Ask LH: Should I Finish My IT Degree?

Ask LH: Should I Finish My IT Degree?

Dear Lifehacker, I’m currently at university in Melbourne studying a bachelor of information technology. My end goal is to work doing windows or Unix systems administration at a large company. So far though a lot of the skills I’ve acquired don’t seem very useful in a corporate environment and since I assume a lot of stuff is taught on the job and specific to the company, I’m wondering is it all worth it for the bit of paper that says I have a degree? Thanks, A Guy Who Hates Wasting Time

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Dear Impatient Guy,

Up-front bias admission: I finished university. And I think you should finish university too.

It’s true that many of the specific skills you need for any particular role are going to be learned on the job (and that’s the case whether you’re doing a degree in IT, journalism, animal husbandry or anything else). However, when it comes time to apply for an entry-level job, who is going to look like a more promising candidate: the drop-out or the person who has demonstrated that they can stick with a three-year project, meet an ongoing series of deadlines and master new skills on a regular basis? I know which one I’d choose to hire.

University isn’t designed necessarily to train you with a highly specific set of vocational skills (though that can be the outcome if you do medicine or accounting or law). It teaches you to think critically and how to absorb and interpret new information critically. That’s utterly essential in IT.

I can flat-out guarantee that while there will be legacy systems in place in a decade, there will also be new technologies you will have to learn about, whether that’s on the job or through further training. The process doesn’t stop. Dropping out in the first wave of study is not going to make you look like a promising candidate, and will likely limit your career options later on. Stick with the study; you’ll have plenty of time to acquire the nuances of the corporate world when you’re done.


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  • Thanks for answering my question!

    I definitely agree in that even though I think I could demonstrate my skills to any future employer, that one piece of paper is definitely worth sticking it out for. Thanks again!

    – Also does that mean I won the HTC One ? *hopeful*

    • Good question. @anguskidman are you planning on announcing the winner of the HTC One?

    • There are also plenty of opportunities to develop and get paid through graduate positions, these are generally between 1-2 years long, and are the company you’ll work for effectively training you. And they’ll give you a workload to suit to how quickly you will catch onto things. I’ve been in my graduate position for 3 months now and I’m loving it, Work is great and I’m constantly learning. I’ve also got a great work life balance, and my manager is providing a lot of support in my development

  • From my experience I see uni as a place that teaches you the concepts you can use to apply to your career, take a huge amount of money that you could have spent somewhere else, and give you a piece of paper that too many potential employers will require you to have even though it doesn’t really mean much in the grand scheme of things.

    That last point alone sadly is the reason why you should finish your degree.

  • Fifteen to twenty years ago I’d have said don’t bother, waste of time. Nowadays the IT job market is flooded with graduates and you need to stand out if you have any chance.

    If you can’t beat em, join em. 🙂

  • It also show your employer you have the persistence and work ethic to finish large projects and are able to undertake self-improvement.

    • The problem with that is that actual work experience is a better indicator, since not only does it show persistence and work ethic but it also shows practical application of domain knowledge. But despite that, many companies take a very rigid approach to hiring, rejecting applicants with no degree even if they have years of experience.

      I’ve been in IT for about 15 years with experience in software and web development, high level technical support, system and data analysis, etc. but I still regularly have my resume rejected on the grounds I don’t have a university degree backing it up.

  • For medium and large companies – recruitment is handled by a specific department or recruiter. They are not necessarily technical experts and as any entry level positions normally has many candidates, their issue will be to cut down the number of possible candidates – so anyone without a degree will be an automatic discard – before the remaining CVs are passed onto the hiring manager. Also if your goal is to work for a large company – they often take graduate trainees (people still in university) to work for them as part of a graduate program – and this often leads to a permanent job with the company.

  • I never finished my CompSci degree and I don’t think it’s affected my career at all thus far (5-6 years in). I got a full-time job as a programmer sometime in my third year and just never went back.

    The thing is, out in the real world you learn more every month working on real things and with experienced people than you do in a year at university where the methodologies tend to be fairly outdated in a fast-moving industry like IT. People in the industry know this, and once I had a year or two under my belt nobody has ever even asked about education.

    Of course, what others say is true – and it’s probably not a good idea to leave without knowing you can grab one of those entry-level jobs as the first time is definitely the hardest.

    • I guess there are two main points you have here.

      1) as stated in the article, finishing a degree does get your foot in the door for entry level. There are exceptions (GSH above this post, for example), but that’s largely the thing.

      2) Having that degree means that you have the ‘core’ domain knowledge of the area, and are also able to learn about things. Being able to learn on your own is a core aim of every uni degree in australia, and its probably the most important – I didn’t know a thing about administering sharepoint, AD, cloud services, powershell, SQL server administration, when I finished my comp sci degree, but I understand the principles of security, programming, etc.

  • GSH, 15 years in when you want to get that MBA to advance further in the ranks, you’ll be looking at awkward night-school classes to get some sort of qual that will enable you to get into an MBA program.

  • 15-20 years ago was the dot com era. A broom pusher who knew how how to surf the web could get an $80/hr job as a web site tester. People were so desperate for IT people, they’d hire anyone, so no, a degree wasn’t essential. Only a pulse was essential. 😉 That was an abnormal time, not the good old days. Prior to the dot com era, companies preferred degrees (in scientific or business fields, before CS and IT degrees became common; mine’s in maths) as well.

