Dec 8, 2009

Computer Science vs. Economics For Me

A question people have asked me many times is why I went from Computer Science to Economics (although I'll note here that I actually did finish the CS degree instead of just transferring). It's a valid question, and I figure I'll answer it here.

Update: For those of you who are double-majoring in Computer Science and Economics, stay with it! If you go into an economics-oriented field, your computer skills will set you far apart from the hordes of computer-illiterate economics majors that graduate each year.
For those of you only studying economics, the best piece of advice for you is this: learn to use computers. And go beyond Excel, learn something sophisticated like SQL or R which are much more powerful.

And now, back to the article:
Here are my reasons:
1) While I like programming and working with computers, I found that working with them 40+ hours per week drained my enthusiasm for playing around in the off-hours. I would get home from work and not want to go anywhere near code. It was depressing. Now, even after doing stats and math all day long, I have no problem writing code at night when I'm done studying. So therefore I have decided that I would like to keep coding as a hobby, and do something else to earn a living.

2) More of the people I care about are interested in Economics, so they actually want to hear what I have to say about it (which isn't all that much right now, strangely enough). Some of my friends do care about computer stuff, in fact some of them even read this blog (hey guys! *waves*) but the vast majority of my friends and family don't really care too much about programming, computer science, Linux, etc. It's not that it isn't relevant to them, most of them find computers useful in some form or another, but when you compare questions like "why did I get a virus?" to questions like "why did I get laid off?" or "why did my investment portfolio bomb?" there is a much higher level of interest in the latter two. It's also a question of respect, I suspect that economists get a slightly higher level of respect than do programmers (although these days maybe not!).

3) I feel I can make a bigger contribution to the economic world than the computer world. It seems to me like a lot of the people doing things at the top in economics are just wanking around with math and saying that it reflects reality. I think it would be interesting to see what happens when you throw in more computer simulations using AI, or start wondering what happens when you mix computational complexity with game theory. For example, existence/uniqueness of equilibria matter and all, but the ability for a decision-maker/market to find said equilibria in a timely manner matters too.

4) The computer industry is governed more by economics than computer science (technology/computer science does play a fair-sized part mind you, just the part played by economics seems to be bigger). Why is Microsoft so big? Why is Java so popular? The answers to these questions are answered by economics as much as by technology.

Second Update (2015-06-18): It's been 6 years since I wrote this article, and probably 5 or so since that last update. That's enough time for some adventure and experience, which I'll share it here. I did a Master's in Economics, and worked in a number of different jobs: algorithmic trading, a successful Internet marketing startup, my own video game startup (briefly), and I'm now working at YouTube in San Francisco. This adventure is not over - I'm not even 30 years old. I know that in a few years if I decide to leave the Bay Area, I can go pretty much anywhere and not have to worry too much about finding work. There are very few disciplines that can boast this, but computer science is one of them. So here are some reasons why I am back in the tech world:

1) The jobs pay better. A good economist knows that utility increases with income, and therefore the rational choice between the two is to go into technology.

2) The jobs are more diverse. With economics you pretty much have two choices: a large financial institution, or a government. Unless you've built up some other skills elsewhere (business savvy, tech skills, social skills, entrepreneurship) then you've got limited options. With tech, you can do anything, anywhere. Software touches nearly every industry on the planet from farming to physics, and they are all looking for people who know how to make the computer do what they want.

3) It's easy to go from tech to economics; the reverse is not true. It wasn't very hard for me to get accepted to my Master's program in economics simply because I have an engineering background. Since graduate economics is all math and computers anyway, you're actually better off than the people who did their undergraduate degree in econ.

So while I found economics interesting, the only reason I would recommend that someone take economics over computer science is if they really liked economics and really didn't like computer science. Otherwise I'd suggest a major in computer science with either a minor or a double-major in economics.


John Downing said...

Hi! I came across your blog on Google when I searched economics and computer science. Coincidentally, I am also an Ubuntu user.

Having graduated with an Economics major and a CS minor in undergrad, I have found that I had more enthusiasm for my CS courses than my Econ ones. However, like you, I feel like Economics can contribute more to the world such as saving problems of poverty. I am taking a gap year right now while trying to decide whether to pursue an advanced degree in CS or Econ/Public Policy.

Just wanted to let you know that Economics vs CS is a dilemma for other people out there too!

Anonymous said...

I also found this post when searching Economics & Computer Science. I am currently double majoring in both. I don't know exactly which route I want to lean more. I mean I might even go Law, and I'm just a sophomore so there's a lot of time to still decide

Azhar Hafiz said...

i guess it's better to get technical first yeah?

Rob Britton said...

Yeah technical first is a good idea, since the skills are widely applicable. If you get an education in tech + something, you're pretty valuable.

Azhar Hafiz said...

thanks,why don't you merge your blogger profile with google+ (=

Rob Britton said...

I don't want to have a Google+ account, and I don't actually write on this blog anymore so it wouldn't be worth the effort anyway ;)

Constantine Tsardounis said...

After BSc & MSc in Economics (R + FreeBSD enthusiast, also) and reading your post, I think I'll stick to Economics instead of leaping to CS... thanks...

QibS said...

Thanks for the post, I, too, found this blog post by googling economcs and computer science, i'm having the dilemma... I'm currently just finished my secondary school here in Malaysia and currently choosing which path I want to pursue. I'm really interested in economics, but I really interested in software and games too. :/

spots2012 said...

Haha, I three found this blog by googling economics and computer science. I studied economics at uni before switching to computer science. I'm interesting in working in economics writing algorithms for measuring/analysing economic phenomena.

BB.Bird said...

how much computer skills we need in doing economics?

Hey all, I'm a 2-year phd student in economics. My interest is to take computer simulation into consideration when analyzing economic situations such as game theory. But the real problem to me is that since the programming world is hard to entry. When you want to simulate an even simple situation. It needs you to back up your computer skills a lot. I'd like to hear your comments on this.

Rob Britton said...

Hi BBBird,

If you're only doing an undergrad, then you don't really need any technical skills. If you want to actually work in economics in the real world, you pretty much require some level of technical knowledge. Most economic models are too complex to be able to solve analytically, so you generally need to resort to simulation in order to verify how well your model works against data.

The programming world is not hard at all to get into. You can take a course at school, you can take online courses, or you can just Google 'programming tutorial' and see what comes up. The hard part about it isn't the technical aspect, it's the commitment aspect; like any advanced skill it is difficult to stay focused long enough to become somewhat proficient at it.

realgio95 said...

How are things with your journey now?

Rob Britton said...

Still at Google, still happy!

Anonymous said...

Hi, thank you so much for this post. It's extremely helpful in helping me decide my college path!