Information technology (IT) involves the use of computers, storage and networking devices to create, process, store, share and secure electronic data. It is a fast-growing field, due largely to the high demand for IT services across all industries. IT degree programs prepare students to earn potentially lucrative salaries while working for IT departments and consulting firms. The median annual wage for IT careers was $81,430 in May 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, considerably higher than that for all occupations. Read more to learn how to get started in the field of IT, from the various types of careers available to the degrees necessary to secure employment.
IT encompasses a wide range of computer and network support services needed by most types of companies and organizations, particularly in business, manufacturing and government. Many IT specialists work as network administrators and security analysts, managing hardware and software systems and solving technical problems. As more data is stored offsite, businesses also hire IT professionals to assist with their cloud computing needs. While associate degree programs introduce the concepts and languages of computers, bachelor’s degree programs prepare students for entry-level and mid-level positions across the IT spectrum.
A four-year IT degree program offers courses in the foundation of computers as well as the opportunity to specialize in areas such as database management, information security and software development. Advanced degrees take these subjects to the next level, for students who want to work as senior database administrators, computer systems analysts and software developers.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the most common requirement for a career as an IT professional is a bachelor’s degree. While several majors fall under the IT umbrella, the most popular are information systems and computer science. A foundation in mathematics, science and engineering combined with coursework in data management, data structures, numerical analysis and programming languages prepares students for employment as IT specialists.
After graduation, students will need to compete against those with IT experience for available jobs. Therefore, it is helpful to find an internship even if it is not a mandatory component of an IT degree program. Because there are thousands of IT degree programs, prospective students should make sure to choose a well-ranked, accredited school.
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Although certification is not a professional requirement, it can be used to stand out from other potential hires as it demonstrates skill-level and experience to prospective employers. Most companies also require their IT specialists to have experience with their vendor’s software products. IT professionals can become certified directly through the vendors or third-party organizations such as CompTIA. In most cases, certification is earned by passing a credentialing exam.
After working in the field for a while, many computer support specialists advance to higher-level positions, such as computer systems administrators and network administrators or upper-level management. It’s also possible to move into other parts of an organization like sales. A master’s degree can help IT professionals to qualify for advancement. In some cases, they may even decide to pursue self-employment as IT consultants.
IT is a large field with numerous specialty areas. Whether interested in a traditional on-campus degree program or an accredited online program, students have many options for pursuing a quality education. For those who want an IT career but are unsure of which degree level suits their needs, the table below explains each option.
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I know an IT degree is the right path for me, but I am concerned that my personal responsibilities and busy work schedule will stand in the way of a traditional IT degree program. My goal is to find an accredited online program that offers flexible scheduling.
I have always been drawn to technology, but because I don’t know a lot about the different careers available I’m not sure which program to follow. I would like to enroll in a program that introduces me to the fundamental skills and concepts of IT. Then I can continue my education and earn a four-year degree in the IT specialty area that most appeals to me.
I know I need a strong foundation in technology to work in IT, so I want to take courses that provide me with the skills and knowledge I need in the field. My goal is to earn a degree that prepares me for an entry-level job as an IT specialist or systems administrator.
My undergraduate background in IT has helped me find full-time employment in information technology, but I want to start my own technology services business. I want to take courses in the theory, principles, and practices of information systems, and learn how to analyze data to solve complex problems.
I have an undergraduate degree in IT, but I want to boost my credibility and marketability by completing a credentialing program. I am most interested in the challenging certifications offered by Cisco.
Whether you want an associate degree, bachelor’s degree or advanced degree in IT, there are programs available at every level online and in traditional classroom settings. Each level opens specific career opportunities from entry-level employment to IT consultancy. Before choosing an IT degree program, students should consider their particular goals and how best to support them. Learn about each type of IT degree below.
For those students who want to explore IT, the two-year associate degree program offers courses in areas such as database concepts, basic programming languages, network security, technical communication, and operating systems. Some schools offer an Associate of Science (AS) in IT administration while others offer an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) with a specialization in IT support. After graduation, students can find employment as computer technicians, support desk personnel, and beginning applications programmers. For those who want to continue their studies, a four-year IT degree is the next step.
Here are several of the courses offered in a two-year associate degree in IT program:
Broad introduction to the tools and applications pertaining to the personal computer, PC applications, networking, and web development needed in the IT environment.
Overview of the foundations of data and information management centered on the core skills of data management and database organization.
Lessons examine the role of information systems in business organizations, including the concepts and methodologies of business information systems development.
Whether you’re a working IT professional who wants to move up the ladder or just want to increase your IT knowledge, a bachelor’s degree in IT is the answer. Students who earn four-year IT degrees learn the technical, operational, and problem-solving skills necessary for career advancement. They also take courses to prepare for the various certification exams offered in the field of IT, including Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP), Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) and CompTIA (A+, Network+, Security+).
