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I know some people have asked about getting back into programming after a break and this is a potential duplicate.

I just am in a position where I can go back to school for a graduate degree in Stat/Applied Math. But I'm very worried about the impact it will have on my career and ability to find a job afterwards.

I have 3 years experience in .NET on top of a couple of years in PHP.

Right now, I'm a senior software engineer. Do you think taking two years off to do math is going to dramatically hurt my marketability?

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closed as off topic by Yannis Rizos Mar 7 '12 at 10:27

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If you are going back to school, wouldn't you want a job in your new field of study anyway? If that is true then having a back ground in programing will probably distinguish you amongst other candidates in your new field. –  Pemdas Dec 29 '10 at 0:39
@Mark Trapp, @Walter, @bigown : can any of you please specify what you mean with "too localized"??? If this is too localized, then so is about 95% of the questions here. Is going back to school after a few years of job experience a extraordinarily narrow situation? Is thinking about applied math too narrow? I'd like to point out that the field of applied math and statistics is worldwide, and scientific computing is NOT a small community. It's not because you don't know it, it doesn't exist. –  Joris Meys Dec 29 '10 at 15:19
@bigown: thx. If somebody could now change the "my 4 year old" to "a" in the title, everybody's happy ;-) PS: I think you should guide your public a bit as well. You're very active in closing questions, yet I see hardly any suggestions for improving. I agree that this question in its current form can be seen as too localized, but the problem isn't. And it is an interesting topic, as I know from experience... –  Joris Meys Dec 29 '10 at 20:33
@Joris: Is not just a title problem. But yes, it can be improved. If half dozen of active members have to improve every question, including the ones which these members doesn't have interest or background to touch it, we, these members need to be paid :-) The whole community is responsible to quality. When Mark, Walter and I can't improve the question and no one improved it, even the OP, we can only close it. Anyway closing is not a definitive action, it's not the end of world ;-) –  bigown Dec 29 '10 at 20:59

10 Answers 10

up vote 17 down vote accepted

I got an advanced masters in statistics 2 years ago. The curriculum also involved quite some statistical computing. I got a job before I finished my thesis, earning quite a bit more than I did in the 6 years I worked before.

Three words : GO - FOR - IT !!!!

PS : you might want to look at R while you're at it.

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Who hires statisticians these days? Where did you get MS? Thanks. –  Job Dec 29 '10 at 1:38
@Job : I got it at the university of Ghent, where I'm working as well. Statisticians are hired by numerous companies, from pharmaceutical to economical/marketing giants. Check the article in the link. –  Joris Meys Dec 29 '10 at 1:49

In 2 years time a lot of stuff around .NET will likely change, so you'll have to adapt-learn new stuff ANYWAY. However, your university degree will not become "obsolete" so quickly, not to mention the new views and fundamental knowledge you will gain from it.

So if you are not desperate for money at the moment, then yes, go back to school.

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Wow. I agree with Jas 100%. If you can afford to do it without working full-time, then go for it. It shows initiative, courage, and independence--all highly-marketable skills. –  mkelley33 Dec 29 '10 at 1:07
Absolutely nothing will change in .NET in 2 years time. Unless you count code bloat and minor syntactic sugar as a change. –  davidk01 Dec 29 '10 at 1:59
@davidk01 - compare .NET 4.0 with .NET 2.0, then say that "absolutely" nothing will change. –  Jas Dec 29 '10 at 8:41
I have and I stand by what I said. If you take a break from .NET 2 and come back when .NET 4 is out and you can't pick up where you left off then I would be very worried. –  davidk01 Dec 29 '10 at 9:09
"Can you pick back up after two years?" is not the same as "absolutely nothing will change". Stuff will absolutely change... –  WernerCD Dec 29 '10 at 14:21

Since I did exactly that, I know it should not affect you. Although I was careful enough to take a small project here and there, and also to maintain an open source project.

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I agree with this. As long as you keep your skills sharp on your own you should be fine. The problem I think you will run into is that hiring managers will see your two year gap as a negative. You will need to be very clear about what you have done to keep up to date when you get back into the real world. –  cjstehno Dec 29 '10 at 20:35
@cjstehno that open source project I did fills this gap very nicely and managers like it, as they can actually see your code. –  Itay Moav -Malimovka Dec 31 '10 at 18:54

Personally, I think it will improve your marketability, within certain markets at least.

