Computer Science

Do Graduate Degrees Matter in the Tech Industry?

Do Graduate Degrees Matter in the Tech Industry?
The tech industry’s long-term job outlook shows no signs of slowing, making it an ideal place for many to start or grow their career. Image from Death to the Stock Photo
Mairead Kelly profile
Mairead Kelly March 9, 2020

With Apple and Google among the major tech companies looking beyond formal education when hiring skilled talent, the industry may be quickly evolving into an arena where capability trumps academic pedigree.

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Whether you’re an experienced data scientist or looking to break into tech, you’ve probably heard the news: it’s a good place to be. For starters, six of the top ten happiest jobs in America function within the field. Ready for more good news? Job satisfaction in tech doesn’t have to come at a cost. According to Hired data, tech workers around the globe pulled in an average $135,000 salary in 2018.

While some might equate high wages with highly exclusive employment prospects, companies continuously face a shortage of tech professionals to fill the jobs they have. A 2019 State of Tech Hiring research from Robert Half reports that 86 percent of tech leaders say it’s challenging to find IT talent. Despite the scarcity, 69 percent anticipate expanding their teams.

There are so many open positions in the sector that employers are increasingly offering career-changers competitive pay to acquire the right skills and fill the talent gap. In a 2019 Indeed survey of 662 full-time U.S. workers from a variety of industries and educational levels, 79 percent reported making the shift in pursuit of more money.

At the same time, many are focused on growth and development. Over 75 percent of Indeed’s survey respondents who change careers did so to continue learning or progress professionally. 78 percent of career changers say they left, in part, because they no longer felt challenged or satisfied.

And why not? The tech industry’s long-term outlook shows no signs of slowing, making it an ideal place for many to start or grow their career. But the sector is also synonymous with Gates, Jobs, and Page—whose names have become shorthands for their respective forms of brilliance.

With this in mind, it can seem that working in tech requires a resume that includes building a computer by hand at 14 or holding the world record as the youngest Microsoft Certified Professional. Or at least, that you have a graduate degree.

The truth is that many people—including creatives and critical-thinkers—can find their place in tech looking for steadier employment, job satisfaction, and innovative and challenging projects. It’s not just for the prodigies of the world—and as it turns out, people with graduate degrees.

The growth of self-taught tech talent

If tech is on your radar but you’re not sure how to get started in it professionally, you can take comfort in knowing that, most likely, your chosen path will put you largely in control of your training.

In a 2019 Stack Overflow survey of nearly 90,000 developers, 85.5 percent reported that they’d taught themselves a new language, framework, or tool outside of their formal education.

Of the 45.3 percent of developers with a bachelor’s degree, 62.4 percent majored in computer science, computer engineering, or software engineering. Just 22.7 percent of those surveyed reported that they have a master’s degree.

Meanwhile, a separate study from the competitive coding platform HackerRank shows only 31.9 percent of developers rely solely on school for their tech education; 37.7 percent report that they supplement their schooling with self-education and 27.4 percent report that they’re only self-taught.

Throughout your career, you’re bound to encounter tech pros with master’s degrees and Ph.D.s in computer science and software engineering, among a range of related fields. At the same time, you’re just as likely to come across tech workers with humanities and liberal arts backgrounds, and even those who opted out of higher education and instead gained hands-on tech experience


“I'm Interested in Computer Science!”

“Typically the additional income from a master’s degree over a lifetime is worth the sticker price you pay for it.” (source)

A master’s in computer science can open countless doors from coast to coast. It will expand your knowledge and can help you advance your career, opening doors to management and leadership roles and increasing your earning potential. Jobs are plentiful around the country in a wide variety of industries, from healthcare to finance, entertainment to manufacturing.

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The decline of STEM graduates

While tech professionals have no shortage of job opportunities, employers throughout the industry must meet what are often very aggressive hiring goals, sourcing candidates from a limited talent pool and competing against each other to bring on candidates with the right skills.

As it turns out, higher education isn’t doing much to aid that competition either. A 2012 report from the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee finds that while the number of students receiving degrees from four-year institutions has increased in the U.S., the number of students graduating with STEM degrees has declined.

The report indicates that the popularity of academic study in the field peaked in 1985 when 24 percent of students completed a bachelor’s degree in STEM. By 2009, that number fell to 18 percent. Master’s degrees in STEM dropped from 18 percent to 14 percent over the same period.

To make matters worse, a 2018 Pew Research Center analysis found that slightly more than half of workers with college training in a STEM field are working in a non-STEM job.

So, what are industry experts doing about the persistent tech skills shortage? Many employers look to hire candidates outside of traditional tech backgrounds, which increasingly means hiring candidates without a college degree, let alone graduate school experience.

Tech companies that no longer require academic degrees

Even the world’s most sought-after tech employers are changing the rules. At the 2019 American Workforce Policy Advisory Board Meeting, Apple CEO Tim Cook noted that about half of Apple employees hired in the prior year didn’t have a four-year degree, and the company is “proud of that.”

