Is a Master’s Degree in Software Engineering Worth It?

Whether or not you should complete a master’s degree in software engineering depends on several factors including your current knowledge of software engineering, the cost of a master’s degree, and the requirements of the professional roles you aspire to. Thus, the answer lies in your specific situation.

The reality is that a master’s degree probably isn’t worth it for most software engineers. The $40,000 cost and an extra year or two of education will detract from the money you could earn in the role. Very few software companies promote based on a master’s and you are usually rewarded based on ability rather than previous education.

If you are considering whether a master’s degree in software engineering is worth it, then you probably already have a keen interest in the topic. Or have been captivated by the growth of the industry and the appealing salaries and benefits. However, it may be that you want to transition into the field like the many chemical engineers that become software developers.

Let’s explore whether a master’s degree in software engineering is the right thing for your current situation and the things to consider.  Plus we’ll look at the number of developers with a master’s degree and how much a master’s impacts your earning potential as a software developer.

Arguments for a master’s degree in software engineering

masters degree

The online community of software engineers is extremely divided when it comes to whether or not higher education is the best option for software engineers. Some argue that an MSc in software engineering is vital and even go so far as to recommend a Ph.D. in the discipline. 

Others, maintain that the industry is about what you can actually do more so than your academic 

resume. Thus, this article explores both sides of the argument and finishes with a list of pros and cons for you to take into consideration. 

The proponents of a master’s degree in software engineering make the following arguments. 

  1. Higher salary
  2. Qualified to apply to more jobs because the master gets your “foot in the door” because you have an MSc on your resume
  3. Structured education 
  4. Teaches critical thinking allowing for a career filled with growth and development
  5. Allows one to build a community
  6. Can be completed part-time whilst working

Getting your foot in the door

Firstly, having a master’s degree on one’s resume is a straightforward method of getting one’s foot in the door of a company. As we all know too well, the job market is competitive, particularly in the tech world and thus candidate profiles are vetted right from the start. An MSc will often allow one through this initial screening process on the strength of the candidate’s evident ability to have completed an often-rigorous program.

The growth potential

Secondly, master’s degrees are structured logically to encourage critical thinking (as most subjects in academia are). As such, software engineering students will learn to evaluate problems methodically, therefore, providing a rich foundation of knowledge. By learning this critical method of examining problems, students unlock some serious growth potential. 

This growth potential is understood by recruiters as it is viewed as transferrable to professional careers. Graduates with a master’s degree in engineering are often extremely pragmatic and unphased by difficult problems as they approach them to step by step in a deeply methodical manner. This trait is recognized by recruiters and very attractive to potential employers.

Forces you to be disciplined

Finally, a significant benefit to a master’s degree in software engineering is its manner of forcing one to work hard, maintain focus and learn a vast array of different subjects. 

In a master’s degree, constant projects and tests teach students to be on top of their studies which is a highly effective skill to bring into one’s career. 

Additionally, within software engineering, people tend to lean towards the projects they find most interesting. This is expected however, it can lead to a skewed foundation of knowledge. A master’s degree forces students to expand their breadth of knowledge and achieve at least a basic understanding of all necessary foundations. It also allows you to build on questions around why you are interested in software engineering during the interview. 

Talk about how you are interested in it during interviews

Arguments against a master’s degree in software engineering

Higher education is more often than not a good idea as it usually brings with it a higher salary, more interesting jobs, and expands the number of roles you can apply to and be considered for. 

However, software engineering is unique in that there are ample educational resources out there that can teach you the skills you need (and are often less time-consuming and expensive than a master’s degree). 

There are plenty of arguments against a masters degree not being necessary including: 

  1. Not necessary for many jobs if you can prove you have the skills required and can get your “foot in the door”
  2. More time-consuming than alternatives
  3. Academia isn’t for everyone 
  4. Longer than boot camps, alternative courses
  5. Competitive admissions processes (more and less so according to the specific university)
  6. Often rigid compared to other learning resources

It is not always necessary 

Further, when it comes to tech roles, many companies are more concerned with what you have done (your projects and portfolio) and therefore, your potential to add value to their organization than your academic qualifications. 

Consider, if you will, the generation of software engineers who have built some of the most important technologies we use today. Many of these people are self-taught because of the nature of the software industry: it isn’t a discipline that necessarily requires a university education. In fact, the first MSc in software engineering only came about in 1979 meaning many people were already trailblazing the software industry without a master’s. 

Therefore, if you can score the interview or get recruited based on your work then you can likely bypass the master’s requirement by proving you have the skills. Remember, you’ll need to have acquired the skills some other way! In reality, tech most jobs don’t even ask for your transcripts anyway.

Expensive

Completing a master’s degree costs a lot of money. On average it is going to cost you between $30,000 and $40,000 but this can increase to $100,000 if you go to a prestigious school. That is an enormous expense considering you can get a job in software engineering without a degree. 

If you are short on cash and already have a portfolio of projects then spending extra time in education may not be worth it. 

Time

Getting a degree takes a lot of time and a master’s will usually require an extra one or two years at school, depending on whether you do it part or full-time. For some people, it simply is feasible to take this much time away from working especially if you are already working another job.

Alternative to a master’s degree in software engineering

When we mention the ample educational resources out there asides from a master’s degree, we mean the seemingly endless options of boot camps and classes designed to teach complex coding functions at every level. 

There are various courses in software engineering that are highly regarded amongst the tech community such as: 

  • The Flatiron School
  • The Fullstack Academy
  • Hack Reactor
  • The Lambda School
  • The App Academy
  • Springboard
  • The General Assembly
  • Thankful

The benefit to education from one of these institutions is that the timelines are often shorter (and often more concentrated) than a master’s. For instance, many offer boot camps that are 7 days a week for one month. While an average software engineering master’s last two years if one undertakes it full-time and longer if one chooses the part-time route. 

Thus, a master’s degree in software engineering isn’t always the best choice. 

What percentage of software engineers have a master’s degree?

Only 20% of software engineers have a master’s degree which is a clear indicator you don’t need one to get into the industry. However,  73% of developers have at least a bachelor’s degree which means you may struggle to get into the industry without some form of formal qualification.

A lot of master’s and Ph.D. graduates end up in the data science part of software engineering where their advanced knowledge of mathematics can help them write more efficient code. 

The rise of coding schools and self-taught developers has also meant that plenty of would-be programmers don’t have any sort of degree. So don’t let a lack of education prevent you from getting into tech.

Do software engineers with a Master’s get paid more?

According to Payscale.com, the average software engineer will earn 30% more if they have a master’s degree. That is a significant jump in salary and a huge consideration when trying to determine if it is worth the extra time and money. The average software engineer earns $77,000 and this climbs to $101,000 with a master’s degree. 

It is worth noting that plenty of pay sites all have differing averages for what software engineers earn and often don’t include things like stock options and bonuses. The research also doesn’t indicate which part of software engineering the participants work in. There is a huge difference between the data sciences, front-end development, and DevOps.

Conclusion

So, is a master’s degree in software engineering worth it? It depends on whether you have the time and money to put towards obtaining the degree. Although there is some data on people with masters earning more, it isn’t reflected in the wider industry where earnings are rarely tied to academic achievements. 

The reality is that the eventual choice will depend on your specific situation and whether or not you have previous experience in the industry.

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