Our question this week comes from a database administrator who’s excited to be on a healthy career path, building their work experience, getting certified, and working with a more experienced mentor.
But they’re worried: will lacking a college degree block their career growth down the line?
I talk about my experiences helping managers hire DBAs, and also check out current job listings in three locations in the United States to answer the question.
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Welcome to Dear SQL DBA: do database administrators need college degrees? My name is Kendra Little from SQLWorkbooks.com.
This week’s question
All right, this week’s question for the podcast came from a user who said: I’m currently finishing my Oracle DBA certification path and I love it, and I’m very excited to start my career as a DBA. There’s a Senior DBA and my current place of employment who is going to mentor me as well. I have fourteen months of hands-on experience with SQL Server and Oracle, but here’s the thing: I don’t have a college degree. I have about 60 hours of college credits. Do you think my education will hinder my chances of getting a job as a DBA even with my certifications and hands-on experience?
This is an interesting question, and I don’t know about you, but I do have a college degree — I have a bachelor’s degree and I have a master’s degree. But my bachelor’s degree is a super fruity humanities degree, and my master’s degree is in philosophy. But I got those a long time ago, so I was like um okay 60 hours, how much of a college degree is that? I didn’t even remember. I looked it up, typically a bachelor’s degree is a hundred and twenty credit hours. That does usually take four years full-time, of course we all know folks who have done it in a longer time, right?
I know folks who’ve done it quicker as well, but of course if our questioner has 60 hours and it generally takes about 120 hours, then yeah that would be a lot of work — especially if you’re working full-time and are trying to finish it up at night, that would not be a trivial thing to do.
How much of a hindrance is that going to be?
Anecdotally, I do know quite a few DBAs who are gainfully employed and who don’t have college degrees
Anecdotally, I know it can happen out there– but the question is how much will this hinder me?
I decided to take a look and sample some job listings out there and just look at what are the listings saying. I looked at listings in a couple of different areas: I looked first at some job listings near me. I live in Oregon in the Pacific northwest, and I was curious: around me what are people saying about DBA job positions, what do they want?
Because of course, a job listing is a lot like an ad on a dating site: you may not end up with your ideal match.
Some listings around Portland, Oregon, USA
But in terms of what listings are saying, there’s a job near me at a health plan. I found this job online, but I was at a SQL Server group in my area recently and I met someone there who works at this place, and talked a little bit about the job as well! For the DBA job, they would like to have it a bachelor’s degree in computer science information systems or similar or an equivalent combination of Education and experience. That position is focused on SQL Server. There’s also a software company downtown, and I know a lot of bright folks who’ve worked there, and this software company — they don’t list any degree requirements at all. They want five years of experiences as a DBA, and then if you’ve used lots of different technologies, they’re really interested in you, too. They want a DBA but they also want someone who’s interested in different NOSQL technologies and learning lots of different ways to store data.
Some more jobs around me in the Northwest: there’s a database developer at an IT and analytics firm and they again said we want a bachelor’s in engineering or computer science — and folks when they’re listing degrees they are listing degree areas. They aren’t just saying a bachelors, they’re really generally saying computer science or related area, or equivalent experience. There’s a gift card startup around here too that’s looking for a DBA slash system engineer. They want you to also be in their system and engineering team, there’s some app support, and again bachelor’s degree in computer science or related field or equivalent experience.
A lot of the companies in the Pacific northwest just say in the job listing “or equivalent”. They seem to be really open to people who have the right experience if, you don’t have a degree it’s no big deal.
There’s a tech company in Bend, Oregon — and if you’ve never been to Bend, Oregon it is a lovely place! I go there to ride bikes sometimes. It’s a wonderful place to visit. They want somebody with a four-year degree in computer science or equivalent, and their job description actually mentions that they give all their employees free turkeys every year on Thanksgiving. You can also have pie if you don’t want the turkey. They celebrate Halloween and they mention this in the job description. You know, when you’re looking at job descriptions even when you’re not looking for yourself, it’s a little depressing — but then occasionally you come across these little gems where you’re like, oh you actually seem like a fun company! And they’re saying you “or equivalent experience.”