    Most people I know who skipped the degree step in their IT careers are no longer working in IT. They “got bored with it” and left, in the same way that they “got bored with” school and left. Lots of IT work is boring and appears to have little point beyond pleasing some administrative overlord. You learn to live with the boring (generally administrative) parts in order to get the benefits of the good parts — new toys to use during the day, money for nice holidays, a house, etc.

    Get the degree. I’m going back for post-grad studies within the next year, myself, for more professional opportunities.

    • The dot com boom was certainly a factor in hiring at the time, but I wouldn’t go as far as calling degree requirements the norm. It depends very much on how the company doing the hiring is structured and whether competent people are reviewing applications. Most technically minded people these days would agree that there’s an inherent problem in trying to teach relevant knowledge to students of an industry that moves at near-unparalleled speed. The abstract skills university teaches you are certainly valuable and transferable, but the technical knowledge usually isn’t. I don’t have a degree myself but I’ve worked with (and hired) graduates and it seems largely universal that mindset is vastly more important – people with the right mindset will learn 90% of what they need in the first few months of real world work, whether they had a degree beforehand or not.

      My objection (in general, not to you) is that there’s a notion in some companies that a degree is the exclusive indicator of mindset for a prospective employee. There are a few reasons that kind of thought has come up in larger companies, layered hiring processes being a big one, but at the end of the day there are a lot of candidates perfect for IT jobs that don’t have degrees, and plenty of candidates who do have degrees that can’t solve moderate technical problems to save themselves.

      In hiring where I’ve had any say in the process, portfolio and experience are the key things we’d look for, not a degree. And we’ve always ended up with great people as a result, some of which would have been overlooked if the degree had been a first-pass requirement.

      • If you find yourself reading a job application that demands a degree regardless of experience, I don’t think it’ll be a nice place to work – it shows the higher-ups don’t understand IT.

        • Often they’ll say ‘degree or relevant experience’ but in practice they toss out the ‘experience’ part because they have HR doing the first pass on applications and all they know how to do is go ‘requirements degree, oh look no degree, garbage pile’.

          • ON AVERAGE (and yes, this means there are exceptions on each side), the uni grads with whom I have worked have been quicker-learning and more strongly technically skilled than non-grads. So if I was looking for a quick way to whittle a pile of applications down, I might well use that as part of the filter, while also doing a quick scan of the non-grad pile, looking for things like, “Founded Microsoft” to make sure I don’t miss any extreme over-achievers. Doesn’t mean that I’m not tossing out some likely qualified people… does mean I’m playing a percentage game to make the best use of my time. If none of the people in the uni pile end up being short list types, THEN I might look at the others. If you don’t think this is remotely reasonable, you’ve never received 530 CV’s for one advertised position before.

  • Interesting discussion and some good points.

    I “dropped out” of my science degree 3 decades ago because I went into IT such as it was then, and the degree didn’t seem relevant to me. I’ve climbed through the ranks and now have a CxO role in IT. No degree, and never asked for it – largely because of experience and visible reputation. I’ve been invited to do MBA’s and such (I declined – another story), but that is uncommon without n existing degree.

    If I was doing it again? I’d get the degree. Resources were scarce 30 years ago whilst today there is competition – often fierce.

    I hire people for my team in the organisation (fairly senior levels), and HR filter CV’s sent to me. It is not as simple as being knocked out because of no degree BUT it is almost impossible in medium to large organisations to get a hearing if you have no degree AND no reasonably extensive experience (I have hired people with no qualification if they had good experience).

    It isn’t fair to knock out someone just because of no degree, but I have had occasions where over 200 people applied for a role, and you just resort to fairly savage culling techniques. Have I missed hiring the best as a result? Almost certainly on occasion, but that is something I have had to live with.

    If you are sure of a reputable organisation giving you years of experience to launch you without a degree you could take the risk, but if I were starting again I would get the degree.

    • Well said. I see you’ve had the same experience as me, regarding a shipload of applicants and needing to use SOME plausibly relevant criteria to filter the pile.

  • You might want to consider continuing university but concentrating on other subject areas.

    I dropped Compsci after a year of incompetent teaching and concentrated on other sciences. I’ve not found that a hindrance to working in the field in the decades since.

  • I know the article is about degrees but no one mention or even comment by users about Tafe or diplomas. Not to mention NO ONE has even uttered a word about IT certs? (Cisco, MS, VM, etc) All these people talking about how the IT sector moves so fast and that your degreee will mean squat (tech wise it’s out of date..) in 10 years. but IT certs have to be renewed or you lose it.
    I actually went for a interview for fairly large hospital (3 locations) And there was so many people in that group interview. I had NO qualifications at the time. Some of these people had 2,3 degrees under their belt. but still I got past all of them because I could prove my technical proficiency. Not to mention I had already held down a job for 10 years (as soon as I could work! 15) A few years of this were full time work. I’ll say it once A DEGREE IS NOT ESSENTIAL, NOR IS IT A SURE FIRE WAY TO GET YOUR FOOT IN THE DOOR. It is sad however that so many of you are right. Especially public sector unless you know someone or have a degree, you don’t get a look often. And if a job ad specifically said MUST have a degree and especially if it doesn’t state what degree. I wouldn’t want to work there. Also you can tell if the person writing the ad knows what they are talking about tech wise; You write your cover letter and tailor your resume to that particular job. Sorry bout the rant

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