Google has also confirmed that they’ve long since cast a wider net for talent. In a 2014 New York Times op-ed, Laszlo Bock, former Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google, disclosed that a degree doesn’t tell the company much about an applicant’s talent or grit. He added, “When you look at people who don’t go to school and make their way in the world, those are exceptional human beings. And we should do everything we can to find those people.”

In 2017, Joanna Daly, Vice President of Compensation, Benefits, and HR Business Development at IBM told CNBC Make It that roughly 15 percent of her company’s U.S. hires don’t have a four-year degree.

Tech companies like Intel and GitHub have also sought out talent from other educational avenues, going as far as to say they haven’t “required college degrees for most positions in years.” Elon Musk even went on record to vocalize his indifference towards degrees though current job listings at Tesla may tell a slightly different story.

Alternative training options

By now we know that there’s a widening skills gap in the tech industry and that in the last few decades, the number of students graduating from college and graduate STEM programs is on the decline. With that, dozens of top tech companies are no longer categorizing higher education as necessary to the hiring process.

Still, 918,000 unfilled IT jobs were up for grabs last year. Outside of college and graduate school, there must have been other navigable ways to secure them.

Enter Brookings Institution scholar Jonathan Rothwell, who in 2013, studied the hiring difficulty of STEM occupations by using detailed data on the three million U.S. job advertisements vacancies posted by 52,000 companies.

Not surprisingly, he found that jobs that require computer skills were the most difficult jobs to fill, with particularly hard-to-find computer skills including programming and coding languages such as Ruby, Python, PERL, and Hadoop.

He concluded that applying this knowledge to the employment market means focusing on the exact competencies the workforce requires for STEM-related jobs, adding “We are going to have to rethink how we do training and education in the 21st century. What ultimately needs to happen is that we renew a focus on skills, rather than degrees.”
Enter coding boot camps, a surrogate education model that offers students with little coding proficiency fast-track, high-impact courses to help them learn the most crucial aspects of coding and build applications at a professional level.

Course Report’s Coding Bootcamp Alumni Outcomes and Demographics Report found that in 2019, 83 percent of coding boot camp graduates said they were employed in jobs using skills they learned in boot camps, with a median salary increase of 51 percent.

Additionally, HackerRank’s 2020 Developer Report found that 32 percent of hiring managers said they’ve hired someone who has graduated from a boot camp, and 72 percent of managers say the boot camp graduates are “equally or better equipped” for their jobs than compared to other hires.

Community college courses are an option, too. As are free and low-cost online courses, which typically don’t require tech experience or a degree of any kind. From Codeacademy and EdX to Udemy and com from LinkedIn, these programs are a great way for students to get their feet wet in tech with limited commitment—or stay on top of developing trends and technologies in their field.

How soft skills can help you get ahead

Like their movement away from a hiring process centered on specific titles and degrees, many tech organizations are shifting towards a focus on the skills that potential employees may bring.

As it turns out, strengthening a soft skill may be one of the best investments you can make in your career. A 2015 Burning Glass Technologies study analyzing over 25 million online job postings found that, even for highly technical jobs, 25 percent of the most sought-after skills were soft skills.

Another study from business and technology consulting firm West Monroe found that 78 percent of HR leaders say they’ve placed a greater focus on finding technology employees with strong soft skills. 67 percent say they have withheld a job offer to an otherwise qualified technology candidate solely because of that candidate’s lack of soft skills.

The findings beg the question: which soft skills will help you best stand out for that next opportunity? According to the Burning Glass Technologies study, these five soft skills topped tech’s most-desired list:

  • Communication
  • Organization
  • Writing
  • Project management
  • Planning

When a graduate degree is worth it

While some occupations, like speech-language pathologists, social workers, and instructional coordinators demand an advanced degree with no exceptions, countless jobs in the tech sector make bypassing graduate school possible.

At the same time, a graduate degree is a financial investment—and depending on the school and program type, it could be a big one. In this sense, tech professionals will need to consider the financial commitment of time in graduate school and also their prospective salary with a master’s degree or Ph.D. compared to what they’d earn without it.

One solid argument for tech-focused graduate programs is their tendency to focus on a certain niche. They position students at the forefront of discovery, development, and innovation within the area of the field they’re most interested in—and commonly provide internship or research positions.

For those looking for an extra bit of professional credibility and expertise, graduate degrees are also beneficial for lending the specialized management and business training that can help tech workers move more quickly into senior- and executive-level tech positions.

In the end, a graduate degree’s value may ultimately depend on your long-term goals. If you want to gain knowledge and experience, a graduate degree could be a great jumping-off point or the natural next step of your career path. If it doesn’t seem feasible, no sweat. You can rest easy knowing graduate school is just one option.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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