Careers Stalled, China’s Liberal Arts Grads Learn to Code
Though a tempting option, pivoting to tech comes with risks and difficulties.
In 2020, Tian Tian graduated from one of the top ten liberal arts schools in China. Ever since then, however, she’s steadily worked on transitioning away from humanities and into programming.
She first applied to a computer science graduate program in the U.S. to jump-start a new career in coding, but the lack of a relevant undergraduate degree proved an uphill struggle.
She’s now set to finish the graduate program next year, and started applying for jobs in August 2022, submitting her résumé to any job postings by internet companies, big or small. To date, she’s landed but few interviews.
By fall, she realized many companies did not have positions open at all. Rebuffed at every turn, Tian is now considering a PhD program in computer science as her next step, instead of going into industry.
Across China, Tian Tian is not alone in pivoting from liberal arts to the tech sector. Emboldened with the idea that everyone can learn coding, switching careers to programming has surged in the last two years, both for higher pay and for prestige.
But the shift inevitably comes with risks and difficulties.
In its 2021 annual report, GitHub, the world’s largest open source repository, found that there were more than 73 million programmers worldwide that year, an increase of over 16 million. The highest-paying country, according to smart recruitment platform CodeSubmit, was the U.S. at an average annual salary of about $110,140, compared to about $23,790 in China.
Across social media, thousands of posts tout the benefits of programming. “Become a programmer in just three months!” “Switch to programming from nothing and get an offer from a major company!” “Watch your salary spike!”
So prolific are such messages that they offer a tantalizing yet misleading idea about the ease of working as a manong — a menial programmer — and getting a salary bump.
But the ubiquitous inspirational posts on social media are more about survivor bias. Countless hopefuls have failed in switching to programming, owing to factors like the high technical requirements, work intensity, the downward spiral of the global economy this year, and hiring freezes at big companies.
Late in January this year, just before Lunar New Year, Tongtong decided to give programming a try after suffering a devastating setback at her cross-border e-commerce job.
She had started working in the e-commerce industry after graduating last year with a degree in business English. Responsible for helping a company launch and operate an e-commerce store, she had painstakingly built the store from scratch until she was able to sell goods and earn commissions.
Suddenly, the company decided to take back ownership, and Tongtong was no longer in charge of the store.
Though she experienced something similar as an intern, she never expected it to happen at a full-time job. It left her bitterly disappointed.
At the time, Tongtong also noticed that a friend working in programming was earning twice as much as her, which prompted her to reflect on her own job’s high degree of replaceability and low pay. After taking a month to prepare, she quit her job after the Lunar New Year holidays and threw herself into front-end development courses.
Tianli, also a recent graduate, worked as a marketing professional in a third-tier city. He soon recognized that the vast majority of jobs on offer were either for sales or customer service, with a monthly paycheck of 4,000 to 5,000 yuan ($556-695).
But his classmates, who had completed programming bootcamps, had moved to Shanghai, and earned over 10,000 yuan a month. Soon, Tianli quit his job last October and began to teach himself to code.
The prevalent view in China disparages the humanities. “Succeed at STEM, and you can go anywhere,” people say, or “the humanities are only for those who fail at the sciences.”
Humanities students often struggle to find jobs that align with their majors, and the pay tends to be low. On the other hand, programming has seen high market demand and broad growth prospects, making it a top choice for career changes.
Most of the time, when liberal arts students move into programming without any basic knowledge, they gravitate toward front-end, big data analysis, and software testing — areas that also correspond with what bootcamps offer. They tend to be easier and more suitable for trainees, compared with back-end languages like Java.
Tianli and Tongtong found that in-person training programs cost about 20,000 yuan for a six-month period, but as recent graduates with scant savings, they both elected to study on their own.
Meanwhile, Wuhan-based graduate Zhao Heng took a different approach after deciding to switch careers last October. He took time off from work and spent more than 10,000 yuan on an online training class.
