Is University Degree in IT Still a Worthwhile Investment?

What is the value of university education? How it can impact your career and your potential?

In September 2016, I was walking out of the Bethlehem Chapel, with a degree certificate in my left hand, celebrating a great milestone of my life — the climax of seven expensive years (with one gap year), during which I studied two bachelor’s programs, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and one master’s program, Software Engineering.

Now, in 2021, five years later, I wanted to look back and retrospectively evaluate the impact of my higher education, with an attempt to answer the following question — how worthwhile the higher education really is?

To study or not to study?

Software engineering is very specific. The lack of a university degree is no roadblock to many perspective positions with economic opportunities, in sharp contrast with other fields, such as Medicine, Physical therapy, and Law. The internet has rendered college irrelevant, as the degree itself doesn’t bring many skills required for your job you would have otherwise not learned through other means (like boot camps and online courses).

Therefore, many freshmen leave the school during their first semester, once they find out that would get to spend the next few years studying a broad set of principles they will unlikely need in practice, such as calculus, algebra, and algorithmic trivia. To start a business as a freelancer and get a pay check in the upper echelons of five figures by writing mobile or web apps, you can learn everything a lot faster by just taking up a few online courses.

A University degree is a very unequal kind of investment. College students frequently consider whether expensive tuition (luckily, not in my country) and attending school rather than working is a decision that will be somehow beneficial in the future.

Let’s do some math:

  • assume you can become a junior frontend developer within three months, by applying online courses and tutorials (if you’re smart enough, you can indeed requalify in such a short time)
  • in 3 years, you may become a senior or at least a mid-senior developer
  • find out the average market value for junior developers in your area, consider 3 months spent merely on training, and calculate the money you could have made in 3 years

If you take the path of higher education, the college will take you away from your full-time work. Therefore, your earnings will be next to nothing, and after 3–5 years, you will become a graduate with little to zero prior experience. In addition to that, enrolling in graduate school in some countries often requires students to take on student loan debt.

When you apply for your first job, you are going to be compared to your peers who have been pursuing a career since high school and spent the past 3+ years building apps. That’s something you should put into consideration!

I don’t have any precise data from my bachelor’s, but since I had to plan my master’s very thoroughly next to my full-time engagement, I tracked every hour I spent on each course. The result of this effort is displayed in the diagram below — 1715 hours spent on the master’s degree. A $75k-worthy investment just for the 2-year master’s.

My master’s studies

Education may not boost your market value

From a market standpoint, a university degree is only as valuable as the weight applied by hiring managers. People with a degree know a little of everything, but are masters of no particular area, which makes them unfit for many jobs. Furthermore, an accredited institutional curriculum barely keeps up with modern trends, as I’ve experienced by myself — the programming syllabus presented C# 4.0 at a time version 7 had been released, Web Services lectures completely omitted microservice architecture, and the list goes on. Curriculums hardly meet the needs of students and future employees with their lacking agility. Academics are notoriously slow to change.

If a company requires a degree, in most cases there is an alternative requirement for those who haven’t got one (e.g., more years of work experience). “Don’t go to college” is a suggestion you will hear from many top managers, as they have never entered the university door and rather spent their productive life running their business and climbing the ladder. Try to google a list of well-known college dropouts. Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates are among them.

In software engineering, regardless of your knowledge, experience, past projects, soft skills, and hard skills, everything is revolving around one single thing — your ability to deliver. Many IT companies live in a sit-code-deliver type of culture. You deliver results, the company ships the product, the client pays. The company hires you because they believe you will solve their problem, and your solution to the problem should be worth of your pay! As long as you can do your job quickly and contribute to your team, the degree doesn’t matter.

Take the path you wouldn’t have taken

If you want to make your degree count, don’t compete for jobs you could have gotten fresh out of high school. Self-taught developers can make web and mobile apps, yet they can’t gather enough expertise to deal with embedded systems, machine learning, data research, or robotics.

Challenging positions at innovative IT companies aren’t crafted for people with a basic understanding of JavaScript. People who can write algorithms to optimize complex systems and analyze data with statistics approaches are more valuable than developers who refactor React components. Even though the degree itself is not a must-have requirement, your education can help you a lot to pass the technical interview and become a valuable asset to the company.

