Mastering IT: Choosing Between an Immediate Job and Higher Educat

While a master's degree may not be a necessity in the IT field, obtaining one can help professionals move up the corporate ladder. On the downside,
it may mean more student loans.

 

You feel a sigh of relief. You've gotten your bachelor's degree, you're secure in a job and you're thankfully near the end of paying off your college loans. Then a thought sends you reeling: Should I get a master's degree?

The decision to pursue a master's in any subject area can be a tough one. It could mean accumulating more loans, juggling a demanding job and a rigorous course load and wondering whether it's all worth it in the long run.

Is It a Necessity?

Jim Leone, information technology department head at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), said in the current job market, a master's degree is not imperative.

"In today's world, [a master's degree is] not really important, simply because our students with bachelors' degrees are finding work," he said.

"However, mid-level IT workers can strengthen their careers by coming back for a master's degree. But is it critical? No, not in my opinion."

Leone believes the best route to getting a master's degree is finding an employer who will invest in your education.

"The ideal thing is for somebody to get working with a company and then go to the company and say: ‘Now I would like to work on my master's degree. Will you help?'" Leone said. "Most companies, if they're smart, they will help their employees work on their master's degree at night because the whole time that they are doing that they are investing in their employees. It's an ideal way to keep your marketability."

If that doesn't happen, getting a bachelor's degree and gaining on-the-job experience is a good alternative.

However, Abraham Haddad, director of the Master of Science in Information Technology (MSIT) program at Northwestern University, said a master's degree is worth the cost and time commitment if you want a broader grasp of the IT field. He believes a master's degree offers a look at the big picture, whereas bachelor's degrees or certifications present just a small slice.

"[If] you come into the field with a bachelor's degree, you really have [only] seen a small part of it, and you are constantly being bombarded with the new terms and new technologies," Haddad said. "The master's is just a way of saying, yes, you are aware of all the technology involved in IT. If you want really to know a broader thing, you either have to take a lot of short courses or get a master's degree."

Because the IT industry will never be static, Northwestern's MSIT degree tries to give students an understanding of IT that will take them into the future. It's a program that covers the technical side but also blends it with the business side.

"Just like in any industry that's fast changing, a master's gives you enough of the principles that the principles do not change," Haddad said. "What changes is somebody making [technology] faster or smaller. You understand what you can and cannot do with specific technologies and that's really what a master's gives you. [It] gives you the fundamentals, the principles that don't change."

Master's Versus Certifications

While certifications can sometimes serve as a stand-in for a bachelor's degree in IT or a related field, stocking up on certifications is not the same as getting a master's degree.

Leone asked, "Would a college graduate who had some certifications be the equivalent of a master's degree? The answer is no because certifications are a snapshot in time of something technical." He added that a snapshot starts to go out-of-date the moment it's taken.

"If somebody does a bachelor's degree and then a master's degree and specializes in information assurance and security, they will have a broad-based background in this area and can help their company make strategic decisions about the future of security infrastructure," Leone said. "If they take certification training on some sort of software that does security analysis, they'll know how to use the software. But that will eventually go stale, and they're going to have to keep learning how to use the software. They won't be able to help their company make strategic decisions."

Haddad agreed that certifications don't equate to a master's degree because, if an employee wants to advance vertically in a
corporation, having certifications isn't going to cut it.

"The problem with certifications is you are being certified in a specific area of technology and knowing the nitty-gritty about that area, but the master's degree we feel is needed so that you will be broader," Haddad said. "Certification is limited because it's really specific technology and specific elements of technology. Anybody who just took a programming course can go on and do some programming. If you want to rise beyond that to see the bigger picture, you really need something more than just certification."

What Employers Say

Here's an excerpt from a recent job posting from Cisco Systems Inc.: "Candidate must have a B.S. or M.S. degree in computer networking, electrical engineering or a comparable degree program. Cisco certifications are a plus. It is preferred that candidates have a GPA of 3.0 or higher."

Nowhere does it require a master's degree, and Michael Cho, who is manager of technical support and oversees his department's college new hire program, said a master's degree is by no means essential to working at his company.

"Our hiring practices show that a master's degree is not necessary to compete," he said. "When we advertise, we are not advertising for a bachelor's or a master's, we are just looking for the best candidates. Also, at my company there's an opportunity to get a master's degree while working and have the company compensate you for that."

Cho said his department hired 40 employees with bachelor's degrees in 2007 and 17 with master's degrees. All 57 of the employees went into the same position, customer support engineer, but the difference was that, in most cases, master's students received a higher level of pay.

