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A matter of degrees

As a software manager, coach, and professor, I’m often asked by engineers if getting an advanced degree is worth it. I could be flippant and say it’s not; software companies don’t require advanced degrees when hiring. Coding ability and job experience are valued far more than degrees (including bachelor’s degrees). However, while that answer is true in general, it’s not true for many specific cases.

If you’re pursuing a role in a specialized area, like cybersecurity, a master’s may be required (check the job posting). If you’re an entry-level engineer struggling to get hired in a competitive market, earning a master’s degree will enhance your skills and increase your starting salary by roughly the same amount as if you’d been working during that time. Finally, if you love university learning or always wanted to get a master’s or PhD, and you can afford to devote the necessary time and resources, pursuing what you love is certainly worthwhile.

However, if those special cases don’t apply to you, earning an advanced degree is an expensive, time-consuming, and unnecessary pursuit. Don’t do it just because you’re aimless, bored, or think you’re obligated. Don’t do it because you want a fancy title. (Titles are overrated.) Don’t do it because you don’t know enough yet. (Learning on the job is the most effective way to learn.) Think I’m wrong? I’ve got a PhD. Not impressed? I just made my point. Want more details? Keep reading.

Eric Aside

For more on job searches, read Get a job: Finding new roles.

What is it good for?

Many software firms will hire capable candidates straight out of high school for entry-level engineering roles. This begs the question, “Why bother going into higher education at all?”

  • Because working on an undergraduate degree can be an incredible social experience when you’re at an age that’s ripe for exploration. You can live with other people your age, away from your home. You can attend social events, join clubs, participate in sports, and meet people who become your closest friends. College can be the best time of your life.
  • All that mingling builds your professional network, which is invaluable later for getting jobs and advancing in your career.
  • You can learn by trial and error in and outside of class with minimal risk and substantial support from faculty and staff. College is generally a safe space to grow in all aspects of your life.

Notice that I didn’t mention the quality of your college or university, the degree you receive, or what your degree covers. Better schools may provide better professional networks and better support for learning, but research has found those advantages to be limited. What matters is your personal growth and independence. After you get your first job out of school, no one cares where you went. At that point, it’s all about work experience.

A bachelor’s degree is not necessary nor sufficient to get an entry-level software engineering job. You can learn to code on your own or in high school, attend online or in-person boot camps, gain substantial experience using open source, get a great job, and have a rewarding career without limits. You’ll just miss out on the social experience and personal growth of attending college (as well as the student debt).

Eric Aside

For more on professional networking, read Get yourself connected.

Piled higher and deeper

Master’s degrees are only required for highly specialized roles. They typically take a couple of years to complete and will raise your starting position by one level. Since earning your first promotion takes a year or two, getting a master’s is roughly equivalent to working for a couple of years. The difference is that money is coming in on the job and going out while in school. (On-the-job learning is also more relevant.)

Graduate school feels more like a job than undergraduate college does. The social experience is more limited. Grad students often have families, jobs, and obligations. Courses are sometimes held at night or on weekends. Overall, grad school only makes sense if the degree is required for your desired job or you simply love the subject and want to learn as much as possible about it.

Doctorate degrees are only required for research jobs and tenure-track academic roles. It takes roughly six years of grad school to earn your doctorate, though it can take longer. Dissertations are quite long, and title defenses are quite stressful. Having a doctorate will only raise your starting position by one level above a master’s, yet it takes far longer to earn the degree than the equivalent promotion. Thus, it had better be worth it to you. Sure, the title of doctor is nice, but titles are overrated.

Eric Aside

If you’re going to grad school because you think having another degree is the only way people will respect you and take you seriously, read I’m not all that.

It’s kind of an honorary title

People place excessive value on titles. They often respond with deference to people with fancy titles, putting extra trust and belief in what those people say. If you have a fancy title, that’s a nice advantage. However, that advantage is short-lived in the business world.

In business, a title is like an entrance card—it gets you in the door. Once you’re in, people see your actual abilities, the advantage is gone, and your title loses its sway. Titles are useful as rewards, acknowledgments, and entrance cards but are otherwise misleading. Everyone deserves to be valued based on their abilities, not their degree or title. We all know folks who fall far short of their titles. I’d rather work with someone who is great rather than someone who sounds great.

Do the right thing

Don’t get an advanced degree to meet some abstract expectation. Get it because it’s required for the job you want. Get it for the professional networking and personal growth. Get it because you love the subject. Otherwise, get a job. Having a job pays better, provides more relevant and practical experience, and does more to further your career.

Sure, titles are nice, but they only get you in the door. Once you’re in the door, you need to prove you can do the job. That’s why once you’re working, no one cares where you went to school or what degree you earned. Have a great time at school, and then get to work.

Eric Aside

Special thanks to Bob Zasio and Jason Zions for reviewing the first draft of this month’s column.

Want personalized coaching on this topic or any other challenge? Schedule a free, confidential call. I provide one-on-one career coaching with an emphasis on underrepresented, midcareer software professionals. Find out more at Ally for Onlys in Tech.

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  1. Matthew Asplund Matthew Asplund

    I agree a degree is not required. I think the one aspect missing from your reasons to get one is that an undergraduate degree is the perfect time to zero in on your passions and abilities. For me, I knew I wanted to be an engineer, but it wasn’t until two years in that I knew it was computer engineering and then my final design projects cemented my love for software.

    • I.M. Wright I.M. Wright

      Great callout, Matthew. That’s a big part of the personal growth an undergraduate degree can provide you.

  2. K Ree K Ree

    Shouldn’t the Eric Aside’s be I.M. Aside’s? Sort of like “I. M. Aside Myself” 🙂

  3. Here is an observation: Most, if not all of my colleagues with PhDs have the ability to carry out large and long-term projects. They can move from the big picture to tiny details with amazing dexterity. Of course, some people learn that on the job or it might be a talent that they already have. I just notice that quality and very much appreciate it.

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