Below are examples of the courses students can take in a bachelor’s IT degree program.
Explores how to protect intellectual property and confidentiality, safeguard consumers against identity and account theft, and protect companies from criminal and civil suits.
Coursework explores the functional characteristics of major computer components and their relationship to control by software.
Provides a foundation in programming languages and the tools known as scripting languages; covers Perl, PHP, and Python.
A two-year master’s degree in IT program provides instruction in the communication skills, critical thinking abilities, and technical competencies required for upper-level positions in information technology. Students learn the theories, principles, and practices of information systems along with essential project management skills. Graduates often work in IT management careers or start their own IT firms.
The following courses can be found in a master’s degree IT curriculum.
Analysis of the concepts and techniques involved in keeping computers and networks secure.
Explores the SQL programming language and its use to retrieve and modify data in a relational database including methods of ensuring data isolation and consistency.
A comprehensive examination of the skills involved in managing information systems projects and the practical application of those skills.
Introduces the technical concepts responsible for mobile, cellular, and emerging wireless personal communications services.
Earning IT certification is a quick way to build credentials to supplement an IT degree or advance in a current career. Students receive hands-on training useful for network administrators who work with businesses, government, and nonprofit organizations. There are numerous credentialing programs, some more challenging than others. The three largest certification programs are managed by Microsoft, Cisco, and CompTIA, but there are many other options as well.
The following courses are typical of what you would find in an IT certificate program.
Students explore the basics of website construction, design, and maintenance using XHMTL and CSS as well as aesthetic, business, and technical website design concepts.
Preparation for MCSE Server Infrastructure Certification exam; covers how to install, configure, and troubleshoot Windows Server operating systems.
For those who want to reach the highest levels in the field, an online doctoral program in information technology is the answer. Graduates of Ph.D. in IT programs often teach in academia or work as consultants. Because a dissertation is a major component of a doctoral program, many schools require students to complete doctoral residency experiences to work on developing a dissertation topic and work on the methodology, literature review and research plan. PhD in IT programs typically take students three to five years to complete, depending on whether students attend school part-time or full-time.
The seminars below are typical of what is offered in Ph.D. program in IT.
An intensive analysis of the theory and practice of qualitative research in Higher Education; emphasis is on research design, data collection methods, and exhaustive data analysis.
Explores how to create and analyze strategies for technology-enabled organizational and industry transformation.
The rise of cloud services and big data, the transition to digital recordkeeping in health care, and a growing energy sector tapping into tech are among the top reasons IT services are seeing high demand across a variety of sectors. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, IT professions are among the largest and fastest sources of employment growth in the country.
Those looking to join the IT field can choose to specialize in a number of areas depending on their interests and type of education and training they’re willing to complete. Outlined below are just a few of the career paths available under the umbrella of information technology.
These professionals are the link between management and IT departments. Often hired as consultants, computer systems analysts must be able to take a comprehensive look at company’s computer systems and then identify ways to improve their efficiency. As businesses need to hire computer systems analysts to reorganize IT departments, the projected growth of this profession is expected to be 25 percent between 2012 and 2022.
The day-to-day operation of computer networks is a critical responsibility in almost every type of organization. Network and computer systems administrators handle the tasks associated with computer systems operations, such as organizing, installing and supporting local area networks (LANS), wide area networks (WANS), network segments, intranets, and other data communication systems. Duties include overseeing email and data storage, keeping workstations working efficiently, and managing telecommunication networks.
These professionals store and organize data and protect data from unauthorized access using specialized software. Database administrators must identify user needs to create and maintain efficient databases. As needs change, they must also update permissions, merge databases, and backup and restore data. Some database administrators choose a specialization, such as system database administrators or application database administrators. System DBAs handle physical database requirements like upgrading programs and repairing program bugs with the appropriate patches. Application DBAs, on the other hand, work with specific applications within a particular database, such as customer service software.
As the creative minds behind new computer programs, software developers create applications and underlying computer systems. These professionals begin by determining users’ needs through careful analysis and then recommend or develop software upgrades. They must document each aspect of the application for future maintenance. Collaboration with other computer specialists, such as programmers during the development process is also an important aspect of the job. There are two types of software developers:
Applications software developers design consumer applications or create organizational databases.
Systems software developers create operating systems and build interfaces so that users can interact easily with the computer.
By writing code, computer programmers implement the program designs created by software developers. They must test programs on a regular basis, debugging them to produce the necessary results. If a program doesn’t work properly, it is the programmer’s job to identify and correct mistakes in the code. Computer programmers and software developers work closely together to plan software, create models and flowcharts, write code, and design simple and complex applications. They need to be able to write programs in a variety of computer languages, such as C + + and Java and rewrite programs to work on different systems platforms.
