Completing a graduate degree program can provide higher education IT staff members unique opportunities for personal and professional growth as well as fresh insights into the IT industry and customer needs.
Last summer, the two of us completed the University of Virginia (UVA) Master of Science in the Management of Information Technology (MSMIT) degree program. Looking back on this experience, we believe that completing a graduate degree program can provide higher education IT staff members unique opportunities for personal and professional growth. Spending time on the other side of the table provided us with new insights into the IT industry and our customers.
The MSMIT is a one-year executive-format master's degree program offered by UVA's McIntire School of Commerce. The program is designed for working professionals and attracts students across public and private sectors. MSMIT students have a broad range of experience and come from a wide variety of professional and educational backgrounds. Some students have highly technical backgrounds; others have consulting, project management, or finance backgrounds.
Karen Connors, McIntire's director of executive and non-degree programs, points out that students who are working in the higher education IT field bring a unique perspective to an executive program. "Higher ed professionals typically have experience working directly with faculty so they can often serve as 'translators' for their classmates," Connors said. "This is particularly useful for executive students who may have been out of the classroom for several years."1
Sophia: When I sat down on the first day of class, my initial thought was, "I shouldn't be here." I was only two years out of my undergraduate program at Wake Forest University, where I majored in biology and history. Immediately following graduation, I started working in Wake Forest's Information Systems department. I joined the MSMIT program to build a solid foundation in IT and learn the vocabulary of the technology world so that I could better contribute to projects and decision-making.
On that first day, as I was introduced to a class of working professionals who had an average of twelve years of working experience, again I thought, "I shouldn't be here." Moments later, the program director addressed the class. He described the concept of "impostor syndrome," and explained that there was no mistake; everyone in the room was there for a reason.
Eric: I'd been working in higher ed IT support for two decades but did not have any formal education related to my career; my undergraduate degree is in communications. What started as a work-study job at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) evolved into a career. I was hired by UVA in 2014. Although I'd taken advantage of professional development opportunities over the years, like the EDUCAUSE New IT Managers Program, I'd never had classroom training in many areas of my job, such as budgeting, project management, and personnel development.
While I knew the MSMIT degree would look good on a resume and LinkedIn profile, I wasn't just chasing a credential. I wanted the knowledge that came with it, including the formal definitions of terms I'd heard in conference rooms for years and instruction on how to do things the right way. Not only did I want a "seat at the table," as the MSMIT professors often discussed, I also wanted to justify my presence at the table and contribute in a meaningful way.
During the Program
With a focus on project-based learning, the MSMIT program simulated real-life work experience. We were encouraged to offer perspectives and examples from our careers. We learned things from our classmates as well as our faculty. Often, we heard in class on Friday or Saturday something that we were able to apply at work on Monday. We developed the confidence to speak up at meetings and provide deeper insight into issues affecting our institutions. Our team projects taught us how to effectively use business-focused research tools, such as Gartner, Forrester, and Bloomberg to support our opinions with data.
We learned to go beyond the surface level of IT operations and connect each scenario to an institutional focus. Often, IT staff members get caught up in handling "daily fires" and lose sight of the bigger picture. Once the first problem is fixed, a second one starts, and inevitably a third begins. While those short-term problems still need to be addressed, we also learned how to focus on the medium- and long-term issues. So, yes, today, someone needs to fix the printer on the second floor, but looking to next year and beyond, how does our student printing solution need to evolve?
We learned about new workplace technologies, something that UVA's chief information officer, Virginia Evans, remembers from her time in the program. "Coming back and seeing what was available, what you could build, what new technologies would enable in the workforce, was really cool," Evans said. "That was very different from my work life, which was very practical."2
Each module of the program centered on a team project, with rotating team membership. This simulated real-world experience, particularly in higher education, where IT professionals need to collaborate with faculty members, students, and other staff members in small-group environments. As is often the case in academia, no organizational chart was provided to us, and no team leader was identified. Instead, it was up to us to determine our individual strengths and weaknesses and how we could best work together.
We gained a unique perspective into the lives of graduate students, particularly executive students. Technology concerns are magnified when students and program faculty are in the classroom for a short, concentrated period of time. If students are in class only Friday and Saturday, technology staff can't say, "We'll just fix that on Monday." We gained a new appreciation for the demands placed on our executive student clients because we were those clients for twelve months.
After the Program
Sophia: I was surprised how much a one-year program could change my perspective and elevate my career. I felt validated that I had a voice at the table. I was more confident in my decision-making, even when I wasn't the subject-matter expert. I used the voice from my first day of class ("I should not be here.") as ammunition. When I hear that voice again, I am reminded that the year in the MSMIT program was one of the best of my life.
Within six months of completing the program, I was promoted to an assistant director position and tasked with changing the scope of a team. What previously was the communications team was renamed the client experience and digital communications team. This is the first time I have managed a team. My supervisors had confidence that I could handle this role and shift the direction of this team precisely because they were able to see the leadership and professional development that accompanied my completion of the MSMIT program.
These new responsibilities align perfectly with the learning outcomes of the program. I'm asked to think strategically and holistically about the client experience. This includes all of our client populations: faculty, students, and staff. My team is tasked with communicating the right content to the right people and working with all IT units at Wake Forest to tell their stories in a way customers will understand.
Eric: Having graduated from a program and a school that I continue to support, I have a more complete understanding of our customers' needs. I've been one of those customers, so I can see things from their perspective. I know what works and what doesn't. I know the typical frustrations facing students because I've been one.
Like Sophia, I was promoted within six months of completing the MSMIT program. My manager understands the value of the program and knows that I bring new perspectives, management styles, and ideas to the table. My new role involves managing large-scale projects for the school, drawing on much of the experience I gained during the program. I'm empowered to see the bigger picture; it's about more than the daily "break-fix" work.
My degree and new title also provide opportunities for closer working relationships with faculty. In academia, IT professionals regularly work with teachers and researchers who hold master's and doctoral degrees. Having a master's degree on my wall brings me closer to a peer-to-peer relationship with faculty and allows me to have more direct input on projects we work on together. For example, I now co-chair with a professor our school's research data committee, a role that would not have been offered to me a year ago.
Completing a graduate program while working full time in higher education—or anywhere else—isn't easy. It was a demanding year! We're now able to see our institutions from a new perspective, gaining a broader view that wasn't clear to either of us before the MSMIT. We've formalized the IT knowledge we each gained along the way in our careers. We're better team leaders, providing team members with the tools they need to accomplish their goals. We've gained the research and management knowledge necessary to stay abreast of current trends in information technology, specifically higher education IT.
Most importantly, we have new insights into the needs of higher education's primary customers—students. Professor Stefano Grazioli, director of the MSMIT program, sees this benefit as well. "There is nothing like walking in somebody else's shoes for a while, and you guys have done it for a year," he said. "Having that experience is very powerful because it will help you understand the experiences of your customers when you go back."3
- Karen Connors, email message to Eric Rzeszut, April 16, 2019. ↩
- Virginia Evans. Interviewed by Eric Rzeszut, April 25, 2019, Charlottesville, VA. ↩
- Stefano Grazioli. Recorded telephone interview with authors, April 8, 2019, Charlottesville, VA. ↩
Sophia Bredice is an Assistant Director of Client Services at Wake Forest University.
Eric Rzeszut is the Associate Director of Client Services at the University of Virginia McIntire School of Commerce.
© 2019 Sophia Bredice and Eric Rzeszut. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.