Actually, I'm really only going to be discussing two degrees — but that makes for a much less catchy title. Also, if this article ever gets turned into a screenplay, then the producers will have a better chance of landing Will Smith (or possibly Kevin Bacon) for the lead role.
Recently an individual on the Oracle Technology Network certification forum was inquiring about switching careers to work with Oracle in some capacity. He had a bachelor's degree in journalism (which does not count as one of the two degrees I'll be discussing), a subject not often viewed as providing a strong foundation for an IT career.
His question revolved around whether he should go back to college to earn a second four-year degree more in the ballpark of his Oracle ambitions, or whether earning certifications would be sufficient to get his foot in the door. The relative value of college degrees versus certifications has been brought up before, including on CertMag in a recent article by Mary Kyle. I will not revisit that question here.
As the forum thread accumulated responses, however, a debate arose over pursuing a Computer Science (CS) degree as opposed to a Management Information Systems (MIS) degree. One of the individuals responding to the thread indicated that pursuing a Computer Science degree was the only decision that made sense, because it would provide better preparation for Oracle certification exams.
In part because I hold an MIS degree, I cannot agree with that assertion. I do not see either of these two degrees as being "better" than the other without defining the career goals of the degree seeker. They each have advantages to offer.
In order to better illustrate some of the differences in the two degrees, I pulled a large subset of the course requirements for each. The lists below are not complete for several reasons. I skipped some duplicates where there were 'I' and 'II' level courses of the same name and I did not bother to add requirements such as "free elective." The remaining courses listed still provide a fairly clear view regarding the focus of the two degrees.
The list below is a subset of the courses required for a bachelor's degree in Computer Science. This degree focuses very much on programming and elements related to programming (like math, logic, computer architecture and so forth). Essentially, you pursue this degree when you have a career trajectory that is aimed at writing code.
- Introduction to Programming with C
- Introduction to Discrete Structures
- Calculus with Analytic Geometry
- Computer Science I
- Computer Logic and Organization
- Object Oriented Programming
- Systems Software
- Security in Computing
- Computer Architecture
- Programming Languages
- Operating Systems
- Writing for the Technical Professional
- Statistical Methods I
- Chemistry Fundamentals I
The below list is a subset of the course requirements for a Management Information Systems degree. The subjects are considerably more varied than is true for a CS degree. Notably, many of the requirements are standard business courses. The first letter in MIS stands for "management" after all. This is a business degree that focuses on managing information systems (i.e. databases). Beyond the core business elements, there are courses related to programming and to database systems.
- Structured Systems Analysis and Design
- Operating Systems for Business Computing
- Business Data Communications and Networking
- Systems Analysis Design and Implementation Projects
- Project Management
- Introduction to Database Systems
- Accounting I
- Business Finance
- Statistics I
- Principles of Management
- Introduction to Programming
- Global Information Systems Management
- Information Systems Security
- Data Warehousing and Decision Support Systems
- Accounting Information Systems
The choice between pursuing a Computer Science degree or a Management Information Systems degree should not be made before deciding what you plan to be doing in your career. For an individual who loves coding and plans to get a job writing applications in C, this would suggest pursuing a CS degree. For someone who plans to be a Database Administrator, an MIS degree is a more appropriate choice because database administrators generally do very little coding.
The question becomes somewhat murky if an individual's career goal is coding in Java. If that coding will never involve databases, then the CS degree has the edge. By contrast, someone who intends to use Java as part of developing database applications might get more mileage from an MIS degree. Of course, many college students have no clue what work they will be doing after college, so planning at that level might not be feasible.
In my own work, better than 90 percent of my time is spend writing PL/SQL code. While a CS degree would have focused more on development, I have no doubt that the MIS degree was a better option for me. All of my coding is geared toward database applications, so the information systems background has been very useful. Not only that, but I have written several applications for use by accounting and finance departments.
I do not have the experience to actually work as an accountant (and the job would bore me to tears). The background that I have from my college accounting courses, however, gave me a much better ability to turn user requirements into functional accounting applications. Several of my other business courses have given me similar insight into other aspects of the tools that I develop.
It is not my intention to give the impression that an MIS degree trumps a CS degree in all, or even most cases. One size most definitely does not fit all. I can relate how an MIS degree has been useful because that is what I hold. Had I earned a CS degree, the above paragraph might well have indicated how the information gained from my Computer Logic and Organization course had helped me as a database application developer.
As with all career advice, this is only useful to "you" when it is applied correctly to "your" particular situation. Before deciding on any degree, think about your likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses, and so forth. If you set yourself on a trajectory for a career involving things you hate to do and are not particularly good at, then the most likely result is an epic fail.