180 change of fields as a grad student
May 31, 2008 9:16 AM   Subscribe

I have a humanities undergraduate degree with a minor in computer science. I’m currently in a grad program in the same humanities field. However, I’d like to change directions and pursue a graduate degree in engineering, but I don’t have a math/science/engineering background. What is it going to take to do this?

Sorry if this isn’t quite right, it’s my first question to Ask MeFi. I did some searching and didn’t find much about this.

A little more background.... I'm currently on track for a PhD in the same humanities field as my undergrad degree, with a computational focus, but have totally lost confidence that this is the right choice for me. Ideally, I'll leave within the next year with a master’s. I’d then like to pursue a master’s in something along the lines of mechanical engineering. If I enjoy it as much as I’m imagining I will I’d like to eventually pursue a PhD, but I figure that’s some time off in the future.

The problem is I just don’t know how to do this is. My background in math and hard science is very limited. But, I do have a strong drive to learn and an aptitude for that stuff though. My academic record is very strong, even if it doesn't have much math and hard science. I've seen people make the change in the other direction, but I get the feeling that's a lot easier.

I had a few ideas of how I might proceed:
1. Go for a second baccalaureate. (To be avoided if at all possible)
2. Apply to master’s programs, hope one lets me in and take 1 year of intensive classes to fill in my missing background (is this even possible?)
3. Audit a class or two next semester to start filling the holes in my background (then goto 2)
4. Find a staff position at some university that allows me to take classes for free and spend a year filling in the gaps in my background. (then goto 2)
5. Try to connect with a potential advisor before applying (then goto 2).

I want to get this done as fast as possible, and without crippling myself financially.

Does anyone have any stories or advice to relate about making this sort of change? Am I correct in assuming that my missing background is a major hurdle? Would it be easier to get into a so-so engineering program, do really well there, then try to go to a good engineering program? Any other advice?
posted by NormandyJack to Education (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Go ahead and list any math/science/comp sci. or other relevant classes you took as part of the comp. sci minor.

Am I correct in assuming that my missing background is a major hurdle?

That above list will help, but probably, yeah, to the point that you're either looking for a second bachelor's or basically a self-taught second bachelor's. Electrical Engineering and Comp Sci have some relation, but really it seems to be that EE majors know some Comp Sci much more than Comp Sci majors know any EE, and you just have the minor.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 9:25 AM on May 31, 2008

If you want to do a Electrical or Mechanical Engineering masters/PhD, you'll have to have a very strong math/physics background. You probably have to do another bachelor's degree, which sounds like 2 years to me.
posted by beerbajay at 9:33 AM on May 31, 2008

Course background:
Geology (the only thing approaching hard science, useless for this)
Calc 1
Discrete Math
Data Str. and Algorithms
Symbolic Logic
Theory of Computation
Generic programming classes 1-3
Object Oriented Programming
A few honors seminars in CS on wide ranging topics

Thats it. Not enough, I know.
posted by NormandyJack at 9:45 AM on May 31, 2008

This would help you towards an EE bachelor's or to a lesser extent another engineering degree, but you do need the second bachelor's. Basically, you're somewhat less prepared for engineering graduate studies than an engineering student who just finished his freshman year. Sorry. I don't think even your "audit classes for a year then do a year of Master's" is at all feasible, because another year of classes isn't going to prepare you for Master's level work.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 9:57 AM on May 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

What they said. At my alma mater, in the first two years, all the engineering students took a 4 semester sequence of Calculus through Intro to Differential Equations, 3 semesters of physics, and 2 semesters of chemistry, with more math and science on the side.

For a computer science master's, on the other hand, it looks like you could pretty much get by with what you already have.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:21 AM on May 31, 2008

I went through something similar to what you're going through now, only from English to Geology, and ended up getting a second degree. I found a program that I really wanted to enroll in for a grad degree, and that was the advice they gave me. So that would be your first step - find a program you like, and speak with them. Get their advice from how they would want you to approach it.

