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This question is from a young person who feels a bit lost and who would like some career advice—and possibly some encouragement, too. I will try to be as concise as possible and get straight to the point, but I still I may not be as brief as I would like to. After all, I am to sum up a few years of my life.

My story: I am a 22-year-old girl from Italy. I have recently graduated from an International Politics course at a university in my home-country and just started a Master's degree there, at one of the world's top 20 universities for Econ and Econometrics (this is an info I put here not to brag about anything--as I am quite ashamed about and dissatisfied with my path indeed--but it is something that will turn out useful in a minute).

The issue is that I have grown increasingly miserable and dissatisfied with my university path, and I have felt so in a long time. I had actually realized that I was in the wrong place in the very first months of my undergraduate degree (which lasts 3 years in Italy), but I could not drop out and enrol in another course because I had financial support tied to any course I enrolled in first. That is, once I changed my course, I could not have applied for a scholarship in another course or university. And as money has been (still is) a problem, I had to bite the bullet and get through it. Fast-forward to 3 years, I got my degree in Politics with a decent grade and I have just started a Master’s degree in economics, so still in the social sciences, but a somewhat different field.

I will now go through the reasons for the choice of my bachelor’s degree, what was my experience during it, the reasons for my master’s choice, and future hope and need for advice.

Bachelor's degree choice: I had decided on doing a bachelor’s degree in politics because of quite a few reasons. You may find a lot of them rather stupid, but I was only 17 at the time. First, I was hooked (and still am) on languages and politics. I would read a lot of them in their native language. Then, the university I was interested in (from which I eventually got my bachelor, and I am now attending my master’s at) is quite famous in Italy, and somewhat in Europe too, and in that period I had a rather unstable situation at home (also financially wise), so I really felt like I needed some source stability and guarantee. Then—and this is something I realized only growing up and knowing myself a little better—I realized that I was, and again partially am, very insecure about myself and my skills. In reality nothing in my academic experience, and what not, could have objectively pointed out to a lack of ability or desire to challenge myself, but I really did not even think I could have pursued a degree in a scientific field. Little did matter the fact that I got a 97% final grade from a STEM-oriented high-school. That is how insecure I was! Finally, I am a first-generation college student in my family, so I really did not have anybody to turn to for advice or support. Again, all this may sound very naïve to you, but these were the explicit and more implicit reasons that led to me making that undergrad choice.

Undergrad experience: Alright, so I am in the first few months of my degree. And I am already so dissatisfied with it! I was feeling very out of place with the subjects—always waiting for that one that I could find intellectually stimulating...That moment never came up. Everything was somewhat interesting, but I was feeling like I was wasting my best years. Always struggling to study and procrastinating to the very last days before the exam; skipping classes very often. I was feeling very out of place with the students, too. I am a rather contemplative person, I like intellectual challenges, I am curious, and I like to read a lot. My classmates where more of business-like people who would unlikely read a book outside of class. Moving out from a poor region and to one of the best (or rather, more prestigious—at this point quite different concepts) universities of my country, I thought I would have finally found stimulating people around me. Not that case. Moreover, they were often quite well-off people who would not know what struggling to make hands meet meant. Overall, I felt a complete disconnection from both my course subject and environment. I have never reached for psychological help because I just could not afford it, but I think it is fair to say that I was at least somewhat depressed and, for sure, very anxious and sad. Yet somehow, I managed to graduate a few months ago with a good mark (96%), and here I am at the same university, this time a Master’s in Econ.

Current situation: Why then did I go on with the social sciences, again at my uni? Well, with a bachelor’s in Politics there is only so much you can do (i.e., nothing). So, my thought process was the following: I enrol in this somewhat prestigious master’s that is rather quantitative, and from here I might have more opportunities to steer things into the direction I want. So, the aim would be that to learn some more maths and at the same time exploiting the somewhat good name of my university. Which finally begs for the question: what do I want? Well, 3 years into hell and I for sure know that I cannot bring any contribution whatsoever to the field of Political Science or even Economics (in general, the social sciences). First, I find it very little exciting, or fun, or intellectually stimulating or challenging. Secondly, I cannot bring myself to share the philosophical (meaning, gnoseological) tenets that underpin this field. My final thesis was basically about the limits of the social sciences versus the hard ones—a cry for help. I am now studying for my Mathematics exam, and I am half loving studying it (so fun! So challenging!) and half hating myself for not having studied something with (much) more Maths in it.

