Postgraduate studies: a quick hit or a long haul

When just getting through a day fraught with technical and business problems and balancing the time for family life seems almost cause for celebration, the question of further study pushes the time equation to the limit. Do you make the extreme commitment and sign up for further degree studies or look for specific skills courses that will fill the needs of the moment. Jacinta Thomler looks at the choicesTo deal with rapid technology developments employers and employees face choosing between short-course, 'quick shot' knowledge and skills acquisition or comparatively long-term postgraduate studies.

The wide range of options, from vendor certification, short courses and postgraduate degrees, can make it difficult to select the most appropriate form of education to move forward on a chosen career path.

For universities the fast pace has been a particular concern.

Within the IT sphere, the proliferation of different educational offerings has forced universities to redefine their offerings, demonstrate course relevance and compete for students against flexible new education alternatives.

So what is the value today of a university postgraduate degree?

This question is on the lips of both employers and IT&T professionals looking to advance. Certainly, there is a demonstrable increase in income levels and employment prospects postgraduates can expect ahead of those with bachelor degrees. The Graduate Careers Council of Australia (GCCA) reported in November 1999 in the Postgrad 98 study that postgraduates across all disciplines could expect to enter the industry with a premium of at least $10,000 and experienced employment rates of 87.8 per cent versus 79.6 per cent over bachelor qualifications. Australian Bureau of Statistics data show that, in the Australian population, graduates with a higher degree have amongst the lowest unemployment rates.

The most recent figures show that only 3.1 per cent of higher degree graduates (masters and PhD combined) and 3.8 per cent of those with a postgraduate diploma were unemployed. At the same time, 3.6 per cent of bachelor degree graduates were unemployed and 8.7 per cent for the population as a whole.

Grant Matthews, a consultant at Mills-Harding and himself completing a Masters in Interactive Multimedia at University of Technology Sydney part-time, feels that postgraduate degrees are good for challenging an individual's thinking but do not offer the commercial depth he had expected.

"A lot of postgraduate courses are run by academics with little real-world experience," Matthews says.

"While UTS is a really good place because it has commercial understanding, I've still found that many teachers are better at supporting individual learning than at teaching," he added.

While he doesn't necessarily think the degree will get him another job, his experience has been that "they are based on how much you put into them - put in 150 per cent, get 150 per cent back - put in nothing get nothing back."

Commercial experience

He said he believed that full-time students fresh from an undergraduate degree should not immediately undertake postgraduate qualifications.

"A problem with my course has been when they opened it up to full-time students. This has led to a lot of students moving directly from undergraduate degree to postgraduate degree without the commercial experience that can add value within the classroom. I believe [students] should come back and do a postgraduate course after at least five years of commercial experience."

Matthews said short courses can only provide a "taste" and commercial universities attempt to "instil a certain mindset in their trainees". Overall he said his degree has been great for teaching him how to think and approach problems, "postgraduate courses teach you to be a smarter thinker. I didn't do a postgraduate degree to become a specialist in an area, but to stretch my thinking".

Graeme Shanks, an associate professor in the Department of Information Systems at the University of Melbourne, said postgraduate degrees are best to extend the knowledge students get in an undergraduate degree. "They provide much more contemporary knowledge. Short courses focus on the acquisition of specific skills to work with specific products."

Shanks sees the value as providing a conceptual framework. "We help people develop the ability to absorb new knowledge and position them so they can function in a rapidly changing environment," Shank says.

"In postgraduate courses we hope to have about 40 students in a room discussing the topic. The people in the room come from companies and industries that will almost certainly have different software environments. So we don't focus on those detailed or tactical skills requirements. What we want to focus on are policy issues, IT issues, management issues, industry adoption, strategic issues - how to use IT in an organisational context."

Not left behind

Shanks said he doesn't believe universities are being left behind by industry. "I've seen some tremendous initiatives. People in universities are very aware of industry needs and are developing courses to meet those needs. Every time we teach a course we change at least a third of it. We have an industry advisory board as well as many other connections which we talk to regularly about what industry needs are."

The university is also actively maintaining industry links. "Earlier this year we ran an evening seminar called the future of enterprise systems. We had several faculty professors, a PhD student in the area who worked previously as a consultant and a senior manager from BHP who works in strategy in this area. About 60 people came along. We try to run events of this kind to maintain the connections with the industry."

Michael Fry, Dean of the Faculty of Information Technology at UTS, remains staggered at the demand for postgraduate IT courses. "We are currently looking at 1000 overseas applications alone. The real problem is getting enough staff to teach," Fry says.

He agrees that the key role for universities is to provide the understanding of principles behind technology, rather than focusing on short-term skills improvement.

"Our advantage is that we are independent of any particular technology or corporate interest," he added.

"You need good people in the industry to manage change and a significant aspect is learning how to learn.

"The UTS alumni group in the Bay area in the US said to one of my senior professors recently that 15 years ago you taught us all this stuff which is no longer relevant - but the learning skills you taught us have helped us keep ahead of the game."

While he believes short courses have their place, he said: "Certification routes are designed to give quick-shot acquisition of skills within particular areas. It may take a little longer through a university course but you come out richer."

At the same time, UTS has integrated industry programs into specific courses. "We integrate significant components of Cisco's networking academies program into a course." This allows the university to keep closely in touch with industry needs. In fact, Fry says, "they update the course for us".

By working with companies like Cisco, Fry says that "graduates come out with both post-graduate and industry certification." At the same time the independence of the university hasn't been compromised. "What made us feel comfortable about working with Cisco is that it was based on open standards. It is similar to teaching a programming language using a Sun box."

