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Going Back to School: A Guide for Tech Workers

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If you're considering going back to school to boost the education section of your resume, you're not alone. A recent US Census Bureau report shows that in 2010 there were 19.1 million people enrolled in colleges and universities, an increase of over five million students from 2000. Students aged 35 and older account for 16% of full-time students and 36% of part-time students.

While going back to school represents a significant investment of time and money, all indications are that a graduate degree is worth these investments, especially when it comes to degrees in technology or engineering. When you should go back depends on your ability to shoulder the expense.

There are two times when most people in the technology sector begin to look more closely at additional schooling. First is in one's early career, generally when you have less than two years experience. Second is when you are looking at career advancement with an eye toward management opportunities and beyond.

Looking at the Numbers

According to the latest report from the US Census Bureau issued in 2002, the average full-time worker with a Master's degree earned $62,300, compared to $52,200 for those with a Bachelor's degree. Having a Doctoral degree was more valuable at $89,400 per year. Associate's degrees, with an average salary of $38,200, were only marginally better than the $36,800 earned by those with an incomplete college education. In comparison, high school graduates earned $30,400 on average.

Employees in the technology sector will find their earnings are often higher than these averages. When working with technology, education alone is not the only element to determine earning potential. Hands-on abilities and interpersonal skills are also important.

Early Career Considerations

If you are planning to embark on a career in technology with an unrelated degree and little-to-no work experience, you will undoubtedly find it is difficult to even get a first interview. For many, turning around and heading back to school may seem like the only option.

Many first-time job seekers make the mistake of enrolling in a non-accredited training school in the hopes that adding a six-month program to an English or History degree will make their resumes more attractive. Unfortunately, unless this is combined with relevant work experience, or includes an industry-based certification, such programs do very little to open doors. Taking a part-time job at an IT help desk while enrolling in first-year courses in programming or computer science will be a much better boost to your resume than any six-month quick fix training program.

Going back to school to get the undergraduate degree that is relevant to your work gives you the opportunity to give your resume an important makeover. For example, a degree in Computer Science added to that Philosophy degree, combined with a couple years of work experience, can catapult your earnings potential.

Industry-Based Certifications

Industry-based certifications are often a good way to get your resume noticed if you are embarking on a tech career with little hands-on experience. Companies are often required to employ certified technicians in order to win or retain contracts with clients and suppliers. In addition to this, taking the time to learn the material and pass the exam is a demonstrated investment in your own future. Many certifications do require working experience, however entry-level certifications like those offered by Microsoft, Cisco and ITIL do not.

For those already on track with a good career who are unable to take the time to go back to school for a second degree, specialist certifications in your field can accelerate your career progress. ITIL certifications, as well as project management certifications, can also help you make the transition toward management if you already have the practical hands-on experience.

Career Advancement

For those looking to advance their career beyond hands-on work in technology, part-time and full-time studies should both be considered. If you can show your employer the benefits additional education will bring to both of you, you may get their support and cooperation in taking time off for full-time studies. If not, and you feel you have reached a plateau with your current employment, it may be worth taking the plunge to take some time off. More and more schools are offering part-time studies both on campus and online.

Master's Degrees

In most cases, going back to school to get a Master's degree in your chosen field is only valuable if you are planning on specializing in one area, or if you are hoping to become an academic.

An important exception to this is if you have the opportunity to go to a school that is highly-regarded as one of the best technical colleges. For example, in IT, having a degree from MIT or the California Institute of Technology can open doors in companies that lesser-known schools cannot. If you want to work for a specific company like Google or Apple, it will certainly help your chances if you go to one of the schools they actively recruit from.

Business Degrees

Undoubtedly, a business degree combined with a technical background is a powerful combination in today's management market. Business experts often don't understand the intricacies of the technology their business is based upon. On the other hand, IT professionals don't often understand the business principals that technology serves. Having a foot solidly planted in each of these worlds can put your career on a fast-track to director-level and C-level positions.

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