There is also a cloud software company in Oregon, they are hiring people remote. I think they were headquartered in Texas, but they have the ad listed in Oregon so that it would come up for candidates here, since it is a remote job. And they wanted a lot of cloud experience as well as database experience, but again no degree listed. There were some desirable AWS certifications and the like in there of course, but it generally may not take you four years of going to school full-time to get an AWS certification. Maybe a little bit easier there.
In my area in the Pacific Northwest in the United States, it looks like there’s a lot of “or equivalent.”
Senior DBA listings around Washington, DC
OK, so I said — all right, my guess is just from having consulted with people around the country and around the world, that there are gonna be different job climates in different locations where some are more restricted.
I’m gonna look at some listings in Washington DC, because it seems like a pretty conservative area. I lived there for a few years when I was in high school and a lot of people care a lot about clearance and rules, so if they care about clearance, do they also care about degrees? I also looked more at Senior listings. I put the Senior keyword in there. Here’s a government agency position, and they’re hiring a Senior DBA. They don’t require a degree, but for their SQL Server DBA they want 10 years of experience managing and modifying SQL and Access databases, and they also want 10 years of working with Visual Basic macros. You don’t have to have a degree for that but you need to enjoy working with Microsoft Access and Visual Basic macros, which isn’t your usual DBA thing. Some job listings are like that.
There’s a government contractor that did say bachelor’s degree, they didn’t say “or equivalent,” but they didn’t put any special wording on it. Now they do require top-secret or s SBI clearance — I didn’t look up all the acronyms on these jobs — but they do require the candidate to have some clearance ,and my guess about this job is that if you have the clearance but you don’t have the degree, the degree I’m guessing is gonna be really negotiable. I know this based on my own experiences, because by the way you know I mentioned I have a really fruity degree in humanities. All of these job listings are saying you know we want somebody with a degree in engineering or computer science, and I still managed to get jobs over the years!
So I kind of know that when they have this in a listing, they don’t always mean it — and when they do really mean it they often say that in the listing. For example, in the DC area there was a recruiter with a job listing for a Senior DBA. The listing was for a fairly traditional on-call role out there, and they wrote bachelor’s degree HIGHLY DESIRED and they put HIGHLY DESIRED in all caps, because a lot of the candidates know that for this type of job, for database administrator jobs, the degree requirement is often very squishy, if it’s there at all. And not only do they put HIGHLY DESIRED in all caps, they listed it fifth among the whole list of requirements for the job. They put it pretty high up there.
This is a case where I actually think whoever’s doing this hiring does really care. This is the first listing that we’ve gotten to, right? They probably really care about that.
There was a Senior Database administrator at a university — this position said a bachelor’s and/or master’s degree in computer science or related IT field, that was in their requirements. This one actually kind of made me laugh. It didn’t make me laugh because of the particular University or anything like that, it made me laugh because recently I was chatting with a university in my area about the potential of me working as an adjunct and possibly — and this is really loose right, this is not like me getting an actual offer or anything like that — but potentially teaching a course on Introduction to Databases. The reason that they’re interested is because I have a lot of work experience with databases and I have experience teaching. I have hands-on real-world experience and I know how people actually work as DBAs and database developers, not that I have a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree in computer science or a related field. So the fact that there’s a university who’s hiring a Senior database admin and they’re like, Oh we’d really like you to have a master’s degree in computer science, I’m like well you may not actually need that to teach it, do you really need it to do the job? But some folks think so.
Now how hard is this requirement? This one could be squishy — it could be a nice to have for them, it’s hard to know.
Other listings in the DC area: there was a Senior DBA for a government contractor that had BS in computer science or a closely related field. They didn’t put it in the main job requirements, they put it in additional job requirements — and whenever I see it that far down whatever, is in additional I kind of think of as a nice-to-have. They really haven’t put it in the main requirements. There’s a Senior SQL DBA for a different government contractor, this is another one that they wanted an active secret clearance. They even listed a specific SQL Server certification they wanted someone to have, but they didn’t list a degree requirement. So not all government contractors even are listing this as a requirement, and if they do very few of them are really emphasizing it.
