10 Tips on Comprehensive Career Transition: from a business undergrad to a software engineer in a foreign country

It has been five years since I started my roller-coaster journey of transitioning from a business undergrad in South Korea to a full-time software engineer in the United States. It has definitely been one of the toughest, yet a rewarding and exciting journey in my life.

In 2016, I risked myself to study a second major in computer science at my senior year of business school with no prior programming and math background because I wanted to become a software engineer, leading to a technical product manager down the road. Having squeezed myself in to finish it in two years, I applied for masters’ in CS right after graduation and unfortunately, got into a different program I never had expected-telecommunication engineering.

Since it was the only opportunity at hand, I just took it, but with extreme frustration and reluctance. Given 2 years to finish grad school, I was pushing myself hard, juggling studies, job search and settling into a new country. Then suddenly, COVID-19 hit all over the world and I failed to find a summer internship during my first year. The failure of getting an internship gave me a huge anxiety of getting kicked out of the US by not being able to secure a full-time job next year, which was only a few months ahead from that point of time.

However, the telecommunication job market was less impacted by the global pandemic, thus our program was able to keep connecting students with lucrative job opportunities. Thanks to that, I recently got hired by IoT start-up based on wireless AI technology as a full-time software engineer. I was so fortunate to have landed this job given that I had no previous internship or full-time experience in software engineering, because they highly valued my interdisciplinary background in business and engineering.

Throughout this journey, I felt helpless most of the times as this was quite an unusual case for someone to make a transition in multidimensions (country, major, and field). Thus, it was difficult for me to get help or piece of advice form people in a holistic fashion. This has become a strong motivation for me to write this post to share what I have learned through the process.

This post gives 10 tips on comprehensive career transition, divided into 3 categories and encompassing various aspects of a career transition for anyone who is interested in shifting his or her major from A to B, going to a grad school abroad, and eventually landing in a job in a different country.

Starting a new major from scratch

Experiencing two internships from an educational tech startup and Coca-Cola Company gave me invaluable insights into my value system regarding career decisions:

Based on these prioritized values, I made a big decision to double-major computer science by delaying my graduation for 2 years when I was right on the verge of it. I worked my butt off to follow techies as a late starter, but looking back, it could have been more efficient and effective than I have gone through. Therefore, I would like to start out with sharing some key takeaways which would be helpful in this phase.

1. Check if the degree is really necessary

This was the very first information I truly wished I had known and paid attention to at the point of time when I made my decision on double-major. Your limited perspective and information might lead you to think that the only and best way is to get a certain degree for your dream job. But, in my case, I later realized there were definitely other alternatives to get my foot in the door of my dream job, which could have been more advantageous for me.

It really depends on which career you are pursuing. For instance, it’s quite required these days to have a bachelor’s in quantitative discipline if you are pursuing data science or machine learning. You might even need to further pursue an advanced degree like M.S. or PhD because the companies prefer those candidates.

However, if you are into full-stack software engineering, mainly developing mobile and web apps, there’s a lot of specialized boot camps and online courses catered to that to help you prepare for the job. If you feel like you still lack some skills, you can just take a few core courses in your university as a non-major that you need and also put them in your transcript for better credentials.

For me, it made sense to get a double-major in Computer Science because I was into studying AI and machine learning. However, even with that goal, there could be many paths for pursuing that field of study. For instance, you can study that new field in grad school, instead of double-majoring in your undergrad, although you need to take a few required core courses to apply for graduate school. Exploring different paths could surely open up more doors for you.

The best way to figure this out is to harness online communities like Reddit, etc. to look for people who are already in your desired career field. Their opinions are usually the most accurate. Reach out to your alumni network or find a senior who can give you advice to fully make use of your university resources as well.

2. Calculate transition costs from your original major to a new one

After doing some research, let’s say that it is required or beneficial at least for you to pursue a second degree. Still, opportunity costs must be scrutinized before you jump right in because every choice and investment you make entails different costs.

Being brutally honest, transitioning from business into computer science is far tougher compared to the other way around, changing from computer science to business. The costs were much bigger than I thought and I had no idea what was ahead of my journey at the time I decided to double-major just for the sake of gaining a better understanding of the technology and qualifications as well.

Consequently, I struggled so much with learning a whole bunch of courses from a basic to an advanced level as an academic degree makes you study and learn more than necessary, whereas you can focus on and learn the most critical skills and knowledge you need to get a job. Compared to other engineering students with relevant background, the learning curve was way steeper for me that there were so many times that I just wanted to give up and graduate with my business degree.

Summing up the first and second tip, you will get an idea of what you can get out of your double-major, how much time and effort you need for it, and more importantly, whether you have the background to be capable enough to successfully make it. Unless you are backed up with a solid rationale after performing that basic cost-benefit analysis, I would not encourage you to transition your career by studying in a new area because they could be a waste of your time or not worth it that much at the end of your day.

3. Set realistic goal and plans with enough time

One of the most important lessons I learned while I was doing my double-major was the difficulty varies by a lot depending on the source and destination of your transition.

