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Should You Go Back to School for Your IT Career?

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Note from editor: We have a guest blog post from Ben Thomas today. Ben reached out to us because he thought you, our readers, would find this post useful. We agree—what do you think? 

If you’ve been told that a graduate degree offers a fast track to a six-figure salary or a seat on the company board, what you’ve heard is a highly oversimplified version of the truth. Advanced degrees in computer science are correlated with higher salaries, it’s true; but not necessarily with lottery-sized wage increases. And while IT professionals with higher degrees can find it easier to attain high rank, many IT positions require only a bachelor’s degree - along with plenty of real-world experience. In short, your best course of action depends, at least in part, on your current career situation. So here are three points to consider if you’re struggling with your grad-school decision.

Study your social network
Among people you know personally in the IT field, who has an advanced degree in a computer-related specialty? Your answer might include one or more of your senior managers, who may also have received graduate education in business administration. If you’re an engineer working for a large corporation, you might also put some high-ranking designers on that list. On the other hand, if you work for a smaller, younger company, your managers and engineers might be fresh out of a bachelor program. Some of your company’s tech support staff might not have any college-level technology training at all. Additional training isn’t always a requirement - but it may be a crucial asset if you’re aiming to move up. “I didn’t finish my B.S. degree until I had already been in the workforce for some time,” says Elaine Miller, web portal administrator for the Association of Information Technology Professionals. “But nowadays, a B.S. degree is considered a ‘union card’ for professional [IT] workers.” Thus, before you apply for a graduate program, it’s important to develop a precise idea of how a higher degree will directly improve your ability to perform your desired job. Not only are admissions officials likely to ask you about this, but your answer will also help you map out the amounts of time and money necessary to reach your specific career goals.

Look where you’re going

Before you commit to the idea of graduate school, consider - career trajectory aside - whether you’re content in your current work environment. You might be dissatisfied with your hours or salary, but another question is even more crucial: What do you think of the idea of working in your current environment, say, ten years in the future? The security provided by a proven corporation might help you feel safe - or smothered. The excitement of new software cycles might stress you out, or it might inspire your work ethic. Whatever your situation, graduate school alone won’t springboard you into a different lifestyle or corporate culture - so if that’s the change you’re aiming to make, you’ll be better off beefing up your resumé and exploring some new career options. “Even if your current job isn’t the one you really want, keep gathering work experience as you advance your education,” says Oliver Sanchez, managing partner of the Information Technology Experts Alliance. “The most qualified people aren’t always the ones with the highest diplomas - they’re often those who are most highly motivated to learn.” If you’d like to stick with your current employer, it’s worth asking if they offer academic sponsorships. More than half of U.S. employers - including IT companies like Intel - offer some form of educational assistance.

Weigh education and experience

On one hand, flexibility is a core benefit you’re likely to receive with an advanced IT degree. A graduate course can broaden your horizons into fields like software engineering, hardware development, network security - as well as more advanced areas of mathematics, and more business-facing aspects of IT. Not only will this knowledge base heighten your overall employability; your ability to understand and integrate interrelated subfields can improve your shot at a management position. At the same time, though, a degree can’t take the place of real-world experience. “The degree can get you the pay you want - but it’s not going to get you the position you want,” Sanchez says. In other words, if career advancement is what you’re after, you’ve got to keep at least one foot in the “real world.” Managers in many areas of IT are expected to smooth client relations, keep projects on schedule and motivate diverse work teams. When a high-level manager like Sanchez looks over your resumé, he says, he’ll be looking mainly for “plug-and-play” skills that have already been tested and proven in similar work environments.

The benefits of graduate degrees in IT aren’t hard to see: These degrees have brought high salaries, powerful positions and advanced expertise to people in many areas of the industry. But like any lifestyle shift, grad school can invite its share of new challenges - from time commitments to difficult coursework - on the path to those rewards. The decision of whether to apply isn’t just a choice between long-term and short-term thinking, though - it depends, most of all, on which variables you consider most important in your definition of success.

Ben Thomas writes about a wide variety of career fields in Information Technology for The Riley Guide. You can follow Ben on Google+.