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

I recently graduated from UC Berkeley with a double major in Chemical Engineering (ChemE) & Computer Science (CS). Over my 4 years as an undergraduate I gave and received a decent amount of advice to and from a decent number of people on whether or not to stay as a ChemE, switch to CS, or try to do both. I figured it could be beneficial to leave behind my experiences synthesized into succinct advice for anyone who might want it. Note that although this article focuses mainly on ChemE → CS at UC Berkeley, elements will be relevant for switching from other engineering fields (mechanical, biological, civil etc.), and also at other institutions. However, keep in mind that what I say is by no means absolute. Read everything with a grain of salt and keep in mind that no two personal situations are the same. Also at the time of writing this, I have a very shallow understanding of the new data science major, so only time will tell what its success will be. That being said, if you are reading this and considering making the switch, a lot of careful thought has gone into this, so hopefully at least parts of it will help in your decision making process at this critical conjuncture.

Popular meme taken from a post by Jeremy Lan on UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens

Before even considering the switch: Take CS61B (Data Structures) as soon as possible, if you really enjoy the class & do well in it (keeping in mind Berkeley’s GPA cutoff) then switching to CS should be a serious consideration. Note that taking 61A (Intro) beforehand is optional. It will probably make 61B a more enjoyable experience, but it is very possible to do well in 61B, declare the CS major, and get a software engineering job without ever taking 61A.

Now, before reading the rest of this article, I want you to think critically for yourself and write down the top 3 factors you are looking for in a career, ordered. Also try to give 3 reasons why you are dissatisfied with ChemE (or alternative current major) and are considering making a switch. Note that these can and probably should overlap. Before I give you my motivations to switch or not to switch, it’s critical that you understand your own motivations first. Having been through this exact experience, I understand how hard of a decision this is, given many of us have dedicated much of our life to date working hard to get here in the first place.

Once you’ve given it some thought, please read my thoughts below.

Why switch?

Why NOT switch?

On Double Majoring (Simultaneous Degree): This is a bit of a controversial topic because while being a ChemE & CS double major sounds impressive, that’s about the extent to which its helpful. Do not do it. Those of us who are doing it or have tried to, are only doing so due to indecision — the inability to make a healthy but difficult choice. To break down why I believe the double major is suboptimal:

Now that you’ve considered switching factors, its time to make a decision. If you are looking into go into industry as a chemical engineer but want computational skills, see the section below on staying as a chemical engineer. If you want to make the jump to CS but are hesitant to do so, see my section below on how to make a smooth switch.

To those of you who choose to stay in ChemE: Make sure you are doing so for the right reasons. Don’t stay out of fear, be it fear of starting too late, fear of not being able to succeed in something new, or fear of losing attachments and connections to the College of Chemistry. This was definitely a factor in me deciding to stay but it probably shouldn’t have been. Now, if you are still interested in giving yourself a computational and data analytics skill set, which I think every modern engineer should, there are ways of doing that without doing a CS major or minor:

Also, if you were considering switching majors in the first place, consider your reasons for doing so — what about ChemE were you dissatisfied with? The way I view it, as a chemical engineer the general opportunities available to you are process engineering, graduate school, or a non-STEM career i.e. Management, Law, Consulting, Finance. Which one do you want to optimize for? Why? Will you be happy to do one or more of these options? If you are thinking of going into a more non-traditional ChemE route, think critically on if maybe neither CS nor ChemE are for you. It is true that consulting, finance etc. do hire from engineering fairly heavily. However, to do well in these fields requires a high GPA (which is difficult to get as a ChemE), a lot of time to practice case interviews, and networking — not just info sessions but meaningful conversations through cold emailing and coffee chatting (which is difficult to do when you are drowning in ChemE problem sets and research). ChemE is often advertised as “having a broad skill set with flexibility to do anything and everything!” In retrospect, this only holds true because we’ve learned how to grind difficult problems. If you hope to pursue a non-STEM career, and I understand how hard of a decision this will be, but perhaps a non-STEM, or lower workload major is more optimal.

To those of you who decide to switch to CS: If you are doing it for the right reasons, I congratulate your bravery. There are several things I recommend going forwards.

The CS major is broad and flexible. There are plenty of resources out there for you to take advantage of, i.e. HKN, UPE, EECS 101 Piazza page and many more. Take advantage of being a young person majoring in the most in-demand field while living right at the center of a really exciting tech bubble.

To the College of Chemistry: I first want to apologize if it sounds like I’m encouraging a mass migration of students out of the CoC — that’s not my intention. I’m just hoping to give advice to the many students like myself who came into Berkeley without really understanding what both chemical engineering and the landscape of opportunities in our modern society are really like. A couple changes that I think would be good for the College of Chemistry to stymie student discontent are:

Finally, I want to thank my friends, those who decided to switch / double / stay, who helped to peer review and add valuable contributions to this guide. If you the reader have any comments or feedback to provide, feel free to reach out to ivanfj@berkeley.edu!



I’m a University of California, Berkeley PhD student who writes code, makes biodegradable plastics, and blogs about other things entirely.

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Ivan Jayapurna

I’m a University of California, Berkeley PhD student who writes code, makes biodegradable plastics, and blogs about other things entirely.