Future path and advice: I would love to do a PhD (the length of this text might show some aptitude for that hehe). I love studying, I love thinking deep about things, I love challenging myself. There’s a lot of romanticization involved, but I know I might be apt for it. My boyfriend is a grad student at Stanford, and I would so like to apply to grad school there; and many students who did my master’s ended up there. But what to do when I find my field of little interest? I know a friend who did Engineering and Maths and is now getting into Cryptography and Artificial Intelligence. And while I am incredibly happy for her, I cannot but feel like I would have found that much more interesting. I have not studied it formally; I only happen to lurk around the net watching videos on the subject and read some wiki articles—which I know is far from being a solid basis for anything. But boy, this sounds so interesting. But let’s say I wanted to enter this field: how could I go on about this? What is the role of formal qualifications? How should I make my moves? Should I just study on my own and…? Or should I start from scratch a Bachelor's degree at 23 (when I will be done with my master's)? I really do not know what to do.

I am trying to better manage my feelings about my choice and try to forgive myself for having made this mistake. Although it is hard, as I have spent the best years of my life in a very negative place. Even if I realized quite early on it was quite the opposite of what I wanted, again, I could not revert it because of important financial constraints. Yet I feel so excited about things, so curious, so hard-working, that I cannot simply accept to do something that I hate, or dislike, or only mildly like. Life is too short for this! But again, I do not know who to ask for help, so I am turning to you.

I am terribly sorry for having been so verbose and having robbed you of time so insolently. Yet I think I had to be clear about my motivations, my constraints, and my overall experience—in order to get more tailored answers. Still, please keep in mind that many useful info may have been omitted. Thank you so much if you have been patient enough to get till here!

TL;DR: I am very dissatisfied with my path in the social sciences. I would like to switch to something more quantitative, and with more of a problem-solving nature. In order to steer thing in this direction, I have started a master's in Econ at a good school. Still, I do not know how a path change could work: should I start it all from scratch? Collect some job experience and then apply for a PhD and hope for the best?

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    the length of this text might show some aptitude for that - perhaps, but I think during my (quantitative) PhD, one of the more valuable lessons was concision (and avoiding jargon like 'gnoseological' when not absolutely necessary). The number of people who will read and understand is inversely proportional to length and complexity. – cag51 Dec 23 '20 at 17:30
  • It was a joke about the fact that most (bad) literature is long and boring to read, indeed. A failed attempt to lighten the tone of the text, at this point. Also, I learnt the word “gnoseological” in class in high school; did not think it was that complex. – ahmaquindi Dec 23 '20 at 17:54
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I think you are too focused on what you want to study and not focused enough on what job or career you want to achieve. You talk quite a bit about the intellectual stimulation of various topics and feeling that nothing is “enough”. You get excited about what friends are studying and thing perhaps the grass is greener (it is probably not). In my experience, people who do this fail to understand that degrees are means to an end, rather than ends in and of themselves. Look outside of the university. Do informational interviews and talk with people in the field. Then finish your degree (economics and econometrics has plenty of math (and machine learning and computer science etc etc) if you look for it), get a PhD if it is useful for your goals (not because of a romantic idea about the life of the mind), and build a career.

