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A Matter of Degree... I mean, A Master Degree

Originally appeared June, 2011 in "The Games Game" column on

Dear Tom,
I'm a recent graduate, the proud holder of a bachelor's degree in Computer Science. I've found that it's difficult to get hired long-distance (I live in an area where there are no game companies), and as long as I'm not being hired anyway, I would like to pursue a master's degree.
But I've heard pros and cons, and I can't tell if I should do it or not.
Waddaya think, should I? Or not? And if I should do it, which school should I go to? I'm considering [an east coast school] and [a west coast school]. Thanks in advance for your advice.


Hi Grad,
I'm not convinced that your motivation for the master's degree is the right one. Most people who write me about the master's degree seem to think that it's a necessity in order to stand out in the crowd. I always tell them that's wrong; that the master's degree does not necessarily move one's résumé up in the stack. But your reason for pursuing the degree is to fill down time? I think it's an expensive time filler, as worthwhile as it might (or might not) be. And I think that there may be more options you should consider for filling the down time, or shortening it.

First, whether or not you should go for the master's: make a decision grid. One column is "reasons for going to grad school," and another column is "reasons against going to grad school." Maybe you can think of an alternative, like getting a local programming job so you can save money while you gain work experience, and so you can later move to a game hotbed (an area where there are several game companies); you can add columns for and against that alternative.
Down the left side of the page, write factors you will weigh in making your decision. First: cost. I assume grad school will cost you, although that's not always the case (you might get an assistantship that lets you work for the school while studying). And once you enter the school, you're committed to that for a period of time, and unavailable for job offers that might come your way. Another factor might be your student loans; does your contract allow for extended studies as a loan payback deferment? Other factors: some hirers might see your master's as an overqualification; your time in grad school might overcome that by permitting you to create a project you otherwise wouldn't have been able to do. Consider the school's location; is it in a game hotbed? Or would you still need to move to a hotbed after school?

In the course of filling in the grid, you might have to do some research to fill in a cell. Once your grid is filled in as much as you can, make a copy of the grid. You probably wrote words in the cells of the level one grid. In the level two grid, write ones or minus ones (or zeroes) in the cells, and add up the columns. That gives you a quantifiable "pros vs. cons" score for your various options. If you aren't satisfied with the result of the level two grid, make a level three grid, in which you weight the factors. Maybe one of the factors is much more meaningful than the others; you can give that one a plus three or a minus three. I've found this grid to be an excellent tool for making order out of chaotic decision factors.
Second, which school to go to: if the results of your "grad school or not" grid were positive, just make another decision grid for the schools. By this time you'll know how to do that.

One final thought. I'm way over my word count for this column, but this is important. You shouldn't go to grad school just for the piece of paper (the degree). You should go because you want or need the extra education, because what you will learn there will move you forward in your pursuit of your particular passion.

Good luck, grad!

© 2011 Tom Sloper

Since writing that column for the IGDA website, I've had further thoughts on the subject.

Many designer wannabes from India think employers want to see a Masters degree. That might be true in India, but it's not true in the West.

Many Western employers see inexperienced candidates who hold a Masters degree as somewhat overeducated. They'd figure that such a candidate would probably want higher salary than candidates holding a Bachelors degree, so would be somewhat hesitant to hire such a person.

This is not to say you should not get a Masters. If you want more learning, and you can afford it, then you should go for it. But do it for the learning, not for the piece of paper.

This is not to say that the paper has no value. It can have value later, if you want to teach or go for a Ph.D.

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