Timing and applicability: The case for maybe not getting an advanced degree
Posted on
February 12, 2015
Will your advanced degree help you in IT?

It is common knowledge — or at least commonly believed — that increasing your level of education always boosts your career prospects, leads to faster advancement and increases your earning potential. Certainly as a general rule, the most sought after career paths that the average person can aspire to are ones that require either knowledge or training that is uncommon.

As a single example, viewed as a fraction of the world population, the number of people who have the knowledge to be an Oracle database administrator is tiny. This is a large part of why the salary range for Oracle DBAs is relatively high in comparison with other career paths.

Sometimes, however, people take the concept of “more education = career advancement” too far — or perhaps just in the wrong direction. Adding new skills and knowledge to your repertoire is almost always a good thing. What is seldom explicitly pointed out, however, is that there is a qualifier involved. The additional knowledge or skills should serve to make you more productive in your chosen field.

Recently when I was interviewing for an Oracle developer position, one of the candidates had just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Information Systems. The candidate’s resume indicated that he would be starting a master’s degree in Business Administration during the coming semester. He obviously felt that having and advanced degree would make him a more desirable candidate for the position. Instead, the MBA was one of the largest downsides when I and the other interviewers discussed him as an option for the job.

Anyone who has read much of my work here or on other venues should know that I am a huge proponent of learning new skills. I firmly believe that filling your head with knowledge is one of the most foolproof ways to give your career a boost. There were several reasons why the degree was a negative in this case.

First and foremost, it was horrible timing. The position was for an entry-level Oracle developer. The winning candidate was going to have an enormous amount of information to learn. Squeezing in night classes is hard enough for employees who have been working with a company for years and already know their jobs. Someone who tries to juggle starting a new position and a new degree program almost simultaneously is nearly certain to drop the ball on one or the other (or both).

The second issue is that I was looking for individuals who were aiming for a specific career path — namely that of an Oracle developer. While the candidate indicated during the interview that this was his goal, an MBA degree does not map well to that career path. There are a number of different areas where an MBA can help, but generally it is most useful to people in (or aspiring to) upper management or who want to start or run their own businesses. The disconnect left me wondering if the candidate did not understand what an MBA was for, or if he was not really pursuing a career as an Oracle developer.

The final issue was that practically nothing covered by the degree was going to make the candidate better at his job. I looked up the course list on the university website the evening after the interview. If several of the MBA courses had struck me as obviously useful, I would have felt better about the candidate’s choice.

Several classes that I took while earning my bachelors degree gave me background information that I find useful in my work even though they had nothing to do with Oracle. The list below contains the core classes from the MBA program. The only two that I thought might have some value would be the economic and accounting analysis classes. Most of the list is just ‘noise’ from the standpoint of an Oracle developer.

Master: Business Administration

  • Economic Analysis of the Firm
  • Applied Business Research Tools
  • Organizational Behavior & Development
  • Managerial Accounting Analysis
  • Law and Ethics
  • Strategic Supply Chain Management
  • Strategic Financial Management
  • Strategic Marketing Management
  • International Business Analysis
  • Applied Strategy and Business Policy

Ultimately what this means is that even if the candidate had just completed an MBA rather than being just about to start one, I would have counted it as a negative. The knowledge from this degree would not help him do the job, but it would have increased his expectations.

Just for contrast, the same evening I looked at the courses for a Masters in Information Systems. That list is shown below. The correlation between the courses and the job is obviously much closer.

Master: Information Systems

  • Programming Concepts
  • Business Systems I
  • Business Systems II
  • Financial Accounting
  • IT Infrastructure
  • Systems Analysis And Development
  • Enterprise Models
  • Emerging Technologies & Issues
  • Database Management
  • CIS Project Management
  • CIS Strategic Planning
  • Security & Ethics

Mind you, I still would not be eager to take on a new-hire that was about to start a master’s degree for any specialization. The fact that the Information Systems degree is more career-appropriate does not alter the fact that it would make acclimating to the job requirements much more difficult.

Pursuing a Masters degree is something that I would suggest to someone after having been in a position for two or more years. At that point, the daily duties of the job will have become routine and taking on a new obligation will not be as disruptive.

The upshot is that before you invest time and money into a degree, a training course, or a certification, I highly recommend that you take the time to verify that it fits in with your career trajectory. If the information covered does not have an obvious correlation to your career goals, then you need to ask yourself why you should take it. Time and money are limited resources and very likely you would be better off spending them on learning something that is applicable to your goals.

About the Author

Matthew Morris is an experienced DBA and developer. He holds Oracle DBA Certifications for every Oracle release from 7 through 12c; Expert certifications for SQL, SQL Tuning, and Application Express; and is an Oracle PL/SQL Developer Certified Professional. He is the author of more than 20 study guides for Oracle certification exams, as well as a suite of Oracle practice tests that are available at ocpexam.com.

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