How to Become a Network Engineer
August 03, 2022
Successful network engineers have a diverse computer science skill set and extensive experience. These professionals can build and manage entire network infrastructures; yes, they even know how to configure a router.
Network engineers once spent their days fixing spotty internet connections and installing routers, but the job has expanded beyond simple IT troubleshooting. Modern network engineers actually maintain the network infrastructure; this requires a broad skill set that encompasses cybersecurity, programming (like Python or Java), cloud computing, and project management. Many network engineers have data analytics experience and pursue specialized certificate training and graduate education well into their careers.
Because the role has changed, people frequently confuse the term network engineer with other job titles, including network administrator, IT engineer, junior network engineer, and network architect. Depending on the company, these positions can overlap with network engineering; several entry-level roles can lead to a network engineering career.
The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reporst the 2021 median annual income for network and computer systems administrators at $80,600. These professionals can earn six figures in finance or management positions, especially if they live in major cities like New York or San Francisco. That's great money, especially considering companies don't always require network engineers to hold a master's degree.
This article details how to become a network engineer. Topics include:
- Pathway to a network engineering career
- Learning on your own
- Master of Science in Network Engineering
Pathway to a network engineering career
Multiple career paths can lead to a network engineering job. The process can be quite different for high school graduates who attend a four-year college and career changers who move from a different field later in life. This section will touch on the traditional pathway to a network engineer position.
The first step in becoming a network engineer is cultivating your interest in the subject. It could mean pursuing a computer science course in high school or completing independent projects. All network engineers should engage in independent continuing education to keep up with developments in the field; it's best to start early.
Students typically pursue a STEM major during their undergraduate studies. Top options include computer science, information systems, information technology, and computer engineering. It's possible to earn a degree in network engineering but not necessary.
Because technological advancements change the industry rapidly, many professionals earn certificates throughout their careers. The right certificate can help sharpen your skill set and appeal to recruiters. Companies like Microsoft and Cisco offer certificates focused on organizational technology, allowing professionals to pursue granular courses of study. Top options include CCNA Routing and Switching Certification (CCNA RS), Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), CompTIA Network+, and Juniper Networks Certified Associate - Junos (JNCIA-Junos).
According to Springboard, network engineers need five to ten years of experience; you won't land a network engineer role right out of school. Instead, you'll apply for a lower-level position and climb the ladder. Springboard identifies network technician, network administrator, systems administrator, and computer network analyst as good starter jobs.
Network administrators install updates and run networks; they also troubleshoot hardware and software issues. Network technicians deal primarily with daily network operations like installing upgrades and improving connectivity; they implement safety practices and address basic network issues. Network analysts usually work at large companies; they frequently offer technical solutions to business problems. These professionals understand different technologies and choose the right one to optimize network performance.
Network engineering goes far beyond firewalls, VPNs, and routing; engineers work with complex network systems. O*Net, a US Department of Labor occupational database, says network professionals need excellent computer science fundamentals. Professionals must be proficient in database user interface and query software (Oracle JDBC Hot technology), development environment software (Apache Kafka Hot technology), network monitoring software (Nagios Hot technology), operating system software (Red Hat Enterprise Linux Hot technology), and web platform development software (Microsoft ASP.NET Hot technology). They must also demonstrate skill in information ordering, inductive and deductive reasoning, and written comprehension.
This position is not just about technical skills. Network engineers interviewed for an article entiled "10 Pros Answer: What I Wish I'd Known Before Becoming a Network Engineer" consistently identified soft skills such as communication, teamwork, and persistence as keys to success. The job description does not include "knowing everything there is to know about computers," since that's not possible. Top network engineers can problem-solve to make up for gaps in their knowledge. Still, network engineering is not as simple as watching YouTube videos; professionals spend years studying and learning.
Learning on your own
Network engineers frequently continue their education by earning certification after college. Professional development certifications frequently center around one subject. CompTIA offers subject-specific certifications like cyber security and infrastructure management, for example.
You can also pursue general education. Juniper Networks Company offers specialist, professional, and expert grade certificates, and they're hardly the only ones. These certifications look good on a resume and help your resume stand out during the job search.
Master of Science in Network Engineering
Earning the proper certification can advance your career, but certification programs may not offer the support or comprehensive study plan of an accredited degree program. Network engineers who want to continue their education in a more structured environment may opt for a Master of Science in Network Engineering. Not only do master's programs offer continuing education opportunities but they also can appeal to career changers who lack the technical skills to land a network engineer position outright. Career changers complete bridge coursework (or an entry-level certification) before the program to learn network engineering basics.
While self-study and certifications can launch a networking career, master's programs are less risky. Both pathways can be expensive and time-consuming, but graduate degrees are traditionally more rigorous. If you're willing to research the best certificates and establish a portfolio, that path may be worth it. Otherwise, career changers should probably choose an accredited master's program.
A master's in network engineering can also improve your existing skill set, potentially leading to more money and a better job. Programs frequently offer hands-on learning opportunities. Students can work with experienced faculty and complete projects. Typical core subjects include information systems analysis and design, local area networks, wide area networks, municipal area networks, network protocols, network security management, network engineering principles, next generation mobile networks, voice over IP, and switching and routing.
Earn your degree online
Earning a maste'rs degree online can be an attractive prospect, especially for working students. Online programs typically have the same coursework requirements (including capstone projects) as in-person degrees. Students may participate in live lectures or view recordings asynchronously, depending on the program.
Southern Methodist University offers an online master's in network engineering program that prioritizes hands-on experiences; students complete lab coursework in addition to online courses. The program also includes certification opportunities as part of the curriculum. Students can learn to work with specific programs like Cisco, Amazon Web Services, and Microsoft Azure.
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