Gas station without pumps

2013 September 11

Not just a job ticket

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 08:31
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On my MIT tour post, Nita commented

As an engineer myself, I find it rather interesting that people automatically think that going to MIT will secure a certain type of position or opportunity. So not true for the field. There is such a need for developers that many of them don’t even have 4 year degrees to be viable in this field. Just getting a Certification in Oracle, Cisco and more will get you in the door to a ‘Help Desk’ or ‘Jr. Programming’ job without a degree and if you are good, your salary and the salary of your peers will be the same in about 5 to 10 years … all without a degree. Now if you want to become a Software Manager or Engineering Architect, the highest degree most have is a Masters—but it’s not necessary, what they want you to have is another ‘Certification’ a PMP which takes about a week to get. Really spend time talking to people in your child’s chosen career makes a big difference.

I started to respond to the comment, but as my response got longer and longer, I decided to turn it into a separate post.

While it is certainly possible to get a job in IT without a degree, I think my son would not be happy in a “Help Desk” or “Jr. Programming” job for very long (by which I mean more than a few weeks). He is patient with people who don’t know what he knows, and (I’m told) he’s been a good teaching assistant for the home-school Python class, but I think he’d get frustrated dealing with the rude behavior by stupid people that most help desk personnel have to put up with. A junior programming job would not be very rewarding either, as people in such positions are not trusted to make any decisions about the code, but just to implement what they are told or slap patches on badly written code that is already so patched by incompetents that it is nearly impossible to maintain. The most tedious and unrewarding parts of programming are given to junior programmers, with almost no opportunity given to show what one is really capable of.

His goal in going to college is not “to get a good-paying job”, but to learn cool stuff and to do cool stuff (which for him, at the moment, mainly means writing programs, though he’s gotten a bit interested in designing digital hardware as well).  It is unfortunate that computer science has recently been oversold as a job ticket, because it means that in most colleges he’ll be surrounded by people who are just there for the money and have little love for the learning. Computer programming suffers from even wilder boom-and-bust swings than other engineering fields, and I suspect that a lot of the current pushing of CS as a ticket to a good job is deliberate hype to keep labor costs low.

Part of what we’re looking for on our college tours is a place where many of the students are there for the learning, not the job ticket. Of course, since most parents and students have been taught to think of college as a job ticket, the information sessions and campus tour guides often spend a fair amount of time talking about how good the job prospects are for their graduates.  Both Brown and Stanford made a big deal out of Google’s active recruitment of their students, though Stanford included Google only as one of the many examples of employers who pay big bucks to recruit Stanford students.

We’ve been trying to read between the lines to find the places where he’d get the learning he wants and where he’d be surrounded by other students with similar motivations.  A high rate of students going on to grad school in CS and doing well is a good sign, for example, because it means that the students loved learning enough to forego high-paying jobs in order to learn more.  For students primarily interested in getting one of those high-paying jobs, the number of people getting job offers immediately after graduation and the size of those job offers may be more important than the number going on to grad school. Google recruiting is a good sign for both groups of students—Google pays well, but they are also interested in finding people who can do new things, not people who’ve just gone through cram-and-forget training to get a piece of paper with BS on it. Having a large number of successful startups formed by students or recent alumni is also a good sign for both groups, at least if the startups are doing cool new things, and not just random tweaks to whatever the current fad is.

Getting paid well to do cool stuff would be nice, but my son is not primarily driven by money.  His motivations might be different if we were rich and spent all our time comparing ourselves to still richer people, or if we were poor and spent all our time trying to make ends meet and pay off crushing debts.  But our family is solidly middle-class, with a paid-up mortgage and just enough income to indulge our cheap tastes and save for retirement and college. Our biggest expenses are food and education.

My son’s future is undetermined: It’s possible that he’ll get rich from creating a startup that hits the big time.  It’s possible that he’ll become a hot-shot programmer or engineer at a large company. It’s possible that he’ll end up as a professor or as a senior researcher in a national lab.  It’s also possible that he’ll end up as an actor, doing various contract programming and web-design jobs as day jobs to pay the rent between acting gigs.  He’s preparing himself for any of those possibilities (and probably others).

