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I am at crossroads with my education career, and am seeking your advice.

I work full-time as a senior software engineer, and completed one semester of MSC from an unranked (for CS, decent otherwise) university. The first semester gave me 9 graduate credits, with As in all three courses. However, I found the experience to be elementary, and far from challenging.

My current position does not require an MSC degree, nor am I planning on going straight into a Ph.D. at this point in my career. My undergraduate degree is in an unrelated field - finance. I started the entire MSC project out of personal curiosity, and to gain a deeper understanding of the science behind the systems.

I am now considering transferring to an online program with a top university (in top 5 for CS). However, I have a few hesitations, particularly:

  • Does the high ranking of the university signify higher qualify of the material (i.e. not completely outdated, nor dumbed down)?
  • In the future, if being considered for a position with another company, could the degree being earned online, even though it is from a much more prestigious institution, hurt me?

Both of these degrees are terminal. On this note: if I ever decide to leave the corporate world, and join the academia by applying into a Ph.D. program, will any of this work be useful, or will I have to start from the beginning?

  • In the future, please do not cross post the same question to other StackExchange sites. If you wish the question to be on a different site then flag it for moderator attention and enter where you will like it migrated. programmers.stackexchange.com/questions/156895/… – maple_shaft Jul 15 '12 at 19:50
  • @maple_shaft as the first question got closed within a few minutes of being posted, the flag option only contains "other" at this point. At this point, I am just trying to get an answer. There's a question about the closure here: meta.programmers.stackexchange.com/questions/3792/… Shouldn't the Moderator who closed it, have moved it? – djdy Jul 15 '12 at 22:43
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The high ranking of the university will probably lead to material being at a higher level and not dumbed down. However almost the opposite can be said for how timely the material is. Well established 'older' Universities have a greater tendency for the slowness and "out-of-dateyness' inherent in most older, established organizations that are usually more bureaucratic and slower and with consequently more out-of-date material. This is not necessarily or always the case but I have found to be frequently true.

A newer, smaller University may not have the same credentials, but the material may actually be newer. In some cases with technology it is even the local technical colleges or user groups that have the really up-to-date stuff. Usually at 0.1% of the price too ;)
One of the biggest draws of top-places is the existing and future personal networking.
Increasing today, with things like pair coding, code reviews and online code repositories, it's your skills and reputation (for actual code written) that are really going to count.

"A bang-up github account with good clean code may lead to many more jobs and higher salaries than a degree from MIT".

To your question about whether an on-line degree would hurt (compared to an in-person one), I would say yes, most folks in organizations will look a little askance at it (especially non-IT folks), but if again if you have a code base and can prove your stuff to the techies in the company, you're usually in good shape).

  • I agree, online degree looks dodgy to most – Kilisi Sep 25 '15 at 1:52
  • A GitHub account; really? Is there any way to verify the account owner produced any/all of the code contained therein? – Philip Schiff Jul 27 '17 at 0:50
  • Yes a few simple technical questions about content can usually verify that. For example, in project X I see you used 4 controllers, why didn't you break out controller 4 into 2 separate controllers? Either you'll get a blank stare or a real answer reflecting true knowledge of the code. – Michael Durrant Jul 27 '17 at 10:56
  • Also I have never seen such fraud from the several hundred engineers I have worked with. It may exist but is not common in my experience hence I don't worry about it too much. I'm more interested if their approach to clean code within a conversation. – Michael Durrant Jul 27 '17 at 10:57
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Physical schools have networking and socialization opportunities that online schools do not. These can lead to important networking in the future for someone who is actively involved. If you are not involved in these activities at the school then there is probably little you will miss out on.

If you go to a quality online school you will find high quality material and interactive discussions and communication with your professors and peers. As for the quality of the degree, if the school is accredited then you will get credit for the degree. The online schools still have honors awards and carry the same weight as a brick and mortar school. Going forward I expect that the online schools taken while employed will begin to exceed the number earned from an in-classroom school. Many top universities are even offering online degrees that are identical to those that they offer for in class work. Some required classes are even becoming online only.

Should you choose to go for a PhD then most public universities will recognize a degree from any accredited school.

  • At the end of the time, provided the degree is from an accredited school, what does it matter what rank it was? I have found outside the social networking aspect of a high ranked school not much is gained ( perhaps a better education but really depends. ). – Donald Jul 18 '12 at 17:23
  • @Ramhound - I did not say anything about rank. Just because a school is not ranked does not mean it is not a quality school. The only thing that even comes close is where I say that the degrees from them for online classes is the same degree they give their on campus students. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Jul 18 '12 at 18:26

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