'Do I need a master's to become a network engineer?' is a straightforward question. The answer: it depends on whom you ask.
Old-guard networking professionals on tech forums tend to look at master's degrees as overkill. They claim the field in which they work is more like a trade.
That may have been true once. However, computer systems have grown more complicated, organizations are doing more with their computer networks, and networks are changing. Specialized areas in network engineering require specialized knowledge.
Additionally, more people have undergraduate and graduate degrees. As it becomes easier for employers to find degree-holding candidates, employers will likely shift their preference.
As of 2021, most employers prefer or require network engineers to have bachelor's degrees, meaning you can still get a network engineering job without a master's. However, you may need a network engineering master's to make it past the resume filter at firms like Amazon, Google, Cisco, and Juniper. A degree is also becoming more essential if you want to become a top-earning network engineer someday.
To decide whether going to graduate school is the right choice for you, you need to weigh the benefits of having a master's in this field against the financial and time investment you'll make to get one; which is to say, you need to calculate the return on investment. We can help. In this article about whether to get a master's in network engineering, we cover:
Network engineering is a subfield of computer engineering. It's focused on building new computer networks based on user requirements and integrating new technology into existing networks. Many sources slot network engineers squarely between network architects (who design networks) and network administrators (who maintain them in the networking hierarchy).
However, in reality, there are no standard job titles in this field. Employers are free to define the scope of work in engineering and administration however they like. Consequently, a network engineer's role is a broad one at some companies and a narrow one at others.
Larger firms may employ a tiered team of network engineers. An admin might have the title Network Engineer I, while the professionals who implement new computer networks, handle capacity planning, and serve as a second level of support have the title Network Engineer II. In contrast, a small organization might employ a single network engineer who handles everything related to the organization's network design, setup, and maintenance.
Professionals in this field enroll in on-campus and online master's degree programs for various reasons. Some pursue a Master of Science in Network Engineering (or a related degree) to learn new skills or gain expertise in a specific networking area, e.g., software-defined wide-area networking or cloud systems engineering. Others work for companies that require anyone applying for senior-level positions to have an advanced degree—even people looking to get promoted from within.
Career switchers often choose programs that build real-world network engineering projects into the curriculum so they graduate with some concrete industry experience. Students in Southern Methodist University's online Master of Science in Network Engineering program, for example, work directly with companies and organizations like Microsoft and the Department of Defense on networking challenges.
There are also students in master's of network engineering programs driven by a desire to earn more money. The average salary associated with a networking associate's is about $57,000. With a Bachelor of Science in Network Engineering, you'll earn about $74,000. The average master's in network engineering salary is over $20,000 higher than what's typical for network engineers. Just be aware that simply having an advanced degree won't put you on the road to riches. Master's holders earn more because they tend to be in higher-paying roles, like those we list below.
The cost of the typical 30-credit master's in network engineering is comparable to that of other graduate-level degrees. Per-credit tuition rates range from $450 to $1,500; more expensive network engineering master's programs cost upwards of $50,000.
That's a hefty sum, but don't let it be the deciding factor when you're thinking about whether to get a master's in network engineering. There aren't official wage premiums associated with specific degrees in this field, but user-reported salary averages on sites like PayScale suggest employers are willing to pay more for network engineers with advanced degrees.
Colleges and universities approach this degree differently. Students in network engineering master's programs generally take courses like:
Some schools teach programming in Python and Java and include data science classes among core courses or as elective options. Others devote more time to specific business applications of network engineering or cyber security in communication systems and network systems.
A few on-campus and online network engineering master's programs in the United States let graduate students choose from among concentrations like:
These specialization tracks typically dictate which classes students take in addition to the core coursework in the network engineering master's curriculum.
Internships are a part of some, but not all, network engineering programs. Programs designed for working professionals who already have IT or networking experience are less likely to build internships into curricula because students are expected to apply what they learn at work.
Many schools offer their network engineering master's programs online. Johns Hopkins University, DePaul University, Boston University, and North Carolina State University at Raleigh all have strong network engineering programs for distance learners, though not all of them offer a Master of Science in Network Engineering like Southern Methodist University. Johns Hopkins University, for example, offers a Master of Science in Information Systems Engineering with a network engineering focus.
Online degree programs are common in this field because students typically have a few years of professional experience and intend to continue working while earning this degree. Others seek out online Master of Science in Network Engineering programs because there are no local colleges or universities that offer this degree. Still others enroll in online master's programs because they want to attend a specific school, and remote learning is the least disruptive way to do that.
Online and hybrid programs have more in common with traditional on-campus programs than people realize. How online classes work varies from school to school, but most colleges and universities offer at least some of their online classes at set times. Online courses aren't easier than classes on campus. The same professors often teach virtually and in-person, and the classwork and project work students must complete to graduate is often identical or close to it.
Unfortunately, classes delivered online aren't cheaper. Many people wrongly assume online degrees are more affordable than traditional on-campus programs, but sometimes they're more expensive.
Network engineer is just one job in a field encompassing an increasing number of titles. As technology evolves, network engineering is sprouting branches. There are now network engineers who specialize in system security, specific network types, or cloud engineering. You'll find network engineers of all kinds working in telecommunications companies, enterprise-level corporations, cyber security firms, and computer systems design firms. Networking professionals also work in the IT departments of retail companies, financial firms, healthcare networks, and government agencies.
Master's holders have the edge over other network engineers because they have the qualifications big tech companies and megacorps want to see in their senior-level and management positions.
Careers in network engineering tend to follow a predictable trajectory. Many network engineers start in entry-level and early-career roles like:
From there, they might advance into positions like:
It's common for mid-career network engineers with and without master's degrees to transition into network architecture positions, where they're likely to earn over $120,000. There are other paths network engineers can follow, however. Some advance into roles like:
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts jobs for network infrastructure professionals will grow at about the same rate as jobs in most other fields, but don't take that to mean the job outlook for network engineers is less than stellar. Employers may not be creating new jobs because the demand for qualified networking professionals is already higher than the supply.
The best-paying tech roles in networking typically include 'senior' or 'principal' in the title. Management positions pay particularly well. The average network engineering director earns about $143,000. So does the typical Chief Network Architect.
Other high-paying network engineering jobs include:
Keep in mind these are just averages. Networking professionals at big tech companies like Google and top-tier networking companies like Cisco can earn salaries well over $200,000, with or without a master's degree in network engineering.
The frustrating answer is 'maybe.' First, look at whether you need one. You can certainly enter the field without it, and you can probably advance as well. Even at the director level, only about a quarter of networking professionals have graduate degrees. If you're earning good money in a role you like, this may not be the right time to go back to school.
If you're not where you think you ought to be, however, it can't hurt. You may advance more quickly with a master's in network engineering, and you'll earn more. You'll also learn a lot. "I think a degree can fill in gaps in knowledge and round out your knowledge," writes one commenter in a Reddit thread about master's degrees in network engineering, adding that completing a master's program helped them feel more professional. "[I had a] better conception of how IT fits into a broader organization and organizational strategy. It also gave me more exposure to formal engineering approaches, rather than the more ad-hoc, intuitive approach."
Whether you should pursue this degree online is a question only you can answer. Consider your needs and what you hope to get out of a graduate program. If remote learning is what allows you to stay employed, attend a better school, study with industry experts, or pay for your degree out of pocket, then your path forward is clear.
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