What's the next educational step: MBA or more certs?

When this IT manager found out that his new employer offers tuition support, he asked career expert Molly Joss what educational path he should take. His choices are an MBA, more certs, or a Masters in computer science. Which one should he go for?

Question: What track should I focus on?
After a decade of working in IT, I have finally managed to get a job that provides decent tuition reimbursement benefits. I'm in my mid-30s, and I have a B.S. in computer science and a couple of certifications—all of which I paid for myself over the years. I am now looking for training that will help me further my career as an IT manager.

Which would benefit me more—an MBA, a Master's degree in computer science, or more certifications? And should I go to school locally or should I consider taking courses online?

Answer: If a degree is what you're after, go for the MBA
Congratulations on getting a job with a company that has enough far-reaching vision to offer you these kinds of benefits. You should take full advantage of this great perk as soon as you can find a suitable program.

Since you already have several certifications, I would not add more unless you don't already have one in networking. Even then I would be cautious about using your tuition benefits to pay for a networking certification. You will need to have a detailed knowledge of the management issues related to taking care of networks, but you won't have to know how to fix every problem.

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You're going to have to do some thinking and research to find a program that will help you move up the management ladder. You'll want to study some aspect of business, intermixed with IT, that is important to your company's overall objectives and to its short- and long-term IT strategies. You'll also want a program that won't drown you in homework and assignments, so you need one geared toward working executives.

You can always take the direct approach and ask your manager for suggestions as to what areas of IT management are going to be most important to the company over the next few years.

My guess would be something network-related, as a recent Robert Half Technology report on hiring trends reported that almost every company planning to hire is looking for Windows or CISCO network administration gurus. Visual Basic development and Check Point firewall administration are also in-demand skill areas.

Look for programs that are going to teach you something practical and functional rather than being intent upon finding a degree program. Too many degree programs pad their curriculum with courses that are not relevant to the real world. Carefully read the details about which courses are required and what's taught in those courses.

Remember that you don't necessarily have to have another formal degree to get noticed by senior management or to win a more challenging job in a different company. Building your skills and your productivity are more important. You might find that taking a few classes, online or on site, will get you on your way more quickly than a degree program.

Find the best programs
To find educational programs that only take days or weeks, yet are intense, check with the various trade associations that serve the IT industry. You can also find some colleges and universities that offer master's-level certificate programs. For example, the University of Dallas College of Business offers a full MBA onsite, a full MBA program online, and master's-level business certificate programs.

A master's-level business certificate program usually focuses on a particular business segment, such as e-business, business management, or corporate finance. Certificate programs take less time to complete than an MBA because they are so focused and allow you to put your tuition dollars toward the study of topics that benefit you the most.

I would advise that you not get a Master's degree in IT or computer science because you are planning to move further up in management—not in the technical side of IT. If you feel you must get a degree, then an MBA is the best choice of the two options.

A relevant MBA will be a definite plus if you want to go all the way to the top and be a CIO one day. Such a degree will help you stand out from the crowd when you apply for a top-level IT position. A relevant MBA is one that is related significantly to the kind of work you will be doing now and in the future. Since your undergraduate degree is in computer science, you will probably want to take at least some classes that explain finance and accounting to people who are not financial managers or who don't want to be CFOs. You will also want some classes that will help you focus on the business aspects of IT operations.

The online option
You may have to use an online program to pursue your studies because, outside of major cities or areas where there are clusters of colleges, good MBA programs are hard to find.

I don't think there is anything wrong with pursuing an advanced degree online, and many of the major colleges offer such programs. Find one that is flexible and involves human interaction periodically in the form of mandatory campus visits every so often or telephone conversations with professors. U.S. News and World Report ranks graduate schools and makes its rankings available online. The site also offers information on online education opportunities. The Princeton Review site also offers graduate school information.

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