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Do I need a college degree to be a sysadmin?

The short answer is: "It's complicated."
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We’ve been conditioned to assume that many jobs require a college degree, especially in so-called "white-collar" professions such as finance, marketing, HR, and IT. Scan job descriptions for positions in these fields and you’ll find a common thread: A bachelor’s degree is often part of the minimum stakes needed to get a seat at the interview table.

What about system administrators? This job is a core technology role where a person’s technical skills and experience should matter more than their formal education, right? Do you really need a college degree to land a sysadmin job?

If we could answer that question with a simple "yes" or "no," this would not be much of a story. Reality is a little more nuanced, though. An accurate answer begins with one of "Yes, but…" or "No, but…"—and the answer depends on who you ask, among other important variables, including industry, company size, and so forth.

On the "yes" front, IT job descriptions don’t typically buck the "degree required" assumption, sysadmin roles included. This fact is perhaps especially true in the corporate business world across a wide range of sectors, and it isn’t limited to large companies, either. Consider a recent opening posted on the jobs site Indeed.com for an IT system administrator position at Crest Foods, a 650-person food manufacturing company in Ashton, Ill. The description includes plenty of familiar requirements for a sysadmin. The first bullet point under "Desired Education & Experience" reads: "Bachelor’s degree in computer science, networking, IT, or relevant field."

"Generally, systems administrators will have [degrees] from four-year universities," says Jim Johnson, district president at the recruiting firm Robert Half Technology. While some employers don’t specify a particular degree field, Johnson notes the bachelor’s in computer information systems (CIS) as a good fit for the sysadmin field and overlapping IT roles.

That said, Johnson also points out that there are other options out there for people that don’t pursue a traditional degree path. That’s especially true given the growth of online education and training, as well as in-person opportunities such as technical schools.

"There are [sysadmins] with computer systems professional or computer operator certificates from technical or online schools," Johnson says.

Moreover, a potential employer’s "desired" educational background can be just that: An ideal scenario, but not a dealbreaker. This fact can be true even if a degree is listed as "required," perhaps especially in markets with a tight supply of qualified candidates. If you’ve got the technical chops, a degree might become much more optional than a job description might lead you to believe.

"While many job listings will say a college degree is a requirement, a strong background and demonstrable experience—even without a degree—could certainly be enough to land a strong candidate the role," Johnson says.

This is good news, and it’s part of the overall appeal of the time-honored sysadmin field. System administration offers multiple entry points for aspiring sysadmins including, yes, a two- or four-year college degree. But that doesn’t mean the door is slammed shut on those who don’t have a degree—far from it.

"No, you do not need a college degree for a sysadmin job," says Sam Larson, director of service engineering at OneNeck IT Solutions. "If you do have one, though, you might be able to become a sysadmin more quickly—in other words, [you could] spend fewer years working service desk-type jobs before making the jump."

A degree can open doors and shorten the path to a desired job, including your first (or future) system administrator position. A degree can also be helpful for sysadmins and other IT pros interested in more senior or specialized roles, as well as management positions.

"An advantage of a degree, especially one focused on IT, is that it can improve your resume and your skills at the same time," Larson says. "My alma mater, the University of Minnesota, has a very good program based on our experience working with some graduates of it. They even offer DevOps as an area of specialization. A focused IT degree like that could put you right into a sysadmin job and on a fast track to higher-level engineer and architect-level positions."

Yes, Larson put it in pretty plain terms above: You don’t actually need a college degree to become a sysadmin. You just might need to plan on a slightly different path. (You should read Tyler Carrigan’s article, A Sysadmin’s tale: How I moved from the ocean depths to Red Hat Tower, for a great example of the different paths people can travel to a sysadmin job, and to technology careers in general.)

One such path is to gain on-the-job experience in any way you can. An entry-level position on an IT help desk or service desk, which is less likely to demand a degree or extensive experience, is one relatively common starting point that can enable a future transition to a system administrator job. The help desk, in particular, is a good place for entry-level professionals to cut their teeth and build bona fide experience that can translate into other IT jobs, sysadmin roles included.

While there’s no hard-and-fast rule here, you can use one-to-one as a guideline "exchange rate" between experience and education.

"On average, in terms of resume strength, I’d say a two-year degree roughly translates to two years of job experience, while a four-year degree equates to four years of job experience," Larson says.

While a degree can be advantageous, there are other ways to build credentials and round out your resume. Relevant certifications are a great example: Check out Ken Hess’ article, Training and certification for Linux system administrators, as a starting point. Certifications can sometimes boost pay, and they can also help you add credible experience within in-demand skill areas that overlap system administration, such as the cloud and security. Learning a relevant programming language, particularly one associated with automation, can also beef up your sysadmin resume, and doing so doesn’t require attending a degree-granting program.

Bear in mind that the fact that different employers have different needs is also part of the bigger picture here. Some companies might require a degree as a matter of contract compliance, for example. Others might list a degree only as a preference and are willing to hire someone with the right skills and experience, regardless of their educational background.

There’s a lot of variability out there, in part because sysadmins exist in so many different kinds of organizations and across almost every industry. You can find sysadmin jobs on the market that simply don’t require a degree, like this sysadmin position (via Indeed) at IT services provider Thinksocially, in the Washington, D.C. area. It requires two years’ experience, but no college degree.

Think you've got what it takes to be a sysadmin? Take a skills assessment and find out.

Topics:   Career  
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Kevin Casey

Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his InformationWeek.com story, "Are You Too Old For IT?"  More about me

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