I finally looked at one more area, I said how about Southern California?
I just made the area really big I said look at Southern California.
Here we found some of my favorite style of job listings. There’s AAA of Southern California, who is hiring a Senior DBA — and this happens sometimes, you’ve got folks who’ve in the HR department who maybe haven’t updated their job listings in a while, so they actually want somebody to have quite a few years of experience with SQL Server, they want a bachelor’s degree in computer science or equivalent experience. So we’ve got the equivalent experience here, but then they also want proven experience with Query Analyzer and Enterprise Manager. But they do want you to have worked with recent versions of SQL Server. I think someone wrote that job listing about 18 years ago and then it’s just been recycled over and over and over again. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad job, but it makes me laugh every time I see that. I kinda wanna be like maybe we should update the wording here?
There’s a health plan in Southern California that does want a bachelor’s degree. They even say in business administration, computer science or related field, which I actually thought I was interesting that they broadened that. They want a minimum of eight years of experience in IT consulting, business analysis, or a related field. This is another one of those jobs where I’m like: okay I suspect that you care more about the eight years of experience. There is an Oracle application DBAs for a freight tools company that is open to equivalent experience. They do want 10 plus years of overall experience with a minimum of five years working with Oracle apps.
There’s a Senior DBA for an enterprise financial company, and in that case they said quote BS in information systems or relatable field is a required. It “is a required.” This was a recruiter listing, and recruiter listings are kind of famous for being grammatically questionable, so I’m not sure that the hiring manager would like that “is a required” was used in their listing, but apparently this is another example of — actually in this case they do really mean it, enough that they’re actually saying in there, “no this isn’t squishy.”
What I saw in these listings matches up what I’ve seen as being part of the hiring process, being on the hiring end. It is really tricky to hire a great database administrator.
Managers do like college degrees, the people doing the hiring are hanging on to what I see as a kind of old-fashioned way to tell if someone is gonna be a good candidate. I am a person who actually has — I spent a bunch of time getting my bachelor’s degree and then getting a master’s degree. I certainly personally see the value in going to college, but I don’t think it’s the only way to show whether or not you can be a great member of a team and whether you can be effective in a technical environment. Whether you can communicate well. I also think that if managers really are valuing experience — and when it comes to database administration managers really do value experience, and in part this is because there is no great degree in becoming a DBA.
Computer Science is not the same thing as database administration. Database administration, maybe there’s a couple of classes specifically on that topic, and with database administrators there’s a lot of influence on problem solving with very specific technologies and working as part of a team. You don’t necessarily get trained on that as part of a computer science degree. So the fact that managers like both these, things they like college degrees and they really like experience means that they go through and they start interviewing different candidates.
Well, different candidates aren’t necessarily going to be a great fit for their team both due to technical skills as well as communication, and how the team works together. So even when you have qualified candidates, it’s hard to find the right person. Usually there’s something that’s got to give, and typically managers will take experience and someone who fits technically with the team, and whose communication skills are good — typically they’ll go ahead and take that person even if they don’t have a college degree.
This was a very non-scientific survey I did of the listings, but the listings that I saw said, “We are open to equivalent experience. It would be great if you had a college degree, but we will look at equivalent experience which includes all sorts of life experience and work experience.” When people really seem to want a college degree, they actually say so. I saw all of two of those listings in my look through here today. I suspect that even those if you had a college degree and it wasn’t in computer science, they would take that as well. I think what they’re saying is we would love it if you had a degree in computer science or engineering but we really need you to have a degree because the management at this company won’t budge on that one.
There are some cases where I have found — and it has been a few — where management just has this idea that everyone has to have a four-year degree and they won’t budge on it.
In many jobs security clearances or certifications, sometimes they care more about that than they care about a degree.
So for our questioner…
The question was: I’m on this great career track and I’m feeling really good about it, and I’m loving it. I’m a little worried, is my not having a degree gonna rule out some jobs? Yeah, lacking a degree is gonna rule out some jobs, but in my experience and with what I see in the market, it’s gonna be a pretty small amount of jobs.