As I mentioned above, having 2 years to learn Computer Science with a business background was honestly not a smart move. Although I made it somehow, my GPAs were modest and I could not take enough coursework. I didn’t have any time for extracurricular or internships because I was already overwhelmed by the sheer amount of coursework that I had to go through. I was not well-prepared when applying for grad school.

4. Don’t forget to pick up essential skills before you graduate

My final piece of advice may be a bit specific to my case, but I still believe this tip can be applied to other cases depending on the major that you are transitioning.

Hopefully, by setting a more realistic timeline for yourself, you will feel less anxious and overwhelmed in your journey. Now here comes the main reason why

Most people think degree itself does not qualify you for a job. You need to focus on what you are rather than just adding an extra line written to your diploma.

For example, learn math and stats on top of taking CS core requirements. In tandem with , please focus on math and stats. Connect and network with a lot of students originally from that major to learn what you need other than just finishing the minimum requirements for graduation.

Applying for grad school overseas

While working as undergraduate research assistant in machine learning during my double-major in Computer Science, I wanted to and have a specialization in machine learning/data science in the field of CS.

5. Why grad school?

Easier said than done, but again, you need to think about what you really want to get out from your graduate school because masters, you are paying our most of the tuition on your own unless you get a RA/GA/TA from school.

If your target is working in the field of data science, machine learning, then getting a masters degree, at least, is highly recommended.

6. Why U.S. for studying grad school?

This is extremely important as each and every program in various universities have different which could differ from slightly to tremendously. If you start studying in your program without a down-to-earth understanding, it is highly likely that you will get disappointed and stray from , which is an unwise thing to do, considering the huge amount of time and money that you have invested in it.

For me, it was very straightforward. As someone who dreamt of having a tech career, The U.S. was the biggest market in the world.

7. Focus on getting into the right program for you rather than prestigious schools

When deciding on a list of schools to apply, please keep in mind that maximizing your chance of getting into the right program offering the right curriculum that fits you should be your primary goal of your application strategy.

This is much more important than aiming at getting into a prestigious or high-ranked school, in my opinion, because

When I applied for grad school, most of my applications were top 10 schools because naively that’s where everyone wants to go and I had the same ambition.

Searching for Jobs as an International Student

My main purpose for studying at grad school in the U.S. was obviously to get work experience here, which I anticipated to

Unfortunately, I have completely failed in getting a summer internship. Although COVID-19 could have been a lowering my changes of getting an internship, I want to share to help you guys to thrive better in your internship search.

8. Apply for more companies than you think it’s enough

Becuase of the reality you have to face with as a non-U.S citizen and an international student with F-1 visa, you must apply to a lot of companies to get your feet into the door.

This puts you in a disadvantaged position when competing with. The biggest misconception is that if you are targeting , still it was much difficult than I thought although we have to take the global pandemic and its devastating impact on the economy into account.

9. Find on-campus jobs as an alternative to internships

It is natural that we all have been desperately hoping to get an internship offer for the summer, but it is the reality that summer internships are usually much more competitive than full-time jobs because everyone applies for it.

Do not be discouraged from failing to get one as or

Do not be anxious about what you should be doing during the long months of summer.

During the spring semester, I applied for almost a hundred companies and surprisingly, I only got a single interview and even that, they took a pass on me in the first interview. Looking back, the results that I received were not surprising at all given that a general rule of thumb is for every hundred online applications, you are likely to get only 1 or 2 interviews (not job offers, to clearly make the distinction). That’s how small the odds are for a typical job search game.

Fortunately, I was able to work with a professor that I took a course in Spring as a research assistant. I worked on

Those projects undoubtedly contributed to creating a strong resume and the projects I worked on became a game-changer when I applied for a full-time job about a year later. Those projects were mainly the questions that I had been asked by. the interviewers as they were interested in them.

Therefore, please look out for student or research jobs on-campus as a second plan because first of all, you should be ready for the scenario that you don’t get a single job offer and you never know how those opportunities or work experiences benefit you in your getting your feet through the door in a different way compared to internships.

10. Take advantage of your school for networking

Although it didn’t work out for me when finding a summer internship, I was extremely fortunate to land in in February, which was 3-month away from my graduation and most of my colleagues were still interviewing. I am highly grateful that my program gave me a great opportunity that fits my background and I also focused on tailoring my resume and focusing on the interview.

Conclusion

I still cannot believe what I have gone through over the past 5 years. If I have had a chance to go back, I would have certainly considered most of the I have written above, had I barely have information. That would have prevented me from being overwhelmed by the stress that has been put on me and feeling insecure about my future.

Nevertheless, I am truly grateful that I have grown and learned a lot through endless trial and errors. I still vividly remember the flashlight moment of being interviewed by the startup CEO and giving me an offer to work for his company.

I hope this post is helpful to people who might have similar concerns or challenges in their life stages as well. If you truly found a passion, it’s never too late to do it and you can definitely make your dreams a reality.

Feel free to send me an email (aspiringtechsavvy@gmail.com) or leave a comment below if you any further questions regarding this post:

Contact: aspiringtechsavvy@gmail.com. Thanks for reading.

SWE@Wireless Origin AI. Passionate about (mental) health, energy/climate change, wellness, mindfulness, productivity, lifestyle, and self-care.