Do IT: Breaking In – College and University – Degree Programs

In most fields the most simple and obvious means of breaking into the industry is through higher education. In many fields a degree from an accredited college or university is not just required from a practical sense (automotive mechanical engineers will get nowhere without a baccalaureate or higher degree in mechanical engineering) but require it legal (hairdressers, doctors, etc.)

[In the United States the terms college and university are widely used interchangeably. Technically a college is a school of study while a university is a collection of colleges. For example, the State University of New York consists of many colleges as well as a few “sub” universities all within a single university. But in Canada a college is similar to a junior college in the US and university is what we call “four year schools.” This can be confusing as in the US being accepted to a college means that you are definitely accepted to its associated university but not necessarily vice versa. But in Canada a university is considered to be the more serious degree and college is a “less than” baccalaureate program.]

Collegiate level work, regardless of the level, can be a good means of getting a foot into the door of the IT industry. This can be done through social networking with other students, contacts from professors and staff or simply by the fact that when you are finished you carry a degree or certification from the school.

At this time there are two principle degree programs that are available to a prospective student: IT/CIS and CS. IT/CIS is the most problematic because every school seems to have their own name for this program. The most common at Information Technology or Computer Information Systems. Some schools inappropriately call this MIS or Management Information Systems but MIS should be a specific field of study within an IT/CIS program. Some school use the term Information Systems but many schools shy away from this as it was common for some time to use that term to create false resume value by passing off Library Science graduates and technology professionals often without ever having providing a single technology resource. This is not limited to small schools but some major universities in the US have taken this tact to keep costs low (librarians are very cheap and IT professionals cost as much as the most senior collegiate staff) while turning out large numbers of graduates (as people unable to handle the rigors of a true IT program flocked to these school to “buy” their degrees.) The names vary but IT/CIS programs are, or should be, targeted at the skills used by the IT industry. The field of study, like the profession, is extremely broad and will often encourage a high degree of specialization within the program.

The other popular degree program is CS or Computer Science. Computer Science grew out of Electrical Engineering which used to be the training ground for IT professionals before the field gained its own recognition. The IT field started academically as being integrated with computer and hardware design and then with programming. When Computer Science became a field of study in its own right it was widely recognized that computer engineering was an electrical engineering discipline and that computer science was its own field focusing on the programmatic needs of computational machinery. The IT field has grown and most professionals within IT are not based on programming and computer science has been able to become the field that it should – the study of the theories of programming. Computer science is not a strictly IT disciple. A simile that might explain the relationship between CS and IT is like the separation between being a physicist and an engineer. Engineering relies on physics to discover new principles in many cases but physicist rely on engineers to actually create and maintain real world devices. Engineering is a gigantic field whereas physics research is relatively small.

Because of this separation programs in computer science are focused on preparing students for algorithmic research and most jobs are in companies pushing software boundaries like operating system, database, video games, compiler and high performance computing vendors or in academia. Computer science is a niche field related to but not truly IT although IT does need CS to survive. Students interested in a career in IT should not be taking CS degree programs as this leads them down a path of study that does not give them the skills necessary to work in IT. Only students in software development have the option to choose between the two areas of study and only with extreme rarity is there benefit to the CS path over a dedicated software development path in IT. IT’s focus on software development is generally targeted towards created real world business software in business environments. It is about using tools, working in teams, being aware of available technologies, etc. CS will often focus on low level languages, algorithms and math.

It is so common for students interested in IT to choose collegiate work in CS that it poses a real issue for the field. Students are expecting training in their chosen field while taking coursework in a different field. Colleges and universities should do more to educate their students coming into these programs but students need to take responsibility to entering programs designated for their intended career path. CS is an important and very difficult field of study but it is not a path into traditional IT and with rare exception should be avoided and should always be avoided, in my opinion, by anyone not intent on achieving at very least a Master’s (five year graduate study) if not a Doctoral degree. CS is the theoretical physics of the computer world.

As this is an article series on Information Technology I will continue in future article only speaking of IT and CIS collegiate programs.

Some larger IT schools are beginning to offer highly specialized degree programs that can also be considered IT or CIS programs such as Rochester Institute of Technology’s Masters of Networking and Systems Administration within the IT and CS school. These specialized degrees can be really good for students interested in a single, concentrated career path but are probably not as beneficial for students with broader interests or hopes of switching from a dedicated technical into management later in their careers.

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