I want to switch careers from PhD in chemical engineering to data scientist. How can I go about doing this without having everyone hate me?

Here is a long background on me and how I ended up in a PhD program that I hate:

I majored in chemical engineering from an Ivy League University and am now attending a similarly ranked, but much less prestigious UC in chemical engineering for my PhD.

I have some serious anxiety issues, depression issues and just general social phobia, so I did a horrible job of securing a job post-graduation. I didn't have a perfect GPA, but it wasn't bad (3.5/4.0). I felt really burned out and so I moved back home and tried to apply for jobs. I wasn't very motivated or good at it or even clear what field I wanted to work in.

My dad suggested I get a masters in financial engineering from UCB, but to do that I had to take a bunch of online courses and I lacked the motivation to complete them. If I had completed them, I would have gotten in though, so I screwed up that portion of my life. I also failed to email back the program director, to whom I had spoken when I stopped doing my work and returned to chemical engineering. I still feel a huge amount of guilt about that and I don't know how to fix it.

After living at home for several months, I applied to some PhD programs in chemical engineering so that at least I was doing something with my life.

I began graduate school and started researching during the summer. I really enjoyed my summer research and felt great about it. Now it is one year since I joined.

My courses went well, and I ended up with all A's except for a B+ in one course. I felt obligated to join the lab I worked in over the summer, but I should have changed to a more computational based one. I now regret not doing that. I passed my preliminary exam with the highest possible mark. I work on a research project involving many top universities and people.

I am really behind on my research right now, and that feels horrible.

Now it is one year after I started and I am feeling miserable. I really hate the lab work I am forced to do (my summer lab work was better). I didn't like any of the chemical engineering courses. I didn't like my undergraduate courses either. The courses are just dry and pointless.

I took one probability elective and I really liked it and I wish I had moved into data science or became a developer. I really like programming and I am naturally good at it.

I also have a great girlfriend for the first time. We've been dating about 8 months now. She has made me more confident and more aware of how distorted my thinking and decision making is. She is just getting a masters in chemical engineering. She is graduating in one year, so I don't mind being around her until then. I would love to move with her to Seattle post graduation and live with her up there.

If it didn't harm my lab, I would just drop out now without even bothering to complete my masters. Because I care about my lab, I don't want to drop out and harm things. I also don't want to waste 4 years of my life out of guilt.

I want to move away from chemical engineering and become a data scientists or C++ developer. I know I am capable of achieving these things as long as I have some motivation. At the end of the day I just want a high paying job.

How can I go about undoing my mistake of applying to graduate school and switching to a more promising career field?

  • 1
    Do you know C++? What background do you have that would allow you to work in data science? I am not saying you don't have these things, I am just trying to figure out what your background is. – Vladhagen Jun 20 at 20:31
  • I have taken a C and a C++ course before and got an A in both of them. I really liked the details of the language and I like the challenge of making code run fast and detailed. I'm not too much of a fan of virtual functions, though. – alluppercase Jun 20 at 21:27
  • 3
    This may be better off at reddit than here, due to much of it being personal. Do you have any ways of assessing how much of your disappointment about the PhD program relates to chemistry and how much is biased by your anxiety issues? As for the latter, changing the job will likely just kick the can down the road and you'll be posting a very similar question on workplace.stackexchange.com in a year. Ask others who know your situation (including your gf) for opinions, as they might see things from a better vantage point. – darij grinberg Jun 20 at 21:30
  • @dantonio If you like C, I would look into jobs in cyber security. Embedded systems is a growing field if you are interested. – Vladhagen Jun 20 at 21:31
  • @Vladhagen For data science, I really love linear algebra and probability and statistics. I have always been good at linear algebra, enjoyed inverse problems, probability, statistical genomics. When I went back to graduate school I had the vision of getting really good at these two things on the side, and applying them to my project, but that was overly optimistic. I will take a look at cyber security with Embedded systems. – alluppercase Jun 20 at 21:47

These are my thoughts as someone who is a data scientist, but also someone who used to teach and advise students at the university level.

