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Switching to software development after PhD in Ecology

 
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Hi,

I would like some advice from people who have made a journey similar to the one I am about to embark on or who just have good insights to share . I am finishing my PhD in Ecology in about a year and am facing a tough decision: 1. stay in academia and locking myself in on a subject with very bleak future perspectives or 2. study hard to be able to change fields when I finish my PhD.

When thinking of alternative carreer paths, I came up with two types of fields that I think I would love: software development and data analysis. I have always been intrerested in programming, picking up C++ and HTML as a child and using R, MATLAB and SAS in my studies. Here in Sweden, there is a huge lack of Java developers, so I figured that it would be a great language to learn. During the last couple of months I have read books on Java (including Boyarsky & Selikoff) and UML, and come to the conclusion that I really want to go for it. There is a forty week long Java developer programme for studying from home, ordered and sponsored by some commercial companies and the government. I have signed up to the programme, with the intention to study so much on my own up until september, when it starts, that I can manage to finish my PhD (which is looking quite easy both because I've been lucky and worked hard). Just after my defence, I will get 8 weeks of practice at a commercial Company, so the timing seems great. After that I also could write some apps for my portfolio (got some ideas of apps). I also plan to write the OCAJP exam this summer, and possibly OCPJP next summer. I have gone over my plan with my girlfriend, who is very supporting and understanding.

With the information above in mind:

Is this a realistic plan?
Any tips from anyone who changed careers?
Will my PhD in Ecology be a drawback when I look for jobs? (I know that I can argue for why it's rather a benefit: experience of project management, independent Learning, teaching and supervising, and statistical analysis.)
Is salary usually tightly coupled to length of one's education?

Excited to hear your answers,
Kim
 
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I have a friend who studied Economics and is now a Senior Java Developer. I don't think your background in Ecology will affect your career progression into Software Development at all.

I don't know about Sweden, but here in the UK, graduate salary is usually tightly coupled with skills, although for some roles it's tightly coupled with "ability" - so, someone with a 1st from Cambridge in Maths who has never written even one line of code will get a higher starting salary as a Software Developer than someone with a 2.1 from UCL in Computer Science.
 
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Welcome to the Ranch

Yes, it is entirely possible to change career like that, but I don't know anything about the job market in Sweden. I wouid warn you that reading books is very different from real programming. If you need help, there are some good resources. This is one of the best.
 
Karl Movitz
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Thanks for your quick replies!

It is definitely reassuring to know that you don't think that it's a big drawback to have a higher degree in a different subject! I realize that books, and especially those preparing one for the OCAJP exam, are different from actual programming. I have made sure to do exercises provided in some of the books as well, and I expect to get plenty of experience while taking the 40 week Java developer programme. Perhaps practicing by writing a couple of programmes that I have been thinking of myself would be good as well? The coderanch forums have been excellent for getting more informed by following discussions on code, certifications and career advice.
 
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Karl Movitz wrote:I would like some advice from people who have made a journey similar to the one I am about to embark on or who just have good insights to share . I am finishing my PhD in Ecology in about a year and am facing a tough decision: 1. stay in academia and locking myself in on a subject with very bleak future perspectives or 2. study hard to be able to change fields when I finish my PhD.


It entirely depends on what you want to do.

As I've said before on this site: One of the best programmers I ever met in my career got his degree in Soil Science - so, on that basis, you're well set.

However, you presumably didn't spend 7 years getting your PhD because you hate Ecology: an increasingly important subject for us all, I would have thought - even if big business, as yet, remains to be convinced.

You will also have to deal with one major fact: in the realm of Ecology, you have proved yourself an expert; in programming, you will have to start again at the bottom. The chances are that your intelligence (and obvious work ethic) will help you to advance faster than others - especially if you're interested in computing - but it's not guaranteed.

I guess my worry is that you're making this decision for economic reasons - and even before you've finished your degree - rather than because you really like programming. And believe me, you'd better like it, because there will be a lot of boredom and frustration to go along with the good times.
Indeed, a great deal of programming work is humdrum.

Hope you don't mind, but I thought you might want to hear the argument against.

Winston
 
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Karl Movitz wrote:Thanks for your quick replies!

That's a pleasure

It is definitely reassuring to know that you don't think that it's a big drawback to have a higher degree in a different subject!

It shows application, that you are able to keep working for several years at a subject without giving up. I would have thought a PhD in ecology, history, music, etc would be an asset.

I realize that books, and especially those preparing one for the OCAJP exam, are different from actual programming. . . .

Beware: Some of the code shown in certification books in intentionally written as poor quality code to make it harder to see the problems.

Perhaps practicing by writing a couple of programmes . . .

The more you practise the better. Of course you can show us the code and we can consider its style. Also consider the Cattle Drive.
 
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...fields that I think I would love: software development and data analysis. I have always been intrerested in programming, picking up C++ and HTML as a child and using R, MATLAB and SAS in my studies...PhD in Ecology be a drawback....statistical analysis.