Certifications as well as performance play more of a role in getting senior-level positions as an engineer, but Cho said if an engineer wants to move from that track to management, a master's may help them.

Keith Auer, a Microsoft college staffing consultant, said he doesn't go out and specifically seek master's candidates.

"What we look at is the experience that the candidate would bring to the table," he said. "A master's isn't going to make or break a candidate. The expectations would be that a master's candidate is going to have a bit more solid of a foundation in the concepts, but in terms of the output expected, there's not going to be much difference there."

Auer said Microsoft hires about 1,000 college graduates for core tech positions each year. Of those, Auer speculates that about 75 percent have bachelors' degrees and 25 percent have masters' degrees.

"It's good to get some work experience prior to going for a graduate degree," he said. "It's always good to have some practical work experience so that you can draw upon that in a master's program, and it also will allow you to get a better idea of what you want to focus on. If you go right from a bachelor's to a master's, you're not really having that opportunity to grow and to figure out what it is you want to do."

A Graduate's View

Jorgen Hesselberg, a senior project manager at a small IT consulting firm in Chicago, graduated from Northwestern University with an MSIT last year.

For him, it was well worth the effort.

"It really depends on the role you play in IT," Hesselberg said. "If you are going to be a database administrator or someone who is only dealing with networks, I would agree that a master's degree may not mean as much. A high-quality, highly respected certification may mean more. But for me and in the consulting industry, a master's degree is really helpful."

Hesselberg explained that his master's degree gave him a fundamental understanding of engineering concepts and a solid understanding of the strategic business initiative. "As a consultant, you really have to have a foot in every camp," he said. "You need to understand the business, what makes the business grow and how can you use IT to enable [businesses] to go to that next step."

According to Hesselberg, those who are interested in IT or business management might consider the possibility of getting a master's degree. Although a master's degree may not be a necessity right now in the IT industry, he sees it becoming more of one down the road.

"IT melts into the other functions of the business," Hesselberg said. "It's not so much just IT as a separate function or a separate practice. Often now you see IT in marketing; IT is an integral part of marketing. Same thing with finance; you can't really [operate] any substantial financial systems without having an IT understanding as well."

This situation has the potential to create employees who are working in IT without that being officially recognized.

"You may actually work in a marketing department or a finance department and technically not be IT but still have an IT function within that department," Hesselberg said. "IT skills are always going to be important. [But] having a broad understanding of IT through a master's degree gives you a mixture of both the business and the technical skills [and] in the long run is more advantageous."

Even though getting a master's was the right
decision for Hesselberg, it was not a decision he took lightly because of the expense and time commitment involved. Hesselberg worked while obtaining his master's at Northwestern, and the time commitment outside of class was as many as 30 to 40 hours.

"It's expensive. It's not something you do for a few thousand dollars," he said. "It certainly hurts a
little bit when you pay those student loans, although I have to say that my salary has increased dramatically from where it was when I started and where it is now. There's certainly a correlation there. Would I do it again? Definitely, and I would not hesitate."

Financial Assistance

Unfortunately, if a company doesn't have a tuition assistance program, there aren't a lot of opportunities out there for master's degree scholarships.

"People offer scholarships to undergraduates and assistantships to Ph.D. students. Nobody supports master's students, except [in a] few rare cases," Haddad said. "But at Northwestern, we don't offer any. We assume that our students would rely on student loans or employer contribution. Some of our employers pay 80 or 90 percent of the tuition."

Is It Worth It?

A master's degree could mean getting a pay raise, rising to a new, more creative position or assuming more responsibility, all of which could help lessen the drudgery of graduate school bills.

"Based on what our alumni tell us, some of them got a jump in salary; some got a new, more interesting job," Haddad said. "Like any other educational program, it's expensive and you have to weigh: Is this going to pay? From what [alumni] tell us, it seems to be worthwhile for the majority of those who graduated."

Another perk is that an IT professional who graduates with a bachelor's degree gets routed to entry-level positions, whereas master's candidates may go to lower- to mid-level management, according to Leone.

"Bachelor's degree kids start at entry level," he said. "They rarely will be above entry level. They will be in the trenches doing power computing. Almost invariably in the IT arena, those students who are getting their master's degree will have had some industry-level experience, so they will go back into a variety of lower- to middle-level management-type positions."

- Lindsay Edmonds Wickman, lwickman@certmag.com

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