“I’m thinking of switching to CS”: Advice on changing majors from Chemical Engineering to Computer Science @ UC Berkeley

Popular meme taken from a post by Jeremy Lan on UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens
  • If your primary motivation is maximizing your earning potential and/or attaining a comfortable lifestyle, if possible, drop ChemE and switch to CS today. Job growth is ~2–8% for Chem E and ~15–20% for CS. The average salary for a Berkeley CS graduate is~100k, while for Chem E it is ~70k. Granted this does not take into account cost of living, which brings me to my next point.
  • If living in a major city such as San Francisco or New York, or staying in the Bay Area while working at a big company with job security is a high priority for you, a CS degree maximizes your chances of doing so. Be mindful that while ChemE jobs do exist in the Bay Area, the vast majority of high paying jobs at big companies are not.
  • If you are an international student who hopes to stay in the US. Be aware that 95% of Chem E jobs will not sponsor you. Your best chances are with a CS degree or by going to grad school.
  • If you know for sure you have no interest in graduate school or research. Berkeley is fundamentally a research school. ChemE here is very theoretical, research oriented and graduate student focused (although the new Dean Arnold is doing a great job of slowly changing that!), with little emphasis on practical industry experience. Although CS here is also research focused, it has many industry ties and we are located in the heart of Silicon Valley where jobs are very accessible. The EECS undergraduate department here is a highly optimized machine that consistently pushes students into top industry jobs.
  • If everyone else is doing it/someone is encouraging you to do so. If you know your passion is in science or you know there is something specific you want to do i.e. get into biotech, revolutionize the food industry, work in energy and batteries, Berkeley is full of sheep, don’t be one of them. Although you can get into all these fields with a CS degree, you will only ever be the CS guy for those companies. To start something on your own in these fields you need a “hard science” background.
  • If it’s solely for the money. Software engineering in particular can be work that requires a lot of grinding, with the constant demand from you to continually get better and keep up to date with the most recent technologies, practices, languages etc. I have recently graduated software engineering friends at large tech companies who hate their jobs already, due to a lack of passion for their day-to-day tasks. Can you keep this up in the long run if you have no real passion for it?
  • If you hate [insert name of chemical engineering class here]. There are classes and professors that are terrible in every major, including CS. Just because you are struggling in or are completely uninterested in a couple classes doesn’t mean this is not the right career path for you. If you are completely uninterested in all the ChemE classes, that’s a different situation.
  • If you think CS is perfect. It’s not, CS has many problems too. Imposter syndrome, a decent number of miserable people in the major only there for the money, boring or unfulfilling work at large tech companies due to the gargantuan workforce size and many, many ethical concerns. Are you ok with your engineering work resulting in genocide in Myanmar, sexual assault, government surveillance for violating people’s privacy, unethical advertising, or developing products that optimize for wasting peoples time?
  • There are very few cases in life if at all where this overlap of skill sets will be useful, and these require going to graduate school. Even then, you are better off doubling CS with chemistry, biology, physics or materials science.
  • You will be worse at both CS and ChemE compared to if you choose to specialize in one. Trying to fit 2 majors in the space of 1 will inevitably mean when it comes to applying to jobs or grad schools you will always feel you could have been better or more prepared, purely because your time was split between 2 majors. Compared to those around you, your focus was split between two professions. You took less classes in a specific major, less research, less side projects, and spent less time networking with professionals. Most likely you were just drowning in problem sets.
  • Most importantly, college is short, and both CS and ChemE are tough, stressful majors. Having time to try new things outside of classes, explore hobbies and spend time with your friends is truly invaluable. Enjoy your life today to the fullest and live with no regrets.
  • Essential classes: CS61B & Data 100. Great classes, useful for any engineering major, take them as soon as possible. If you enjoyed those 2 classes but want more mathematical maturity, take classes from the Stats / IEOR departments, or take EECS 126, 127. If you want to look more into machine learning then take CS189.
  • Although classes like CS188 (AI), CS70 (Discrete Math & Probability), CS61C (Computer Architecture) etc. sound cool and useful, as a chemical engineer they really won’t be applicable at all, think of taking them as taking a history class, interesting, maybe will be useful one day, but probably never directly to your job.
  1. Meet the GPA requirement whatever it may be right now, for me it was a 3.3 average across CS61B and CS70.
  2. Start building a CS network — friends to take classes with you and mentors you can ask for advice with classes, recruiting etc. Don’t abandon your old ChemE friends, but EECS is a big and scary place where people don’t really make friends in classes (of course there are exceptions). Try joining a club, fraternity or any kind of organization where you can meet friendly CS majors.
  3. Start building side projects; this is probably my favourite thing about CS, you have the power at your fingertips and a wealth of resources available to you: stackoverflow, YouTube, and friends! Think of something cool you want to do and reserve some time each week to build it.
  4. Recognize that even within CS there are a lot of different options, not just software engineering. There’s data science (which often requires graduate school), production engineering, and a variety of roles throughout the stack. Software engineers often move onto different roles based on their interests, such as Engineer Management or Product Management. A lot of Berkeley CS majors go on to start their own companies as well.
  • Increase average GPA awarded in core chemical engineering classes to match grades given across other top chemical engineering schools in the US, as well as other engineering departments here at Berkeley. This will allow us to be more competitive in the job market, particularly for those looking into getting non-traditional chemical engineering jobs who do not understand the rigor and grade deflation of UC Berkeley Chemical Engineering.
  • I’m not sure how much of this comes from the College of Chemistry itself, but dissatisfaction stems from a failure to meet expectations. In Berkeley Chem E students case, I believe the root of this is the false advertising that “Chem E’s can do anything”. The school should put effort into its marketing materials to more properly explain what Chemical Engineering is really about, and do away with fluffy statements of grandeur.
  • Start a data science / computation concentration, not just CBE 143. Let students take CS61B, Data 100, and IEOR & Stats classes to fill graduation requirements.
  • Double down on efforts to provide improved, appealing career opportunities for students who want to go directly into industry, preferably with opportunities to stay in major cities or California.
  • More alumni connections with people in “traditional” Chem E jobs i.e. process engineering and manufacturing. Our education is really theoretical and we lack connections. Even if these jobs exist, we are severely under prepared to land these jobs relative to graduates from other schools.
  • Take advantage of the two big things the CoC has that the EECS department does not:
  1. Widespread supply of potential undergraduate research opportunities. This is really powerful, and really influential, even for students who initially have no interest in going to graduate school. Find ways to make getting research positions early on more accessible.
  2. My favourite aspect of the CoC that I think the EECS department and many other departments on campus are severely lacking, is a positive, community environment. Take advantage of this, and also be cognizant to keep building upon this to ensure it never disappears. In classes, work to promote group projects and the sharing of knowledge and resources. Build a CoC specific communal study space that opens late into the night. Drastically improve Junior Transfer community integration, and finally increase funding towards community building events and organizations such as Chem X, Fall Festival, AXE and AIChE.

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I write code, make plastics, and blog about other things entirely.

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Ivan Jayapurna

Ivan Jayapurna

I write code, make plastics, and blog about other things entirely.

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