With the increased threat of cyberattacks, information security analysts are an essential part of any organization, as they plan and carry out security measures to keep computer networks and systems safe. Information security analysts must continually monitor networks for breaches in security and follow up with investigations. They need to be comfortable installing and using software designed to protect information, such as firewalls and data encryption programs. Other responsibilities include preparing reports, conducting penetration testing, researching the latest IT standards and creating disaster recovery plans. These professionals often report directly to upper management.
Learning how to be an IT professional can prepare you for a steady, comfortable salary. Salaries vary depending on the position and region. Below is national median salary for several common IT careers in 2014.
In order to be successful in the field of information technology, it’s necessary to have both hard and soft skills. The following are a sample of abilities typically required by IT employers.
The ability to analyze users’ needs is essential in designing software and evaluating network and system performance. IT professionals need to be able to interpret complex information from various sources and determine how potential changes will affect each project.
Because IT professionals often work as part of a team, strong interpersonal and communication skills are necessary. Whether it’s giving clear instructions to the rest of the project team or describing problems and solutions to people outside of the IT department in language they can understand, IT professionals need to be able to communicate effectively.
Without a comprehensive understanding of computer capabilities and languages, it is impossible to design software, update equipment, oversee connections and ensure the entire system is working properly. IT professionals need to learn the ins and out of computers, including gaining hands-on experience, to be effective in the workplace.
For software designers and developers, the ability to think creatively is necessary to design and develop effective and innovative software. These workers need to be able to “think outside the box” more than most IT professionals, though this skill does apply to the field as a whole.
Working in an IT environment requires the ability to solve many problems at the same time because the employee is often the “go-to” person for any technology issue. In addition to knowing how to multitask well, IT professionals should be able to solve problems as they arise throughout the design process.
Earning a credential or certification gives IT professionals increased credibility and marketability, and can also be an opportunity for personal development. Because IT is a constantly evolving field, there are numerous credentialing programs. Three of the biggest certification programs are managed by Microsoft (basic certifications), Cisco (challenging certifications), and CompTIA (vendor-neutral). Other options designed for IT professionals who want to improve their job skills include:
Sponsored by Amazon, the AWS designation recognizes IT professionals with the technical skills and expertise to design, deploy, and operate applications and infrastructure on AWS. Amazon offers exams in multiple languages at testing centers in the U.S. and around the world. Certifications include:
Sponsored by ISACA, the CRISC certification is relevant to the increasing number of major retail and international security breaches. Since 2010, this certification has been intended for IT professionals who work in the field managing complex information security controls. It requires candidates to pass an exam and have three years of work experience in three of the applicable domains: risk identification, assessment and evaluation; risk response; risk monitoring; information systems control design and implementation; and information systems control monitoring and maintenance.
These designations are sponsored by the vendor-neutral Storage Networking Industry Association, which claims certification can result in a 5 to 11 percent pay bump. The certifications provide a strong foundation of credentials to reflect the advancement and growth of storage networking technologies. Certifications include:
Since 1999, CWNP has been an option for vendor-neutral enterprise Wi-Fi certification and training, covering 802.11 wireless networking technologies.
There are six levels of career certification for Enterprise Wi-Fi:
IT professionals must be familiar with a range of tools and technologies and these can vary greatly depending on the specific job title. Below is a look at some of the basic technologies that most IT professionals use on a regular basis:
Windows, Mac OS, Linux, UNIX
SAS, Statistica, KXEN, MATLAB, Weka
Memory tester, logic analyzers
AutoCAD, CorelCAD, Allegro
Aptana, Code:Blocks, Oracle Netbeans
Probes, signal-generating devices, communications analyzers, network analyzers
With commerce needing skilled professionals to manage the vast networks of industry information, it’s not surprising that IT professions can expect considerable job growth. For instance, U.S. News & World Report expects there will be a 27.6 percent increase in jobs for software application developers by 2020 – for a total of 143.8 million jobs. It also reports computer and information systems managers will experience an 18 percent increase in employment – for a total of 364,000 new jobs.
The IT field includes a large number of related occupations, all sharing a similar goal: providing technical support, designs, management and/or security. There are a bevy of similar career paths for people interested in technology, most with considerable salary potential. Take a look at salaries for a few closely related careers:
Individuals interested in IT may decide to explore broader, yet similar career paths. With a degree in IT, it’s possible to find employment in a range of industries, such as market research, finance, and education. Below is a look at ten example career paths for IT degree program graduates to consider.
AITP is an international society that offers members webinars, conferences, and the Information Executive Newsletter. Students can join chapters at many colleges and universities.
AWC strives to advance the role of women in computing through networking and career-oriented events. Members can attend local meetings that offer guest speakers and educational seminars.
BDPA offers networking opportunities and professional development for African Americans working in information technology.
ICCA.org is an organization of computer consulting professionals that provides startup advice, marketing opportunities, and access to news articles and blogs about the industry.
Certified network professionals can join NPA for access to benefits from local chapters that include peer-to-peer networking, newsletters, and industry-related conferences.