Right now, being a student is most attractive to him, and he is trying to optimize that experience.  If learning continues to be his main passion, he’ll probably stay in school through a PhD.  If something else beckons along the way, he might stop (or perhaps pause) with a BS and pursue the other opportunity.



  1. So glad you addressed this, as many in this field focus on it just for the money. The field of computer science is rather vast, has quite a few different roles and need of talents that it will always be this diverse in skill and opportunities for those that are degreed and those that aren’t. I was a degreed student who went on to get a Masters, but I do see a clear path for students that want to get in the field through other means. However, If your student is interested in further research and moving to Phd programs then the school choice is a definite factor in reaching the goal.

    Comment by Nita — 2013 September 11 @ 08:44 | Reply

  2. Going directly from undergrad to grad school with out any experience in between always seemed a bit odd to me. And doing grad work at the same school where a person got their undergrad seems a bit narrow(?) in perspective. I did not do the former but did do the latter. I really wish I had gone elsewhere to do my grad degree but the job thing kind of nailed me down. Having experience changes so much in life. My grad experience was much more directed because of it.

    Comment by Garth — 2013 September 11 @ 10:58 | Reply

    • A lot depends on what you plan to do. A break between BS and MS is often a good idea—the MS can be used to refresh your credentials and to specialize after having a chance to see what is needed in industry.

      But if what you want to do is to dive deep into a research project, that’s easier to do as a grad student than as an entry-level employee. Delaying getting a PhD until you are in your 40s or 50s can make it difficult to get academic jobs, if that is your goal. Living on a grad-student stipend or a postdoc salary can be tough if you have kids of your own in college. (Despite those problems, our department accepts many re-entry PhD students and has placed several of them into prestigious faculty positions—we look for evidence of research ability, independent of age.)

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 September 11 @ 11:26 | Reply

      • I can definitely see the advantage of a continuous BS-MS-PhD for researchers and those working in the research side of academia. Not being in that direction i would never have thought of it. That is why i read blogs, for the other perspectives. My daughter started college this fall. I am very happy that the university in this town is one of the best in the nation for her planned field, physical therapy. I get to see her when she comes home with her dirty laundry.

        Comment by Garth — 2013 September 11 @ 12:58 | Reply

  3. I’m following your posts with interest, though my kids are much younger, and not particularly interested in CS, because we too are interest in college for the learning and not the job outcome.

    It seems like you have a good profile of what your kid is like and what he is looking for. I do think it’s a little easy to dismiss schools based on short visits (say, I do think Caltech offers significant undergraduate research opportunities, even if the tour guides mostly talked about house parties). I’m guessing that it’s a bias in tour guides that they are more likely to be the ones who are taking advantage of the house parties and social life than the engineering research opportunities.

    Regarding going straight to grad school, I think what matters is having had experience doing original research before committing to a graduate degree. I consider that a good reason to consider the likelihood of undergraduate research opportunities in choosing a school.

    Comment by bj — 2013 September 11 @ 11:23 | Reply

    • We may be overly influenced by the tours—some of the guides turned us off from campuses that had seemed like a good fit on paper, and others excited us about schools we had been less certain about.

      Part of the point of visiting a school is to try to get a feel for the unwritten culture of the school, and the tour guides often provide the best view we can get of that from the outside.

      Remember that the college has selected and trained the tour guides—if the message the tour guides convey indicates a poor fit, then there is a higher probability that the fit is indeed poor.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 September 11 @ 11:30 | Reply

  4. I think you know I work at Oracle. We recruit only from the top engineering schools, MIT among them. Resumes from people with “certifications” go straight to the round file. FWIW.

    Comment by Richard Masoner (@cyclelicious) — 2013 September 11 @ 21:33 | Reply

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