How Important Is a Master's Degree in Silicon Valley?
March 18, 2021
As it turns out, the answer isn’t entirely clear-cut. Companies will hire candidates whose experience and skills best suit them for the job. Some will have a master’s degree. Others won’t.
Silicon Valley is the dream for countless tech professionals and possibly just as many with hopes to break into the industry. Think high salaries, extravagant employee perks, and a climate that’s almost Mediterranean in feel, and it’s easy to imagine why anyone would be interested in building a career in the birthplace of tech goliaths like Google, Apple, and Twitter.
That said, it's not exactly easy to land a job here. A 2019 report from the Silicon Valley Competitiveness and Innovation Project (SVCIP) indicates that competition for jobs is fierce. Silicon Valley has the third-largest total number of STEM workers of the U.S. innovation hubs and the highest STEM share of the workforce when compared to the size of its overall regional economy.
As for job growth, a 2018 study from employment search engine Indeed shows that between September of 2015 and September of 2017, the site experienced an 18.14 percent decrease in Bay Area-located tech job postings as listings in cities like Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore increased.
Despite those troubles, tech industry employment in the region remains high, as California’s Employment Development Department (EDD) reports that Silicon Valley’s unemployment rate was 1.8 percent in December 2019. The same year, the region topped 4.1 million jobs, thanks in large part to employment in STEM and other tech-related fields.
If you decide that the pros of six-figure salaries and luxurious offices outweigh the cons of the region’s high cost of living and penchant for tech burnout, you may be wondering what positions are most in-demand in Silicon Valley. Also, who’s hiring? And do you need a master’s degree to land a job in the center of the tech universe? To answer that, let research do the work.
Fastest Growing Tech Jobs in Silicon Valley
To investigate recent Silicon Valley industry trends, Indeed examined tech-related job openings, salaries, and company hiring activity in the area from January 2018 through October 2019.
Despite the site’s dip in Silicon Valley-based technology-related job listings over time, a collection of specializations remain highly sought-after. Of them, engineers and developers are the most coveted workers, making up six of the top ten in-demand positions.
The most in-demand Silicon Valley-based tech jobs in 2019 are below, ranked by the largest share of job openings:
- Software engineer
- Senior software engineer
- Product manager
- Software architect
- Full-stack developer
- Front-end developer
- Senior product manager
- Data scientist
- Development operations engineer
- Software test engineer
It may seem like Silicon Valley is populated entirely with college dropouts, but there may be some exceptions to the trope. According to a 2016 report from Burning Glass Technologies, tech sector employers across the nation are much more likely to set a degree requirement for developer candidates than all U.S. employers seeking hiring for the same role.
Only 25 percent of tech sector employers don’t specify an education level in their developer listings, compared to 42 percent of all employers seeking developers. Of tech sector employers that specify a minimum education level when seeking developers, 92 percent request a bachelor’s degree and 3 percent require a master’s degree or higher.
Silicon Valley employers follow this pattern closely, with 23 percent of developer postings lacking an education specification. Among listings that do specify an education level, 92 percent of developer job postings ask for a bachelor’s degree and 6 percent ask for a master’s or above.
Top Silicon Valley Employers
After shedding light on which tech specializations are most coveted by Bay Area employers, Indeed also took a look at where demand for those jobs is located. To figure this out, they looked at the number of tech job postings in San Jose, San Francisco, and Oakland.
Amazon takes the title of the region’s most active hirer of tech talent in 2019, with tech jobs at the firm accounting for 3.74 percent of all postings in the industry. The top 10 companies that searched for the most tech workers included many of the region’s usual suspects, including Apple, Google, and Facebook.
Silicon Valley companies with the most tech-related job openings in 2019, listed by percentage of tech job postings:
- Amazon: 3.74 percent
- Walmart: 3 percent
- Apple: 2.8 percent
- Cisco: 2.51 percent
- Google: 1.1 percent
- Deloitte: 0.92 percent
- Facebook: 0.92 percent
- Akraya, Inc.: 0.86 percent
- Oracle: 0.84 percent
- Accenture: 0.81 percent
Half of the companies on this list make it to data analysis site Paysa’s report on employee education across an assortment of Silicon Valley-based companies. Of all the tech titans and disruptors Paysa researched, Snap Inc. employees are the most likely to have a master’s degree, with over 36 percent reporting it as their highest level of education. For perspective, just 10.3 percent of Americans over the age of 25 have completed a master’s degree.