Becoming a data scientist

I want to switch careers from PhD in chemical engineering to data scientist.

At the end of the day I just want a high paying job.

  • If you want to be a data scientist and earn a lot of money, you are either going to need to start your own company and hit it big, or get a graduate degree. (Or both).
  • Being a (well-paid) data scientist requires much more than programming. (That is still part of it, of course. But it is necessary, not sufficient). High end data scientists usually have a pretty extensive background in statistics and probability theory. I used to work for an engineering firm as a data scientist. They converted several mechanical engineers into "data scientists" because they could program. This ended up leading to many wasted months of work when I informed them that the test they were using required certain assumptions on distributions of the population they were sampling from.
  • Making an impact as a data scientist is much more involved than people think. Online classes and boot camps make some people think that they can get a certificate in Python and land as a data science lead at Google or something. It doesn't work like that.
  • Essentially what I am trying to tell you is this: I would probably not look at someone with a 3.5 GPA in chemical engineering and very little formal data science training for any sort of high paying data science job.

I had to take a bunch of online courses and I lacked the motivation to complete them.

I know I am capable of achieving these things as long as I have some motivation.

At the end of the day I just want a high paying job.

  • Avoid telling a future employer this.
  • Ask yourself if your motivations to become a data scientist are the money or the subject. Part of any job is being self motivated by the subject matter itself.
  • The money in data science is not guaranteed. Some of the very high paying data science jobs also require extensive education and immense dedication to working 60 hours a week.

Leaving the PhD program

If it didn't harm my lab, I would just drop out now without even bothering to complete my masters. Because I care about my lab, I don't want to drop out and harm things.

  • I would not feel obligated to waste 4 years of your life so that your lab mates don't feel bad.
  • If you are not enjoying yourself, do not feel bad about dropping out. You will be doing yourself a large favor in the end I think. There is no shame in dropping out to do something different. People drop out all of the time from graduate programs in order to pursue something they enjoy more.
  • Let me absolve you of overall guilt: Your situation is much more common than you think. I think there will be many people who will support you in pursuing a career you will enjoy and be productive in. Take confidence in yourself and don't let others discourage you.
  • Especially don't become your own worst enemy by tearing yourself down.

Overall advice

  • If you are not enjoying your PhD program, your first priority is yourself. Drop out. Now. Tell the program administrators your thoughts. You do not need to ask their permission to do what is best for your psyche and career.
  • Look into becoming a software developer if that is something you will enjoy. A BS in Chemical Engineering and demonstrated aptitude in C++ or Java can usually set you on a pretty good career path.
  • Don't look back.
  • 1
    You can also make a lot of money as a data scientist by joining a company, doing amazing work and making yourself indispensable, and getting raises. But this is harder and slower than first getting a graduate degree. – Peter Shor Jun 20 at 21:40
  • @PeterShor. Sure. That's the pathway for anyone to get a high paying job (in theory). But there is usually a certain level of "entry cost" to get into a field. People with a BS in Chem Eng and little statistics background usually will struggle to get into the track that leads to high level data science jobs. We do not place every possible candidate in a position and see how they develop. We select the candidate that is most likely to succeed. Based on the limited view I have into the OP's resume, I would not hire him over someone with a PhD in computer science emph. machine learning. – Vladhagen Jun 20 at 22:14
  • I actually know a few data scientists who don't have advanced degrees. It's doable, but won't be as easy (e.g. one might need to go through a company's graduate program). – Allure Jun 21 at 2:06
  • I think I should clarify that "a lot of money" is double or three times more than the 30k/yr I am getting paid currently. – alluppercase Jun 21 at 16:36
  • @dantonio You easily can get a job paying $75k in Seattle. Now, the cost of living is pretty high there, but.....it's livable. Your expectations for salary are pretty reasonable though. – Vladhagen Jun 21 at 16:44

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