Should I perservere with my IT degree?
May 8, 2012 10:20 AM   Subscribe

A year and a half ago, stuck in what I thought was a dead-end job, I decided to do a degree in computing/IT with the Open University. Six months later, I landed a job as a Test Analyst in the IT department of the company I was working for. I now have an actual career. I've been continuing with the degree, but I'm finding bits of it very dull and it's difficult to get motivated. Should I keep going?

Special snowflake details: One of the problems is that I already have a pretty good understanding of most computing topics. The first year modules on programming were a complete breeze. I didn't bother to look at any of the materials - just did the coursework as and when it came up. This second year, the Java module is pretty much the same story (I don't know Java that well, but I'm a pretty reasonable programmer generally and the skills are pretty transferable), the UML/specification/etc. module is kind of dull and overlaps with stuff I know from my job, but is easy to cope with. My big problem is the Cisco Networking module. This is built around the CCNA qualification (although you don't actually have to take the Cisco exam), and is the dullest thing in the world to me. I took it because it fit in timewise and meant I could get the degree quicker, but have pretty much no interest in ever being a network technician and I find it impossible to give a damn about configuring routers.

So my original reasons for doing the degree are less valid now - I thought I needed it to get into an IT career, but here I am with an IT career. I would possibly like to move into development at some point. How important is having a degree going to be for that? Would my energy better be spent on something else? I recently got an Android phone and am teaching myself how to develop apps. Is demonstrable development/programming ability likely to be a good substitute for a qualification?
posted by xchmp to Work & Money (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've been continuing with the degree, but I'm finding bits of it very dull and it's difficult to get motivated. Should I keep going?

Yes. You'll find, as time goes on, that not having a degree is going to severely limit your career prospects. Sure, you've got a decent job now. But people don't generally stay at their same position forever. There's a kind of "up and out" mentality, even at relatively conservative businesses. You're at a company big enough to have an IT department with a "Test Analyst" position, which says to me that this sort of mentality is likely to be present.

This means that as time goes on, you'll be considered for advancement and promotion. But an increasing percentage of companies require degrees for mid- and upper-level positions. Sometimes graduate degrees. Even for internal hires. The father of a friend of mine has found that he's basically hit a glass ceiling in terms of promotion and even consulting work, because though he got his B.Eng. years ago, he's now in his late fifties, and all of the positions he might light to transition into require an M.Eng. They didn't thirty years ago, but they do now. So I think it's very likely that what you have here isn't a career as much as a job. And while jobs are no bad thing, don't confuse the latter for the former.

Short version: if you want to be a "Test Analyst" for the rest of your life, sure, drop out. But if you want to really make something of this vestigial career you've got going, stick with it. You'll almost certainly be glad you did.
posted by valkyryn at 10:40 AM on May 8, 2012 [7 favorites]

How important is having a degree going to be for that? Would my energy better be spent on something else? I recently got an Android phone and am teaching myself how to develop apps. Is demonstrable development/programming ability likely to be a good substitute for a qualification?

One of the things I love most about IT work is that you never know just when that little bit of information is going to be the thing that saves your ass.

So, while I understand that you find networking dull, so few developers have a decent grasp of it that this knowledge could be an asset to you. I can relate countless times that I have had to explain basic networking stuff to an app developer that if hey had known would have saved us all a lot of time and trouble.

As for the rest - the thing you need most is credibility. If you don't have a lot of experience, you can use the degree to demonstrate credibility. Sometimes, people will value one more than the other, and having both is insurance against that.

All things being equal, I'd urge you to finish the degree. Being a T shaped person is a huge asset in IT work.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:41 AM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Testing is deadly dull. Other stuff isn't. You started, so you should finish.

I really don't know what will get you a job, tbh. My suspicion is that it will be different if you are male, but I found that interview panels in IT are often scarcely distinguishable from peanut galleries, even if they express their disparagement in civilized professional jargon. If you get the degree, they'll jeer at you for that. If you ditch the degree and rack up loads of prestige in open-source projects and Android development, they'll jeer at you for that.

You only have about a year's experience, and that's in testing, and you want to do development, so be prepared for them to really yuck it up over that one.

I don't say this to discourage you, just cover all your bases.
posted by tel3path at 10:43 AM on May 8, 2012

Response by poster: Secondary question:

I originally applied to my local university to do a Masters Degree in Computing (i.e. what used to be called a Conversion degree - I already have a BA in International Relations). They rejected my application because I had no evidence of actually having the requisite math/programming experience to cope with the course. Obviously I now have a much better shot at getting into the course. The costs are likely to be comparable to finishing the degree.

Given the option, would the degree or the masters be a better bet?
posted by xchmp at 10:51 AM on May 8, 2012

I'd rather have a teammate with demonstrable skill than a diploma or certificate any day, but your intuition that you need a degree to succeed in IT these days isn't wrong.

However, the HR departments at a great many otherwise very good places to work disagree with me on this. To the extent of preferring to hire a candidate with minimal experience and a foreign degree of dubious quality over a subject-matter expert with 20 years professional experience and no degree because, and I quote, "A bachelor's level of expertise is required." I see more and more job descriptions leaving off the "or equivalent experience" on their degree requirements. It's stupid, but there we are.

If your motivation is flagging, make yourself a chart with boxes on it for the credits you need to earn to finish. Don't treat the classes as actual training for what you want to do, because what you learn in school is rarely practical for the real world. They're just boxes you have to cross out to get your diploma.

