Honest Review: Data Bootcamp at UC Berkeley Extension

December 15, 2019

Never in a million years I imagined attending a data bootcamp after getting a PhD.

Being a graduate student in science was extremely difficult, and left me depressingly exhausted. Everyone around me told me to stay in academia, but I wanted to pursue interests beyond genetics and molecular biology.

What was the most significant about the bootcamp was that I enjoyed the benefits of coding. I liked that coding is highly experimental, which can be frustrating, yet strictly logical, which is satisfying.

My decision to attend the Data Analytics bootcamp was to expand my skillset and thankfully, challenge myself outside of research. Despite my strong background in science, I later realized that I was a master of none in interviewing, coding, and industry experience.

Needless to say, I wanted to be better. I wanted to make people smile and feel good. I wanted to transform my "science" skills to be able to support communities and create social impact.

Exploring beyond science

Almost every post-doc job description required a breadth of research skills in addition to letters of recommedations, publications at top tier journals, and teaching experience. The worst thing about the post-doc position is that the average starting salary is $50,000.

Overeducated and underpaid? It's not a coincidence that there is a huge mental crisis for post-grads that nobody is doing anything about. I didn't want to be part of that suffering.

After graduation, I spent the first months of unemployment trying to avoid a being a miserable post-doc. I started doing freelance web development and challenged myself with a coding project alongside a Software Engineer friend.

It wasn't enough for me. I was curious about learning more about coding. How do we create apps? How does data tie into an app? I had so many questions! There's plently of free online coding courses, but I realized that I don't like to learn online. After complaining and worrying about being unemployed, I made the decision to attend the UC Berkeley Data Analytics bootcamp.

Facing a new reality

My graduate advisor despised that idea that I was going to invest 6-months and ~$11K for a data analytics bootcamp at UC Berkeley Extension; she was extremely upset. To her, it seemed like I was turning my back on science, but in reality, I just needed to be free.

Without my advisor's support, I did the bootcamp after I graduated with a PhD.

Yes, the bootcamp is costly. However, the salary for a Data Engineer is almost 2X more than what I would have made as a Post Doc.

To be honest, I was scared. I didn't know if the bootcamp was going to be a waste of time and money. Most Reddit discussions about coding bootcamps were mixed. With a deep breath, I stepped into the bootcamp with zero coding experience.

Berkeley Data Analytics Bootcamp

As soon I stepped into the classroom, it was immediately clear that I was going to learn. No matter the outcome, I was going to learn how to code.

There was a teacher and 3 TAs with varying experiences in data and coding. Our cohort consisted roughly 30 students, with 1/3 students being female. We communicated through a Slack channel and all the lectures and assignments were available in a private Github repo. Andi, one of the TAs, was extremely patient, super knowledgable, and helpful throughout the course.

The assignments, projects, and lectures were challenging, but not impossible. I hustled more than 30+ hours/week to understand and write code (Python/SQL/JavaScript). I was determined to succeed - I didn't have any other option.

I very much enjoyed the bootcamp experience. I had tremendous support from my peers as we learned new skills together. Everyone came from various backgrounds - some already in tech, some new grads (like myself), or folks who just want to learn more. I developed new friendships and they encouraged me to be better. I met one of the best Python coders in data modeling (his background was in finance) and also a statistician who was deeply interested in cryptocurrency.

The key takeaway is that I learned fundamental skills on coding. I focused my time building new projects outside of the bootcamp to fine-tune my skillset (visit my Github for the bootcamp work and more). I also unexpectedly learned how to sell myself, through a random conversation with a student at the BART station.

Stressed and anxious, I studied many Medium articles on interviewing and current trends on data science. Our slack channel was very helpful; everyone shared great resources.

The bootcamp itself is not a college (e.g., competitive) course - it was designed for learning. There are no exams and our grades were solely based on homework assignments and projects. We were encouraged to collaborate with one another and be creative in our projects. This gave me a fantastic opportunity to create fun, interesting work.

Frightened with these new skillsets, will I land a job? I was overqualified for many junior positions since I had the PhD. The current unemployment rate is at a strikingly low 3.5%, compared to 9% back in 2011. It must have been luck because I landed a job in academia back in 2010 and stayed until now.

I knew that I had to start applying for jobs, even if I wasn't ready. I tried to better prepare myself with coding exercises, such as from Leetcode and CS Dojo on Youtube. I build and developed side projects and did freelance web design to help beef up my resume.

On Reddit, many shared that they had a difficult time intervewing after the bootcamp. I was even more motivated and started applying about halfway through the bootcamp.

Hunting for jobs with bootcamp experience

To be fair, I interviewed poorly in the beginning. I didn't describe "who I am" well enough and assumed recruiters cared about the fancy publications and the PhD. Wow, was I stubborn.

Defeated, I realized these things did not matter. My goal was to land a job before the end of the year, no matter how many rejections I recieved. It could be 100, 200, or more. There were plenty of job openings on Glassdoor and Linkedin, I just needed one offer.

A coding bootcamp is not a deathtrap. But if you depend on just the bootcamp to move you forward, this is not the correct mindset.

I talked to everyone around me in the tech industry about landing a job. I found resources online on creating "breathtaking" resumes and cover letters to impress recruiters. I carefully crafted each cover letter for every position I applied to and tracked where / when I applied.

Interviewing is an frustrating and painstakingly long process. I felt lucky to get an offer 3 weeks before the bootcamp ended, and honesty, I would never want to go through the interview process ever again. I was not alone in the terrifying and stressful moments of interviewing.

In addition to myself, several other bootcamp students were promoted into data-related positions or found data-specific jobs. Without the bootcamp, I would have never gain the experience I needed to land a job in the data field.

I believe that my successful transition from science to tech came from multiple factors: the PhD degree, my biotech internship, the bootcamp, and my survival instincts.

If you are considering a bootcamp, ask yourself: "why do I need this?" instead of assuming that the bootcamp will make youself valuable to the recruiter. I do have a strong background in research and data analysis, so I was somewhat more prepared to learn the coding more easily than someone who have a non-STEM background.

For me, I needed to get out of academia. Do you want to get out?