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    Also it is pretty interesting that you think that economics is not particular quantitative and doesn’t have a problem solving nature: using data to solve problems is pretty much 100% of what applied microeconomists do. This means to me that you are getting taught theoretical underpinnings but are not into your “real skills” classes yet. – Dawn Dec 23 '20 at 15:57
  • Dawns comment is likely true, as this was exactly the case for me. I hardly know any microeconomists (my current field is natural resource economics and bioeconomics) that don’t have more empirical projects on the go than theoretical. I long for the days that data was ‘nice’ and curves were always straight lines. – GrayLiterature Dec 23 '20 at 16:04
  • I am doing advanced Maths (e.g., linear algebra, optimization, Banach, dynamic programming) and Stats (e.g., point estimation, hypothesis testing, intro to Bayes), and will soon do advanced econometrics. Indeed, I am quite happy about these courses; I just do not want to continue in the social sciences, and I am unsure how to go on about this. Moreover, I am quite aware of the numerable cons of doing a PhD, and only an interest that is slightly bigger than the drawbacks can make me consider pursuing one (on the romantic idea about the life of the mind). – ahmaquindi Dec 23 '20 at 16:05
  • But my point remains: is there a job you want or company you want to work for that would lead to that career change? Or has someone just put it in your mind that these fields of study are “better”? I say this as someone who changed from engineering to economics because of some abstract idea that economists worked on more “important for society” problems. Really the issue was that the classes were not doing a good job connecting to the relevant jobs/careers. – Dawn Dec 23 '20 at 16:21
  • As hard it is to say where I would like to be since I am in a different place, I would like to work in IT; again, cryptography would interest me. There are no outside influences in that regard, as the people around me are generally supportive of my path. Regarding the job placement, my uni generally successfully places people in top US grad schools (and indeed around 1/3 goes on to a PhD); then let’s say another third is consulting and the rest is investment banking. – ahmaquindi Dec 23 '20 at 16:27
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In the US, students usually apply for a doctoral program having just a bachelors degree. In Europe it is more common to require a masters, I think.

For a US student changing fields (within reason) is normally not a problem since the bachelors is a generalist degree with only a bit of specialization. So, someone in political science, for example, will also take some mathematics and statistics as well as history, writing, literature, a bit of science, etc. So everyone has at least an introduction to a lot of fields if they have a BS/BA.

But doctoral programs might also have specific requirements. Changing from political science to pure mathematics would be hard as the student is missing a lot of essentials. But even then, the beginning of a PhD in the US is normally coursework heavy and takes a while to finish.

Since your undergrad degree is from Italy and was "only" three years, you probably don't have many of the requirements for some programs. But you probably do have statistics and such. Changing to CS might be possible if you have a programming background, even though you are missing a lot of prerequisites.

So, for a US student, changing fields may be less of a challenge than for an international student, but you only find out if you apply.

But another issue will be that some of the "desirable" doctoral programs (Stanford, ...) are very competitive with many (many) more applicants than positions. That is an issue for everyone, of course.

So, no, I don't suggest applying in political science, but rather in something more quant based. But there may be programs that do both and it might be a good choice. You probably have some economics, for example, which can be quantitative or not.

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No one should spend an entire career doing something they don't like. And if you decide you've made a mistake, I find it's generally best to admit it right then and there and figure out to how to fix it, even if that means starting over on a new plan.

I want you to watch a video of Steve Job's commencement address at Stanford. The part he really gets right is that to do great work, you must find something you love. And if you haven't found it, you must keep looking. Don't settle. Every minute you spend on something you don't love is a minute you might have spent on something you do love.

I can tell you've struggled with self-doubt. It's called imposter syndrome and causes smart people to doubt themselves, think they don't belong. We all experience it but it's especially hard for women and minorities when they look around a room in a STEM class and don't see a face anywhere that looks like theirs. I think it's helpful to realize that all smart people experience this from time-to-time and that there are some things you can do, starting with finding supportive friends, perhaps joining a women's student group if there is one, maybe finding a mentor.

I think it's quite possible you might enjoy a career in computer science. But it's also possible you might not. The only way to know is to explore it. But given the lack of relevant undergraduate preparation, you may find that the only workable plan would be to start over on a new bachelor's degree. (You'll likely be able to transfer and thus reuse some number of credits from your current degree to satisfy requirements for the new one, so it will go quicker.) That probably sounds like, oh, my, what about the wasted years to start over? Please don't think of it that way. You can only waste the future, not the past.

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    "No one can spend an entire career doing something they don't like" unfortunately, many people (mostly lower educated) have to do this. And many do such jobs because of the money they get. Of course, this is not a recommendation, just a comment. – user111388 Dec 23 '20 at 20:04
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    @user111388 There's nothing to indicate the OP is poorly educated or should be satisfied with a career they don't like. If that's what you chose for yourself, you made a poor choice. – Nicole Hamilton Dec 23 '20 at 22:03

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