Switching Fields in Your Mid-Twenties
When I was 23, I switched my field from Biology to Computer Science. I’m on track to have my PhD in Computer Science by age 28. Here’s how I did it and my advice to others.
It’s happened to many of us. You get a Bachelor’s degree in something, enter the real world of work, then realize- BAM! Maybe you should have studied something else?
Some people realize it with dread toward year 3 or 4 of their degrees, a tragedy in systems where one must pay for higher education. Some people know from the beginning that their degree was not the right choice for them, but have befriended denial, and some are happy and content with their choices until they find something even better. The last one was my case. I studied biology in my Bachelor’s degree, and I loved it with a passion. It was not until I moved to Germany and, through a twist of events, started programming, when I realized that I also loved computer science.
Following my undergraduate education, my 22 year-old self had gone to Germany on a 10-month Fulbright research grant, after which I was to return to my PhD program in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. When the original lab at which I was supposed to complete the Fulbright fell through, I took my grant to a bioinformatics lab, which welcomed me with open arms. Within half a year, I went from messing around in Python to working in the Biomedical AI group, and I just knew I couldn’t stop. Time was ticking, and I had to make a decision about what I would do. I withdrew from my PhD program in Biochemistry, stayed in Germany to continue my work for another year, and now I am doing a PhD in Computer Science in Scotland, where I am due to finish by age 28.
If you’re thinking about changing fields, then this article is for you. During my time changing fields, I got several additional scholarships / grants, continued to make money (as opposed to paying for a degree), and successfully continued in Academia without pause.
These are my top tips for changing your career field smoothly:
When looking for new groups to work in or new programs to study, consider those which somehow hybridize your previous field. I, for example, switched from biology to computer science, and my “hybrid” was a Master’s program and research work in bioinformatics.
If there are none that exist, then you could also propose a novel idea which hybridizes the two. For example, if you want to switch from a scientific field to history, consider studying something like the history of how women’s contributions to science were hidden or erased.
While finding a way to hybridize is not always obvious, it looks very impressive when you propose a novel way to hybridize two fields, so it can really boost your cover letter or personal statement impact. It’s possible that your ultimate career goals don’t involve some sort of hybridization between your previous field and your new one, and that’s totally fine, but it could be a great way to use your previously learned skills and knowledge to get your foot in the door.
2. It’s a Journey, not a Quarter-Life Crisis.
Hybridizing makes a good story when you want to apply for new jobs and programs, and this is partly why I encourage it so much- the way you portray your story can be a deciding factor as to whether or not someone finds you interesting. Here are some examples to illustrate my point:
What sounds better?
“I studied computer science since I knew it was a promising field, but I can’t really find any jobs I like, so now I want to study sociology.”
“When I was in high school, I was the only person with an Android phone instead of an iPhone, and it was a serious social damper! It seemed that owning an iPhone had a huge impact on your social life as a teenager… During my computer science degree, we learned about how Facebook and other social media platforms utilize graph-like structures and complementary algorithms to model the many relationships and social constructs people might hold with one another. Thinking back to highschool, I was inspired to use some of these algorithms to investigate the sociology behind group behaviors and decisions ranging from buying iPhones to succumbing to drug abuse.”
Or what about:
“I realized that I wasn’t really interested in history, so I changed my major to biochemistry.”
“During my history degree, I took a genetics course in which we learned about the discovery of the DNA structure. As a history major, I was so intrigued about the story of Rosalind Franklin’s important contribution to the discovery, that I took the initiative to read more about her and her lasting impacts on modern biochemistry. After learning more about her, I felt inspired by her dedication despite the lack of acknowledgement she was given. This began my continued interest in biochemistry.”
While the first options sound like a simple change of mind, the second options sound like a journey of self-discovery in which you really found your true passion. In reality, inspiration tends to occur more similarly to the second examples. However, people have trouble articulating these thoughts and ideas in writing and end up selling their selves short in personal statements. When you’re writing, ask yourself: do I sound like I’m going through a journey or a quarter-life crisis?
3. Call It Like It Is!
Once you’ve landed a new job or begun a new program in your new field, start advertising yourself as what you are, even if you’ve just begun.
When I started my PhD in computer science, I would tell people “I was a biologist but now I decided to do a PhD in CS,” or “I do programming work” rather than saying “I am a computer scientist.” I even put my Instagram bio as “A computer scientist or something” (cringe). Why? I felt like a fraud. I had just entered this field, and there were so many people around me who had been programming since they were children.
What I realized, however, was that I would never become a computer scientist until I decided to be one. It was up to me to draw the line, to tell people who I was. I no longer wanted them to consider me a biologist. I was a computer scientist.
It might feel foreign at first, but when you switch fields, title yourself appropriately and be proud of it.
4. Be Patient with Your Brain.
It’s going to be hard at first. Do you remember what it was like when you first started your degree? It was hard then, too, but you got through it. You got through it, and then you got good at it, so it got easier. Once you’re in a field for a couple of years, you get into a flow. Challenges become welcome, and you start to feel like you can handle whatever comes your way.
It will be like that again, but it might take time again. You have got to be patient and trust that your brain can do it. Sometimes it might feel like you’re learning a foreign language, but it will become clear to you eventually.
The most difficult part of switching fields is getting over the feeling of inadequacy. There were numerous times in which I asked myself, “Why didn’t I just stick to what I was good at?” and thought, “maybe this was a bad decision.” It’s natural to feel like that, especially when you see other friends moving on with their lives and careers. But there is so much life left to live, and you want to live it doing something you love.
5. Avoid re-doing a degree, if possible.
I know a lot of people who decided to change their field on their final year of University or even after graduation, and they decided to restart their Bachelor’s degrees to study something else. This is fine, but if you are in the American higher education system, you’re going to be in debt big-time. Also, you’ve already done the work for a bachelor’s degree, so why do it all again?
You might be able to avoid re-doing the same degree level by using the tips from points 1 and 2. Here are some ways you might be able to avoid that hassle:
- Apply to a hybrid Master’s or PhD program.
- Simply apply to a Master’s (or PhD) program in the new field you want. If you explain your motivation well, you might just gain admission, especially if your new field isn’t that different.
- Apply to an internship or post-bacc position to gain experience in your new field.
- Start teaching yourself skills relevant to that field while working part-time in your previous field.
- Propose novel hybrid ideas to research groups which might be suitable for them.
- Apply to post-grad research opportunities (many American universities have Nationally Competitive Fellowships Offices which can help with this).
6. Pausing is ok, but don’t linger.
I mentioned before that I made my career change without any pauses in my academic and work life, but this isn’t strictly necessary. If you need to (and can financially afford to) take time off to work on re-orienting yourself and writing applications, then do so.
What you should not do is take time off and put off changing fields. Don’t say, “I’ll apply to the computer science program once I feel more comfortable with Python,” or “I’ll email that employer once I’ve finished reading these articles.” If you continue to set such qualifications for yourself, you will continue to make yourself feel inadequate. Apply and learn on-the-go. You got this!