The world of technology is fast-paced and there’s always something new you need to know: a programming language, a framework, maybe even some business skills. There are lots of ways to pick up new knowledge, from just reading what you can find online for free to earning a graduate-level degree in the topic.
It’s a question of how much education about a given topic is really going to help you. With investors like Peter Thiel actually paying programmers to drop out of college and start companies, the question gets more complicated. But there are some times when it still makes sense to go back to school.
The Credential Issue
The value of a college education in particular and most degree and certificate-granting programs in general is that you come out of school with a specific credential. In most cases, the credential isn’t quite as good as long-term experience in a given field — an investor is always going to prefer a startup founder who has already built several successful businesses to a kid with a brand-new MBA and no experience, but having an inexperienced MBA on board is better than absolutely no one with any provable business knowledge whatsoever.
In many cases, you can probably pick up everything you need to know with some reading and a little experimenting. The hard part is proving that you have the knowledge and a credential does that for you. Going back to school can be a relatively straightforward way to both get the knowledge you need and proof you know it in the same package.
The downside of going back to school primarily to earn a credential is that it’s a time-consuming process to get a degree. It may be just as effective to invest a couple of years in getting real world experience, instead — although that depends on what your end goal is. You can get many certificates in a shorter time frame.
The Learning Style Question
For some of us, picking up a new skill isn’t quite as simple as just reading a tutorial and jumping into it. Taking at least one class in a given topic can make sense if you learn better with an expert around to work through a few problems with you and who can act as a resource. You need to test out your own ability to learn in different formats and decide what really works for you. If you need a formal class to learn, then the question of going back to school becomes a lot easier.
It’s also worth considering that many of us are so focused on our current projects that picking up something dramatically different means that we need someone to be accountable to. An instructor fits the bill well — taking a class means that you have to get through the material in a timely fashion.
Personally, this fall will be only the second semester I haven’t been enrolled in a class since I was five. I find that the structure helps me a lot, since I’m so self-directed in all of the other work that I do. I’m not formally pursuing a degree anymore, but a regularly scheduled class at the community college or the local hackerspace helps me keep moving forward.
Image by Flickr user Avolore