prof masters in Chicago
January 5, 2006 8:10 AM   Subscribe

Professional master's programs (design/computer science related) -- is it worth it? Or would you recommend being self-taught instead?

a little background.. I'm looking at MS of Design at IIT and Prof. MS in computer science at U of Chicago. I was a literature/foreign language major, discrete math minor at a liberal arts college, and have since (3 yrs) worked in publishing/ educational technology as an editor. I've considered instructional design or HCI as possibilities. (I'm currently doing some certificate design classes and teaching myself Python and Flash to try to get a clearer idea of what to do, and doing a small amt of non-profit work as time permits). I've gone in circles about applying, but the time and money to take classes one at a time (without a bulk school loan) & trying to get my foot in the door without a degree seem to recommend it.
posted by ejaned8 to Work & Money (9 answers total)
i think it's worth it if you would enjoy research and are interested in doing a thesis. you won't necessarily learn anything in a masters program that you couldn't have through self-teaching. as with any education, your own motivation is the key -- if you want to learn, you can learn anything.

some IT job opportunities require masters degrees. i often feel that these requirements are somewhat misguided, as their only real utility is to filter down the pool of applicants but not necessarily guaranteeing a particular level of talent. not many jobs in IT do require masters degrees; nevertheless, it wouldn't work against you.

i don't think you should sign up for a masters degree in CS until you feel confident in your ability to program and design on your own. i really don't look at CS masters programs as an opportunity to broaden your own talents and skillset, but rather an opportunity to focus on one particular area of interest. for example: programming language design and type systems (sweet, sweet jesus -- you would not believe how much research goes into those two) and artificial intelligence (and/or robotics, if you're lucky to go to a frou-frou college's masters program like MIT) are big ones. HCI is definitely another, and if you're really interested in it, you could do well. (the late jef raskin's a big name, if not necessarily big in academia.) i think that people looking for a strong, broader education in a cs masters program aren't going to get their money's worth (and probably aren't going to succeed academically as well).

my disclaimer: i'm merely a bachelor's in cs. i would probably do fine in a masters or phd program, but at this time i couldn't justify the money spent/loaned.

good luck.
posted by moz at 9:52 AM on January 5, 2006

A sizeable amount of the 'worth' of any degree, undergrad or grad, is that people making decisions about you will take it as a sign that you can set a goal, do the work and complete the project.

As someone who studied CS at the undergrad level I do wonder what someone would take from graduate work who hadn't done the undergrad time. For practical worth I think you'd get more from the undergrad stuff than the grad work, assuming you could even get a graduate degree without doing the classes in operating systems, software engineering and algorithms. They're core concepts and ways of looking at solutions that are a daily help as a coder. The grad level stuff is a bit more esoteric and I am unsure how much help you'd find it in the working world, though I say that based only on my examination of programs through catalogs and considering going myself, not from attending the classes.

Perhaps someone who has done both can speak better to the relative worth of the two levels?
posted by phearlez at 10:07 AM on January 5, 2006

I just dropped out of an information master's program (rated the 1st or 2nd in the country depending on who you ask) because it was *bullshit*, yo. I learned so much more on my own and from my web-designing spouse.

In my most useful & up-to-date class, the instructor would be corrected *daily* by these 3 students who had day jobs as programmers & designers. Actually, the instructor's day job was also as a programmer, and he was a great guy, but he just couldn't keep up with the people who learned all this stuff on their own (before they came to the school).

The 3 students hate the program; one is dropping out, one is sticking with just because "it'll look good on my resume" (uh, lame), and the other is a dick so I didn't ask ;-).
posted by ibeji at 10:53 AM on January 5, 2006

In your position, self-taught plus professional certifications is the way to go. Unless you have a wealth of experience, you do need to be able to show some sort of qualification to a potential employer, but a top-level certification is not only more valuable (IMO) than a 4 year CS degree, but much cheaper and quicker to get.

/ Now a professional code-slinger, wasted far too much time on my MSME
posted by LordSludge at 11:13 AM on January 5, 2006

Ibeji, from your location, I can guess which one. ;) I did my HCI degree there, then I went and entered a completely different field. Part of my motivation not to do HCI professionally was that this program didn't teach me a lot in terms of technical skills. Since I came in with a BA in French and not a whole lot of professional/programming experience or knowledge, I didn't have the skills that some had and that program didn't really provide the opportunity to build them.

Most of what you get from a Master's degree program is theoretical - not so much about the actual programming but the principles of good design and things like that. With a design and computer science background, I would think ejaned8 would be well-prepared... but then again if you already have that combination of skills, I'm not sure how much you would gain by getting another degree.

I think I would recommend doing a lot of reading about the field before committing the time and money to it. Make sure you know what you're getting into, what your goals are and exactly what you need to get there.
posted by srah at 11:18 AM on January 5, 2006

A sizeable amount of the 'worth' of any degree, undergrad or grad, is that people making decisions about you will take it as a sign that you can set a goal, do the work and complete the project.

I'll add that I would also agree with phearlez that part of the value is just in having a master's degree. Even though I'm not practicing HCI, just having a master's degree made me more attractive to employers in my (unrelated) field.
posted by srah at 11:21 AM on January 5, 2006

Response by poster: thanks all -- very helpful.
posted by ejaned8 at 11:44 AM on January 5, 2006

You may be interested in DePaul's professional certifications. I used one as my intro to the programming eons ago, and then continued on with a Master's (some of the credits transferred to the graduate school too).
posted by SuperSquirrel at 4:29 PM on January 5, 2006

Depends on what you want it for. If it's a piece of paper to wave in front of an employer, it might be useful but if you want actually learn something, forget it.

Practically all masters by coursework these days are completely crap - universities are churning people through for profit and the result is graduates who know significantly less than the average honours graduate. Employers are starting to wise up to this and don't really care about further degrees unless they're by research.

So for some jobs it can't hurt, particularly where the HR people are idiots and looking for checklists of things to filter graduates by. It's an easy intro to the field. However, a coursework masters (particularly without matching undergrad degree) screams "clueless monkey who bought the paper" and that is not an impression you want to make.
posted by polyglot at 9:35 PM on January 5, 2006

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