The move to programming has swept up not only Chinese locals but also Chinese people abroad.
Zhang Hong worked in the media industry in China for five or six years before moving to Silicon Valley with her family. There, she realized she could at least double her salary — if not more — by becoming a programmer, so she started practicing coding problems on Leetcode, the online programming learning platform, in April this year.
Those with better financial resources and a stronger desire to get into programming choose to pursue a Master of Computer Science abroad. Certain universities are popular since they offer bridge programs for students with no experience in coding, though their overall competitiveness might be weaker.
Tian Tian describes herself as “half a liberal arts student.” She studied liberal arts in high school and then transferred to the psychology program in college, which only accepted STEM students.
As part of her research requirements, she had to take computer science courses for the first time, where she learned about the mediocre employment prospects that awaited psychology majors — and the gap between applying research findings and the actual practice.
It spurred her to apply for an MCS overseas, which jump started her programming career.
For those who pursue programming abroad, the advantages are clear: there’s no risk of the brutal 996 work culture (the expectation that employees work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., 6 days a week) and relatively light pressure to work overtime. It’s why most prefer working abroad, at least for a few years.
For beginners without a background in programming, the initial learning curve can sometimes prove brutal.
Starting in April this year, Zhang Hong devoted all her spare time — outside household tasks and her side hustle — to studying. Initially, she felt comfortable with the lessons in class, but as soon as she encountered a problem, nothing made sense, and she often asked questions that were far too basic. It was almost a month before things improved slightly.
Gradually, Zhang learned computer languages and computational thinking, but taking in new concepts was still incredibly hard. She would complete 100 problems, only to flip back to earlier sets and realize she had no idea how to do those anymore.
Every day, she swung between believing she was a genius or ruing that she was an absolute idiot.
Likewise, Tian Tian also struggled when she first started her course in the U.S. She couldn’t keep up with the English or the math, and she often had to beg others for help. “(I was) learning and crying at the same time,” she says.
Tongtong, who had elected to study independently, found herself in the same boat. The content was more difficult than she expected, and she also had to battle her friends’ constant doubts.
“Your ability must be pretty bad if even this is hard,” they would taunt. Whenever she came across a tough problem, her closest friends only added to her stress, instead of supporting her, so her insecurities grew. Even her family asked, “How long do you need to study before you can start finding a new job?”
For novices who made it through their studies, finding a job only posed another uphill battle with stress.
Such was Tongtong’s anxiety that she lost 10 pounds in July. As soon as she managed to scrape her way through some simple projects, she rushed to Guangzhou to look for a job, but the unprecedented pressure of the process — submitting résumés, preparing for interviews, studying, and improving her technical skills — left her feeling suffocated.
None of her efforts bore fruit. Though she downloaded all the recruitment software and submitted thousands of applications, recruiters ghosted her most of the time and she hardly landed any interviews.
Tian Tian, who started an MCS abroad, had no better luck with her job search either. She started looking for an internship in September 2021 and has lost track of the number of applications she submitted.
She interviewed at every company she could, big or small. Some even invited her back for the fifth or sixth round — but none extended an offer.
Only this year did she finally receive an internship offer from a startup. She hoped it would lead to a full-time position but was ultimately disappointed. Many of her fellow interns were students at prestigious universities, and some already had two years of full-time work experience before starting their graduate program. Given her inexperience, Tian Tian simply couldn’t earn a full-time offer.
She now applies to a dozen jobs each day, but that doesn’t lead to much either. “The employment situation this year is grimmer. A lot of major companies are in a hiring freeze and don’t have much headcount to work with,” she explains.
Zhao Heng, who completed an in-person training program in May, began jobhunting in earnest. He thought it would take him a month or two to get hired, just as the training center had advertised, but he soon found how rare it was to get an interview after casting out hundreds of résumés.