It’s more prevalent in some locations than in other locations, like here in the Pacific Northwest I looked around at the job listings and “or equivalent experience” was everywhere.
I wouldn’t really worry about it, because our questioners in the position where they’ve got a mentor, they’re building that hands-on experience, and they’re making connections with other people. Those connections you make with other people, with people who you work with actively, with people at a local user group that you attend, with people that you meet at conferences — maybe it’s a free SQL Saturday or maybe it’s a database conference, those connections are often gonna land you a job! In most of those cases, even if they had been really wanting someone with a college degree, if they’ve interacted with you and they know cool things that you’ve done, and they’ve seen how excited you are about data, and they have a real excitement for you — even in those cases where they actually really want a degree — for someone they know, often it’s not gonna be a big deal to leap past that on the requirements list.
I do think there’s a deeper question here
I’m looking at all these listings — I thought it was interesting that there’s so much about computer science degrees on these database administrator job listings. I think there is a long term bias in terms of thinking that a college degree is proof that it makes someone smart. And as someone with a master’s degree, I can tell you that it’s not proof that I’m smart at all! But my master’s degree isn’t in computer science.
If I had a computer science degree, would I be a better DBA?
I’ve had some room to think about this recently because my partner in life has gone back to school to study computer science — Jeremiah Peschka has a degree in English. He had a bachelor’s degree in English that he got long ago in a place far away. After he got that bachelor’s degree in English, he worked as a developer and he got into database administration. He got into consulting and teaching and worked a lot with data.
Now he’s gone back to school and is working towards getting a PhD in computer science. But with just a bachelor’s degree in English, you don’t just walk up and say: I would like PhD in computer science please. You need to do the equivalent of — if you’re familiar with medical school, you know that some folks can do a post baccalaureate, what’s called a post bac. If they don’t have the pre-med courses they can go back and just study up on those courses, then go to med school. There is something similar you can do with computer science, where you don’t have to get a whole second bachelor’s degree. You can take required undergraduate computer science courses and then after you pass those levels, move into masters and doctorate levels. I’ve gotten to watch this. I haven’t certainly done all of the work, I haven’t done ANY of the work, but I’ve watched as he’s gone along this journey of doing courses on algorithms, courses on logic, courses on intro to databases, on programming and all this stuff. You certainly learn a lot in a computer science program.
Does it make you a better database administrator? Well, yes, but I also think that you could get those the same things that you’re getting about critical thinking and understanding some of the internals of databases, I think that you can get that from certain work experience.
We all know that not all job experiences are exciting, and not all job experiences teach us a lot. Some jobs definitely involve more problem-solving, more creativity, more thinking and give us more opportunities to learn than others. I think that from what I’ve observed, yeah you can learn a lot from getting that college degree, but the relevant experience that you can get in life and that sometimes you can get just by challenging yourself and outside of your main job, learning things, taking on challenges getting yourself educated, figuring out how you can talk your manager into letting you go to that conference, for example… That you can build those skills out of there as well. The number of courses that are in a computer science program that are specifically related to database administration, those also are not a lot. I personally I would be interested to hear an argument that says yes DBAs should have computer science degrees, and I would interest be interested to see the argument of why, because at this point in time I personally just don’t see the logic to it when it comes to the field of database administration.
So, I as someone who knows a lot of DBAs who don’t have college degrees, as someone who looks at these job listings and sees the “or related experience” and sees that there’s just a few job listings that are saying, no really we really do want a degree — I wouldn’t worry. I still wouldn’t worry too much about it.
If you’re a long ways from a college degree, I wouldn’t freak out about it if you want to be a DBA. It’s connecting with other DBAs, building your skills and experience and landing those jobs to build up your experience, especially more and more emerging recent technologies in SQL Server. Those are the things that will continue to serve you in advancing your career and landing jobs as a DBA.
Thanks so much for joining me!
Now, for some comments
Tom says “or equivalent” allows a lot of wiggle room. If this person is at the halfway mark, they would probably be better served to finish their studies off.
