I remember the relief I felt finishing my last biotech exam. And then I gave myself more exams by doing a second degree in computer science. So, why did I go back? Are you considering a similar path? If so, my journey might be insightful.

The shorter version of this is on my about page.

The options

Near the end of my first degree in biotech, I was at a crossroads regarding what I wanted to do after graduating. I was mainly considering:

1. Professional school for healthcare

Patient care is very noble and I have immense respect for the people who do it. But I’ve always felt more strongly drawn to careers where I can take more time to deep dive into things. Being able to really get into the details and figure out how things work has always been very enjoyable for me.

2. Working in a lab or biotech company

The progress being made in the life sciences is astounding, and I am thankful for my experience in it. Through it I was able to meet many amazing people who dedicate their lives to research for the greater good. It also showed me that pipetting things with shaky hands is especially challenging after drinking coffee. But it was in the lab where I first discovered the joy of programming. Writing code to turn data into meaningful information was intensely gratifying, as was being able to share that code with others for their research.

3. Graduate school in bioinformatics

Computing is becoming more important than ever to biological research. We are acquiring more data than ever before, and bioinformatics/computational biology is a key to incredible progress.1 All biology is computational biology by Dr. Markowetz makes a very convincing case for this.2

If bioinformatics is so important, why didn’t I continue with it? I think the main reason was that I wanted to focus on learning how to write good code. Not just code that works, but code that I can take great pride in for being efficient, maintainable, and extensible.

4. Switching to computer science

When considering this option I was already pretty set on learning more about software engineering. I was slightly worried about whether it would be as gratifying if it wasn’t applied to biological research, but as I wrote more code I quickly realized that worry was unfounded.

I then took a computer science course and found the theoretical side fascinating too. There were many interesting realizations about things I use everyday. Things like numbers not having to be expressed in base-10. Or that if “economic uncertainty results in higher gas prices” is true, that doesn’t imply that “economic certainty results in lower gas prices” is true. Some people may find these obvious, but studying computer science really made me internalize them.

Why didn’t I start with computer science?

To be honest, I don’t think first-year Quintin did a whole lot of research into what he wanted to study. It also didn’t really click that software engineering was a career path. Maybe being a first-generation student contributed to that, but I think it was mostly me doing limited research, and biotech being a very cool option.

Do I regret my first degree?

I wouldn’t say that I regret my first degree. I am still passionate about the life sciences. I learned a lot, grew a lot, and made great friends. I like to think it benefited me as both a software engineer and as a person, although I don’t have a Quintin without biotech to compare against.

I think being a mature student also gave me a greater appreciation for computer science. In my opinion computer science is really something where you get what you give in terms of effort and enjoyment. If I had chosen it from the start, maybe I wouldn’t have enjoyed it to the fullest.

Computer science can be for you too

I hope this post raises a bit of awareness on computer science and software engineering being cool options to explore. I think this amazing field should be open to everyone, regardless of background and identity. All you need is an enjoyment of problem solving. And, if you’re going to be a programmer, maybe a willingness to be in front of a computer a lot.

  1. I use bioinformatics and computational biology interchangeably, although they can be distinguished↩︎

  2. I encourage you to also check out Dr. Markowetz’s thoughts on the community response. “I am positive for the future” is a nice sentiment I share. ↩︎