Jumping Off: Top Collegiate Majors for IT Pros

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It is time for students to enter college, and having to choose a major in a specific career field is haunting their minds — their chosen field of study likely will determine what they do for the rest of their lives. The broad field of information technology (IT) might seem most interesting, but determining which area within IT will be the best fit is the next hurdle.

Colleges and universities provide many degree programs within IT, including Marquette University, according to Kate Kaiser, associate professor of international business. “In a business school, to get a business degree there either called IT or MIS (management information systems), and sometimes they are called IS (information Systems),” Kaiser said. “Then in the engineering school, it would be a degree in computer engineering. The computer science degree varies at the universities — it could be in an art and sciences college, or sometimes the term ‘electrical and computer engineering’ is used, and sometimes it’s in the math department. Another one that most people don’t think about is information science, and that is often in a library and information science school, so they are really into data retrieval.”

Knowing all available IT majors still might not be enough to help students make a life-altering decision. A full understanding of what each major provides is necessary in selecting which IT track is the best fit. David Overbye, Ph.D., dean of curriculum at DeVry University, said each degree program focuses on different things. “Computer science programs is where you’re going to spend a lot of time and detail on things like algorithms and complier design; computer engineering is a little more focused on the hardware; computer information systems would be a little more focused on how the different pieces of hardware integrate over a network, key enabling technologies like databases, networks and how that all fits together,” he said. “Business information systems and business information technology would be more focused on how it all gets used.”

Before students apply to IT schools, they should do their research and decide which questions to ask that will lead to the most informative answers. There are different ways of researching, but some might not always come to mind. “The Web (is good), but go to universities and ask to talk to faculty in all of these areas,” Kaiser said. “Ask to talk to graduates — the other source that is similar is friends and relatives — but recognize that their job may be really different than some other ones. People in our field love to talk to young people.”

Students who are interested in IT need to understand what the curriculum will entail. Because IT is math- and science-intensive, students have to be prepared to take a lot of those courses, depending on the major. “Engineers are going to take more than information systems, but at a minimum you should expect that you’re going to take math up to the level of college algebra, discrete math and statistics,” Overbye said. “The engineering and more computer science-oriented majors are going to take a lot more than that — they’re going to take calculus and linear math and things like that.”

Overbye also said students will take basic infrastructure courses such as networking and network operating systems, as well as database systems, analysis and design. They likely will take business courses such as accounting and introduction to business and programming. Further, as with most accredited schools, students must fulfill general education requirements, as well as classes in their major.

IT is known for supplying numerous certifications through companies such as Microsoft and Cisco, but there is some confusion as to whether these certifications are used or required for college degrees. “No, and it isn’t in most universities — certification is usually given at technical schools or private corporations that offer some of the certifications,” Kaiser said. “Some universities will offer certifications through continuing-education, nondegree programs. So you will find the training for it, but it’s usually not through a bachelor’s degree, but it’s people who have been working, have a degree, and offer to go back and go get that certification.”

Both Kaiser and Overbye said the IT job market is “very hot.” After students receive their bachelor’s degree, however, they often do not know where the jobs are at or even what type of job for which to apply. “A lot of them end up working in large to midsize organizations in some kind of role that has the word ‘analyst’ in the title: ‘systems analyst’ or ‘computer analyst.’ You will probably start out as an individual contributor, working in a cubicle and working on projects,” Overbye said. “You’re going to get an initial job, some kind of analyst, you’re more than likely going to work on project teams, you’ll probably start out doing something relatively mundane at first — working on a payroll or something like that. But the information technology is so pervasive in our economy now that it’s awful hard to predict.”

Overbye said most companies have a chief information officer (CIO), and for students who are interested in this, they can achieve it if they if they have invested, long-term career goals — any major can lead to this position. For people who want to climb the corporate ladder, though, most likely go back to school to earn a master’s degree in business administration or science, Overbye said.

Overall, there isn’t one particular section of IT that has more job openings than another — when students decide which area of IT to study, they should choose the one that interests them the most because that ultimately can determine how successful they will be.

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