I've always agreed with Thoreau, but if you have the means and opportunity, go ahead and get your diploma. If you want a career in IT, you will more than likely regret not doing so.
posted by ob1quixote at 10:54 AM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I had just pressed post when your follow up came up. If you already have any kind of bachelor's, a master's degree would almost certainly be a better use of your time and money. I've seen a lot of "senior" positions listed as "master's preferred" lately.

Don't count your chickens before they've hatched though. Struggle on with your bachelor's until you've got the acceptance letter to the master's program in your hand. HR departments are becoming less and less flexible in their requirements. Without the right kind of degree, you won't make it through the automated systems they all use these days.
posted by ob1quixote at 11:01 AM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

the masters

And almost exactly what ob1quixote says.
posted by infini at 11:04 AM on May 8, 2012

I'd yes, because the degree will prove valuable when/if you look to move to a new company.

Also, talk to your boss. It's possible that they hired you into your current position partially due to the fact that you are working toward your degree.
posted by asnider at 11:10 AM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hey, time's going to pass anyway. It's boring, but it's not hard. I got through my Master's pretty much by just knuckling down and doing it. There wasn't one thing about it that set me on fire. But let me tell you, people love that you have that MBA.

Even if you never use any of the information again.

Work is weird.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:13 AM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

IANA tech person, but in my experience, every degree has its dull parts that you just have to slog through while keeping your eyes on the prize. Usually the stretches of boring work aren't that long and/or there's interesting work going on at the same time. (I have a master's in a psychology field - ask me how much I just looooooved transcribing the interviews for my thesis. /sarcasm)

How long is this module going to last? Are there other networking/routing modules lined up behind it? How many? I would advise you to slog through the module, say "this too shall pass," and look forward to getting your degree. You've come this far, why quit? Whatever age you are going to be when you're finished, you'll be just as old with the degree or without. Having a degree will give you more options.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 12:10 PM on May 8, 2012

Realize one other thing. The dirty little secret in IT is that the older you get, the less likely you will be able to find a new job. I tell people to look to either move up or move on. Move up to project management or move on to another career.
posted by CodeMonkey at 12:12 PM on May 8, 2012

I don't know exactly what's in your particular IT degree, but I find that a lot of my success as a coder I can trace back to the fundamentals in my computer science study. The specifics of any language we used were of no value, but time spend on optimization, abstraction, understanding operating system principles, the basics of assembly and computer architecture... these things make a difference in my work.

Now, plenty of people I work with don't have that background and they do just fine. If you have a long way to go then it might not be worth it.

I think the masters is probably the best choice. You'd likely get all those fundamentals and not have to take a lot of the more topical stuff if you switch to that conversion program. My only caveat would be that it should be strong on design and project planning over pure code assuming you're trying to get the most career bang for your buck and time.
posted by phearlez at 12:36 PM on May 8, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks everyone - asking this has been more useful than I imagined. I had a bit of coursework in for the networking module which was already a week overdue and I was debating whether to bother completing/submitting it. I'm a bit too far behind with the module to actually answer all the questions, but I did what I could and submitted something, which at least keeps my options open.

And I'd forgotten about the masters until now. Turns out that there's a new course that looks perfect for me. I'll be applying for that. But it makes sense to keep up with the degree work until then, though.
posted by xchmp at 1:05 PM on May 8, 2012

Honestly, I've never heard of the Open University and I doubt I would put a lot of stock in it for hiring. It sounds like you already have a BA, so a second degree that isn't a MA or higher doesn't check any boxes for me. I tend to favor any degree plus relavent experience over an IT degree. I guess I've just ran across one too many, "get an IT degree to make money" types. I like to find, "I really love this stuff" types.
posted by advicepig at 1:24 PM on May 8, 2012

Honestly, I've never heard of the Open University and I doubt I would put a lot of stock in it for hiring.

Ah, the UK's Open University is a well respected mature student program.
posted by infini at 11:07 PM on May 8, 2012

Honestly, I've never heard of the Open University and I doubt I would put a lot of stock in it for hiring.
Yeah, that's because you live in Minnesota, so your opinion's not really that relevant in this instance. As infini says, The Open University has rather a lot of cultural cache in the UK and is every bit as respected as other UK universities, particularly as a "second-chance" institution for non-traditional students or those already in the workforce. It is not a for-profit/U of Phoenix-type place.
posted by Sonny Jim at 1:26 AM on May 9, 2012

Another thing to consider - are you in the transitional fee structure? OU's funding has been slashed and course fees will rocket from September for people who already have tertiary qualifications, so if you've registered your degree option now you'll need to do at least one module a year to keep within subsidised fees and finish by 2017.

In any case, as you already have an undergraduate degree it might be better to cherry pick the OU modules you think will be most useful for you practically as a foundation to the masters course you want and only apply for that when you are ready. It's best not to skip relevant 'basics' now because you really wont have time to redo this stuff during the masters.
posted by freya_lamb at 1:42 AM on May 9, 2012

If you want to continue a testing career, you might be better off just doing the professional certification that going for a more generic IT degree, e.g. TMAP Next or ISQTB, especially if you have a B.A. already (hence have evidence of being a college/university level job candidate).

That, together with a lot of verifyable experience in testing is much more important ime than having a proper IT degree.
posted by MartinWisse at 4:30 AM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

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