I realize that you want to do this as soon as possible, but you're not going to be able to plunge into most of your classes without the missing background, and it's well worth it to build a good basic foundation. It was an intensive and rough year and a half (I took summer classes) for me, but as my future grad adviser put it, the amount of classes it took to catch up added up to the second degree anyway. The bright spot was because I did it at the school I wanted for my grad program. When my time was up, I knew the department very well and was able to get into grad school without any problem, despite still missing a few geology classes which I was allowed to make up first thing.

I had a tremendous amount of background to catch up on, however. I almost had to start from scratch in math and work up through Calc 3 as well as take a year's worth each in physics and chemistry. That doesn't even count the basic geology classes. I don't know what the qualifications are for an EE, but I can't imagine they'd be anything less.

I remember quite a few times when I felt like I had taken a huge step backwards or was in over my head. Don't get discouraged by that or the time frame - it was very much worth it, financially and career wise for me, and I was much happier at the end. Best of all, I still get to apply my humanities background all the time. I feel like I'm contributing much more than I would have in my previous career path, especially once I saw how desperately the world needs scientists and engineers,

A few other things: grad school in humanities is nothing like grad school in science, and an added bonus occurred much later. When I was looking for work, my humanities degrees set me apart from everybody else, and recruiters just zeroed in on it. They loved it. I don't know how many times I heard the phrase, "A geologist who doesn't mind writing!" or "A scientist who has been educated to think creatively!" and probably got me a few job offers for which my accelerated background would normally have killed me.
posted by barchan at 10:22 AM on May 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Why are you wanting to switch to engineering? Are you concerned about not making enough money in your humanities field? If so, consider that working in IT generaly pays fairly well and, in some fields at least, requires only the ability to get the job done. This seems to be especially true in programming/networking jobs. Many employers accept IT certifications in lieu of a traditional degree.

Example: my degree is in History but I do WAN support. After realizing that historical inquiry wasn't paying the bills, I didn't go out to get another degree (and more importantly, take out any more loans...) I just studied up on networking and got certified. That said, you'd be more marketable if you had an internships or actual IT job experience on your resume to augment that certification.

Now if money is the issue but you are more suited to the type of work an EE would do, then carry on.
posted by aperture_priority at 11:07 AM on May 31, 2008

I'll note people seem to be reading my comments rather than the post somewhat - the poster originally identified his most likely specialization as ME. I mentioned EE as an alternative because the Comp Sci links in.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 11:15 AM on May 31, 2008

Check out Harvard's Special Students program. The description makes it seem like it might be relevant for you. If you get in touch with the admissions people there they might also know of similar programs at other schools.
posted by trig at 12:50 PM on May 31, 2008

Thanks. It looks like my best bet is either a second bachelors or being a non-degree student for some time. The move is not financially motivated, I think given my skill set (humanities, but with computational focus) it'd be a wash as far as the average pay I could expect to get w/ a masters. I'm looking for a degree/experience/work that is more inline with my ever changing goals.
posted by NormandyJack at 1:17 PM on May 31, 2008

If you wanted to do a CS masters, you might get by, but to do a EE masters, you'd be way out of your league. Studying CS doesn't at all prepare you for EE tasks.
posted by beerbajay at 3:06 PM on May 31, 2008

Oh yeah, I just wanted to clarify, when I say worked out financially, I mean more that the extra cost of education was worth it in the end, not hey! More money! bit because I changed careers.

Good luck, NormandyJack!
posted by barchan at 4:35 PM on May 31, 2008

One of the major issues you have to deal with is all the undergraduate math, physics and intro to engineering classes that are taken for granted for graduate application. the ME bachelors degree is generally a 5 year program. By the time you clear all the expectations of prior knowledge you would have a 2nd degree.
posted by ptm at 3:22 AM on June 4, 2008

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