Telecommunications Degrees: Master's, PhD & Online Training Info

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Master's and PhD degree programs in telecommunications can lead to careers in computer science and IT fields, as well as in research and teaching (for those with a PhD). Get the truth about requirements, courses and career options, and find out what you can do with your degree.
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Studying Telecommunications: Degrees at a Glance

Telecommunications degree programs can teach you to design and evaluate technologies used to transmit information electronically. Upon graduating from a master's degree program in this field, you can seek employment within the computer science and IT industries.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' (BLS) 2010-2020 projections, employment of computer and information systems managers was expected to grow about as fast as average at 18%. Faster-than-average job growth of 22% was expected for information security analysts, web developers and computer network architects. Network and computer systems administrators' job outlook was also favorable at 28%. However, experience with programming, network and software design are typically required for these positions. Continuing education might be necessary if your coursework didn't adequately cover these subjects.

With a PhD, you might become a computer and information research scientist or a postsecondary teacher in this field. The BLS forecast 19% job growth for research scientists and 17% growth for all postsecondary teachers from 2010-2020.

Master's PhD
Who Is This Degree For? Individuals who want to develop in-demand technical skills and become professionals in the IT field Those who want to advance to research and/or teaching positions
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) - Network and computer systems administrator ($71,000)*
- Computer and information systems manager ($118,000)*
- Information security analyst, web developer or computer network architect ($78,000)*
- Postsecondary computer science teacher ($73,000)*
- Computer and information research scientist ($101,000)*
Time to Completion Typically 2 years, full-time Usually 4-6 years, full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - About 10-12 courses
- Master's thesis or other final project
- About 12-16 courses
- Preliminary examination
- Comprehensive examination
- Dissertation
- Demonstration of foreign language proficiency
Prerequisites - Bachelor's degree in a field with a heavy focus on computer science and math
- Previous experience with computer architecture and programming could also be required
- Typically, a master's degree in a field like telecommunications or computer science, though bachelor's degree holders with a strong technical background could also be accepted
Online Availability Yes Some coursework might be offered online, but research components must be completed in person

Source: *May 2011 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Master's in Telecommunications

A master's degree program provides you with an opportunity to expand on the technical training you received as an undergradute. If your background in this field is lacking, you might need to remedy this through additional coursework. These interdisciplinary programs combine topics in computer technology, contemporary communication needs, engineering principles, networking techniques, business fundamentals and management.

Not only can you learn about computer architecture, software, hardware, operating systems, signal transmission and web applications, you'll also learn to operate, troubleshoot and manage wireline (such as Ethernet) and wireless (such as Bluetooth) systems as well as local and wide area networks. Preventing and remedying telecommunications systems attacks is an important component of the training as well.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • The technical, computer, mathematics, business and communication skills you learn are applicable to several positions
  • Programs can offer networking opportunities to assist graduates with job placement
  • Faster-than-average job growth is expected for several career paths*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Cons

  • Technology continually changes, so lifelong learning might be necessary to stay ahead of the competition
  • Many positions in this field only require a bachelor's degree
  • Keeping essential telecommunications systems up and running sometimes requires action at unconventional hours

Courses and Requirements

You'll have 5-7 core courses in addition to 3-7 electives. These could include laboratory courses that give you a chance to work with network security software or concentration courses that allow you to focus on such areas as broadband networks and network management. Some of the subjects you're likely to study include the following:

  • Enterprise architecture
  • Network design
  • Network security
  • Wireless communications
  • Business information systems

A thesis or other final project that demonstrates your research and problem-solving abilities is a typical graduation requirement. You can begin thinking of your topic partway through your program, but you usually start working on a thesis after completing the majority of your coursework. You might need to find an adviser who can help you develop your topic and offer research and writing hints.

Online Degree Options

Some fully online master's degree programs exist; these are often designed for working adults. Through distance learning, you might have the freedom to read course materials and complete projects at the times of your choice. You could also interact with professors and fellow students through e-mail and discussion forums. Additionally, some programs allow you to complete practical telecommunications projects through online software laboratories. Your skill set and career prospects shouldn't differ from those of graduates of on-campus programs.

Stand Out with This Degree

Some programs offer coursework that allows you to specialize in a particular area, such as broadband network management, wireless network management or communications security. In a job market focused on technical and specialty skills, having a concentration area could give you an edge when entering the job field.

Moreover, some schools emphasize an understanding of other IT industries, like web design and information security. Since telecommunications are interrelated with these fields, interdisciplinary training could also help you beat the competition for IT-related jobs.

Your professors could also help you obtain employment upon graduation. Finding mentors to help you refine your research interests and telecommunications skills can later turn into a valuable reference.

Degree Alternatives

Related degree programs in information science can also prepare you to enter the careers available to you as a telecommunications graduate. You might enroll in a computer science master's degree program as well. While you'll still receive a technical education related to information systems, you might focus more on aspects like software theory or artificial intelligence, opening up opportunities to work as a software developer.

Per the BLS, systems software developers' median annual salary was about $97,000 as of May 2011; that of applications software developers was near $88,000. All software developers were expected to experience faster-than-average job growth of 30% from 2010-2020.

With a computer science master's degree, you might also be able to edge into a computer science research career, a position which wouldn't be available to you until you had a Ph.D. in the telecommunications field.

PhD in Telecommunications

The PhD is a terminal degree you can pursue if you'd like to develop your research skills or pursue an academic career. In these programs, you can investigate how telecommunications technology is intertwined with social values and used by businesses to create effective solutions for real problems.

At the doctoral level, you're expected to focus your research on an area of interest. You must demonstrate your ability to carry out original research projects and contribute literature to the academic community.

Early on in the program, you'll work with an adviser to form a plan of study. Some specific research topics could include smart grids, wormhole removal, GSP routing protocol, mobile ad-hoc networks, cybersecurity analysis and overflow channels in core optical networks. Research assistantships, which provide both experience and some financial assistance, might be available. Completing an internship could also be advised.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Independence regarding research interests
  • Research scientists and postsecondary teachers might have flexible work schedules when conducting research
  • Opportunities to provide a unique scholarly perspective to the field via research and publication of your dissertation

Cons

  • PhD programs in telecommunications are very technical and arduous
  • If you don't pass preliminary exams by the second attempt, you may be dropped from the program
  • After advancing to PhD candidacy, you might be required to enroll full-time until you earn the degree

Courses and Requirements

Many courses at the graduate level can be taken by both master's degree and PhD students. Additional subjects that you could study include human communication patterns, privacy issues and telecommunications economics. Like the master's degree program, you'll have a set of core courses and elective or concentration area courses.

After completing these, you'll take a preliminary exam to test your understanding of the telecommunications field as well as your research abilities. To become a PhD candidate, you must also pass a comprehensive examination and submit a dissertation proposal. Writing and publicly defending your dissertation are typically the last steps to earning the PhD. Publication of your work is expected.

Online Degree Options

Fully online PhD programs are not available. Though rare, some schools will allow you to complete coursework via distance learning. However, you would still have to make campus visits to research and defend your dissertation.

Stand Out with This Degree

If you want to pursue an academic career after earning your doctorate, it might help if you've taught classes while enrolled in your degree program; some schools prefer professors who have teaching experience. Gaining tenure at a 4-year university could also be easier if you've conducted plenty of research and built a list of publications.

Degree Alternatives

Other computer-related doctoral degree programs, like computer science or computer engineering, could also prepare you for teaching and research positions. Another PhD program you could consider is information technology. This field is a bit broader and more interdisciplinary than telecommunications, increasing the number of research pathways you could follow.

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