scores + work experience in your chosen field should be more than enough to get you into many graduate programs.
posted by iminurmefi at 12:46 PM on July 31, 2007

If you go back and get a Computer Science degree, you will be expanding your knowledge of what you're doing, give yourself a strong framework to pick up new programming skills (CS is mostly theory, and while often criticized as giving little software engineering experience, it does give you a toolbox for understanding the how and why of programming).

However, it will be a lot of work, and it is very possible that in the near term, you will have absolutely no difference in employment. However... and I pause for breath.. it is possible that you will some day encounter a glass ceiling should you attempt to work your way up in the programming world, and a CS degree might break it. Maybe.

So, it's at this point I ask you: Are you happy? Will your current course keep you happy in the long term? I hate to stomp on the words of ScarletPumpernickel, but many people do not manage to make a living that way. I know a handful of people who have all written novels, short stories, and the like who have never been published outside of college publications. Some of them are excellent writers. It sounds like you have been well-challenged in your employment and enjoy it, and that you enjoy your writing as well. Why not continue on doing what you enjoy, and writing, and working? Can you pursue a MFA while working, or is it a full time job?

The best life is one that gives you just enough security while letting you do what you enjoy.
posted by mikeh at 12:54 PM on July 31, 2007

... then write stories. Many people manage to earn a living that way.

If by "many" is meant "about 100 or 200 in the entire U.S.," then this commenter is probably right.

I think it's probably easier to be elected to Congress or become a physician than to build a career where all you do is write fiction stories.

I think you should continue your education in computers --- I worked as a programmer for several years without any computer science degree, and when I finally did take a systems analysis class, a lot of stuff clicked into place that I had never really considered before. The fact that I had been working in the field for several years made my mind more receptive to the lessons of the programming class I eventually took.
posted by jayder at 1:47 PM on July 31, 2007

I'm not sure if you should get a CS degree or not, so please flag if you feel this is a derail. But I'm similar to you in that I my passion lies in The Arts yet I pay the rent as a programmer.

Sure, there are people who earn a living writing stories, painting paintings. etc. The question is: are you a commercial writer? Do you enjoy -- or are you willing to -- write the sort or things that people will pay for?

For me, as a theatre director, the answer is no. Maybe my work will make money some day, but I'm not holding my breath. My work is thoroughly uncommercial. Am I willing to compromise and make it more commercial? No. Am I willing to do OTHER theatre work, along with my "passion work" that is more commercial? No. You may be very different from me, but these are important questions to ask yourself.

Let's say you're unlike me and you're willing to work to monetize your art. Or maybe you're lucky and it's not work, because you write a really popular sort of fiction. Or maybe you don't, but you're willing to write money-making fiction alongside your other writing. Then the question is: are you good enough? I don't mean, are you good enough as a writer in some literary sense; I mean, are you good enough at writing what sells!

If your answer is no to either of these questions -- if you're unwilling to compromise or you're not good enough when you do compromise -- you're in my boat.

I realized I was in that boat and that theatre wasn't going to pay the bills. About the same time, many of my friends realized the same thing. Alas, they were all waiting tables or working soul-destroying office jobs. Eventually, they couldn't take it any more and dropped quit being artists.

Meanwhile, KNOWING that I simply can't pay the rent with my work and that I have to pay the rent, I DECIDED TO DO WHATEVER WAS NECESSARY TO ALLOW ME TO KEEP MAKING ART ON MY TERMS. To me, that meant having a day job that didn't suck.

I didn't get a CS Degree (though I still consider it from time to time), but I hurled myself into studying data structures, design patterns, etc. I devote equal energy to both my job and my passion, because my job makes my passion possible!

Programming is a moving target. If it's going to be your day job, you have to keep studying forever. If you stop for a year, you'll be irrelevant. At least that's been my experience. If I were you, I would do whatever it takes to keep relevant. If that's a CS degree, then do that.

