Is an MBA or a Masters in Computer Science worth the time and money?

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I have received a large number of questions on this topic over the last couple of months. Here are my thoughts and suggestions on the topic.

To begin, making the decision to move forward toward an advanced college degree brings with it years of personal commitment, large sums of money, and the opportunity cost of where your mental commitment, time and money could otherwise be spent. Because of the personal enormity of this decision on your life, please consider my thoughts to be a single data point in your decision to, or not to, move forward.

I would like to begin my answer to you by using myself as the case study. I began my career as a software developer working on business-related software. I had also decided very early in my career that even though I truly loved doing technical work (and still do), I wanted to move into the management ranks. I made this decision based on my thought that this was what everyone did, rather than any in-depth analysis and/or understanding of what I was doing.

Because of this decision, I started a part-time MBA program at night at Babson College, aggressively moved through my coursework and completed the program in about three years. For me and my chosen direction of IT management, getting my MBA was a wonderful decision. I learned about business not only from my professors, but also from my fellow students, both of which were not in technical professions. For me, given my chosen career direction, yes, an MBA was certainly worth my time, money, and occasionally sweat and tears.

If early in my career I had made a different decision, to stay technical, rather than aspire to the ranks of IT management, I would have pursued a Masters in Computer Science.

I believed then and I believe now that having an advanced degree in itself may not help you, but not having one can hurt you. The reason I say that an advanced degree won’t necessarily help you is because, once hired, you still have to perform well on the job. The reason not having an advanced decree can hurt you is because when applying for a new job, you will be competing against people with Master degrees. On paper, all other things such as experience being equal, other job candidates will appear to have a higher level of professional expertise and commitment to their career than you do. In essence, having a Masters will help you open doors, but it’s your ability, professional reputation, interview skills, commitment to professional excellence, and personal connections that allow you to walk through the door and get the job.

Beyond simply words on a resume, there are also other very significant reasons why a Masters degree can be of great value to you, including the following:

• The knowledge you will gain through your coursework can help you throughout your career • The knowledge and perspective you gain by talking with your classmates • The ability of using your newly gained knowledge to change or grow your current career path • Assuming your Masters is from a different university than your undergraduate degree, you will have another alumni group available to you for professional networking and mentoring

The last question you may be waiting for me to answer may be is it worthwhile to get a Masters degree at all, whether it’s an MBA or computer science oriented. I would like to answer that question by asking you a series of questions:

• Given your specific career goals, will a Masters degree help you get there? • Are you in a position, both personally and professionally, to spend the time and money needed to get an advanced degree? If not now, then when and how? • Will a Masters over-qualify you for the job you really want? • Would you like to pursue a PhD later in life? If yes, in what area and will this Masters help you get there? • Do you enjoy going to school or is it truly just for the degree. If it’s just for the degree are you willing to grind through it until the end?

In closing, an MBA and a Masters in Computer Science are both great degrees and can serve you well if your future goals are aligned with what the degree can provide. If not, you will learn some interesting material and you will meet some interesting people, but it will not help you reach your future goals. On the other hand, if an advanced degree does align with your career goals, it can help get you get there sooner, with greater success.

If you have any questions about your career in IT, please email me at eric@ManagerMechanics.com or find me on Twitter at @EricPBloom.

Until next time, work hard, work smart, and continue to build your professional brand.

Read more of Eric Bloom's Your IT Career blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Eric on Twitter at @EricPBloom. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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