Advanced Degrees and Web Development Jobs

By Kathleen Taylor, Bud E. Smith

Web development is a field where hiring is driven by your portfolio and your connections, and where the need for a bachelor’s degree is controversial. So, what about advanced degrees? Isn’t an advanced degree completely unnecessary?

There are three kinds of advanced degrees for most web developers to consider:

  • Master’s degrees: Master’s degrees come in two types: an MA, or Masters of Arts, and an MSc, or Masters of Sciences. An MSc degree is more technical and likely to bring somewhat greater financial rewards. Either distinguishes you from people with a bachelor’s degree or less.

  • Doctorates: A doctorate only comes in one type, the PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy. Most people who get a PhD get an MA or MSc on the way to the PhD. A doctorate strongly distinguishes you and positions you to be a senior manager or thought leader in your field.

  • MBAs: Many technology company leaders have engineering degrees at the bachelor’s level and an MBA (a master’s of business administration degree) on top of that.

To answer the question, “Do I need an advanced degree?” with a simple yes or no, the answer, for many web developers, would indeed be no. You can have a long, successful, and lucrative career in web development without an advanced degree. And there’s a good case to be made that working longer hours or taking on a side project could well be more lucrative over time than taking courses.

However, a longer answer would cite some advantages of advanced degrees that are hard to get any other way:

  • Personal satisfaction: It feels good to master complex material and to get recognized for doing so, with a lot of hard work and some personal sacrifice required to get there. Pieces of paper do mean something when they’re granted by credible institutions and recognize years of hard work. It feels good, forever, to have achieved everything represented by an advanced degree.

  • Prestige: People have at least some understanding of what goes into getting an advanced degree, and that can translate into a certain degree of respect, an advantage when applying for new positions, and the ability to teach others in a university setting if you choose to do so. Don’t pursue an advanced degree with prestige as the main reason, but don’t be afraid to enjoy it a bit once you get there.

  • Pay: Studies reliably show that more education results in a higher lifetime income. One can easily see this happening within web development, where it’s easier for your resume to float to the top of the pile, easier to land that speaking engagement, and easier to get that raise you’ve been pushing for when you have an advanced degree.

  • Structured knowledge: Sure, you can learn how to do PHP programming out of a book, or using a stand-alone online course. The cool thing about degree programs is a combination of the information in them and the structure in which the information is delivered. This meta-information is valuable to deep understanding of the material itself, and for learning something about the institutions that deliver information in this particular way.

  • Truly incredible networking opportunities: If you want to start your own company someday, for instance, there’s a very good chance you can find your cofounder in a degree program, or through one. Advanced degree programs are good ways to find your next job — or your next new colleague at your current job — as well. The teaching, speaking, and alumni activity opportunities that come with your degree are all networking opportunities as well.

Different advantages of an advanced degree matter more or less to different people. The key is that, in web development, unlike in other careers, an advanced degree is not always an unadulterated plus. Pursue one for your own reasons, and don’t pursue it if you don’t think you’ll enjoy it.

Because technology-oriented people tend to be irreverent and disrespectful of authority and tradition, it isn’t helpful to put on an air of superiority if you’re pursuing, or achieve, an advanced degree. Tech people respect competence. So think of your degree as something you achieved while learning things that you really wanted to know, both for the sake of knowledge itself and to be able to do more cool things at work.

And don’t expect anyone to give you anything — a job, respect, even winning an argument — as a result. Instead, use the skills you learned in getting the degree to get what you want.