My take on a computer science MSc degree

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“I don’t like to buy expensive stuff but I love options. I like to know I can buy a Maybach but I just decide I don’t want one. I like to know I can buy a Bentley if I want, I just don’t want one.” — Eric Thomas

2004 and I, as most of my colleagues, had finished my bachelor degree. As our home faculty focuses more on a practical side of studying, by structuring the programme in a way that in 3 years, any student would be ready to hit the market, we all joined companies as soon as we finished the degree.

One year into my professional career and I started realising that having a masters degree was quickly becoming the norm. More and more colleagues, had a higher degree than I did, and even though they didn’t have an advantage over me until then, as my previous jobs and projects didn’t require one, I couldn’t predict if they would have in the years to come.

Moreover, a few decades ago whoever had a college degree, was already seen as someone with a higher status, smarter and with an expected better future when compared to most people. That used to happen exactly because of the scarcity of people with a college degree. Now if you think a bit further, I would ask you to imagine having a new colleague in your current job, with a PhD. Chances are, you would be impressed. And I would be as well.

This happens, not only due to the lack of IT professionals with a PhD in our field but also because it is a sign of hard work, long-term commitment of getting an extra 4-year degree and for pushing the boundaries of human knowledge, even though you don’t know if his PhD will have any significant impact on the project you two are working on.

Plus, I was 25 years old and my willingness to study in a minimum of 2 year commitment programme was lessening by the year, especially in a field where things change dramatically in a short period of time.

So I either started then, or I wouldn’t start at all. Having remembered what once a professor told to a colleague of mine, that “education is the only investment with 100% return guaranteed” I decided to apply and started it.

Two years later

Fast forward until the end of my masters and some of my ex-colleagues have an average salary for their experience by working for consulting companies, and others work at amazing companies and startups, getting salaries and professional perks that the average IT Senior in Portugal can’t get. So a masters degree (and up to a point even a bachelor) is definitely not necessary to earn a good or great salary.

On top of that, a lot of startups and multinational companies still don’t seem to consider a masters degree a critical factor, even though there are still some who require it in specific areas when regarding research or innovation job positions.

Moreover, along the years when talking with someone with a bachelor or masters degree, I haven’t noticed a big knowledge gap (if any at all) between the two groups. This can easily be explained by the fact that bachelor degrees tend to focus more on the basics of computer science, algorithms and software engineering, and masters programmes tend to focus more on a subset of those topics.

What about what I learnt

A masters degree wasn’t so impactful in my professional life as my bachelors was but I still learnt a lot in this degree. I was exposed to languages and tools that I doubt I would ever be if I didn’t apply for a Masters degree. It is always good to learn about topics that even if they are not your main interests, may be useful in the future, as you will already know where to start if you need to work with them.

As we all agree in the need of continuous learning in our field, some people consider that today’s educational system is obsolete, or at least is having problems adapting to the sudden change that easy and affordable internet access has introduced. By providing almost instant, and sometimes free, access to different forms of content (ex: books, articles, videos), many students don’t feel the need to attend classes, as teachers and libraries stopped being the only source of information and the same knowledge can be obtained by researching it online.

That’s where websites like coursera, udemy and udacity come into play. They are interesting in the sense that they provide content in many different forms, costs and topics that universities can’t provide, with the added value of letting the student start when it wants.

However they are not by any means a substitution to traditional college degrees. Even though they work as a really good complement to the academic life, they don’t provide the same academic background as the former. It’s academic institutions and international educational agreements that are recognised and not a mere course from an online website.

So, was it worth it

It’s hard to say. It will take some years to understand if it was a good investment, both financial as timewise. As what cost me the most, was not the money that I spent (approximately 2k€ for both years of tuition) but the amount of money that I didn’t earn,that with my calculations would be above 20k€ if I kept the same base salary both years, which probably wouldn’t happen.

But there is something else we tend to forget when we discuss about our field. The public sector. Over the years, state jobs for graduates have been increasing academic requirements. As an example, a recent introduction of an educational reform that forbid teachers without a PhD to lecture, made me witness some of the best teachers I had in my life quit teaching because they didn’t fulfil those academic requirements.

To conclude, I can’t predict if a masters degree will be crucial in the rest of my professional life, as I may work in places that don’t take it into account.

But a masters degree definitely gives me more options.

And I love options.

Side note

This post focused more on the transition between a bachelor to a masters programme, as I think a bachelor degree is very important in any field. However there are a set of IT professionals that don’t even have that, and it worries me how some of those even introduce themselves proudly, as college dropouts.

As if dropping out of college would put them in the same level of recognition and personal realisation as Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates who early realised that a college degree wouldn’t fulfil their professional needs. It’s important to realize that these people are an exception, not the rule.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Dropping out of college, can happen for a lot of reasons. From economical needs, to health or family problems, or even if you want to start a new business. Those are all valid counter points that I agree with but quitting school simply to earn money by joining a company, when you don’t have the need to, isn’t one of them. That is simply a sign of laziness and lack of commitment.

Thanks to João Junceira and Marco Talento for reviewing this article.

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