Author Topic: Choosing between degree vs work  (Read 1316 times)

conwy

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Choosing between degree vs work
« on: April 18, 2019, 04:00:30 PM »
I'm interested in my fellow Mustachians' thoughts on pursuing a degree vs continuing to work, specifically for those who are already working in their chosen field and are being paid decently but not handsomely.

My story is:

* Was homeschooled until the age of 15
* During that time, was lucky enough to pick up programming as a hobby and discover that it was my #2 dream job (#1 would have been conducting an orchestra or composing, but I didn't consider it a realistic career option, more of a fantasy).
* Then 1.5 years studying computing-relating subjects at TAFE (Australian equivalent of "community college" in the US)
* Then about 12 years of full-time work, up to now, during which my pay rate consistently went up every year
* Last 2-3 years also completed a part-time graduate certificate, but didn't do much other study besides reading books/blogs, the occasional short course or online course, etc.

So these days I'm making anywhere between $130k and $200k USD equivalent as a specialist contractor. I'd say I find my job about 70% enjoyable, and the money and savings it enables more than makes up for the remaining 30%.

(Part of the 30% is that I sometimes feel a bit limited. I'm *only* ever allowed to do software development and maybe a small amount of solution design and architecture. It's very rare that I'm given managerial duties or anything higher-level by my clients. This could be because I don't have the right traits and skills, or because I don't actively pursue them all the time, or because I work as a contractor and am expected to act as a specialist, or because I only go for the highest paid jobs, or some combination of the above. I'm not entirely sure why.)

I seem to have done fairly well so far just from being in a well paid industry (software), being a specialist, working very hard when I have to and being willing and able to relocate to major cities.

However, I look at the profiles of others on this forum and elsewhere and I see:

* Stable permanent careers in major firms, with incentive pay and room for growth
* Variety and flexibility of career path - branching out into areas outside their main specialty
* Management, leadership, board membership, etc. roles, as opposed to just doing what some would call "grunt work" (though I personally do consider software development to be an art-form and something I take pride in)

So I'm trying to figure out where I fit within the scheme of things and whether pursuing further formal education would help or hinder me.

Is it the case that, although *monetarily* I'm doing pretty well, that my lack of a formal degree is holding me back? Could it be that studying at university would increase my general knowledge, give me contacts, teach me leadership skills, and in other ways push me further forward in life?

Or is it more that the above are things people tend to create for themselves, by their own hard work and effort, and it doesn't matter much whether you undertake higher education or not?

I find this confusing because on the one hand, it seems like a lot of personal success (certainly my success) does come down to hard work and initiative and applying yourself to real-life work, as opposed to academics.

But on the other hand, it also seems there are barriers to entry in many fields in the form of degree requirements, and that not matter how hard you work, you simply will not be even considered for certain kinds of jobs/careers if you don't have a bachelors degree or higher. And not just the piece of paper, but also all the knowledge that you get by studying intensely for 4+ years.

There's also the money/time/education trade-off as well. If I dropped out of my current work to study full-time, I'd pay by way of lost income + the degree cost + living costs.

I could do an online degree part-time while working, but that sounds like very hard work, though I guess if it's interesting enough, it wouldn't have to feel like work. I would probably have to go to a lower-ranked, less prestigious college, as only those would accept me into an online program.

As it stands now, I do have an opportunity to study at a relatively more well-ranked university (within the top 100), but I would have to study there on-campus, and probably full-time, unless I was prepared to spend a full 8 years earning the degree part-time while working full-time. (8 years of working full-time + studying part-time sounds like a lot of stress and strain, though again, maybe it would get easier after the first year or two.)

Then I wonder how much my salary or career opportunities would expand from committing all that time and energy to study, vs other things I could perhaps be doing, like networking more or trying to start a side-business.

So it's all very complex at the moment, but I'm slowly working through the different potential outcomes and trying to plan.

But very curious to hear if others in Mustache-land have faced a similar cross-roads now or in the past, in terms of working vs studying, and how you would approach it?
« Last Edit: April 18, 2019, 04:16:06 PM by conwy »

bbates728

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Re: Choosing between degree vs work
« Reply #1 on: April 18, 2019, 04:09:01 PM »
So you are making solid six figure income at this point. That is more than a lot of credientialed professionals can  pull in. If you were to get that degree, do you expect that it will immediately provide any benefit? Do you expect that there will be a specific benefit in the next few years? If you are just going to school because you expect that people with degrees earn more, then I would suggest instead focus on increasing your income in your current area as this assumption is not 100%. Also, you are making some serious bank so if you are aiming for FI and/or RE then you are already able to get there quickly if you choose.

