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By Jack Ganssle

Advanced Degrees

Published 4/07/2005

My biggest source of non-spam email comes from people asking how they, too, can become an embedded developer. So many, in fact, that I wrote an article about the subject (http://www.ganssle.com/startinges.pdf).

Lately, though, many of these requests have been tempered with questions about getting a masters degree. Correspondents want to know which universities have the best embedded programs offering advanced diplomas.

So I went through all of the recruiting ads that have come across my desk in the last year to see how many require anything more than a BS. The number:

None.

Interestingly, every ad, without exception, does require a BSEE, CS or CE. The olden days when highly skilled but degree-less engineers could prosper are long gone. All also require at least three years experience. Have the entry-level jobs gone overseas?

Why are so many prospective engineers pursuing their masters? Could it be a love of learning without regard for job prospects?

Over the last few months I've visited a number of schools with my son, who will be off to college next year. Though I was dying to get out of the educational system when a student oh-so-long ago, these visits left me dying to get back in. The thought of being a professional student, not trying for a particular degree, studying physics, astronomy, philosophy, and more is really exciting. Bummer about having to make a living. But it's easy to understand why someone would stay in school just out of love of learning.

Perhaps some of these MS candidates are hiding out in college for a couple of extra years to safely stay away from the real world?

I've advised several universities about their embedded systems curricula, and understand how difficult it is to stuff so much learning about this ever-more-complex engineering world into four or five years. My list of courses needed to prepare a student for this career comprises 150 or more credits, far too much for a BS degree. So a masters looks, on paper, like an attractive solution.

But companies don't care. Wave a bachelor's sheepskin and the HR people will open the door. It's unlikely, especially for people who have already worked in the industry, that an interviewer will ask for any details of your coursework.

When I've hired engineers a masters degree impressed me only when it was in a different field. That showed some devotion to learning lots of things, and suggests the candidate is broader than the typical EE.

No one knows if advanced degrees yield higher salaries. To my knowledge that simply has not been studied in the embedded industry. Even in the more general software field there's a dearth of data. Software Development Magazine runs a yearly salary survey (http://www.sdmagazine.com/documents/s=9411/sdm0411a/sdm0411a.html, membership required) that doesn't correlate dollars to degrees. I suspect, though, that once working in the field for a few years a BS commands about the same salary as an MS.

So what is the argument for pursuing an advanced degree? Or for not advancing beyond a BS? What are your thoughts?