Why I Pivoted from a Career in Entomology to One in Software Engineering

I have always been a curious person.

My parents tell me that, at the age of 2, I was fascinated with insects. On walks outside, I’d find something new every 2 seconds and ask “What’s dis? What’s dat?” I’d pick up wolf spiders and try to bring them into the house to show my mom (who was terrified of spiders). I even had a little ladybug rearing operation when I was 3 or 4 (it became really fun when they all escaped into the house). In short, I wanted to be an entomologist (one who studies insects) long before I can even remember myself.

The author, Megan, as a 3-year-old holding a ladybug
Yes, 3-year-old me was obsessed with ladybugs

By the time I turned 8, my interest shifted from insects in general to butterflies and moths. I explored my backyard every day and learned how to identify all of the common butterfly species in our area. I loved learning about each and every species I saw, and I enjoyed putting that knowledge and research to the test when I found a new caterpillar: could I keep it alive and get it to an adult butterfly or moth? I had nature journals to document my findings, I began building an insect collection that now contains thousands of specimens, and I even wrote articles for Wikipedia (you might even come across my photos there)! My curiosity was perfect for this scientific passion, but I also had a creative side that I expressed through photographing the butterflies and moths I found outside as well as the ones I was rearing indoors.

A female Cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia), one of many species I reared and bred as a young teen

Fast forward to 2018: I had graduated from Purdue University with a B.S. in Entomology, and I had obtained an internship at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in the Department of Entomology. My project involved describing two new species of moths in the moth genus Frumenta. The plan after this internship was to go to graduate school, get my Masters and then my Ph.D., and obtain a job either as a professor in academia or as a research associate at a museum like the Smithsonian’s.

Me holding a tray of Frumenta davidi, one of the new species I named after my father (my mother got her own species too!)

However, I learned a couple of things during this project which ultimately made me rethink my entire career decision. This was really a hard time for me, because when you grow up knowing you want to be something and then discover it’s not anything like you’d thought it’d be…well, it’s hard not feeling a bit lost and confused.

You see, I loved everything about what I did for my project: I got to work with a fascinating group of moths, learn more about systematics and taxonomy (the branch of science dedicated to naming and classifying organisms) as it pertained to my moths, and I got to publish my research in a peer-reviewed journal. Yet there were two fundamental issues with pursuing this as my career.

The first was the job market. Even with a Ph.D., getting a job as a systematist/taxonomist in entomology is extremely difficult, especially in a museum setting (which I would have preferred over academia). There are next to no jobs and, even if one were to open up, I would likely NOT be working with butterflies and moths.

The second issue was the bureaucratic red tape. For example, those employed in a research field have to meet a publication quota each year. This means that larger projects that take a lot of time are put aside in favor of small projects that can be completed quickly. Or sometimes, passion projects have to be shelved because there is no “good reason” a journal might want to publish a paper on the thing in which you are most interested. Not to mention, in an academic setting, the constant need to acquire funding, teach classes, take on students, attempt to get tenure, etc., would serve to only drain my passion.

This is really what I wanted to do as an entomologist — be outside exploring!

However, there was one positive aspect: my mentor was in a position where he could study whatever he wanted on his own time, because he was retired. You’d be surprised how many researchers at the Smithsonian are still “working” in retirement, and it’s because they can research the insect groups they are most passionate about without the red tape. I realized that I wanted to be in my mentor’s position, which meant that: 1), I needed to be retired, and 2), I needed another job to help me retire early. But I also didn’t want just any job; I wanted a career I felt just as passionate about as I did with entomology. The problem was: what did I want to do for a living?

While trying to solve my very early midlife crisis, I became interested in coding as a hobby. I always wanted to have my own website dedicated to my insect collection, making the data associated with each specimen available to anyone interested. I taught myself basic HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, and then learned a bit of Python and the Python framework Django, as I needed a backend database to store all of my collection data. I thoroughly enjoyed the learning process behind coding and building a working website. Not only that, but I got to also express my creative side, as designing the logic of my code required some creativity. (If you are curious, this first project of mine is live, though it is a perpetual work-in-progress.)

Through this little hobby, I realized I had just discovered an alternative career path about which I was extremely passionate! My curiosity, my love of learning, and my creativity transferred perfectly from entomology to coding. Soon after this epiphany, I began attending coding meetups, I coached at a DjangoGirls workshop aimed at getting young women into coding, and I even did a little bit of freelancing as a web developer.

Despite everything I accomplished on my own, I was still missing an important component in my development: collaborating with others. It was around this time that I learned about coding bootcamps, and I happened across Flatiron’s software engineering program. It was the logical next step in my career, as I’d be a student amongst other students, where we’d help each other learn and grow together. And with the diversity in our backgrounds and experiences, we can each contribute unique perspectives that will enable us to grow as both people and as professional coders. This is something I’d never be able to obtain from studying on my own, and I know that, when my peers and I graduate our program, we’ll be fully prepared to start our careers as software engineers.

With my new career ahead of me, I’ll be preparing myself to retire early and go back to entomology. Though, even when I retire early, I’m 99% sure I’ll still be coding as a hobby alongside studying my bugs ;)

Passionate web developer with endless curiosity. Current Flatiron Software Engineering student. Portfolio: https://meganmccarty.github.io/portfolio/