Essentially, I would break this down into a cost-benefit analysis. What are the costs of obtaining the "piece of paper" you are considering compared to the value of focusing more heavily in your current field (or saving a few extra bucks)?

conwy

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Re: Choosing between degree vs work
« Reply #2 on: April 18, 2019, 04:28:25 PM »
If you were to get that degree, do you expect that it will immediately provide any benefit? Do you expect that there will be a specific benefit in the next few years? If you are just going to school because you expect that people with degrees earn more, then I would suggest instead focus on increasing your income in your current area as this assumption is not 100%. Also, you are making some serious bank so if you are aiming for FI and/or RE then you are already able to get there quickly if you choose.

Essentially, I would break this down into a cost-benefit analysis. What are the costs of obtaining the "piece of paper" you are considering compared to the value of focusing more heavily in your current field (or saving a few extra bucks)?

Thanks, you've given me a smart way to think about it. I think you're right that it's ultimately cost/benefit.

Given how specialised I am, I don't think a degree would improve my pay at all in the short-to-medium term.

I guess my fear is that my specialty eventually won't pay as well, and then my pay will drastically decrease. Though I *seem* to have been able to steadily increase my pay over the past few years, it's involved lots of constant learning and staying on top of the market and sometimes shifting into a new sub-field of software development.

Maybe what I'm yearning for is a more established career pattern, where I'm more of a generalist, and can thus relax a bit and have some stability. But then, that doesn't seem to be the direction the job market as a whole is taking. It seems like everyone these days has to learn more and be on their toes more.

But I wonder if those with a degree are having an easier time getting into highly paid generalist roles, where they don't have to constantly upgrade their skills?

Long-term, yes, my plan is FI, and I've been saving hard and getting closer to my number. So from a FIRE perspective, it's also not a good idea to drop out of work at this time in my life, given my goals. It would be better to drop out in maybe 2-5 years time.

I guess perhaps the alternative to the potential "security" of a degree and a generalist career is to embrace being a specialist and constantly re-skilling, and just make it easier on myself by taking longer holidays (which I can afford to do now more than ever, since I'm fortunate enough to have a big FU fund).

I'm finding it very difficult to get any more money in my current field. For whatever reason, employers seem very reluctant to hire developers part-time, at least in my specialisation. The options seem to always be either A) full-time very highly paid, i.e. the 6-figures I'm on now, or B) part-time, remote, atrociously paid (by comparison) and ultra-competitive because I'm basically competing against the whole world.

It also seems practically non-existent for companies to pay bonuses or incentives or overtime of any kind to developers. It's either 8 hours per day or nothing. Again, I wonder if having a degree and getting into a different field, e.g. finance, would enable me to get a bonus rather than just that one flat daily billing rate.

Also admittedly, I'm speaking from an Australian and UK perspective. Obviously many developers in Silicon Valley *are* getting bonuses and extra side-hustle income! Unfortunately I don't *yet* qualify for a US work visa, though with a couple more years of full-time experience, perhaps I will.
« Last Edit: April 18, 2019, 04:34:12 PM by conwy »

cloudsail

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Re: Choosing between degree vs work
« Reply #3 on: April 18, 2019, 05:06:47 PM »
You're not getting managerial roles because you're a contractor, not because you don't have a degree. If you really want to go that route, get hired in a full-time position and work your way up the corporate ladder. You'd lose the freedom and flexibility, but you already knew that.

That being said, there are benefits to the experience of going to college beyond what it might net you in salary, which frankly is probably going to be zero. Maybe it's something you'll want to do in FIRE?

pbkmaine

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Re: Choosing between degree vs work
« Reply #4 on: April 18, 2019, 05:15:23 PM »
Do you have a boss, mentor, or senior colleague you trust to give you a straight answer? If so, ask them. My husband got his MBA online and it enabled him to make a big career move within his company. But that was because his particular company valued that credential.

John Galt incarnate!

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Re: Choosing between degree vs work
« Reply #5 on: April 20, 2019, 04:11:48 PM »

Is it the case that, although *monetarily* I'm doing pretty well, that my lack of a formal degree is holding me back?

Possibly.

 Could it be that studying at university would increase my general knowledge?

Without question it will.

all the knowledge that you get by studying intensely for 4+ years.

My considered opinion is that the acquisition of knowledge is always beneficial even if it does not result in increased income.

