Archive for December, 2009

Comparing the Value of Degrees

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

In today’s Wall Street Journal article, The Alternative M.B.A.: One-Year Master’s Degrees, students are faced with a dilemma:

  1. Get a degree that is time-consuming, expensive, broad in scope, and widely-recognized.
  2. Get a degree that is faster, less expensive, narrow in scope, and untrusted in the marketplace.

You may not be in the market for an MBA, but these same choices face anyone seeking to continue his or her education, or even, to some extent, when selecting job openings for which to apply. As I mentioned in Boost Your Career with Professional Certifications, there are credentials you can acquire in a very short amount of time, but often for very specific skills that are not transferable to a wide variety of jobs, and that may or may not be highly regarded within your industry. The same is true, of course, for degrees.

At a recent industry event, I saw representatives from a local university promoting some of their degree programs:

  • MS in Computer Science
  • MEng (Information Engineering and Management)
  • MBA

Each program is interesting to me, but each one has certain limitations. For example, the MS in computer science is in a well-established and rigorous program. It would be a time-consuming degree, and once obtained, it would qualify me for a wide variety of technical positions. The MBA is also a widely recognized degree, which would qualify me for a wide variety of managerial positions. The MEng degree is a much newer program and the degree is not widely recognized; however, the program is designed for working professionals and can be completed while working full time. It would qualify me for managerial positions in IT.

Venn Diagram: Degree Programs and Skills

The MEng degree represents a much smaller area than either of the other 2 options. Specialization has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that if a position is available that requires the intersection of those 2 skill sets, your qualifications will put you above candidates with only one or the other. The disadvantage is that such positions are far more rare, and that your qualifications for more general positions (in this example, in either IT or management) are not as strong.

Acquiring a more specific qualification in an in-demand field will be an excellent short-term strategy, but as a long-term strategy it is riskier: it is hard to predict today what skills will be in demand tomorrow. In either case, a degree (or an additional degree) will certainly put you above the competition.