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I keep hearing from people that if I don't become a programmer soon after graduation my degree will be a useless piece of paper, they claim it will become outdated. I kind of find this hard to believe considering what I was taught at a fairly good school has been standard practice for some time.

So is this a true belief in industry? That somehow I become less desirable after a year or two, even though the graduates who comes after me pretty much get the same identical education.

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closed as off-topic by MichaelT, gnat, GlenH7, Martijn Pieters, amon Feb 22 at 15:01

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The degree itself is still useful: It shows you successfully complete college, and in many companies that makes you eligible for quicker promotions or salary increases. But programmers program. If you don't program out of college (even if only in a QA role), you aren't right for a programming position later. –  Macneil Dec 5 '10 at 19:16
You should try be a proficient programmer while you are still a grad student and apply what you've learnt. If you're talking about being a professional programmer, I don't think it matters that much how long ago you graduated if you are good at it. And mostly, as long as von Newmann's architecture is in use, what you were taught should be valid. But what kind of question is how long does a degree last, anyway?! –  Trinidad Dec 6 '10 at 13:00

9 Answers 9

I don't think so. A degree will last as long as it exists.

It is well known that people forget quickly [almost] everything they have studied. Jumping into working environment straight after the graduation won't change much. You'll still forget everything soon afterward since you won't be using most of your knowledge anyway. As you know most of the programming jobs it's just simple code&maintenance stuff with little to none CS application.

In that regard, if you were going to devalue a degree after one year, you could it right away. A year in the industry instead of a year off won't help a programmer to hold on to the knowledge obtained.

An entirely different matter is however what value is a degree for a programmer. I think most employers would put value on your practical experience not on your degree, so it comes as irrelevant when exactly you got one.

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The stuff you learn while getting a degree usually forms the basics of Computer Science. The principles you learned then, provide a helping hand to all the technologies you'll probably learn in future.

Even if there are variations in technology, you can always use your basics to derive new technologies from them.

IMO, a degree doesn't have any kind of shelf life. People recruit you for your abilities, alongwith your degree ofcourse.

Eventually, it boils down to what you learn and how you hone your skills between the graduated and the employed period.

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I think that some posters here are trying to console or assure themselves of something when they think that a degree is somehow eternal.

Unless you've possibly got an eidetic memory then knowledge and skills, un-maintained, will degrade over time.

The implication here is: the importance lies in what you've been doing since you graduated. Honestly, if someone got a comp-sci degree 10 years ago, and has been delivering the mail1 and not actively working in their field (paid or not), then their degree means little to nothing.

If, on the other hand, you haven't been able to get work for a couple of years, but you've contributed to some OS projects, worked on some hobby projects, published an article or two, made a website for your uncle's bakery and maintained a blog about whatever your programming interest are, then you're just as good (or better in some cases) as someone who graduated and has worked full-time since.

1 Occupation chosen at random, there's nothing wrong with delivering the mail - it's just not programming related.

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I think the big thing is no-one wants a programmer who hasn't programmed in ages. Whether you're coding as a job or as a hobby, as long as you're actually programming you'll be fine. –  Anon. Dec 6 '10 at 1:39
The OP doesn't ask whether we forget what we learn over time (which is obvious). Nor is he asking if experience is critical as well (also obvious). He asks whether the piece of paper (in and of itself) becomes worthless over time, which it does not. There's no argument that if a person works in a mail room for 10 years, that they're going to have a hard time finding a developer position. But once you're a degreed person, you're always a degreed person. The degree does not have an expiration date; once obtained, it will always satisfy the degree requirement at any employer. –  Robert Harvey Dec 6 '10 at 6:40
@Robert Harvey: I disagree with what you think he's asking. To quote the OP "So is this a true belief in industry? That somehow I become less desirable after a year or two..." Relating that to the title question, it has nothing to do with the piece of paper. It has to do with the employability of a degree as time progresses. In light of that, it appears that we agree on the answer in that respect. –  Steve Evers Dec 6 '10 at 15:48
occupation may be programming related...what if the letter carrier writes an algorithm to determine shortest path for the traveling salesman problem to deliver mail? :P –  davidhaskins Feb 22 '11 at 21:58


