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IT Degrees: Sorting Out the Choices

IT Degrees: Sorting Out the Choices

Would-be techies planning to study computers in college have often been steered toward the computer science major, but as technology has changed, so have the degree options.

Now, a whole range of computer-related degrees is available. At a large research university, students interested in computers and information technology might be able to choose from three or more majors -- one offered through the business school, one through the liberal arts school and others through the engineering or art schools.

Confusing? No doubt.

To help you sort out the choices, we've prepared the following guide to IT degrees. Remember, your actual major will matter less as you garner real-world experience, but researching your options will help you make the right choice initially.

The Old Standbys

  • Computer Science: The computer science degree is a rigorous course of study covering the mathematical and theoretical concepts underlying the workings of computers. Students learn about data structures, operating systems and programming, as well as other applications and concepts. Critics say this discipline is too far removed from practical skills, but others view the degree as the best credential to develop the logical thinking and problem-solving skills IT professionals need. Typical jobs: Programmer, software engineer.
     
  • Information Systems: Also called management information systems, the IS (or MIS) degree involves the study of programming, databases, and other computer concepts and applications. Often granted by a business school, the degree is less theoretical than the computer science major and more focused on the practical uses of computer systems in business. Typical jobs: Systems administrator, technical support specialist, systems analyst.
     
  • Electrical and Computer Engineering: Typically granted by an institution's engineering school, students pursuing this degree learn how to design software, communication systems, digital circuits and other technical products. Universities may have separate degrees for electrical and computer engineering. Typical jobs: Design engineer, hardware engineer.

The New Guard

Some schools have crafted new majors to reflect the evolving nature of computer technology. The names of these degree programs vary from one school to another, but include:

  • Game Development: These degrees, such as the one offered by Worcester Polytechnic Institute, focus on the creation and production of computer games. Coursework typically includes a mix of graphics and programming. Typical jobs: Game developer, programmer.
     
  • Human-Computer Interaction: Students pursuing this major, which melds fields such as computer science, engineering and psychology, study the development of computer interfaces. DePaul University is one school offering this degree. Typical jobs: Information architect, user-experience designer.
     
  • Information Technology: These programs usually concentrate on the applied use of IT in areas such as computer networks, databases and programming. Typical jobs: Network engineer, database administrator.
     
  • Interactive Media: These degrees focus on the production of Web sites and other digital media, such as cell phones, kiosks and games. They vary in their attention to practical applications, with some delving into such areas as cultural theory. The Maryland Institute College of Art and Marist College are two schools offering this major. Typical jobs: Web producer, multimedia specialist.
     
  • Software Engineering: Software engineering programs bring engineering approaches and practices to software development. Typical jobs: Programmer, software engineer.

A Word About Technical Schools

Technical schools, such as ITT Technical Institute and DeVry University, often segment their bachelor's degrees even further. Such programs have the advantage of training aspiring techies in specific skills, such as information systems security and network and communications management, but detractors claim that students lose something by not being trained with a broader, more theoretical approach that's likely to serve them throughout their careers.

Which Is Best?

Certainly anyone seeking to design computer chips needs an engineering degree, but beyond that, degree preference varies from one employer to another. Some are adamant about wanting recent graduates with a computer science degree, while others prefer a degree more focused on practical skills or business knowledge. Some even favor liberal arts grads who learn technology on their own.

In addition, a double major combining a technical discipline with one in business or the liberal arts can help you develop the communication skills, business acumen and critical-thinking abilities employers prize in new graduates.

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