Go Back to School

There's no question that the higher the degree, the higher the paycheck. According to this year's Salary Survey, staff and entry-level IT workers with a bachelor's degree earned an average of $74,768, compared with an average of $82,101 for those with a master's and $96,401 for those with a Ph.D. The same applies to midlevel managers, who earned an average of $90,650 with a bachelor's, $99,488 with a master's and $102,861 with a Ph.D. (Read profiles of Computerworld's 10 IT schools to watch.)

But considering the high cost of education, most people think twice before pursuing an advanced degree. Plus, there's the argument that experience counts more than a piece of paper.

"People often think an MBA will give them a huge leg up, but if you've honed a specific niche skill for five years versus spending five years on a part-time MBA program, you'd get a lot more value coming in with the experience versus the degree," says Grant Gordon, managing director at Intronic Solutions Group LLC, a staffing firm in Overland Park, Kan. "I've seen people who think they'll be promoted because they got an MBA, and they get overlooked."

Not that Gordon is against obtaining advanced degrees; he just doesn't think you should do it solely for the money. "I'm a huge proponent for improving yourself if it's for your own personal development, but if you're looking for a magic bullet to increase your salary, I haven't seen evidence that it's effective," he says.

Michael Godin wasn't thinking salary when he went back to school in 2005, after 10 years in IT. At the time, he was a network administrator, and he moved across the country to obtain a master's in information assurance at Northeastern University in Boston. "The whole idea was to get away from the straight-up, day-to-day technology engineering mind-set and get into the deeper aspects of companies' philosophical approaches to technology," Godin says. "I didn't equate the additional degree with salary advancement."

Today, he's earning 10% more as a professional services consultant at Ecora Software Corp., a compliance reporting system vendor in Portsmouth, N.H., that was recently acquired by Versata Enterprises Inc. Having a graduate degree, Godin says, "puts you in different social circles and allows you to go after higher-paying jobs."

It enabled Godin to move from engineering to the sales side, which involves talking strategy and giving presentations. "There's a feeling like you've earned your way to being at a specific table; that's where the edge from education comes from," he says.

As for the experience-vs.-degree argument, Godin says that at 33, the degree helped him prove that he was qualified for a higher-level job. "I think experience is just as important," he says. "But at a younger age, when you haven't built up a lot of experience yet, the piece of paper accelerates you."

This version of this article originally appeared in Computerworld's print edition.

Next: 7. Be a top performer at your current employer.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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