Statistics, R, MATLAB and SAS are all solid skills. Especially the first two are in demand right now, thanks to organizations looking for data scientists and data engineers.
Python/numpy/pandas/jupyter is another closely related stack that people look for in data scientists.
This is not to take away from your Java plan, but just to point out that you already have some skills that a lot of companies are looking for.

There are any number of Java programmers in the world.
There are far fewer who are also good at statistics.
There are even fewer who are domain experts (ecology in your case) with doctorates.
Thanks to hot button current issues like global warming and sustainable development, coupled with advances in satellite/drone imaging, sensor networks, DNA sequencing and big data, I'd imagine a lot of governmental and environmental agencies need such experts who know all three - the domain, the computational theory and the software tools to extract information and predictions that help frame policies.

In my opinion, pick up Java but also keep practising these existing skills you already have and some new ones that are closely related.
No harm in going to war with multiple swords
 
Karl Movitz
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@Winston: It is true that a switch is motivated by economic reasons - but my interest is genuine and motivating my alternatives PhD degrees here are 4 yrs long and salaries here are decent for being in academia however, so it is rather about having a job. And programming is something I enjoy.Great to hear that there are soil scientists that have learned programming too!

@Karthik: The environmental issues you mentioned has indeed increased the number of job opportunities - just not nearly as much as the number of people that want to have those jobs. Good news for society though In any case, I am not too keen on governmental jobs and kind of feel that academia is my place if I work with ecology.

I'm also hoping that the skills you mention will help me. They for sure has made my learning new things in programming much easier! And if I still end up wanting to pursue a career in science after learning Java for a while, I'll definitely have unique skills. Personal development is also part of it, I guess.
 
Winston Gutkowski
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Karl Movitz wrote:PhD degrees here are 4 yrs long


Blimey; that's quick. In the UK, it's usually 3 + 2 + 2: 3 for a Bachelor's, two for a Master's, and two more for your Doctorate. Don't know about the US.

And programming is something I enjoy.Great to hear that there are soil scientists that have learned programming too!


I use him mainly as an example for people who think you have to be great at Maths to be a good programmer. You don't. It helps to be good at linear logic, and be able to break problems down into manageable pieces, but you can also be taught that; so at the end of the day, it really comes down to interest.
I parlayed a grade 'D' at Maths A-Level (high school) into a 30-year career, so if I can do it, anyone can - although in my defence, it was the toughest exam anyone could remember (I got the second best grade in my class).

You may find this article worth a read.

Winston
 
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Winston Gutkowski wrote:. . . and two more for your Doctorate. . . .

Nobody round here completes their PhD in two years. The theory is three years full time.
 
Karl Movitz
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Winston Gutkowski wrote:

Karl Movitz wrote:PhD degrees here are 4 yrs long


Blimey; that's quick. In the UK, it's usually 3 + 2 + 2: 3 for a Bachelor's, two for a Master's, and two more for your Doctorate. Don't know about the US.


Sorry, I meant four years for the PhD alone. In other words, 3+2+4 = 9 years


I use him mainly as an example for people who think you have to be great at Maths to be a good programmer. You don't. It helps to be good at linear logic, and be able to break problems down into manageable pieces, but you can also be taught that; so at the end of the day, it really comes down to interest.
I parlayed a grade 'D' at Maths A-Level (high school) into a 30-year career, so if I can do it, anyone can - although in my defence, it was the toughest exam anyone could remember (I got the second best grade in my class).

You may find this article worth a read.

Winston



Absolutely a good example then, because I think that lack of self-confidence when it come to math, and a widespread notion that you have to be a math genius to be able to code (although it probably helps) is a big reason why many people never starts learning.
 
Winston Gutkowski
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Karl Movitz wrote:Absolutely a good example then, because I think that lack of self-confidence when it come to math, and a widespread notion that you have to be a math genius to be able to code (although it probably helps) is a big reason why many people never starts learning.


One other warning for you:
If you have a modicum of intelligence (as I'm sure you do ), "coding" will rapidly become boring. There are only so many problems for computers to solve, and most of them have already been discovered and worked to death - the rest of the biz is simply arranging them together, like bricks in a building, to do larger tasks.

I was lucky enough to get into modelling and database design about nine years into my career; and I'm quite sure that "extended" my interest for much longer than might otherwise have been the case. Learning a new language every few years is probably also a good idea. A friend of mine started out at the Rutherford Labs doing really interesting, "bleeding-edge" stuff; and I suspect he found the rest of his career a bit of an anti-climax after that. He's an electrician and DIY guy now.

However, good luck to you, whatever you decide. We could certainly use people of your calibre in the biz.

Winston
 
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Winston Gutkowski wrote:. . . He's an electrician and DIY guy now. . . .

And probably earns more now, too
 
Karl Movitz
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All of it thought-provoking. I feel encouraged too. I'm sure I'll be wanting more stimulating tasks, like project leading and architecture, when I reach such a point. I suspect many people do, although I know some are content with just being experts on a narrow topic for all their careers (scientists, like anyone can also be either or both in my experience)
 
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