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Graduate degrees - worthwhile in this biz?

Given how few programmers even seem to have a bachelors degree in the field today, I may already know the answer to this question.  But I'm wondering how common, and how useful, graduate-and-above level studies are for programmers.  This is assuming one plans to go back into the workforce and not just become a professional academic.

What's the consensus?

Monday, December 1, 2003

Get experience, then get the MS at night.  Then, while you are getting the MS, build up your reputation by writing or coding open source products.  Show people tangible work results and your rep will go up.

I would say, all thing being equal, a 10-20% pay premium is what you get from an MS.  That's not much money for a lot of work.  HOWEVER ...

1) Certain really cool companies, like google, require an MS.  Getting an MS to work for a cool company is an option; those companies typically pay > 20% premium for advanced degrees.

2) If you want to move into independent consulting, an MS is a big plus.  If you can pull this off, you can easily get a 100% pay premium over what a FTE gets. Of course, there is no security, stability, you have to pay for your own benefits, office, etc.

good luck ...

Matt H.
Monday, December 1, 2003

I'd say "It depends". I'm assuming that you refer to an advanced degree in CompSci. I've done mainly "corporate" work during my career, and I don't believe I've ever worked with anyone that had an advanced CompSci degree. I work with lots of PhDs, but they have their doctorates in physics or finance, etc. They all program, to some extent, as part of their duties.

If/when I go back to school, it will be for a degree in something other than computers. I intend to continue programming, but I personally believe that the "wave of the future", will be gaining expertise in a domain, and having the ability to write software as well.

For someone in my field (finance), the ROI for a masters in CompSci would likely be a large negative number.

Rob VH
Monday, December 1, 2003

Before anyone can answer this vague question in a way that makes any kind of sense, you've got one task:

  Defind: "worthwhile"

There are several aspects: (a) Financial: If an MS gets you 5K to 10K a year more (I don't really have any stats) -- is that "worthwile" for you? What may be "worthwhile" to you may not be to someone else. (b) Knowledge: Some of us derive a huge amount of satisfaction from just knowing things that your average joe doesn't. Does that make it worthwhile to you? Do you get off on knowing things that the average programmer doesn't? (c) Contacts: You may work on a research project that puts you in contact with both academic and industry leaders in your area. Then again, you may not. Is that "worthwhile" to you? (d) You get to tag on another title: MSCS (Master of Science, Computer Science (or other title)). I personally get off on collecting titles. Some don't. This alone makes it worthwhile for me. Maybe not for you. You haven't defined "worthwhile". (e) New Toys: As part of a "cutting edge" curriculum at a top-notch institute, you may have access to "bleeding edge" toys (hardware, software etc.) that you may not have access to in the outside world. Is this "worthwhile" for you? I don't know. You haven't defined it yet.

I think you see where I'm going.

Please define "worthwhile" in your terms.

Sgt. Sausage
Monday, December 1, 2003

The degree itself and 50 cents will buy you a cup of coffee.  It won't open any doors worth walking through.  The education coming with that degree, however, might be very valuable.  It all depends on what level you're starting from, how much you might have learned on your own, what you're giving up during that time, and how good the program is.

I'm working with a fellow who recently came to software from the physical sciences.  He's very bright, but has a lot to learn about programming.  He also tends to focus his self-study on specific technologies, rather than theory and approach.  He's in a part-time MSCS program, currently taking a compilers and languages class.  From the material he's shown me, it's a really well done class, and he will benefit immensely from it.  It's exactly the sort of thing he needs right now to improve.

Another fellow there is one of the sharpest programmers on their staff, and one of the few that I would actually hire.  He never even finished his BS, but he's clearly passionate about programming and knows a bunch.  While his getting the BS, any BS for that matter, would open a few doors now shut to him (at least in today's anemic market), an MS wouldn't matter much at all, and he's already well beyond anything covered in the classes.

The value of the degree itself in securing for you money, interesting employers, respect, or responsibility is completely eclipsed by dozens of factors, especially: your innate talent for programming; your skill level; your past dexterity and luck at getting critical and diverse items onto your resume; your interviewing skills; your on-the-job salesmanship; your negotiating skills; the size, variety, and individuals of your personal network; and the city you choose to live.

Monday, December 1, 2003

I think the worth of a higher degree is a cyclical thing. A few years ago when the IT economy was good it was rare for someone to look at your academic record (for me, at least, with about 10 years in the field).

Now that  the employers have the upper hand a bit in the market I'm starting to see the "must have MS or PhD" and "excellent academic results - univeristy medal or similar" appear in job ads a lot more.

In the good times,  queries about my (decidedly mediocre) uni results would be met by my canned reply of "drinking & getting laid". There would be laughs all 'round and the discussion would turn the bits of my career that happened _after_ the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the bad times (ie now, though it seems to be getting better) the same reply gets a frown.

As for doing an Master's : that's 2 years full time in my part of the world (and I'd have to do it part time - there are such things as families and mortgages).

Frankly, if I had 2 full years to play with, I'd spend the time building and selling a software product. All respect to Joel and the Creekers but you could probably get something like CityDesk out the door in 2 man-years.

Tuesday, December 2, 2003

If you want to do research type work, they are often mandatory. However if you like run of the mill corporate work, they are a mixed bag. A CS PhD is worthless at many companies, or a negative. However if you want to do research, government or otherwise, they are a huge plus. Masters are hugely company dependent, but most often I've seen them simply been considered an additional year or two of experience.

I work for an applied research arm of a technical institute, and you have to get an advanced degree within a year or two of working here.

Michael Langford
Wednesday, December 3, 2003

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