“I feel tricked,” he says. Though he followed each step of the program and applied himself diligently, not a single offer materialized. He understood that there were already too few openings and that programmers, laid off by large companies by the dozens, were also on the hunt.
Compared to such experienced professionals, newcomers to the programming industry practically have no edge. Even getting a job was only one small step forward. For many people, the work challenges that come with being a programmer can be just as devastating.
After Tianli taught himself past elementary coding, he moved to Hangzhou in the eastern Zhejiang province on his own to look for a job. A week later, his only offer was from a small company for a basic position.
But he figured it was still early, and his monthly paycheck was already a considerable increase from his last position, even though it was still less than 10,000 yuan.
But he quickly found that the company’s work pace far outstripped his rudimentary technical skills, hindering him from completing projects. “I stayed late and worked overtime every day for the first two weeks, and even then I couldn’t keep up,” he says. Rather than waiting for the company to ask him to leave, he chose to quit.
His original plan was to stay in Hangzhou a little longer and find a less difficult, less intense job. Less than a month later, he was still unemployed and, moreover, out of money.
With no other choice, Tianli went back to his old job: marketing.
The cons and cons
On the surface, programming looks like a well-paid job with inviting prospects, but its suitability comes down to each individual. Zhang Hong is simultaneously learning and weighing her career change decision, trying to assess if it was the right move.
She figured that if the learning phase was already this agonizing, then it would only get worse as a full-time job.
Her personal strength was communication, thanks to her years in the media industry, but she would have to give that up if she switched to programming. Her family also asked why she wanted to compare her weaknesses to other people’s strengths. “Programmers are everywhere in the Bay Area,” they argued. “It’s your communication skills that are scarce.”
After careful consideration, Zhang Hong gave up programming and went back to project management. It paid less but left her with the energy and time for her side hustle after work, which, in programming she says, “is unimaginable.”
Tongtong has been grappling with similar doubts, particularly after her stress levels reached the point of severe weight loss. If her misery with her studies now carries over into her future work, then her physical and mental health might deteriorate further.
For those considering a career in programming from scratch, both women recommended that they try to teach themselves first and see if they have the necessary logical thinking skills. After all, when you take on a job that pushes the limits of your abilities in the years to come, you need to consider if you can persevere and if it’s worthwhile.
Plus, changing careers is a matter of risk control. Amid the current hiring freeze, large companies in China and abroad have been laying off employees, and even when they do hire, they want talented people with professional backgrounds.
Some students at MSC programs abroad have lamented on social media their struggles with landing even an internship after changing careers, given how saturated positions open to unseasoned programmers have grown.
The IT training courses currently available in China boast that their students can find a job within a month or two after graduating, but given that they can only provide technical training and interview coaching, Zhao Heng has found that timeline to be incredibly unrealistic.
Like him, many students end up unemployed upon completion and end up returning to their previous jobs. Zhao attempted job hunting for a month or two in Wuhan. But with no success, he too abandoned his programming aspirations.
Tongtong adds that programmers in China aged 35 or older often face professional obstacles — an age threshold that has continued to drop in recent years.
Women in particular tend to face more ageist pressure in the hiring market. Despite the considerable time and effort they have already invested into changing careers, they only have a few years to reap the rewards of their effort before having to switch tracks again.
The wave of layoffs at large companies also signals an end to the frenzy around programming, and it remains unclear if those high salaries are sustainable.
Tian Tian also pointed at career changers who spend thousands of dollars on an MCS but then end up walking away and wasting that tuition money. That kind of risk is not something most ordinary families can afford.
Changing careers is never easy, and if you blindly chase after the higher salaries alone, then you might end up losing more than you have.
(Tian Tian, Tongtong, Tianli, Zhang Hong, and Zhao Heng are pseudonyms.)
Reporter: Wang Min.
A version of this article originally appeared in Shenran Caijing. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Xue Yongle and Apurva.
(Header image: Supawat Kampanna/EyeEm/VCG)