Most employers really respect someone who goes back in to education to further themselves, particularly in a difficult discipline like that. It will make you more well rounded, and give you greater depth in various areas.

The only issue is getting behind the times with your skillset - this can be mitigated by keeping up to date and displaying this carefully at interview. The reason for going to school needs to be clearly defined on CVs, so that it does not look like a filler when a job could not be obtained.

Few companies will see it as a negative, and to be honest, those companies should probably be avoided afterwards as they are unlikely to stretch you or remunerate you in accordance with your greater knowledge. The financial sector would be particularly keen on that combination incidentally.

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Only trouble is it is not from a competitive place. I might transfer to another university mid way that is more competitive, if I do well. I'm just concerned a transfer would take more time. I haven't had much luck finding compatible work options... –  q303 Dec 29 '10 at 0:32
@rsteckly: The institution? Well, it depends on the employer how much that matters. Some pay great heed to it, others do not really know the difference. Still, it is better to further your self in any event. –  Orbling Dec 29 '10 at 0:37

I really don't understand where this fear of losing programming ability and competitive edge after pursuing some interests that are not related to programming started. The entire time I have been programming there has been absolutely no foundational and conceptual change in how programmers get shit done and I'm usually the first person that jumps on a new programming language as soon as it is out of the gate. Unless quantum computers become practical tomorrow there is no way a programmer with years of experience will lose their competitive edge because they spent time in school to get a degree in some technical field like math and applied statistics. Heck, if anything this will make you even more competitive because big data and statistical processing of big data apparently is the next big wave because I hear facebook has made privacy and some other old notions of personal liberty a thing of the past.

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Well most interviewers don't ask you foundational or conceptual questions. They'll likely ask specifics that you probably will not be able to recall in a timely manner after 2 years off from programming. I think that's where the fear comes from. –  Apprentice Queue Feb 23 '12 at 19:11

Everything out of the ordinary an applicant does raises concerns, but how you're able to answer/justify why you're doing this will make the difference.

Here are some potential questions:

  1. Did you have to go back to school full-time or didn't you think you were capable of doing both?
  2. How did this make you a better programmer?
  3. If we hire you, how do we know you won't want to take-off for another two year sabbatical?
  4. How much programming have you done since you went back to school?

I'm not saying these are valid questions, but you just need to be prepared. Hopefully, you'll be able to address them in an interview.

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Are you honestly asking how being aware of statistical concepts and probability theory in general actually makes someone a better programmer? Last time I checked there was an entire subdiscipline of cs theory called statistical/probabilistic algorithms? And what exactly do you mean by "out of the ordinary"? I really want to know. One more. If they are not valid questions then why you even bringing them up? –  davidk01 Dec 29 '10 at 2:49
@Jeff : If somebody asks me those questions, I'm sure I do not want to work there. Ever. Yes, I'm a statistician and yes, I program all day long. Yes, I went back to school full-time, and yes, I have a nice job now. –  Joris Meys Dec 29 '10 at 3:00
+1 Good point about the potential to take off again. –  Orbling Dec 29 '10 at 11:34
@Jeff O. - these are all valid questions - for a codemonkey sweatshop doing drupal/wordpress/joomla customization work and similar. In a real company this person will be a valuable asset. –  Jas Dec 29 '10 at 14:55
@Jas: +1 for "codemonkey sweatshop". I'm stealing that. :) –  Bobby Tables Dec 30 '10 at 5:38

With as many people out there who have had long breaks in employment, through NO fault of their own, who have NOT gone back to school, the fact that you have a break because you CHOSE to go back to school is, in my opinion, not going to hurt you at all, PROVIDED that your jobhunting afterwards (including your use of your college placement services HINT HINT HINT) reflects your added knowledge and skills.

If you take two years off to do serious math and stats, and then you DON'T go looking for a job that will allow you to USE that knowledge, what was the point of going for it in the first place?

