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Grad School Benefits?

By theblatant in Culture
Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 03:26:44 PM EST
Tags: etc (all tags)

Yet another question about CSC/CIS/MIS education.

What is the value of a graduate degree?

I'm entering my senior year in a BBA CIS program. I'm also in my third year of working almost-full-time as a developer of internet-enabled MIS systems in an insurance company. Recently, one of my professors broached the subject of me going to graduate school. To be honest, I hadn't really thought about it. He pitched it from the enter-academia angle.

Now I like school, from the student-perspective. So I'd probably enjoy the classwork in getting an advanced degree. However, I also like money, and, from what I hear, while in grad school, one is poor.

So the question is, what, besides the sheer joy of being in school, would getting a graduate degree do for me? Career-wise. I've already considered the obvious, a career as a university professor. But are there other career avenues that a Masters or a PhD would open up? For instance, to get into an area like designing new programming languages - does that take an advanced degree? Or data mining? Or doing corporate research, as opposed to research in a university - what kind of credentials are required? What kind of benefits are there from several more years of prostration at the academic altar?


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Grad School Benefits? | 18 comments (14 topical, 4 editorial, 0 hidden)
This is the deal: (4.15 / 13) (#1)
by StrontiumDog on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 11:57:14 AM EST

If you want to pursue an academic career (and that means mainly academia, though it is not neccessarily limited to academia; Bell Labs and IBM come to mind), then an advanced degree is practically a must. Without an advanced degree you are stuck in a role as lab or teaching assistant, or associate-whatever-at-a-community-college. You may escape this fate by being especially good, or by building a Linus Thorvalds-like reputation, but this route is generally harder than just going to grad school.

For the (ahem, ahem) Real World an advanced degree is often less valuable. While bearers of advanced degrees usually have a higher entry level into the job market, this is offset by the fact that (i) the trade off is 4 years of relevant work experience, salary, and benefits (ii) they lack the skills someone with 4 years work history has. Rarely is a grad degree directly relevant to the employer -- it is more an indicator of what the bearer is capable of.

In general it is easier to get into good research positions in industry starting with only a BS, than it is to get a good research position in academia with only a BS.

This is not a belittlement of academia. Far from it; after four years as an industry drone I am beginning to look into the possibilities of returning to uni and going for that PhD. But I think you have to do it out of love for the subject, and enthusiasm, not for the possible career prospects, otherwise you face a big chance of disillusionment. I mean, not that the Real World is any better, but at least it pays you better while it stuffs crap in your face.

Not necessarily 'poor' (4.66 / 12) (#2)
by fluffy grue on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 12:22:16 PM EST

Of course, things are all relative, but if you can get a teaching or research assistanceship, you can typically live comfortably, as long as you have no children. There are often some really neat fellowship/grant programs, as well; for example, I'm a recipient of the NSF's GAANN fellowship, where basically I have an easy ride for the next 3 years ($1250/month tax-free, which is quite livable in this city) and all I have to do is show progress towards a PhD, maintain a certain GPA, and be an American citizen. Since there aren't many American grad students in this department, they actually actively hunt down students to fill in the gaps (I'm one of the few in the latest batch of GAANN recipients who was already in the CS department, in fact).

Also, although I can't afford to buy all the neat toys that I want to, I'm finding my lifestyle to be a hell of a lot more fulfilling than when I was making much more at a crappy startup company. Toys aren't everything, and as cliché as this is, money can't buy happiness.

As far as the long-term benefits, working in industrial research almost requires a PhD; for example, Xerox PARC won't even consider anyone with less than a PhD for a research position - with a master's degree you can only be a janitor or administrator (about the same level on the food chain).

Designing programming languages (and being paid for it - anyone with an idea can design a language, you just might not be heard) is typically a research position. Dealing with new programming concepts, however, is much more of an academic thing which you'll never see in the real world (in the real world, if it isn't purely imperative, it's disregarded). Typically in academia, syntax is just a way of expressing ideas, and it's the semantics which are interesting to be studied.