That’s a vote that says, okay if you’re at the halfway mark, they would probably be better served to finish. I think halfway is just not very far when it comes to a four-year degree. I know some folks–it means a lot to them to finish that degree. If you’ve got a personal investment and you’re gonna love having that degree, then going to school at night can be worth it. I know some folks who’ve done that and it’s really rewarding for them, and I love that. But if it’s not that situation I think you can get a lot of cool jobs without it, but I love hearing your take on it too.
Ryan says if they want Enterprise Manager and Query Analyzer they could be saying that they’re still using SQL 2000. That was the kind of interesting thing about the listing is I didn’t see that in there. I was reading fast, Ryan, I was reading fast. They did mention a lot of more recent versions, but I would certainly ask them — like I would I would say any mention of Enterprise Manager or Query Analyzer in a listing is a big old red flag that that makes you want to pull back if you do talk to these folks, kind of pull back things a little bit. Be like, what so what are the older versions of SQL Server that you’re running? I need to know, we need to talk about whether this relationship is gonna go further or not! Because it’s tricky to manage these old unsupported instances, especially when things go wrong, if they’re critical to the business. But yeah, it is one of those one of those fun things.
Great question here: How can I get fast experience if my current — and I think I’ve got a word missing in here — if my current job doesn’t provide a lot? This is an interesting question and this is I cover this a lot in my junior DBA talks of how do I get a job if I don’t have experience. My main takeaways for this, I’m gonna do a really high-level summary, are: you always want to be honest. You can build some experience in test environments, but you want to always be honest what you’ve learned by testing. You want to make connections with people. Things like going to a local user group, talking to people there. Say hey: I’m just starting out and I’m building up my experience. How did you get into the DBA jobs here? Do you have any advice for someone just starting out? Do you know anyone who’s got junior DBA jobs? Making those connections with people and explaining where you are and asking for their help in your area is going to be your best hope for finding those opportunities.
Because it is really hard landing those first DBA jobs! It was really hard for me, I had many jobs where I kept just taking jobs where I worked with data and trying to build experience in a production environment managing data flows. Edging more and more towards the more technical things, and then eventually landing it. I didn’t know about user groups when I was first starting out and I really wish I’d had that to add in — especially because they’re free and they generally meet in evenings. There’s also virtual groups as well. A little bit harder to make the in-person connection with those, but you can sometimes do that as well.
Comment from Scott: Georgia Tech is offering a masters in computer science for about seven thousand dollars total. I’m still working on my BS but it’s a thought for anyone wanting to go on. It’s all online, Scott says. I think this is really hugely interesting for folks who really are interested in getting master’s degree in Computer Sciences, especially when you have a love for the topic. Maybe you want it for getting a job, but you also want to work more on building your knowledge. Obviously I’m into that. You don’t get a master’s degree in philosophy for practical reasons!
But more and more computer science departments, really good ones are starting to build online programs where you don’t have to fly across the country or take two weeks off, or go at night. You can, for reasonable amounts of money, attend University and build degrees online. I am obviously biased towards online education, I don’t think there’s any secret about that, but I love the fact that more and more this is becoming available. If you don’t want to get a degree but you want to audit courses, there’s a lot of really great big-name computer science programs that are doing more and more free material online. They don’t necessarily land you towards a degree, but they could teach a lot and you could have a lot of fun and learn a lot about yourself in the process. Thanks, that’s a great comment. This is why I love doing this online, there’s things I didn’t think about including that are really important and will be valuable for folks.
We have just run out of time, and I need to wrap this up, get this recorded and ship this podcast episode!
Thank you so much for joining me for Dear SQL DBA. We will be back on May 17th, I’ll be talking about dealing with a lack of control as a DBA. It is really interesting as a database administrator how we often get to be responsible for things but we don’t get to control everything, and there’s interesting things to think about and tips that I’ve learned over time about balancing that and making it work that I’d like to share.
If you have thoughts on that – I would love for you to join in. That’s gonna be recorded on Thursday, May 17th at 1 p.m. Pacific. Hope to see you then!