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Is a Computer Science Degree Worth It?

By Katherine Noyes
Dec 8, 2011 5:00 AM PT

Education may be "the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world," in the wise words of Nelson Mandela, but is that true of education in all its forms?

Is a Computer Science Degree Worth It?

That, indeed, has been the question of the day among Linux bloggers, who have recently been debating the value of the traditional computer science degree in particular.

"How worthwhile are Computer Science degrees?" asked the ever-contemplative team over at TuxRadar in an Open Ballot recently, thus kicking off the conversation.

"Many technology companies complain that graduates, even of Computer Science, arrive with little understanding of how to work in industry and often lack knowledge of basic coding paradigms," they added. "This seems a great shame to us, especially when there's so many high quality open source projects out there who'd love some students to help them out, and who they'd be happy to mentor in return."

FOSS aficionados have had no shortage of opinions on the topic -- at TuxRadar or beyond.

'It's a Trophy'

"I've been a developer for a few years and am completely self-taught," wrote Johnny in the comments on TuxRadar, for example. "The majority of people who I have worked with in the industry were also self-taught.

"When we were hiring recently and had to do interviews, the candidates who had degrees were often not as good as those who had more real-world experience," Johnny added.

Indeed, "it's a trophy, good for display only, but not much good for anything else," asserted Anonymous Penguin From The Kitchen. "Just like those ornamental swords hanging on the wall. Can't beat the humble kitchen chopper that's in daily use."

'I Don't Think I Learnt Anything Crucial'

Then again: "When I came to choosing what degree course to apply for, I was pretty sure a Computer Science degree would probably consist of an awful lot of teaching that I didn't require, since I'd already picked up quite a lot of knowledge by that point," chimed in blogger Paul Gideon Dann.

"In the end, I decided to go for something a little off the beaten track, and chose a degree in Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science, which was 50% CS and 50% AI," Dann added.

Even so, "all in all, I don't think I learnt anything crucial at university," Dann concluded.

'A Degree Is Not Needed'

Similar opinions could be heard down at the Linux blogosphere's Punchy Penguin Saloon.

"Most of the time a degree is not needed for even advanced programming tasks and never needed for systems admin work for the average, but a degree is needed to get past the less competent HR departments," consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack offered.

Of course, "I really question if anyone with actual skills would want to work in a place that knows so little about the IT industry," he added.

"I have seen some specialized places that had a legitimate reason to need a degree, but those places are very high level work and I would only suggest a degree if you REALLY love programming and want to take it to a specialized level such as physics simulations, compression/encryption work, etc.," Mack concluded.

'One Path Among Many'

Similarly, "I have met excellent software engineers, programmers, and developers who had a CS degree and others who did not," agreed Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project.

By the same token, "I have met many mediocre developers who had a CS degree and many who did not," Travers added.

"I suspect that in some areas of software development, a CS degree is extremely helpful, but I don't think it is ever required," he explained. "One thing the open source community is very good at doing is encouraging people to learn by both doing and by talking to those with a great deal of formal training or knowledge."

Such transfers of knowledge "can be compared to apprenticeships in the old guild system," he pointed out.

All in all, "I see a CS degree as one path among many," Travers concluded. "However, one clear advantage it has is that it is meaningful to people who do not know our industry and yet are in charge of screening resumes."

'Good Advice for a Decade'

Blogger and educator Robert Pogson said he is "so old my academic career started before Computer Science took off at my university, otherwise I would likely have studied that instead of Physics," he told Linux Girl.

"My love of all things computer started during first year university when I laid hold of a room-filling pocket calculator called the IBM 1620 which had blinking lights and a typewriter console," he explained. "With it, I learned Fortran II and Assembler/machine language.

"Later, on the IBM System/360, I learned many different programming languages before I latched onto Pascal and Modula 2," he added. "Those were some of the best years of my life, and computers have been important to me ever since."

As a teacher, Pogson has often told his students that "if they were the least bit keen on maths and science, they should get into computer science or DNA tinkering," he noted. "I think that has been good advice for a decade, and I don't see any closing down of opportunities in those fields."

'Be ANYTHING But a Tech Guy'

Slashdot blogger hairyfeet wasn't so sure.

Computer science degrees are valuable -- "in Bangalore," hairyfeet opined. "The guy in Bangalore with a half a dozen degrees only gets paid around $19k; you REALLY think you can compete with that?"

Until the U.S. government "does something about offshoring and H1-Bs, you'll continue to see what happened to the blue collar workers happen to the IT guys," hairyfeet predicted. "I'm personally tired of hearing of guys that had to train the H1-B that would replace them, or seeing ads in the paper that are so obviously written following the 'How NOT to hire an American' playbook."

Hairyfeet has also advised his oldest son to "be ANYTHING but a tech guy," he added. "Programmers will be joining autoworkers and machinists on the bread lines. Their degrees cost less than $5k, yours cost over $50k; they can live well on 15K a year, you can't even pay your student loans.

"It's simple economics, folks -- survival of the greediest -- and nobody makes 'greedy' like a U.S. corporate head," he concluded.

'An Education-Loan Bubble'

Ultimately, "the real concern is, , a blohow valuable is ANY degree in the current circumstances?" opined Barbara Hudsongger on Slashdot who goes by "Tom" on the site.

"We're in an education-loan bubble, similar to the mortgage-loan bubble that imploded a few years ago," Hudson explained. "Students today are frequently taking on 6-figure debts for a degree that in many cases will never earn back the extra cost, will be out of date before they graduate, and will be irrelevant to their careers several years down the road.

"I only know one person who is using their degree in their original field of study," she added. "For everyone else, it's been a case of 'stuff happens.'"

In short, "the sad fact is that times have changed," Hudson concluded. "The 'second IT bubble' is tailing off. You'll make more money and have better job security as a cop or firefighter -- those jobs can't be outsourced to the third world, and you have a union to negotiate better working conditions, benefits and wages."

Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter.

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