FWIW, assuming responsible budgeting and investing, the few years' head start that average high school graduates get can lead to a much better long-term financial situation than postponing making money in order to earn a PhD. If it's just the economics you're going after, quit school ASAP, get a menial job, and roll everything you can into an IRA - you'll make signifigantly more that way overall, though the lifestyle leading to it won't be nearly as relaxed, fulfilling, or comfortable.
"Is not a quine" is not a quine.
I have a master's degree in science!

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]

What an incredible coincidence. (4.28 / 7) (#3)
by Alarmist on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 12:29:56 PM EST

I'm taking my last exam for my master's in MIS tonight.

Now, understand that I'm an oddball case: I have BAs in psychology and history, but my master's is in a completely different field. What I will say is this: a graduate program exposes you mainly to high-level concepts, rather than details (exception: the hardware/software course I took, and even that was watered down). You get to look at the bigger picture, and the tests ask more real-world sorts of questions.

However, in my case, about 70% of what I learned was stuff I could have picked up on my own because it just makes sense. The benefit, however, is that while most of the information was stuff I could have derived from other sources, it's not the sort of stuff I would have gone out of my way to think about. Hence, my take on education is that it makes you think about things that otherwise wouldn't have occurred to you.

The other 30% was divided pretty evenly between opinion and interesting facts.

Has it been worth it? I'm starting a new job on Monday, a job that I wouldn't have gotten without the knowledge I picked up in grad school. Sure, it's a low-level job (so far as IS salaries go), but it's a good start and will allow me the chance to really develop my skills.

From an Employer's & Employee's Perspective (4.50 / 8) (#7)
by lucas on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 03:24:06 PM EST

As both an employer and an employee, I can say that I was very concerned while in academia that I needed an advanced degree... when I got out into the Real World, however, I realized that degrees don't mean a whole hell of a lot.

I left a Master's program and began Spindletop in June, thus becoming an "employer" when I needed to find someone to help out with the immense amounts of work to run an entity. Going from "employee" to "employer" is difficult for me to do because there are certain learned traits that I refuse to do. A "real" employer of a "real" business isn't supposed to waste his time with Kuro5hin, for instance, for fear that a bad reputation would kill his project. For me, I've always been a hacker and will always value good discussions on topics. If I had Ivory Tower Syndrome, I wouldn't have been posting stuff on the Internet for nine years... I guess the cat's out of the bag, anyway. ;-)

As the resumes came in from my job postings, I found that what I was looking for wasn't tech skills or degrees, as people can get "degrees" from bogus colleges and bullshit about their tech skills that they learned from these "degrees"... and let me tell you, they do. I was more concerned (just as you would be) with the person as a whole, particularly people with good communication skills. There are some people out there who are brilliant on paper, but, then, you talk with them on the phone and they have no social skills whatsoever... or they make you (the employer-interviewer) feel really uncomfortable and anxious.

The best candidates did not have tech skills, they had people skills along with other talents besides computers. They had a personality and valued the opportunity to come and join the operation. They had independent personalities that were not sycophantish (ass-kissing) nor egotistic; they were comfortable with the process. A candidate's implied impressions are important; some people came to me with arrogant attitudes because they thought that Spindletop was either a dot-com (it helps to actually look up who you might be working for) or simply thought that their skills spoke for themselves and so they could afford to be rude.

The person I chose (Josh Oakes) did not have the best tech skills I'd seen, but he was genuinely enthusiastic, eager to learn, and someone I felt I could trust. His communication skills were superb and he was at ease planning the "new" Spindletop (which I later discussed in the "GNU Cooperative" article here on Kuro5hin).

What this means is that degrees and the like mean very little... especially when the job market becomes tighter and colleges crank out more MIS and CS degreed-people. Getting another degree (after Undergraduate) in MIS or CS is probably not the best thing right now unless you are going to remain in Academia.

