Friday, August 30, 2013

Career prospects: going to grad school

I've recently been involved in several discussions about whether online schools are really helping their students.  In particular, do they prepare people for the job market?  I can't comment on how this works in other fields, although many are probably similar, but here are my thoughts on IT degrees:

The Oversell

I think that many schools oversell the value of their degrees.  A degree is useful and often required, but it's not a guaranteed ticket to your dream job.  Many schools report that X% of their graduates received a raise or promotion after graduating, but these are rarely automatic.  If you're considering going back to school, the burden is on you to figure out what a degree can do for you and how it fits into your career plan.

What is your narrative?

I've run into a few people who either have no work experience or who are in entry level jobs and have completed graduate degrees in IT.  I think education is a good thing and there's nothing inherently wrong with earning a graduate degree, but you have to think about how it fits into your personal narrative.

If you're a career changer who has earned a BS in IT, you should probably find an IT job before you start working on a graduate degree.  With an MS and no experience, you'll be overqualified for most entry level positions and won't have enough experience to go after anything else.  If you're struggling to break into IT, a certification or two or three is going to help you more than a graduate degree.

If you're already in a related field, e.g. project management, a graduate degree might make sense.  In this case, your initial goal could be to transition into managing IT projects.  An MS in IS or IT with a focus on project management fits this narrative.    

If you have a relevant BS and several years of entry-level experience, a graduate degree could hurt your chances for many IT jobs.  With an MS and five or six years of experience on the help desk or as a PC support tech, other employers are going to wonder why you haven't moved up already.  If you go after a PhD, it will be even worse.  People will assume something is wrong with you.  If you move up into a higher position then earn a graduate degree, you'll have a positive, compelling narrative.

Note: there's a big difference between having a graduate degree and two years of entry-level experience--you're ripe to move up--and having a graduate degree and eight years in an entry-level role--you're way overdue and people will wonder why.

Consider these two fictional people:

Bob :

Help Desk Technician (2005-2013)
BS in IT (2006)
MS in IT (2008)
PhD in IT(2012)

Help Desk Technician (2005-2007)
BS in IT (2006)
CCNA (2007)
Network Technician (2007-2010)
Network Administrator (2010-2013)
MS in IT (2012)

Assume that Bob and Alice are both either career changers or entering the workforce late in life (perhaps they spent some time raising kids).  Who would you rather hire as network administrator, network manager or IT director?  Alice and Bob both have eight years of work experience and Bob has a better degree, but, Alice has been promoted twice already.  Alice looks ambitious and capable.  Bob looks questionable.  Why is he still on the help desk?  Is he socially dysfunctional?  Bob is over-educated for a next-level position such as network technician (which probably doesn't require a degree at all) but lacks the experience for a management or senior technical role.  When Bob earned his MS in 2008, after three years on the help desk, his first priority should have been moving into a higher position.  If he still had trouble moving up, a CCNA, MCSE, CEH or other technical certification could have helped.  Spending five more years on the help desk while earning a PhD just hurts him.

Circumstances (timing, online vs on-campus)

There is a difference between going back to school after entering the workforce versus just going to college straight out of high school.  If you earn a BS at 22 and decide to go to grad school right away, that's probably okay.  It may close off certain positions (nobody will want to hire you at the help desk) but you may be able to move directly into a role as a business or systems analyst.  Going straight to grad school also makes more sense for certain roles (e.g. software developer) than others (e.g. network something-or-other).

If you go straight to graduate school without entering the workforce, it will also help to avoid any perception that something is wrong with you.  You can even work part-time in a junior position without raising any red flags.  When you attend a full-time on-campus PhD program, nobody expects you to also get promoted along a non-academic career track.  If you spend eight years working a help desk or doing PC support in a computer lab, employers will assume that you just needed some extra cash while you focused on school.  But, if you're already in the workforce and earn a couple of graduate degrees without moving up you're selling a story that says you want to move up but are incapable of doing so.

Revisiting Bob

When I look at Bob's work and school history, I see a narrative that raises too many red flags.  How can Bob change my perception?  The first thing he should do is to discount his work experience.  With a PhD, eight years on the help desk is irrelevant.  Bob needs to make his narrative more like the person who just continued on through school without working.  He also needs to look for positions that make sense with a PhD and no work experience, not try to move up to network administrator.  A position in consulting or system analysis may be appropriate.  Here's how I might summarize this if I were Bob:

"After (I left the military, my kids were school-age, whatever), I knew that I wanted to get into IT.  I took a help desk position so that I could do something relevant to IT while I went back to school.  Initially, I thought I'd want to move up into a network administrator role or something similar, but I became interested in (whatever) and decided to go straight on through to graduate school so that I could learn more about (whatever) and conduct research into how large organizations (do something)."

This is a believable narrative if Bob researched ERP implementations and now wants to be a consultant or a system/business analyst in a large company.  It falls flat if he wants to be an IT director or network engineer.

Should you get a graduate degree?

A graduate degree is useful in several scenarios:
  • You want to move up from a mid-level position into a more senior role
  • You want to move up more quickly from a junior role
  • You want to move directly into a consulting or analyst roles 

A graduate degree is not helpful if:
  • You want to get into an entry-level role that doesn't even require a degree
  • You have a lot of entry level experience and want to move to the next level (e.g. the Bob scenario).
If you have a BS in IT/IS and can't seem to break into the field, pursue certifications, not additional degrees.


This post is largely about perception.  In the real-world, people may have very good reasons for staying too long in entry-level positions before trying to move up.  There may be family and medical issues involved.  My point is that you need to understand the narrative you're building and how graduate school affects your future opportunities.


1 comment:

  1. Steven,

    Hello, this is Jesus (Capella Classmate, from a previous course). This is my take and this is what I experience in the real world.

    Online - Great to get the Gen Ed out the way. As for IT I can see part of it can be done online but most definitely you need on hands; esp for lab.

    Campus - For IT esp for Lab it's an awesome exp.

    For me I went and got my IT Certifications to include ITIL v3. The reason I went and got ITIL v3 is to get that entry level; and yes I got it and I feel I owe it to having that certification.

    Working for the healthcare industry for almost 2 years and speaking with Network Engineer, CCNA is required.

    I would tell anyone who is in the IT Program in a College/University pursue your A+, Net+, Sec+ Certification; this is achievable.



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