ask them why they think that

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Along those lines, why don't you think that? –  Steve Evers Dec 5 '10 at 8:31
Comments about "half-life of an engineer" or "half-life of a programmer" or "degree decay time" somehow ALWAYS seem to come from people who believe that hiring new grads with no experience is more cost-effective than hiring experienced people who have Seen The Elephant, had their backside bitten, Been There And Done That, and, oh yeah, cost more in salary and are sometimes less than totally willing and eager to go on Death March for months at a time. My feeling is that those employers usually aren't doing anything interesting. –  John R. Strohm Dec 5 '10 at 14:42
@Snorfus: education lasts a lifetime –  Steven A. Lowe Dec 5 '10 at 14:56

Although the technologies in CS change rapidly, most of the principles you've learned will last a long time.

That said, it's true that the practical value of a CS degree to a new grad will diminish over time if the grad doesn't actively practice what they've learned. This is, of course, true for any degree; the only way to maintain the value of a degree is to use what you've learned. For example, if you participate in an open source project, you will be adding to the knowledge gained from your degree.

As far as employment goes, I doubt your CS degree will "degrade" over time to potential employers, but if you haven't been working on projects of some kind post-graduation, you will likely have trouble with the technical interviews.

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Degrees last forever.*

Any time after you get the degree and apply for a job where a bachelor or master's degree is a requirement, your degree will fulfill that requirement.

Prospective employers are not going to say, "Well, when did you get the degree, because we only accept degrees that are less than 10 years old." They will never say that.

Note that having a degree does not necessarily guarantee employment. You must still have the skills and experience they are looking for.

* and so do really big fonts.

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-1: I know of at least 2 companies (respectable ones, even) who have said just that. And I agreed. –  Steve Evers Dec 5 '10 at 8:28
@SnOrfus - in what context? I have 25 years experience following my degree, am I going to get turned down because my degree was too long ago? –  Murph Dec 5 '10 at 11:01
@Murph: Not at all. You've built on what you've attained in your degree, not let it wither into nothingness. –  Steve Evers Dec 5 '10 at 11:06
Except that your first comment says the opposite that my degree is too old and therefore worthless (in any context). So, there's needs to be more explanation of the context in which it is said or its not particularly constructive –  Murph Dec 5 '10 at 13:21
@SnOrfus, I observe that you are in Canada. You cannot reasonably be expected to know that US employers are legally barred from discrimination on the basis of age, and employer statements like "we only accept degrees that are less than ten years old" are generally considered prima facie evidence of age discrimination. Employers are allowed to set minimum experience requirements, but maximums are discriminatory and expose them to very serious legal sanctions. –  John R. Strohm Dec 5 '10 at 14:45

Nothing Lasts Forever, that's how it operates here.

Having said that, computer science degrees in particular tend to run its course rather quickly these days. You need to continuously upgrade your skills. Open source, books, stackoverflow and stackexchange, mailing lists, programming contests, checking out new programming languages -- I could carry on forever.

In the end it's about how excited you are about technology and how quickly you can adapt.

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Separation of theory & Practice:

In my mind, I think theory will be always relevant for example a linked list will always be.

The practical aspect (in terms of specific technologies) will naturally decay as soon as newer technologies replace them.

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It's hard to give a general answer to these sorts of questions because everyone has a specific example where it doesn't apply. However, from an employer perspective:

  1. Not all degrees are created equal, so when you're job hunting as a new graduate, the name of the school and the quality of your grades are important;
  2. This is tempered by the fact that all a degree really proves is that you've got the ability to learn. Sure you picked up some specific CS-related knowledge and skills (so I hopefully don't need to teach you about B-trees), and the stop sign recognition code you wrote for the engineering department's new autonomous car is interesting, but I want you to be able to write code for us, in our way, in our team.

So from my perspective, the value of the degree on your CV diminishes over time, not because of its content, but because it's been overtaken by more (hopefully) valuable work experience.

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Some employers do care where you got your degrees, but many don't. They care more about experience. But if the position requires a degree, and you don't have one, they won't even look at your experience, in most cases. –  Robert Harvey Dec 6 '10 at 6:43

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