Speaking about technical interviews, even at mediocre startups, their difficulty often surpasses the actual scope of work, especially at a time of a surplus of frontend developers — you might be asked to reverse linked lists for a position that requires styling buttons. Why? Because raising the bar will filter out people who fail in challenging tasks.

Graph theory can help you with complex backend architectural challenges, UML can help you write clear diagrams for technical documentation, a good understanding of statistics may give you better insights in data analyzing, etc.

Therefore, if you want to make full use of the time you invested into your higher education, you have to avoid job applications that are for everybody. Don’t work for digital agencies that deliver plain-jane, fixed-price apps and user lists. If you work for a company where senior devs are former train conductors (yep, seen that twice), you will hardly find any real programming challenge there. Work for companies that are crowded with experts in their respective fields.

A university degree will not entitle you to get a good job and maintain a high standard of living. It might get you in the door, but eventually, it’s the hard work and continuous improvement that will make the difference.

My journey of knowledge

So, what I actually learned in college? I significantly advanced my knowledge in many programming languages (Java, C#, C++, Python, SQL, PHP), got to understand graph theory, linear algebra, the whole curriculum about software development, UML, and project management. Among the optional courses, I could name 2D drawing, 3D modeling, multimedia in general, photography and archery courses, creative writing, philosophy, psychology, and many others.

The outcome? Knowledge of SQL and C# was the only thing I utilized fully at work. I never needed UML until 2018 when I worked for a client who explicitly asked for a few diagrams. Graph theory helped me to pass a few interviews, but it has occurred in just about 2 tasks I had to deal with at work. Knowledge of Agile is great, but the theory itself won’t help you become a high-performing team member, as I stated in one of my previous articles.

When I started my first full-time job, having a bachelor’s degree, I would write over-engineered code with textbook-perfect documentation. Juniors often write fancy code with complex abstractions, which is impractical for long-term maintenance, and it took me a while before I got to understand how to put my theoretical knowledge to practice.

The college didn’t teach me how to write production code, how to handle emotionally challenging situations, or how to deal with annoying clients who asked for additional features. What I did learn though, is how to organize multiple projects at once, how to deal with hard deadlines, how to boost and optimize my learning habits, and how to become a T-shaped person.

Even though there aren’t many major impacts on my career the college left on me, there is a multitude of second-order impacts that built my very mindset and skills. Cool pet projects on my GitHub account, my video games course I built in 2017, my cooking channel (yep, I learned how to cook in college dorms, as I hated cafeteria food), and many other by-products.

I’ve come to the conclusion that some of the greatest benefits of a college education are experienced during school. You can choose many optional courses that are of particular interest to you, and work on some cool projects that will extend your creative abilities. Every course you take up is a small piece of a puzzle, and its bigger picture will gradually manifest as your transforming mindset toward T-shaped thinking. It’s often not the objective, but the journey that counts.

Therefore, I take the time I spent in college as one of the greatest investments I have ever made, by any matter of means.

Conclusion

Taking a degree for making you a more attractive job candidate is not the best approach, as it may not become a great strategic step for a career-making advancement. At an interview, you will be judged by your “proven track of record of delivering projects on time and under budget” (my favorite portfolio crap), and your degree is just a certificate that you have dedicated a significant amount of time to a wide variety of industry domains.

Your degree may not bring you the best assignments or job offers, nor it may help start your own business, but it will make you conscious of your skills, talents, and aptitudes. Fresh graduates shouldn’t compare their chapter 1 with some else’s chapter 10, as long as they use their potential to grow their mindset faster than their drop-out peers.

A career in technology always means updating your knowledge gradually. Learning is a journey, it is a lifelong process. Regardless of what kind of engineer you are, you need to advance your education incrementally and learn on the immediate roadblocks you will get to face.

It’s not about if the degree is or isn’t worthwhile for your career. It’s about how you can advance your career with the knowledge and experience you have gathered in college — that’s the foundation of success.

Why do we study in the first place? To get a better understanding of the world around us, so that we could bring more value to it. Therefore, it’s up to you, what path you will take, and what trade-offs and sacrifices you are willing to make.

If one wishes to rise above mere labor, one must be well-educated in multiple fields of human knowledge, including philosophy, history, and art. Eventually, investment in your education will reveal its purpose.

I make apps plus bake cakes.