The real limitation for universities, Fry said, is training the educators. "We have to work within the limitations of our staff, who require continuous updating as well. We are also working on more structured programs to develop staff and try to use contacts with organisations for guest lecturers."

However, he also feels that universities are doing a decent job overall of remaining up to date. "For example, we were teaching Java within six months of it becoming popular."

The perception of postgraduate university courses is not as positive within the industry. Lesley Bishops, a consultant at Michael Page Technology, believes there is still a perception in some quarters that students come out of the course out of date.

"Whilst it is not always the case, I am still seeing people coming out of uni having been taught third-generation languages, for example, which are not appropriate any more."

Bishops said that universities are not yet close enough to industry.

"In fact they are not close at all, completely separate," he says.

"What lacks is experience and knowledge and you can't get that from university - but that's not their fault."

The Head of the Department of Computer Science at Sydney University, Professor David Feng, also agrees that traditional institutions aren't doing quite so well - but the problem lies more with government funding.

"Government in Australia does not respond quickly to the needs of IT," Feng says.

"Many other governments spend a great deal of money and have defined policies to support the development of the knowledge economy. A particular example is China, which has concentrated on developing the knowledge areas and has focused on funding seven universities as key institutions in this area.

"The Australian government equally distributes money and does not support centres of excellence. Thus universities have to rely more heavily on textbook-based teaching," Feng says.

He said that if this does not change it will compromise Australia's high international education reputation. "However, if we do change, Australia can play a major role in IT education globally. Due to the global standardisation of many technologies, we can provide graduates who have globally recognised and transferable skills."

Review curriculum

At the same time Feng doesn't feel that postgraduate courses are badly out of date. "We have a committed research group who constantly updates the teaching material in line with industry changes. We also heavily involve the industry and have a number of industry representatives who oversee the courses and meet each month to review the curriculum."

Postgraduate students at Sydney University agree.

Ian Shao, who has returned to university full time to complete a Masters in Computer Science, chose the course because it "looks at different products not covered in the narrow focus of vendor courses and provides a broader view of what is happening in the industry."

While he does intend to go on to do further vendor certification, he feels that universities are well equipped to teach the underlying principles required by IT professionals.

Cindy Bai is doing a PhD in Computer Science at the University of Sydney. Originally from China, she felt it important to gain local accreditation and refresh her knowledge. Both Shao and Bai feel that the university has done a good job of maintaining commercial value. Shao said: "Industry people are involved in providing the most updated information for the course. For example, some Java information that was released in the middle of 1999 was included in lectures for the course before the end of the year."

Immersion course hits home

Jill Vitello

UCLA's Managing the Information Resource Program uses the company challenges and experiences of its participants as case studies and draws rave reviews for developing skills that IT managers can immediately apply on the job.

When Dick Hudson attended the University of California at Los Angeles' top information technology executive education program a few years ago, he was immediately hooked on its value.

Then Hudson, who retired this year as CIO at Global Marine, sent 23 of his IT staffers during the next seven years. One of them was Gregg Farris, who is now vice president of IT at Oceaneering International. Farris has since sent nearly all his direct reports to the program.

More recently, Justin Yaros, CIO at Twentieth Century Fox in Los Angeles, tried to send 17 of his IT professionals to the session last month, but the program was so booked that only half could attend. The others will go in March.

This popular course, Managing the Information Resource (MIR) Program, is offered by the Executive Education Program at UCLA. The course is given in conjunction with the Anderson School, UCLA's graduate business school. The MIR Program is a five-day immersion into the world of executive leadership designed specifically for IT professionals.

"I attended the program five years ago, when I was assistant director of IT at Global Marine, and I still think of things I learned and apply them to my job today," says Farris. "I send my people to the program for the same reason that I was sent. It is an experience they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. Everyone comes back and says it was one of the most worthwhile events they've ever participated in."

The MIR Program has been offered twice a year for about 20 years, according to Heather Hays, program manager for UCLA Executive Education at the Anderson School.

Each time the program is conducted, at least one quarter of the curriculum is brand new. A number of program graduates return every few years for updates.

MIR covers material such as selling IT goals to senior management, aligning technology and business, examining leadership styles, making decisions and exploring management strategies.

"The program is a good mix of academic information and semi-inspirational messages," says Yaros. "No single course is a silver bullet, but this program motivates senior IT people, broadens their perspectives and improves their leadership skills. I was certainly the better for attending it."

MIR is designed for executives who have responsibility for the acquisition, implementation and management of organisational information resources. The program brings in technology experts, leading futurists, UCLA professors and other industry leaders to lecture the group of about 40 participants. The five days include opportunities for small group exercises and classroom participation.

The MIR Program isn't cheap. Tuition is $US5250 per person for the week, which includes materials, meals and lodging. The return on investment comes in the form of improved IT leadership, shared learning and retention of key employees in a tight IT job market.

"I don't expect to see tangible, measurable results from participants' education," Yaros says. "But I do expect to see them bring back enthusiasm and a new dedication to doing the job and to the role of leadership."

When Twentieth Century Fox IT professionals return from a week at MIR, they're also expected to present what they have learned to the 40-member IT management team, says Yaros. He says this is done so everyone can benefit from the new material and from the participants' enthusiasm.

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More about Australian Bureau of StatisticsBHP BillitonGlobal MarineImmersionInformation ResourcesIT PeopleMichael Page TechnologyOceaneering InternationalTwentieth Century FoxUCLAUniversity of MelbourneUniversity of MelbourneUniversity of SydneyUniversity of SydneyUniversity of Technology SydneyUTS

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