If you're talking about getting a degree for purely superficial reasons (e.g., how it looks on your resume), as an employer, I would see it not necessarily as a benefit, but more of a hindrance... particularly if the degree was from the same place as their undergraduate degree... because Acadmia is still far behind the marketplace, and the real proof of someone's ability comes from them working and their ability to do their previous job well and get along with people. Those would be my first impressions.

Overall, however, it's like an MBA or something; it means nothing without a personality behind it. Most business schools will not accept you in without some time AWAY from academia because it changes your personality for the better. You come back, ready to apply Sun Tzu's Art of War to your experiences (standard MBA reading). Without having experienced the real world, you would be applying it to what you think the real world might be like.

However, this is just my experience that I thought I would share with the community; YMMV.


Similar stories on kuro5hin (3.50 / 6) (#8)
by jesterzog on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 04:24:41 PM EST

For your reference, here's some of the previous stories covering similar ground that you could check:

It's too bad stories that haven't made it through the mod queue can't be linked to. There'd be stacks more if that were possible.

jesterzog Fight the light

Masters and PhD, not undergrad (4.00 / 1) (#9)
by theblatant on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 04:48:59 PM EST

I read through all these stories and a good bit of the comments. They seem to be about Bachelors degrees. My question was specifically about Masters and PhD. Very different animals.

[ Parent ]
Have a look at this discussion... (4.00 / 4) (#10)
by Manish on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 04:56:25 PM EST

Have a look at this discussion too...

To colege or not to college at K5 on 20th July 2000.


Narrowing the question (3.00 / 3) (#11)
by theblatant on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 05:11:21 PM EST

We all know that a degree is not required for all IT jobs. We all know that the experience one can get in the real world is often more valuable to one's career than the equivalent time spent in school. These topics have been covered in previous articles, of which URLs have been posted here.

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the presumption is on the side of not doing a graduate degree.

My question is: in what cases is this not true? In what cases is it actually better to spend time getting the graduate degree than work?

Depends (4.00 / 3) (#13)
by RangerBob on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 09:02:34 PM EST

Getting an advanced degree depends on what you want to do and in some ways how the economy is doing. Right now the economy is pretty well off, and people are getting snatched up left and right (I've even seen some students hired and go to work before they've finished their degrees. Dumb, but their decision).

You might also look for jobs that would send you back to grad school at some point. A lot of places are doing this now. You could work for a few years to build up some cash (and start to repay those loans :), and then see if they'll put you into some grad school program. Many places will basically pay your salary while you're going to school.

You'd do well to get one for research, especially if you want to be taken seriously. Uncle Sam pays me to do computer science research, and I'm going back to get my masters and doctorate degrees in comp sci. You can do research with a BS, and a lot of people do this all the time. But, there are still a lot of people who have the attitude that you're nothing unless you're doing research and have a PhD.

The Numbers (3.00 / 2) (#14)
by malikcoates on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 09:17:12 PM EST

Let's assume your starting salary out of college would be $60,000. Let's say one extra year of school adds $10,000.

Question: How long would it take you to overtake someone who just started working right out of school?

Answer: Maybe Never! Your salary depends much more on what moves you make than what degrees you have. Some people make $250K with very little experience, so it really is a roll of the dice.

I'd say not to even think about it unless you really enjoy school.

Salary as an indicator? (none / 0) (#15)
by python on Sat Dec 16, 2000 at 04:15:52 AM EST

If salary is used as a major indicator (and who wouldn't use it <g>) as to someone's success factor as it correlates to having/not having a degree, I can happily report that being shy of an A.A.S degree (one course) in Electrical Engineering Technology has not hindered my performance/ability in the technology field. Not one iota. Without sounding pretentious, I am pleased to say that I earn a six figure salary without possessing an advanced degree.

Granted, this work is in the highest demand: web-based n-tier applications.

Yet, my blessings have certainly been based upon my experience - which drives my marketability. As a side note, I do appreciate the fact that I started out in small signal electronics. Getting a chance to see how software interacts with and controls hardware is golden and should not be overlooked.

