Information Technology Degree: How to Build a Career in IT

informationtechnologydegreeIf you are interested in building a lucrative career in technology, getting an information technology degree should be your first step. This degree will equip you with the skills necessary to work with computer systems and manipulate technology. From academia to entrepreneurship, an IT degree will open up a world of opportunities.

This article will tell you everything you needed to know about information technology degrees. If you already work in IT and want to revamp your career, check out the Rebuild Your IT Career in 90 Minutes course.

Information Technology vs. Computer Science

The first thing you need to understand is that an Information Technology (IT) degree is not a Computer Science (CS) degree. This is a very common misconception. Most of us tend to conflate CS and IT in everyday speech, even though the course contents and objectives for a CS and an IT program tend to be very dissimilar.

  • Computer Science

If you are a CS major, your academic program will concern itself with the theoretical aspects of working with computers. You will study algorithms, programming methodologies, and software design. You will also learn plenty of mathematics – the language of computers.

As a CS major, you are essentially a scientist. While plenty of CS majors go on to have lucrative careers in software development, the entire thrust of any competent CS program is to prepare you for graduate school and a possible career as a computer scientist.

For an actual example, look at this list of computer science courses offered by MIT. The theoretical focus of the courses should be apparent – you will study everything from computation structures to algorithms and artificial intelligence. By the time you are through with such a rigorous course, you will understand not just the how but also the why of working with computers.

  • Information Technology

The central thrust of an IT degree is to arm you with the practical knowledge of working with computers. That is, the course will emphasize the how over the why of computers. As an IT major, you will learn how different aspects of information technology work in practical settings. You will master how operating systems, hardware and applications come together to solve actual problems. Your exposure to theory will be limited. While you will still have to learn plenty of mathematics, it will be hardly be the chief focus of your degree, unlike Computer Science majors.

After you graduate, you are more likely to be hired by a corporation than head on to graduate school. Therefore, your IT degree will also include lessons on how businesses deploy technology. That is to say, an IT degree prepares you for a job, while a CS degree prepares you to be a computer scientist.

A good way to think of CS and IT degrees is to compare them with a theoretical physicist and an astronaut. While the astronaut definitely knows a lot about physics, his primary purpose is to pilot a space vessel. A theoretical physicist, on the other hand, develops the theory and systems required to send an astronaut into space in the first place.

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Different Types of Information Technology Degrees

To say that businesses today depend on technology would be a quite an understatement; technology has actually pervaded every aspect of our lives. Every business, regardless of whether it is a Fortune 500 corporation or a mom and pop store, relies on technology to achieve its business objectives. Such businesses require professionals who can work with management and manipulate technology.

Traditional CS degrees with their theoretical bent are overkill for such businesses. After all, most of these enterprises are working with existing systems and solutions, not solving hard engineering problems. Thus, while CS majors tend work on core tech problems at firms like Google and Microsoft, IT majors help non-tech businesses leverage technology more effectively.

Depending on your country, you might have an option to pursue diploma/associates, bachelors, masters or PhD in information technology.

  • Diploma/Associates Degree in Information Technology: A number of universities offer diplomas and associates degrees in information technology. These are job-oriented degrees where you will learn the practical aspects of dealing with technology. You will understand how computer systems work and will even pick up programming fundamentals. Graduates often find work as computer support specialists, technicians, etc.
  • Bachelor’s Degree in Information Technology: A full-fledged four year degree (three years in some universities such as UTS, Sydney, Australia), a bachelor’s in IT prepares you for a career in information technology. You will master at least one enterprise-oriented programming language (such as Java) and will have extensive knowledge of computer systems.
  • Master’s Degree in Information Technology: A master’s in IT is designed for working professionals who want to expand their skillset and further their careers. Unlike a traditional master’s, the focus is less on research and more on picking up practical skills. In some universities, such as Harvard’s graduate program in IT, you might even be able to focus on industry-oriented skills, such as software engineering or digital media.
  • PhD in Information Technology: As a PhD student in IT, you will conduct research on the scientific, economic and business aspects of IT. While there will be plenty of theory, the chief objective of your PhD will be to understand IT and its role in business, economy and even culture. The business oriented focus on a PhD in IT is apparent when you consider that a number of top business schools, such as MIT Sloan and Rutgers Business School, offer this degree.

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Careers in Information Technology

IT is a very flexible field. A competent IT program will equip you with the knowledge necessary to move between multiple IT disciplines, from architecture to administration. Depending on your degree, skills, experience and inclination, you can choose from several career paths:

  • Network architect: As a network architect, you will be responsible for creating and maintaining communication networks such as WAN, LAN, etc. Network architects are sometimes also called network engineers.
    Average Salary: $97,000/year (BLS.gov)
  • Mobile/Web app developer: Mobile and web app developers are in high demand, thanks to the current internet boom. As a developer, you need to be well versed in multiple programming languages, including HTML, CSS, JavaScript, PHP, Java, Objective-C, etc. Although many app developers tend to be CS majors, there is nothing stopping a competent programmer with (or without) an IT degree from pursuing this career.
    Average Salary: $92,000/year (Indeed)
  • System administrator: System administrators – sysadmins in IT-speak – are tasked with the day-to-day maintenance of a business’ technology assets, including intranet, LAN, etc.
    Average Salary: $68,000/year (Indeed)
  • Information security analyst: As an IT security analyst, you will be responsible for keeping a business’ network secure against threats like viruses, malware and hack attempts. This is a burgeoning field and demand for security analysts is huge.
    Average Salary: $92,210 (BLS.gov)
  • Database administrator: Every business generates a ton of data. It is the database administrator’s job to store and organize this data meaningfully in databases.
    Average Salary: $77,080 (USNews)

Besides these, you can also transition to core CS fields such as software engineering and programming. Tech firms tend to be especially flexible and will often consider your experience and skills and not your degree when offering you a position.

Future Prospects

It is nearly impossible to switch on the news and not hear sordid tales of chronic unemployment, layoffs and slowdowns. The narrative in tech centers such as San Francisco, however, could not be any more different. While the rest of the country reels from employment issues and stagnating wages, engineers and IT professionals often have a surfeit of jobs. In fact, one report even claims that the US will have a shortage of 224,000 hi-tech workers by 2018.

Besides jobs, IT professionals can also make meaningful careers in entrepreneurship. There is a tech startup happening across the world. IT professionals have just the right set of skills to take advantage of this boom.

Which is to say, for IT professionals, the future could not be any brighter.

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