That higher degree

I’m sighing here, because I’ve just heard from an another very good IT professional who has decided their career will be immeasurably enhanced by doing a higher degree.

I’m sighing not because I don’t think there is value in higher degrees from an academic perspective, but because this individual thinks that anyone cares about the higher degree when it comes to what makes someone’s career take off.

There is this false expectation that “if I just get this MBA, I can get to the next level”.

Tied in with this false expectation is the thought that anyone in IT is going to get their career managed for them by their employers.

I have news. You will not have a boss long enough in IT for them to manage your career for you in any substantive way, and most large organisations are rubbish at long term talent management anyway. The fact is, long term IT professionals who don’t change jobs frequently enough get painted into a corner where their skills devalue over time. And IT organisations are full of people who know this, and who therefore  move every few years, making long term talent management pretty impossible.

Now, considering that a higher degree is going to take a few years to get, and everyone on the playing field who matters (and stopping you progressing) will be gone in a few years, how is the new piece of paper going to make any difference at all, really?

When people look at CVs, they don’t usually care all that much about the education, so long as there are signs there is some. They only care about what you’ve already done in your career to that point. Anyone can get a degree, after all, even a higher one.

But not everyone is able to make things happen. That’s especially true in IT, where we have optimised ourselves to make sure that change can only happen in extreme circumstances. “Protecting live service” – which is very laudable of course – has ultimately had the effect of making sure that only those with the largest sticks can make any difference.

A new degree does not give you a large stick. Hierarchical position is a large stick, or control of a budget is a large stick or the ear of someone important is a large stick. You get such sticks by doing stuff, not by having an advanced degree. People who can hand out sticks do so because the have worked out it is OK to trust you.

Really, there are only two times it makes sense to get further degrees, with all the attendant cost and time commitments.

The first is if you’re new to work, and you have no career history. Then, having that advanced degree is a nice CV stuffer that can help differentiate, but I do wonder if the personal ROI on maybe getting selected for a few extra interviews is really worth the extra years of study.

The second reason – really the only reason I think – is you’re interested in the content.

So often, good people with good jobs in IT go and get that extra degree, but not for either of these reasons. That’s why I sigh. Its such a waste for most people.

They’d be far better off cultivating people who can give them big sticks instead.

8 Responses to“That higher degree”

  1. February 14, 2010 at 5:54 pm #

    great article. I know many with higher degrees serving fries in MacDonalds.
    JFDI is the best degree, granted by the school of life.
    chris

  2. February 14, 2010 at 8:00 pm #

    Very interesting post and one I totally agree with even though I am currently in the final year of my MBA studies.
    Personally, I am doing the MBA primarily to increase my personal knowledge and also to improve myself. Secondly, I am doing it to help me to do my current role better. On both these counts I feel the investment of both my own time and money has been well worth it.
    As for career progression, as you say, when you get to the stage of your career that I am at achievements and experience are more important than pieces of paper. However, as you point out, it is always useful to have some recent learning on your CV to show you haven't stagnated or believe that you have nothing left to learn. A Postgraduate Certificate or even learning a new language would demonstrate that.
    Having said that, I would say that I have found my MBA learning extremely interesting. Not only have I learned a lot that will help me in my life, current role and future career, but I have also met many people from varied backgrounds who have given me different perspectives.
    I would recommend that the IT professional that you refer to above carries on with his pursuit of a higher degree, even if his motives are flawed. I reckon that once started they will enjoy it for the above mentioned reasons.

    • August 20, 2011 at 5:47 am #

      This ifornmtaion is off the hizool!

  3. Bill McCluggage
    February 14, 2010 at 9:14 pm #

    The primary reason to complete a higher degree must surely be self improvement. In my career I have encouraged colleagues to embark on a higher degree and gave found that nit only does the individual gain in self-esteem but also the resulting self development has benefited the employer.
    While I agree that a higher degree may not be the right route ahead for everyone and on a case by case basis there are equally valuable vocational qualifications, I would never dissuade someone from following a course of self improvement.
    I note that you have a doctorate and wonder if you feel that your investmentv was dedicated to obtaining a 'CV stuffer' or just personal interest.
    I too would encourage the person you refer to above to invest in themselves – even if it does not result in immediate recognition by their current employer – they inevitably will benefit in terms of personal development.

  4. February 15, 2010 at 2:48 am #

    Duncan,
    I agree completely with what you've said, including the last point. What you're actually saying, I think, is that if you start your higher degree to get ahead and then find it useful as content, that's a good thing.
    Still, I think that people need to realise they're not going to get that big boost just by having new paper. Especially if they're already experienced and performing.

  5. February 15, 2010 at 2:56 am #

    Hi Bill,
    Yes, any education is very, very valuable. I don't deny that people should do higher degrees if they want to learn new stuff. I guess what I'm saying here is that doing a degree with the express purpose of being more promotable seems silly to me.
    I have to admit that I did both my advanced degrees, firstly, for purposes of CV stuffing. At least, that's the reason I did it to begin with. Then they turned into things I was very interested in, and have spent the years since writing about.
    However, at the time I enrolled, I stupidly assumed that all I'd have to do to have a decent career is get more degrees. That is the danger I am pointing out in this post.
    I hope I have learned better now 🙂

  6. March 16, 2010 at 8:47 am #

    people choose IT have to get further degree, because of the changing of the IT environment.

  7. March 16, 2010 at 8:49 am #

    But surely there are better ways to get experience in new technology than a degree? Wouldn't a degree take too long if all you want is a new technology skill?

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