Facing a Changing Path with an Open Mind

By Vincent Yang

Starting something new can be quite daunting – whether it is starting a new job after quitting your first, settling in with a new roommate after moving out from your old college dorm, or declaring a new major after leaving your former field of interest. While those who are motivated by new challenges would be thrilled to charge into the great unknown, most people would feel apprehensive about stepping outside of their comfort zone and walking down a new path in their life. Let’s face it – fear is a primal human emotion that everyone has felt at least once in their lives, and facing uncertainty will arouse a degree of fear in anyone who is about to start something new. However, if you were faced with a situation where you had to decide whether to stick with the familiar ways of life that no longer interest you or to take a leap of faith towards a path untraveled, what would you do?

The year 2016 was a crucial yet tumultuous year in my academic career. Back then, I was a Ph.D. student in the field of Organic Chemistry. It was not that I was performing poorly academically, but more that I was losing interest in the field that I was working in. Having studied chemistry for 4 years throughout my undergraduate years and excelling academically in that field, I was convinced that chemical research was the right career path for me and remained in that field through graduate school. However, after my first year into the program I started to feel something was amiss. Even though my experiments and projects were going smoothly, the fervor I had when I first undertook my research project for faculty labs was no longer there, and nothing in this field seemed to stimulate me as much as it used to. In short, I was losing interest in the academic field I had centered my life around.

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The loss of interest must have been quite obvious to others: My Primary Investigator (the person guiding me in my research project) and I had a long talk about this, and he suggested that maybe organic chemistry was not the right field for me. He proposed two options – if I truly thought chemistry was what I wanted to study, I could stay in his lab, but I would have to put more enthusiasm into my work; otherwise, I could switch disciplines to some other field in chemistry or find another academic field that interests me more. If I were to go with the latter option, I would either join a different research group of my interest in the chemistry department or leave the chemistry department altogether and join another department. That meant I would have to start over with a different project or delve into another unexplored academic field.

Throughout the 10 months after that discussion with my professor, my life went through a sharp turn of sorts. I would get into intermittent arguments with my family over my decision, fervent discussions with my friends in New York about possible options, and numerous advising sessions with various career/academic advising officers on campus to seek advice about what to do. For nearly 6 years of my life after high school graduation I had been studying only chemistry and related scientific disciplines and had no experience in any other field. Oftentimes I got conflicting suggestions from everyone: I had one person tell me that starting over completely in an undergraduate institution for a second bachelor’s degree could work out; another source told me that I should jump straight into the job market with a master’s degree in chemistry; a third suggestion was to seek a job in a different field other than chemistry after completing some useful certificate programs. Ultimately, the decision was up to me – I had to make a choice from all the options available to me based on my interests, priorities, and any constraining factors.

In the end, I decided to stick with advice from a close friend of mine and a family friend who worked as a software engineer in a Banking firm based in Manhattan: Learn how to program and look for a job as a programmer. When my friend first suggested this idea I found it to be quite preposterous: I didn’t know where to begin, had no idea how a computer program worked, and just looking at the work stations of engineering students scared the wits out of me. How on Earth would I learn how to code at all? Fortunately this good friend of mine was patient enough to direct me to the right points where I would learn the very basics of coding. He first directed me to Codeacademy, an online website dedicated to teaching various programming languages to people who wished to begin programming. It wasn’t a major step, like attending a boot camp for programmers and jumping straight into the job market, but it was a start. After taking several online courses, I found them quite engrossing and decided to continue learning and laying down the groundwork for understanding how to write a program.

What sealed the deal for me were the job market prospects and the starting salaries for well-trained programmers: While I was well into learning Python, my father’s friend visited me in Chicago and echoed the advice from my friend as he enticed me with the numerous job opportunities currently available in his field. He would go on to suggest that since I’m graduating with a master’s degree in Chemistry, it may be possible for me to apply to a master’s degree program in Computer Science rather than aim for a second bachelor’s degree in that field. Although this idea of starting in a new field sounded intimidating and even impossible to me, given that I feared that I may lose interest or run out of steam and give up halfway, I decided it would be worth a shot. After all, although I was initially intimidated at the thought of learning a programming language, which felt to me like an alien language, learning basic programming didn’t turn out to be that bad. I was more than motivated to take on this challenge.

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Soon after, I started to brainstorm which graduate programs would best fit my interest while continuing to take introductory programming classes as a part time student.  After some searching, I decided that the Master of Science in Computer Science with the Scientists and Engineer’s track, offered by the University of Southern California, would fit my interests: A master’s degree in Computer Science for students from related science/engineering fields with limited experience in computer science was exactly what I was looking for, and the school’s proximity to the Silicon Valley area would mean easy accessibility to internship opportunities during the Summer. As I continued to take basic computer science classes as a part time student while working several shifts to fund for these basic classes, I prepared and submitted my application to USC. In retrospect, it was very reminiscent of my senior year in my undergraduate program at Northwestern University: Burning the candle on both ends – academia and part-time jobs – while working on applications to graduate chemistry programs. The uncertainty of my future in both occasions (back when I was in undergrad and when I was applying for USC) was definitely intimidating. At times I was overcome with doubtful questions such as “Am I really going to do this?” or “Would they even accept me into the program?” At that point I had been exhausted from two years of graduate studies in organic chemistry; it was only natural that I would worry about giving up on my pursuit in computer science as well. That was when I decided to test myself – with a long-term programming project which would involve working on fan-made mods of popular game series. The effort paid off: After five months of intense but fun coding, I was able to complete a fan-mod of a certain visual novel series as a one-man team. I felt more than ready to continue in this field.

Now here I am, at the doorstep of USC, ready to start a new semester as a graduate student once again, and ready to dive into the field of computer science as I did before with chemistry. Do I regret my decision? Not at all – Maybe my chemistry lab project could have worked out if I stayed in the Chemistry department, but there is no guarantee that I would have been satisfied with my work since there was always that gnawing feeling inside of me that chemistry was just not the right path for me. On the other hand, after three semesters of taking computer science classes as a part-time student and working on a couple of big programming projects, I can definitely say that programming is the right field for me. I enjoy learning the material and utilizing that knowledge to build something that I am truly passionate about. Had I not taken a leap of faith out of my chemistry lab and into the world of computer science, by now I would be sloughing through a seemingly endless total synthesis project without any personal satisfaction.

Starting over on something new can be quite daunting. Indeed, changing your major or switching to a different career path is always challenging; however, it is definitely possible. Once you make the decision to look for a different career path, you should look for all possible options given to you and utilize the most out of all the resources that are available to you. Assistance may come in the form of a visit to the career center, an appointment with your school’s academic advisor, or even general advice from a friend. Fortunately, USC has a lot of resources available at your disposal to help you find the right academic/career path for you, so please make the most out of them! Most importantly, bear in mind that you do need to put in a good deal of work to switch to your new academic field or career path – the academic advisors and career center can only make suggestions for your new major or career choice, but ultimately the power to make the decision lies with you. Once you make that decision, you should give it your best shot and put in the effort to adapt to and improve in your new field of interest.

Featured image by Victor Talashuk on Unsplash

Vincent is a graduate student pursuing an MS degree in Computer Science at the Viterbi School of Engineering at USC. He was born in Seoul, Republic of Korea, and then moved to London, United Kingdom when he was young. Moving out of the country at a young age introduced Vincent to the wonders of traveling, which has since turned into a long-time hobby for him. During his free time, Vincent enjoys playing Japanese Mahjong and traveling around the city. He can speak Korean, Japanese, English, and a little bit of German (the latter being somewhat rusty!).