Note that this is different from going back to school WHILE unemployed. It is understandable that you might then take a job that did not apply what you learned while in school and jobhunting. (However, the fact that you went to school while unemployed is still going to look good to any competent recruiter or potential employer.)

By the way: Note that being a student usually gets you access to all the college facilities, including but not limited to computer labs, libraries, Student Union, ... It may also give you an opportunity to teach informally, to pass along some of the things you learned out in the Real World.

Caution: You may notice, as I did, that the coeds are a LOT hotter the second time around!

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If you can afford it without having to take a part-time job and you are certain that your new effort will be put to good use whether in another programming job or any other math intensive field, then yeah, it's seems like a wise decision. I plan on doing the same but not so so soon... I hope that my years in industry will put the stuff I learn into perspective.

Many times I see that college students are clueless regarding to what they're taught and forget everything after a final and Summer vacation. You'll be going back with a big baggage that will set you apart. You'll be able to have more meaningful discussion with your TAs/Professors. Take advantage of this.

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If going back to school is what you really want then go for it. One nice thing about the programming industry is it is very easy get freelance projects to keep you up to date. As a small business owner I never hire someone on there degree or how much schooling they have. Book smart doesn't equal real world experience and more importantly the love of programming.

With that being said if you told me you were in school and working freelance 20 hours a week that would show drive and I would think any employer would put you at the top of the list if qualified for the position since most people think full time school and working at the same time is to much work.

This is just my opinion and it may be jaded but school in itself does produce good employees/programmers it the dedication that the individual puts forth while there in school to stay current as well as get the grades that will separate you from everyone else.

So to sum it up if you are not going to work while in school I feel it may put you back to an entry level position.

Good luck in you future endeavors.

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Yes, I would like to do freelancing. In my experience, people who hire freelancers tend to be more inclined to hire remote workers. So you're competing with remote workers in areas where their much lower rates produce sustainable budgets. That could just be my perception and not reality, I've just encountered it when trying to get gigs. –  q303 Dec 30 '10 at 19:27
also the pool of jobs for gigs seems much, much smaller than full time, software engineering positions. I've asked other questions about getting part time work because I've struggled to see that as a possibility. –  q303 Dec 30 '10 at 19:28
One way to get your start is to work through a consulting firm to hire you out. I've currently been working with a client for over 2 years remotely at a wage I feel comfortable with. With that being said your both are right as it's harder to find quality jobs for rates that are fair but you only need one. Once you find that one and if you do a good job you should easily be able to continue your way through school or easily get referred to a partner client. Companies are scared to hire freelance and most freelance consultants should charge a rate of free. –  MIchael Grassman Jan 3 '11 at 22:39

Only trouble is it is not from a competitive place. I might transfer to another university mid way that is more competitive, if I do well

Trust me you won't transfer. Everyone says they'll transfer, and guess what? They usually transfer to places with lower standard. Or don't finish at all. Why you want to go to place where you don't want to be?

If you're not up for competition today, you think after a year in lower-standard university you'll be able to transfer to higher-standard one? Get serious, and don't fool yourself, the gap will only get bigger after a year.

Applied math and PHP? I think that it'll hurt your carrer. If you want to risk it, risk it for something that in your opinion is worth it! You're going to some place and want to transfer even before you get there? That's worth nothing, you must LOVE something to finish colledge.

Go for something you WANT.

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@Slawek: the reason it is not competitive is because I have a degree in something else with some math and cs. I need to improve my background further in order to be competitive at a more selective program. –  q303 Dec 29 '10 at 1:15
@Slawek, why all this negativity? I know someone who jumped to Cornell after 2 years in a community college. He was good but was saving $$$ –  Job Dec 29 '10 at 1:37
I don't find going for something you want negative. You may know one person, half of my year was unable to finish colledge i know tens of people that were force to lower their standards during education. My 1 friends was able to raise, because he was good, but he resigned after seeing how much work it is to catch up with the rest of people. 1 vs many... i'm being realistic. –  Slawek Dec 29 '10 at 2:41
-1, how on Earth do you know what he/she will do in the future? –  Jas Dec 29 '10 at 14:55
@Slawek: what educational system? Also, note this is for a graduate degree, not an undergraduate degree. –  q303 Dec 29 '10 at 18:46

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