« Last Edit: April 20, 2019, 04:14:51 PM by John Galt incarnate! »

Freedomin5

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Re: Choosing between degree vs work
« Reply #6 on: April 20, 2019, 04:31:22 PM »
Youíre close to FI and mostly enjoy your work. Iíd stay in the high paying position until totally FI, and then decide whether or not to pursue a degree. While pursuing FI, Iíd speak to people who are on the career tracks that you would like to be in, and ask them what you need to do to get from where you are now to where you would like to be.

use2betrix

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Re: Choosing between degree vs work
« Reply #7 on: April 20, 2019, 05:04:19 PM »
I have been in a similar boat for several years, and more recently, even moreso.

I would like to have a 4 year degree mostly just for the purpose that for a permanent job at my current company (which Iím a contractor at) I feel it would give me quite a bit more opportunity. While I donít think my boss, or likely even his boss, have a degree, it seems much more required for the younger generation. Iím 30, bosses are 50ís.

As nice as the perks to being a full time employee would be, plus the ďprestigeĒ in my industry, it would also still be a pretty big pay cut. As a contractor, I made around $275k last year and will probably be closer to $320k this year. If I were to come on full time, I would have the job security, other long term perks, but Iíd probably be closer to $200k. Another downside is that as a contractor, my job location and security is incredibly volatile. We lived in a 5th wheel for 5 years and are now finally in an important. Iíd love to own a home, but just canít justify it since we move so much from job to job.

I currently have a 2 year tech degree, but for the purpose of a full time position, it would be helpful to have a 4 year engineering degree of some sort. Fortunately, I have still been able to be a manager despite being a contractor or not having the degree. As stressful as it can be, I do like having total control over my portion of projects.
« Last Edit: April 20, 2019, 05:22:17 PM by use2betrix »

I'm a red panda

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Re: Choosing between degree vs work
« Reply #8 on: April 21, 2019, 03:08:04 AM »
If you want a degree, I'd do it while working. Giving up that salary, before FIRE, would be nuts, unless you hate the work. 70% enjoying it is pretty good. My husband has a PhD and I have a Master's and neither of us has broken 6 figures at 15 years of work. $200k is phenomenal, though I'm sure your cost of living is higher than ours. (But I recently found my company does not do office differential, so I'd make the same in NYC as I do out here in the Midwest)

It's difficult to go to school while working, but just a matter of priorities. I did my MEd while working, and now my MBA while working, with a toddler and currently pregnant.  The MEd was online (through a brick and mortar school) the MBA in person, but only for working professionals.

I'd also say I wouldn't jump at a top 100 school, though I don't know Australia. Top 5 to 10, otherwise I'd say the ranking is irrelevant if the school has a decent reputation.

Edit: middle of the night phone typos
« Last Edit: April 21, 2019, 06:36:10 AM by I'm a red panda »

FreshlyFIREd

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Re: Choosing between degree vs work
« Reply #9 on: April 21, 2019, 03:24:47 AM »
I am retired and no longer work anymore. I have been a contractor employed in the engineering field (designer/draftsman). I was underpaid for approx my first 10 years. I was making 6 figures for approx 20 years. I never had to travel in my employment. Being a contractor meant that I had to constantly switch jobs (to avoid being laid off, to get a salary boost, or to move to a assignment with a longer duration). I wrote software as a hobby which I turned into a business. I was able to quit my design job and go back to school full time (computer science degree at the local university). I did learn a lot at the university and I am a much better programmer for it.

So anyway, getting the degree was fulfilling. I learned a lot. I mixed in with a diverse group of people. There were a lot of advantages. Some of my perceived disadvantages actually turned out to be advantages. I had to take courses that I thought were a waste of time. I ended up taking philosophy which was very fulfilling. I met many young disadvantaged people which inspired me.

The degree did not make me more attractive to employers. I ended up returning to the design occupation - it paid much more than the jobs that I could find with my degree.

My advice, go back to school if you feel that you want it for yourself.

soccerluvof4

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Re: Choosing between degree vs work
« Reply #10 on: April 21, 2019, 05:10:35 AM »
If you want a degree, I'd do it while working. Giving up that salary, before FIRE, would be nuts, unless you hate the work. 70% enjoying it is pretty good. My husband has. PhD and I have a Master's and neither of us have broken 6 figures at 15 years of work. $200k is phenomenal, though I'm sure you cost of living is higher than ours. (But I recently found my company does not do office differential, so I'd make the same in NYC as I do out here in the Midwest)

It's difficult to go to school while working, but just a matter of priorities. I did my MEd while working, and now my MBA while working, with a toddler and currently pregnant.  The MEd was online (through a brick and mortar school) the MBA in person, but only for working professionals.

I'd also say I wouldn't jump at a top 100 school, though I don't know Australia. Top 5 to 10, otherwise I'd say the ranking is irrelevant if the school has a decent reputation.



I agree with this approach. You dont have to go all in and take a full course load just what you can handle and stick at it.