Going Back to School? Train for a Career, Not a Job

Ongoing education is essential to an ongoing IT career, whether the jobmarket is hot or not. But when it comes to investing your educationaldollars, don't train for a job title; train for a career.

With the lull in the IT job market, many readers have written the ITCareer Advisor with questions about their continued education. Those whohave made it so far without a college degree are wondering if now's thetime to get one; others are debating more college education vs.certification; and others are trying to choose a line of study topursue.

Unfortunately, there's no black and white, right or wrong answer tothese questions. It really comes down to looking at your career up tonow, where you want it to go in the future, and mapping a path betweenthose two points.

The education and training options available to IT professionals todayare so varied that it's easy to get stuck in the present when trying tomap out that path. A common pitfall is to focus on a trendy job title ora hot skill set.

It's generally best to steer clear of programs that promise to prepareyou for a specific job title. A career change from the aerospaceindustry wrote the IT Career Advisor that he is evaluating anAssociate's Degree in Applied Technology from a local community collegethat would allow him to specialize in becoming a Web master, a databaseadministrator or a systems programmer. While a program with suchclear-cut specializations is attractive on many levels, it may not bethe best investment of his educational dollars for the long term.

Consider the job title "Web Master," for example. In the early days ofthe Web, this title (and its many variations) was the must-have titlefor the dot-com generation. It emerged as a highly visible, glamorousposition. But the importance of the title waned rather quickly. Today,it's generally a career launch pad - an administrative taskmaster ratherthan a strategic contributor.

Rather than funneling your discretionary education funds toward ashortsighted goal based on a job title or hot skill, think of youreducational investment as you would any other financial investment - youwant a solid long-term return. In the example above, a bettereducational choice for someone who wants to carve out anInternet-related career would be a program that helps studentsunderstand the unique drivers and processes behind conducting businessonline.

So, instead of getting caught up in choosing between one job title oranother, community college or technical institute, a Master's degree oran MCSE, focus on your long-range goals (think: function over form).

Start with where you see yourself three to five years from now, and thenwork backward from there.

Looking at the long-term gains inherently eliminates education andtraining choices that are rooted in IT fads or that are designed tocapitalize on trendy buzzwords. Pursuing additional education basedsolely on what's the coolest IT job title of the moment, or what's themost marketable skill right now, is not the most effective way to investin your continued IT career growth.

Marketability is important, of course. But don't make it the end-all andbe-all of your career planning. If you love what you do, you'll striveto be good at it; and being good at what you do and exhibitingenthusiasm for it are just as marketable as the latest buzzwords.

Over the next few weeks the IT Career Advisor will look at how to mapout educational investments that match your long-term goals and some ofthe options that can give an IT career the extra oomph required in asluggish job market plus continue to pay off in the years to come.

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