Postgraduates stand out from the crowd

Just how useful are postgraduate degrees in the IT industry? To help find out, Merri Mack canvasses opinions of postgraduates, students and industry spokespeople about what degrees are relevant and how they are valued in the industry.

For Anthony Kallivretakis, technical jargon has never been welcome in any boardroom. And as information technology manager at Westdeutsche Landesbank Gironzentrale in Sydney, a Master of Business Technology (MBT) degree at the University of New South Wales, would give him the extra edge in management skills.

Kallivretakis, who did not study for a undergraduate degree, said: "The MBT proved to be a comprehensive program that enables technical managers to effectively lead teams and maximise the value of today's complex technical environments."

"I have developed practical skills that are helping to shape my career. In the competitive world of information technology there is a definite requirement to be able to differentiate yourself from the crowd," he said.

Terry Robbins-Jones, head of the School of Accounting and Information Systems at the University of South Australia, echoes Kallivretakis' sentiments.

Robbins-Jones, a long-time advocate of the need for degrees encompassing both business and technical skills, has been responsible for establishing a number of postgraduate programs incorporating the two facets.

"As well as graduate qualities such as professionalism and the ability to be project leaders and work in a team, computer professionals need to be business-oriented so that real business benefits are gained from IT and that projects are actually do-able. This is a systems analysts role."

Robbins-Jones quoted a US report, which expects occupational growth between 1996 and 2006 to be 14 per cent, with systems analysts as an occupation growing by 103 per cent. This translates to a further 500,000 systems analysts in the US.

However, the Australian Bureau of Statistics does not extrapolate the occupation of systems analysts in the same way as the US. But Robbins-Jones is convinced IT people who know more about business will be in high demand.

He bases his opinion on working with the top IT managers in South Australia and meeting with them every three months to ensure the curriculum for the university's courses are what they need.

Earlier this month, 26 committed students started a one-year intensive master's degree on in-depth management. The course costs $15,000.

A further innovation for the University of South Australia this year is the inclusion of a Master of Consultancy course which covers topics such as managing a project, identifying the organisational structure and culture of a company, Web-related projects and forecasting technological developments. The course runs for three terms over 12 months and initially will be taught face to face with the likelihood of a distance-ed module after the first year.

According to Robbins-Jones, the only other course of this kind is offered in Amsterdam.

Bruce McCabe, research director at Gartner Group, recommends students undertake postgraduate research, particularly in technical areas.

"[But] the proviso is this study and work must be practically oriented and associated with the industry," he said.

Although Gartner has no statistics on postgraduate studies, McCabe argues higher salaries often follow for postgraduates who do complete degrees.

John Price, another expert in the field, agrees with McCabe.

"In a nutshell," he said, "there are real career opportunities opening up in Australia now for postgraduates, because of government incubator funding, which is the precursor to venture capital.

"The industry is hungry for anyone who has software-development postgraduate skills across the whole spectrum, including telecommunications.

"[In particular], wireless application protocol (WAP) is going to be huge, so anyone who has any experience in this area will be snapped up," McCabe said.

"Locally, the trend is strong to retain the intellectual property resulting from local research and development and do the marketing and sales from headquarters in the US to get the global reach. If this trend continues the demand for postgraduate students will increase."

But Price, who is director of the Australian Information Industry Association's (AIIA) training and education program, founding chairman of the Information Technology and Telecommunications Advisory Board (IT & TAB), and managing principal of high-tech executive recruitment company JSP Associates, warns vice chancellors of Australian universities are reacting too slowly to the demand for specialised IT skills.

However, he claims there is always at least one university in each state that is driven by an evangelist trying to meet the needs of business and industry. He quotes as examples the University of South Australia, University of Technology Sydney (UTS), University of New South Wales (UNSW), Wollongong University and Australian Defence Force Academy.

"These institutions typically align themselves with industry, with many businesses trying to influence the content of the courses," Price said.

Nevertheless, postgraduates in IT&T are always quickly snapped up, according to Price.

Over the last 12 to 18 months, he says there have simply been too few postgraduates to go around, due to Australia's vibrant software industry growth.

"Australian postgraduates have always been in high demand and have gone to telcos, universities or overseas in high numbers.

"International organisations have also always been keen to recruit our postgraduates, but now those postgraduates don't have to go overseas -- the jobs are available [here]."

Price used the example of a UNSW postgraduate who had worked overseas and was promoted to a top position within Lucent International Laboratories in Australia to illustrate his point.

"Postgraduates in the computer science disciplines are in demand for their ability to develop new ideas," he said.

"Typically, organisations are not looking for a postgraduate with a business bias but positions like R&D managers, [however] these postgraduates are now also capable of staying focused on the business outcomes of the technical research."

Price claims that as an executive research and selection company, the only time JSP Associates gets asked for technical postgraduates is for positions like chief technical officer. Instead, skills in software development or software engineering are required.

"Most of the postgraduates sought by our clients are Masters of Business Administration (MBA) or Masters of Commerce with a thesis relevant to the industry," he said.

Price added a further word of advice for potential postgraduate candidates.

"When undergraduates are considering postgraduate work relevant to the IT&T industry, it is preferable they complete this study before starting a career in the IT industry [because] once they are in the industry, they will not have time to do postgraduate work.

"Postgraduates have a bright future and can be confident they will be snapped up within five minutes of completing the degree."

But Bob Hey, national security manager at Com Tech Communications, has a warning for those considering a postgraduate degree: there's no substitute for work experience in the industry.

Hey, who was sponsored by Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) to do a PhD in business communications at Harvard after completing his undergraduate course, commented: "I did not want to do a pure cryptology degree; I wanted the degree to be business process-focused.

"It entailed lots of work over a three-year period and cost between $30,000 and $40,000 for the value the research and computer processing unit (CPU) time needed.

"[The] degree gives a person credibility in the industry, but experience in doing the job and application in the industry is of more importance."

But he added: "In saying that, the PhD opens up opportunities through Southeast Asia for the company."

Hey summed up: "The degree was useful for the basic fundamental knowledge I gained, and satisfied the goals I had set for myself academically, but I don't use it on a day-to-day basis in my role at Com Tech."

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