Dear Ed, I've been thinking hard about my career down the road and am considering going back to school for an MBA...
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or MS in IT. Does it make a difference from the recruiter point of view whether you go to State/institutional university vs. those smaller private university schools like the University of Phoenix? Or should I invest my money to get certification classes? My goal is to continue as a Systems Engineer/Integrator for the next 3-4 years. But I realize I may have to enter into management sooner or later. Thanks for the advice. Regards, Frank Dear Frank: Let me tackle your questions in sequence.
1. Does it make a difference from the recruiter point of view whether you go to state/institutional university vs. those smaller private university schools like University of Phoenix?
To begin, UofPhoenis is not a smaller, private school. It's got one of the biggest IT programs in the country, when you factor in its presence on hundreds of military bases worldwide and its big and burgeoning online presence. To me, a smaller private schools is somebody like a Purdue, a Carnegie-Mellon, an MIT, and so forth. To answer your question, the school matters more if you don't know how to sell yourself and make the most of what you know and can do. You can make up for the bigger, cheaper school if you have strong interview skills, can write a good cover letter, speak well to prospective employers on the phone, and so forth.
2. Or should I invest my money to get certification classes?
Since you're considering a master's of one kind or another, I assume you have a bachelor's already. Reading national trade rags and newspapers, and trolling big job posting sites (e.g. dice.com, monster.com, etc.) I'd urge you to try to identify 10-20 positions that "might" interest you. Compile some stats on their requirements. If more than half require a master's of some kind, it's probably a good next step; if less than half require such a degree, you can follow up to analyze whether or not additional certs will be more helpful or not.
Given your long-term goal of getting into management, the MBA might be a good choice, or you could try the waters by pursuing a quality project management cert like the PMP (Project Management Professional) from the Project Management Institute (www.pmi.org). I like to see you thinking long as well as short term; use that mix of perspectives to help you piece a short-term solution together for yourself that also contributes to the longer term goals.
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