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5 Tips For Choosing an IT Degree

Information technology is an industry in which technically minded people can often expect to make quite a bit of money -- provided they have the right skills and education to get there.

For students considering IT degrees as an educational path, knowing where to invest their time and money for schooling is critical. A little planning and research can go a long way toward helping a student find the right IT career for them. Below are five tips to help students find the right path to education that can help them achieve their goals.

1. Think about long-term goals


The first step for students is to think about what they want to do when they graduate. IT is a diverse field that encompasses a lot of different kinds of work, and demand in the industry is high.

Having an idea of the kind of work they want to do, or the job they mean to eventually aim for, can help students narrow down their options.

There are a number of resources that can help students to determine where they're headed. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics provides a wealth of information about IT jobs including how much they pay, what level of education they require and more. US News & World Report's "100 Best Jobs of 2015," also includes a number of IT-related roles, with three -- software developer, computer systems analyst and information security analyst -- falling in the top 10, and drawing median salaries of between $81,000 and $92,000 a year.

Comparing the relevant aspects of various jobs -- salary, potential growth in the field and quality of life for workers -- is the first step on the path to a career.

2. Research what kind of education a particular career requires


Determining which roles might fit best is a good way for students to start narrowing which field they might want to pursue, but an understanding of what kind of IT degrees and/or certifications certain jobs require will often have a big effect on making that decision.

"Data analytics and business intelligence, cyber security and mobile application development are three high-demand jobs," said Annette Easton, PhD, chair of the Management Information Systems Department at San Diego State University. "While some companies may hire into these jobs with an associate degree, a bachelor's or master's degree is often required for further advancement within the company. Some jobs may require professional certifications, such as the Certified Information Systems Security Professional."

As a post on Western Governors University's Night Owl Blog points out, there's not always a clear path to determining whether it's better to pursue a degree or a certification, even high-demand, widely applicable certs like Microsoft's MCSE and Cisco CCNA.

"IT professionals are having that very conversation on discussion forums and social networks across the Internet. And one question regularly comes up: Which is more important, IT certifications or an IT degree? And over and over again, the people who know how to answer that question best -- the employers hiring IT professionals, the job-seekers facing scrutiny of their own credentials, and the successful IT pros who have found their dream jobs -- all say the same thing: It kind of depends."

Knowing what students need for the career path they're interested in will help inform what kind of degree they need, and which schools are the best for obtaining them.

3. Find the right schools


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There are a huge number of schools that offer IT-related degrees, and many programs might be very different from one another. Easton suggested students focus on programs that will give them the best preparation for life on the job.

"Look for a program that provides opportunities for skill development through class projects and internships," Easton said. "The program should also have strong connections with the business community, active IT-oriented student organizations and an involved faculty. You should also look at whether the program is involved with any academic alliance initiatives to provide learning opportunities with specialized software."

Resources like OnlineDegreeReview.org can help potential students get an idea of what to expect from a specific school's program, which can help in evaluating a variety of different possibilities.

4. Make sure IT is the right course


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While students might have a natural inclination towards or knack for working with computers, like any course of study, IT includes elements students might not have considered -- like a heavy emphasis on math, for example. College students often use early semesters making sure they are happy with their chosen majors, but that approach can be difficult for IT degrees, Easton explained.

"In a four-year university, many of the specialized or IT-focused courses will be taken in the student's junior and senior years," Easton said. "This can make it challenging to know early on if a program is right for them. As a result, while a freshman or sophomore students should seek out workshops, IT-oriented student club activities and self-initiated learning opportunities to start to grow their experience base."

5. Stay flexible and keep learning


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IT is a fast-changing field and it'll likely be completely different five or 10 years from now, which students will want to keep in mind as they chart their educational courses.

A study of IT professionals by Tech Pro Research found that 77 percent of those surveyed were planning to further their education in order to avoid their skills becoming obsolete.

"In the IT field, things are always changing," Easton said. "Students should expect that they will need to continue learning throughout their careers.

To lay down a solid foundation, Easton said, students may want to consider starting with a Bachelor of Science in Business degree with a major in information systems.

"It combines a solid mix of business courses with the specialized set of IT-related courses," she said. "Students learn how to analyze business needs, and then design and develop systems to meet those needs. The trendy things tend to be the tools that a student learns, like a particular language or development environment. In the long run, those tools change, but the foundation of the degree will continue to be used."

Sources

Interview with Annette Easton, PhD, Management Information Systems Department chair, San Diego State University, conducted April 2015
"The 25 Best Jobs of 2015," US News, April 2015.http://money.usnews.com/money/careers/slideshows/the-25-best-jobs-of-2015
"Information Technology Degree: How to Build a Career in IT," Udemy Blog, April 2015.https://blog.udemy.com/information-technology-degree/
"An IT Degree or Certifications: Which Do I Need to Succeed?" The Night Owl Blog, April 2015.http://www.wgu.edu/blogpost/it-degree-or-it-certifications
"10 Steps to Picking the Right College" US News, April 2015. http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/2011/04/04/10-steps-to-picking-the-right-college

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