Silicon Valley companies with highly-educated employees, ranked by percentage of workers with a master’s degree:
- Snap Inc.: 36.4 percent
- Amazon: 35.9 percent
- Facebook: 32.8 percent
- Twitter: 31.6 percent
- Uber: 31.4 percent
- Google: 28.3 percent
- Oracle: 25.4 percent
- Apple: 23.4 percent
- Microsoft: 23.4 percent
- Airbnb: 21.1 percent
What Tech Pros Think of Advanced Degrees
For many Silicon Valley tech professionals, graduate school is the go-to place for acquiring skills and experience that are necessary to succeed at work. For others, career prosperity and a traditional advanced education track don’t exactly go hand-in-hand.
A 2019 State of Salaries Report from the job site Hired indicates that 31 percent of tech professionals with a master’s or doctorate say they could do their current job without their degree. An additional 21 percent are unsure if their advanced degree has helped them in any way.
What’s more, of a pool of 98,000 job seekers and 1,800 global tech candidates surveyed, 54 percent of professionals who lack an advanced degree reported that they aren’t interested in earning a master’s degree or doctorate. Of this group, 45 percent opted out of furthering their education through a degree out of the belief that on-the-job experience is more valuable than additional schooling.
Silicon Valley’s Shift From Degree Qualifications
While many non-tech jobs in Silicon Valley require undergraduate and advanced degrees, professional board exams, and licensing, a growing number of employers in the area do not.
In 2020, the job review site Glassdoor compiled a list of 15 companies that don’t require job applicants to have college degrees, let alone a master’s or more. The list includes Bay Area tech giants Apple and Google.
Career networking site LinkedIn echoes this on its list of hottest companies to work for in 2019, adding that top Bay Area tech companies like Airbnb, Facebook, Oracle, Netflix, and others also offer high-paying, in-demand jobs that don’t require a four-year degree—and make no mention of grad school.
Further analysis of the data from LinkedIn Editor Joseph Milord highlights insight from Bill Castellano, a former HR executive and current professor at The School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University. He notes that as tech companies increasingly hire employees for specific projects, they are more likely to show regard for specific skills and experiences, over a degree.
"There are more of the programming and highly technical type positions, where people may have acquired those skills in another way, without perhaps going and getting a four-year degree, that still gives them options for employment," Castellano says.
Still, between the companies that are dropping degree requirements, those that specify a need for undergraduate and master’s degrees most likely think of their approach to hiring as an entirely logical one. “Companies largely still rely on degree requirements, not simply because of certain skills an applicant needs to compete in an industry," he adds, “but because of other qualities the degree 'signals.'"
Will Educational Alternatives Guarantee Silicon Valley Success?
With the future of Silicon Valley and the tech industry at large looking past degrees, employers and employees alike are increasingly looking into alternatives to learning.
Stack Overflow’s 2019 survey of nearly 90,000 developers found that almost 90 percent of respondents have taught themselves a new language, framework, or tool outside of their formal education. About a quarter of professional developer respondents have the equivalent of a master’s degree while a little over 20 percent have less than a bachelor’s degree.
What’s more, HackerRank’s 2019 Developer Skills Report states that an overwhelming majority of hiring managers said they look for candidates to prove their skills through previous work and years of experience. Nine out of ten hiring managers also note that these factors are more popular qualifications than education.
As tech workers look into non-traditional forms of learning, innovative companies become more open to a skills-oriented approach to learning. Tech-based boot camp programs from the likes of General Assembly and Udacity are now a common entry point into a career in Bay Area innovation. Even free and low-cost online courses offer the training you’ll need to pivot into the home of high-tech powerhouses.
After decades spent watching Silicon Valley’s tech workforce being fed from the same elite universities and oftentimes, graduate programs, local companies are also beginning to recruit talent from people outside of its preferred networks—and letting the most respected names in the industry lead the way.
Apple CEO Tim Cook is one of them, who stressed the "mismatch" between the skills learned in higher education and the skills that businesses need while speaking at the 2019 American Workforce Policy Advisory Board.
"We've never really thought that a college degree was the thing that you had to do well," he said. "We've always tried to expand our horizons."
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