To Degree or Not to Degree?
August 17, 2020
That is the Question
When you google “computer science jobs", you’ll get a plethora of search results with anything from promotions of online MOOCs, online Computer Science degree programs, and article after article declaring data scientists and computer programmers the “sexist jobs" of the 21st century. While the links about computer programming may be vast, a concise guide about whether it’s best to get a degree in Computer Science or not are not so helpful. Frankly, I find most of the articles on this subject are from people interested in justifying their own choices without thinking about the diversity of needs of the people interested in starting a career in Computer Science.
Personally, I participated in a combination of tracks. I completed a few online certifications, completed a bootcamp, and am now getting a Masters Degree in Computer Science. After making a solid portfolio in a bootcamp and filling a few knowledge gaps through the MOOCs, I felt that my interests would best be served in a program that could teach me the what and the why behind Computer Science. I found myself reading articles on bleeding edge deep learning techniques and formulating ethical algorithms and knew that a degree program would be the best way to fulfill my interests.
The thing is, while entering a graduate degree program was best for me, it may not be what's best for everyone else. This brings us to a very important question:<
To Degree or not to Degree?
The Answer: Well, that depends.
Reason to attend a certificate program:
Money. This will come as a shock to no one, but it must be stated: certificate programs overall are less expensive than degree programs. However, these programs can be pricey and if you’re someone like me that does not have thousands of dollars laying around to get a certificate from a top program, then a certificate program may be out of reach. Many certificate programs require you to either pay for the program upfront for a more favorable cost- many programs give substantial discounts for paying upfront- or divide the full cost in payments due monthly. Certificate programs do not count as degree seeking programs so you cannot apply for federal student loans to help cover this expense. You may be able to qualify for a Sallie Mae loan for certain programs or even may be able to apply for financing with the certificate program to pay monthly for the program (Thayer at Dartmouth has a wonderful financing option), but you’ll have to endure a credit check.
Nonetheless, there are wonderful certificate programs that provide scholarships for women, people of color, and people that can demonstrate financial hardship. For people interested in going the certificate route, I would suggest exhausting every option of keeping the cost of attendance low through scholarships and financing options. Be sure to inquire of the certificate program's organizers to learn all of your options.
What about MOOCs?
Online courses on sites such as Udemy and Coursera allow for certificates accessible through a modest monthly fee. While these sources are wonderful (I, personally, got a few certificates from Coursera), the sheer amount of offerings if you are new to computer science can be daunting. Where do you start? These sources are best for supplementary learning- getting a handle on topics that you come across that you may not have understood on your own. Another glaring issue with these programs is that they do not help you create a portfolio- the single most important thing you can have when going on a job search.
However, this is the cheapest option other than self-learning to get a grasp on complex topics in computer science.
Reasons to try an Income Sharing programs/ Bootcamps: the hybrid of MOOCs and a degree.
These may be the best route if you are short on money, have the time and are dedicated to creating an entire project from start to finish within 6 months and a year, and want to get one-on-one mentorship from an expert in your field. One snag is that some of these programs expect for you to have some prior knowledge in computer science and mentors typically expect for you to know what field within computer programming you would like to enter to make the most of your and their time. This is not for those unsure of the direction in which they would like to go in computer science or that get overwhelmed easily by high expectations. If you go the bootcamp route, you will likely pay for the program either upfront or monthly depending on the bootcamp’s financial services. In an income sharing program, you will not have to pay until you secure a job at which point you are responsible for paying your mentor a percentage of your salary, typically over the year.
Reasons to get a Degree:
This is the most specialized option and, frankly, the most expensive option overall. While you have the ability to apply for federal loans with this option, this is not something you should be taking likely as you will be responsible for paying these loans back. This is an option best served for those that are interested in improving or creating new technologies, working in project, product, or program management (though Google is coming out with a project management certificate that will be treated the same as a Bachelor’s degree. Time will tell if this is accepted as much as degree holders), are interested in knowing the fundamentals of algorithms and computer systems, or are interested in pursuing a career in academia in the future.
Whichever route you choose, the most important things are to create a portfolio that shows your work and abilities and network.
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