I really hate this belief that "You should [just] do what you love." Some of us CAN'T. And all those friends of mine who waited tables refused to learn marketable skills. They thought of that as selling out, as if once you learned programming or real estate or whatever, you were no longer a REAL artists. Real artists suffer for their art. They live the "romance" of squaller. That's bullshit. They're gone and I'm still here.

I blame the schools. The MFA programs. (I went to one.) They don't tell students that in the real world, you need marketable skills. I know that's not their job. Their job is to help you be a better writer or painter or actor. But they should also be devoted to helping artists stay artists. They should encourage and help artists learn other skills so that they can support their art when times are lean.
posted by grumblebee at 1:49 PM on July 31, 2007 [5 favorites]

By the way, my company is trying to hire programmers. I can't believe how many people think -- really think -- they have the chops when they don't. They've built some simple apps and got praised for doing so. They know a few OOP principles, etc. But they can't play in the big leagues.

I'm knee-deep in programming a complex app that uses over eighty custom classes. Thousands and thousands of lines of code. It has to be well organized, super-clear, easy to maintain, commented, etc. It's been near impossible finding people who are up to the task.

I don't think a formal degree is the only way to become skilled or to show that you're skilled (we ask for code samples and have applicants try out by doing a freelance project for us), but get good SOMEHOW.
posted by grumblebee at 1:54 PM on July 31, 2007

I'm not sure (as others have said) that a CS degree is exactly what you think it is. The skillset it teaches you (in my experience, and judging from what you say) is quite different from what you usually learn as a self-taught programmer, and much more abstract. For instance, re your question "how many times is someone going to teach me about OOP, and database design, and a dozen sort algorithms like its a new thing?" At most once, and maybe not even that. In my program databases was an elective. (Although, like everything else, it was only a small part about the practical details of designing a database in SQL, and mostly about some rather fascinating theory. For instance, do you know relational algebra? It's probably not something you'd ever use in practice, but it completely changed the way I thought about databases.) And except for an introductory class (which you could probably test out of), you'd talk about algorithms to analyze them mathematically, not to implement them. So in terms of what you'd learn, I bet there wouldn't be nearly as much overlap with what you currently know as what you think.

The question of whether a CS degree would be useful to you is an entirely different one. As a piece of paper, I really can't answer, because as it happens I haven't continued in that field. In terms of helping you be better at your programming career, I think that depends entirely on how well you can learn to apply the theory you absorb to your day-to-day tasks.

One final comment that you may want to think about: I don't know whether anyone would do that well in a decent CS program if they don't want to be there.
posted by advil at 2:36 PM on July 31, 2007

I have a BFA and a minor in CS... and I've been doing web stuff for 7 years now. At this point, I'd sooner get an MBA over a MFA or B.CS, but your mileage may vary. "Web stuff" is one of the blessed areas where there isn't really a degree for any of it, and they rarely teach anything in a CS program that you'd use in your day to day. I rely a lot more on my liberal arts education than my CS-specific teachings - working and communicating in groups, learning on the fly, breaking down problems, etc.

You don't seem worried that you'll be able to DO a web job as much as GET a web job - I think that's a common worry when you're early in your career, but I think the cream tends to rise to the top after a while. So if you're GOOD at web stuff and people appreciate your work and professionalism, that's going to carry you a lot farther than a slew of degrees, at least in this industry (at least for the employers you really should want to work for). In short: don't waste your time and effort on the degree.
posted by lubujackson at 3:38 PM on July 31, 2007

This brief essay by my (excellent) CS teacher (I got a BFA but took two CS classes in my senior year) does an excellent job of describing what is and isn't computer science. Personally I find the topics explored in computer science to be fascinating, but they can be quite different than what you encounter in the "real world". Many of the languages you will use in CS classes are chosen because they are appropriate to the concepts being studied, not because they are popular or practical languages to program in. For example, in my first class we programmed in MLS. Ever heard of that? (I still miss it, but can't think of any case where I'd be able to use it in a business setting).