In short, I value education immensely and will continue my endeavors. In no way has my career been hindered by my lack of formal education. Thus, my earning of an MS/PhD degree is that much sweeter to me, not being driven by economics.

What a great time to be alive =)

The Value of Education (4.50 / 2) (#16)
by Brandybuck on Sat Dec 16, 2000 at 04:37:11 PM EST

The value of an advanced degree is the Education. With a capital "E". You won't learn how to do anything, but you will learn a lot about something. I floundered in university until I set down and figured out what I really wanted from it. Once I figured out I wanted to be educated instead of trained I started excelling.

The problem with most engineering students, including CE and CS is that they view the university as merely a "trade school". This is the wrong way to look at it. Go to school to get an education first, and a trade second.

If you don't want to stay in academia, there are a few companies that value advanced engineering degrees, even in the software field. But you'll have to hunt for them. Stay away from the dotcoms and startups. Go for those that actually do some software research. A MS will be of no use for a coding job. But it's invaluable for an engineering job. So seek out those companies that value engineering over coding.

My case (2.00 / 1) (#17)
by antizeus on Sat Dec 16, 2000 at 09:51:39 PM EST

I went to grad school for a few reasons. One reason was that I knew that I had the ability to go the distance in my chosen field (mathematics). Another reason, perhaps more important, was that I didn't feel that I was ready for a "real world" job. This was partly due to my field (again, mathematics) -- at the time I was suffering the common misconception that your major should have something to do with what you're going to do when you leave school (see "College != Trade School"). Also, I felt that additional levels of degree would give me the leverage I needed to choose what sort of job I wanted. For example, I hate formal attire. I promised myself long ago that I would never wear a necktie. Getting a graduate degree seemed like a great way to improve my chances of keeping my promise.

Anyway, my choice turned out to be a good one. Grad school increased my self-esteem, my maturity, and my problem solving skills. And of course it made my resume look better.

Learn to learn (none / 0) (#18)
by micco on Mon Dec 18, 2000 at 10:22:53 AM EST

IMO, the greatest benefit of graduate school for me was learning how to learn. I don't mean this in the cliche "knowledge for knowledge sake" way, but that I learned how to go from zero to expert in a given subject in a very short time.

I attended a BPU (big prestigious university) studying Mechanical Engineering. I originally came to grad school intending to do work in the heat transfer field, but got an opportunity to work in a supersonic wind tunnel (i.e. big freaking hardware) and switched to fluid dynamics. I had only moderate exposure to compressible fluids in undergrad, so I was forced to bone up in a hurry. When my experimental setup required high-speed data acquisition, I learned how to do that. When the analysis branched off into chaos theory, I learned that. My mentors were helpful, but mostly I learned by seeking the right references and reading up on the subject at hand. This was all pre-web, so I spent a lot of nights in the library.

When I finished the PhD., I took a postdoc position studying low-speed laminar water flows. This is fundamentally different than the supersonic work I'd been doing, so it was back to the library. Of course, I'd covered the topic in textbooks, but it takes a lot of time to look at the actual research papers being published in a given field and find out what's been done and what the state of the art is (much less learning the names of all the "players").

When the postdoc wrapped up, the web had just been born and I left "Science" for an internet startup. In due course, I learned HTML, Perl, Java, etc. In each case, the regimen I'd gone through in grad school is what allowed me to focus properly and learn quickly.

Caveat: Obviously, you don't have to go to grad school to learn these skills, and anyone who's self-taught in any computer skill has the means to self-teach again.

Aside: Actually, the main focus of my time in grad school was club-hopping nightlife. This in no way contributed to the "learning" aspects of this post, but it's either a good reason to go to grad school or a good reason not to, depending on whether you regard living life as a waste of time. Now that I've moved on to running a business and a family, I can look back at grad school as the last time I had absolutely no external contraints on my time. I don't miss it, but I do cherish the memories. IMO, grad school provides you a relatively unstructured situation in which to explore both academically and non-academically. That in itself is an opportunity.

Grad School Benefits? | 18 comments (14 topical, 4 editorial, 0 hidden)
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