In all of my IT courses on Udemy, I ask my students to introduce themselves. I do this for a couple of reasons. First, to have an understanding of what they expect to gain from my course. Secondly, to simply be cordial and to get a chance to reply and personally welcome them to the course. And more often than not, especially with my Microsoft Technical Associate (MTA) courses, many of my students are taking the course as a prerequisite to get into WGU for either a bachelor’s or master’s degree in IT. So, for that reason, I wanted to write this blog article to give you my opinion on the value of a college degree to kickstart a career in IT.
Are Degrees Valuable for IT?
Well, it depends. It depends because IT is a vast field, and college degrees vary greatly:
- Computer Science
- Computer Engineering
- IT Management
- Cybersecurity and Information Assurance
- Network Management
- Data Analytics
- Database Management
- And the list goes on….
For certain specialties such as computer engineering and bioinformatics, a degree is highly invaluable because what you learn in College are often things that would be very difficult to learn on your own. For instance, physics, calculus, statistics, and life sciences classes like biochemistry for bioinformatics. Further, most of these careers require advanced graduate-level degrees, not only an undergraduate degree and employers will explicitly state so on their job postings. For example, here’s the first requirement for a bioinformatics associate job posting on Indeed.com, “A Master’s degree, or Bachelor’s with 2 years of working experience in bioinformatics or computational biology.” You’ll often find that computer engineers positions often require a bachelor’s degree as well. For highly specialized areas in the realm of information technology and computer engineering, degrees are most certainly required.
But What About General IT Positions?
That’s a great question! For most entry-level and general IT positions, such as helpdesk support, desktop support, network support, and junior roles such as a junior systems administrator, junior software developer, or junior database administrator, a degree isn’t essential. And in most cases, it’s not really preferred. Why is that? Well, most of what employers are looking for can easily be obtained via a combination of self-learning, industry-standard certifications, and on-the-job training and experience.
That’s why CompTIA, a vendor-neutral certification provider is so popular. CompTIA provides a wide array of entry-to-mid level IT certifications, ones that a lot of employers explicitly ask for. Certifications, such as the A+, Network+, Linux+, and Security+ are highly coveted certifications. The same goes for other certifications such as Cisco, Microsoft, Oracle, and many other vendor-specific certifications.
Why are Certifications So Valuable?
Curriculum from one university to another can vary drastically, as can the level of teaching. Coming from someone who has a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees and has taught computer networking courses as an adjunct professor, I can tell you that no two degree programs and instructors are the same. This leads to major inconsistencies in a student’s level of knowledge when they graduate.
I’ll give you a blunt and brutally honest example. I recently had a student enrolled in my Introduction to Computer Networking for Non-Techies course that already had a bachelor’s in IT management and was recently accepted into a master’s program in Cybersecurity. This student enrolled in my course because she didn’t know basic networking concepts and was struggling in her master’s program. She asked me rudimentary computer networking questions she couldn’t answer in her master’s program because her bachelor’s program utterly failed her by not teaching her fundamental IT concepts, she would need to be successful on-the-job and in an advanced degree program.
And that’s where industry-standard certifications come to the rescue. Industry-standard certifications, such as CompTIA, Microsoft, and Cisco certifications, are designed with what the industry and specific vendors want you to know. Additionally, for vendor-specific certifications, you’re tested on your knowledge of their proprietary hardware, software, and interfaces. So, when you study for and successfully pass these certification exams, your prospective employer will know specifically what you’re “certified” to know. Not only do CompTIA, Microsoft, Cisco, and other vendors publicly post the certification domain objectives, but they review and update them on a regular basis to ensure they’re in alignment with the current state of the IT industry.
Experience is Key
For entry-level and general IT positions, experience combined with certifications is the key to your success in landing a new job. Some of you may be thinking, “Alton, I’m new to IT. How can I gain experience?” That’s a great question. First, experience doesn’t have to come in the form of a traditional 9 to 5 job but can come in the form of volunteering, internships, and using the Internet to your advantage. Additionally, experience comes from studying for and passing certifications. Build your own knowledge by self-studying, earning certifications, and practicing however you can. Inquire with a local food bank, your church, or a non-profit if they need volunteer IT help. Look for unpaid internships as well. Lastly, start your own blog, or better yet, a YouTube channel, and post video tutorials there. If you’re looking to become an applications developer, then post your code on places like GitHub too. As you can tell, there are many ways to build up experience that you can include on your resume and elaborate during an interview.
So, are Degrees Valuable?
Hopefully, you already know the answer, which is, “It depends.” The best way to be certain is to use websites like Indeed.com and browse job posting. Those job postings will tell you exactly what required and desirable qualifications they’re looking for in prospective employees. For certain ones, degrees will be required, but for other ones, only a combination of certifications and experience.