My recommendation would be: don't go back to school. In addition to the useful information you might be getting, there will also be the crap time that doesn't go into education. Especially on the undergraduate level. This is time wasted while students ask if something is on the test, or the professor explains why it's important to do the readings, or they go on about grading techniques and office hours and upcoming breaks and changes to the schedule. I listen to a lot of podcasts of college lectures and usually have to fast forward through the first 10 minutes of each one (and the first 1 or 2 classes and the last class are almost always throwaways). Also, undergraduate degrees are geared towards first time students without lives, so if you try to do this part time it will be difficult. Instead, carve the time you would have spent at school and spend it in self-teaching. If you find it difficult, it would still be cheaper to hire a local programmer to come and show you the ropes.

You can even burn your productive candle at both ends. You can take a weekly class on creative writing instead of going for the MFA. I know, I'm sure they must have some point but, really, how does getting an MFA make you a better writer? Either you get it or you don't. Just write down what you can and go to the weekly class to get feedback. If you want a more varied set of opinions you could always put excerpts up on a blog or something.
posted by Deathalicious at 3:43 PM on July 31, 2007

I've been interviewing programmers for the past seven years. And unless I'm interviewing for a *very* entry-level programming position, I hardly even bother looking at the "education" section of a resume. Got a degree? Great. I don't care what the degree was for, just that you were able to stick with it long enough to earn the piece of paper. After that, your professional experience and problem-solving skills are the only thing I care about.
posted by jknecht at 5:21 PM on July 31, 2007

In case you couldn't figure out what I was about to say before I prematurely clicked the 'Post Comment' button... If I were you, I'd get the MFA.
posted by jknecht at 5:23 PM on July 31, 2007

A CS degree would probably be overkill at this point. It requires a lot of time and money for something that won't give you any returns in the near future. That's an awful lot to invest in an insurance policy, especially when you haven't indicated you're terribly interested in the material.

Unless you're talking about an entry level position, prospective employers are mainly asking two questions:

1. Does the person have a college degree?
2. Does the person have relevant experience?

Number 1 is a formality. Number 2 is way more important. I was a scientist who switched to programming, so I didn't have a comp sci degree. But I've worked for several big, well-respected companies, I have nine years of professional experience, and several certifications under my belt. No one has ever commented on my degree.

If you want to burnish your resume, try doing some professional certifications, like in Java or .NET, for example. You want to show that you've got marketable skills. Some people will say, "Nobody cares about certifications", but I've interviewed enough people to know that employers do notice. Plus, they're quicker than an entire CS degree, and you'll learn concrete skills in the process, rather than theory.

After you've got one or more certifications, then you can go get your masters in whatever you want on your own time, and still have some job security.
posted by Gamblor at 9:09 AM on August 1, 2007

Also, my experience has been that most programmers don't want to stay programmers forever. Personally, I've just started researching MBA programs.

You'll hardly be the only programmer seeking a masters in a different field.
posted by Gamblor at 9:10 AM on August 1, 2007

A computer science degree isn't all about programming. You take a lot of math classes, classes on the theory of computation, algorithms, etc. If you aren't interested in all that stuff, a degree in computer science isn't going to be worth your time.

If you want to write stories write stories.
posted by chunking express at 9:16 AM on August 2, 2007

If by "many" is meant "about 100 or 200 in the entire U.S.," then this commenter is probably right.


In 2006, there were 29,248 new juvenile titles published. That's just the juvenile titles.

Just about every current television series has a writing staff of between six and twelve writers, which would break 200 right there.

I think it's probably easier to be elected to Congress or become a physician than to build a career where all you do is write fiction stories.

If Stephen King had listened to you, he'd be retiring from that crappy teaching job right about now. Instead, he's worth over $200 million and is still writing stories because he enjoys it.

mrgreyisyelling, if you want to write stories, then write stories. Get good at it, and you can make a living at it. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
posted by ScarletPumpernickel at 12:37 AM on August 12, 2007

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