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Self-Taught Programmer vs Degree: Navigating the Path to Tech Excellence

When you’ve got your sights set on a career as a programmer, you want to begin your journey on the right foot. Often, as you prepare, three questions come to mind:

  • Are self-taught programmers better, or should you get a degree?

  • What’s the difference between a self-taught programmer vs. a degree programmer?

  • What are the pros and cons of self-taught and college-based learning for coders?

Fortunately, by understanding the difference between self-taught and degree programmers, it’s far easier to choose the right path for you. Here’s what you need to know about being a self-taught programmer vs. a degree programmer.

Differences Between Self-Taught Coders and College Programmers

If you’re interested in a career as a software engineer, coder, or similar programming professional, being self-taught or earning a degree can lead to job opportunities. However, these are two incredibly different journeys toward the same destination.

What you learn and how you acquire your knowledge and skills differ dramatically based on the path you take. Here’s a closer look at the difference between a college degree and a self-taught programmer.

College Programmers Have a Background in Computer Science

Going the formal education route means not just studying coding but committing to a major. Typically, this means earning a computer science degree.

When you study CS, you aren’t solely focused on programming. Instead, you acquire broader knowledge, gaining an understanding of data structures, web development, servers, and more. This gives college-educated programmers a strong foundation that extends beyond coding. However, it also means less focus on programming languages and similar niche skills you may need on the job.

Self-Taught Coders Learn Specific, Industry-Relevant Skills

Self-taught programmers may acquire a level of understanding of computer science concepts, but their skill development is typically more niche. They can concentrate on learning relevant programming languages, coding tools, relevant platforms, and similar industry-relevant capabilities or technologies.

Additionally, they can dive into various sub-niches of interest. For example, a self-taught coder may explore data science materials for self-study to acquire programming skills specifically related to big data. Essentially, they can target skill areas based on the jobs they’re trying to land, with the narrow focus leading to greater expertise in the niche.

College Programmers Need to Be Able to Handle Heavy Workloads

A key difference between self-taught and degree programmers is the educational workload. While self-taught coders can learn at their own pace, college-educated programmers must manage the rigors of a formal educational program. Deadlines are often strict, and they typically need to juggle many assignments and tests – potentially in a wide array of subjects – simultaneously.

Ultimately, the academic workload is hefty. Plus, it often feels heavier toward the end of the program, a time when students are typically diving into more advanced knowledge and skills.

College Programmers Need to Be Prepared for a Co-Op or Internship

When you’re studying computer science or a similar field in college, a mandatory internship or co-op is potentially part of the equation. This means students have to balance their academic coursework with an on-the-job training program.

Additionally, some degree-seeking programmers may need self-directed learning to hone skills required for the co-op or internship to get the most out of the experience. If that’s the case, the pre-experience workload is potentially significant.

Self-Taught Coders Have More Freedom

When you’re looking at a self-taught programmer vs. an educated programmer, one of the most significant differences is the degree of freedom. When you’re self-taught, you can focus your energies in any available direction. If you want to learn a niche programming language, that’s an option. If you prefer to take your education slow to maintain work-life-school balance, you can do that.

Also, self-taught coders can bypass skill areas that aren’t of interest if they aren’t required for the jobs they want to pursue. That means focusing on your passions without the mental clutter created by subjects that you don’t find engaging.

Self-Taught Coders Need to Work to Find Community

For self-taught coders, finding a community is essential. Whether it’s connecting with a mentor or networking with other programming professionals, building relationships is critical for securing support and guidance when it’s needed.

Typically, finding a community is harder for self-taught coders, as college programmers have an inherent peer group available through fellow students. Still, using social media, attending meetups, and similar steps can help self-taught programmers get what they need; it just requires more effort.

Self-Taught Coders Need to Develop Their Own Curriculum

Another main difference between self-taught and degree programmers is that those pursuing a degree are learning based on a professionally developed curriculum, while self-taught learners are primarily on their own. While there are many resources to help self-taught programmers develop their own curriculum, it still takes time and effort to build one out.

Additionally, self-taught coders need to track down their own learning resources. While there are plenty of books, webinars, free online courses, and other options available, determining which ones can meet their needs isn’t always easy.

self-taught programmers

What Makes a Better Programmer

Many aspiring coders wonder, are self-taught programmers better than those with a degree? Ultimately, when it comes to a self-taught programmer vs. degree programmer, both can be exceptional.

A reason why self-taught programmers are better in the eyes of some is that they develop practical skills that prepare them for a specific career. Plus, they’re often highly passionate about their field, and they easily adopt a continuous-learning mindset.

However, the broader understanding created when earning a computer science degree can provide value. Additionally, they may have an easier time finding a job initially, as the degree serves as a demonstration of their expertise.

Best Resources to Learn to Code

Whether you’re looking at earning a computer science degree or prefer a self-directed approach to learning coding, there are many resources to assist with your journey. Typically, the best resources to learn to code include:

Participating in online communities like Stack Overflow can also provide value. Along with helping you learn, they help you connect with the programming community, giving you additional value.

Pros and Cons of Computer Science Degree

If you want a career as a programmer, there are pros and cons related to using a CS degree as a launchpad.

Here are the benefits of getting a computer science degree:

  • Earning a degree leads to a broader understanding of computer science

  • Having formal educational credentials may make landing your first job easier

  • Working on a degree involves a progression plan developed by professional educators

  • Networking with peers is part of the equation

Here are the drawbacks of starting with a CS degree:

  • Completing a degree takes two to four years

  • Learning is focused more on theoretical applications instead of practical

  • Paying for college is challenging in some countries

college degree programmers

Pros and Cons of Programming Bootcamp

While you may primarily be debating between a software engineering degree vs. self-taught learning options, programming bootcamps are an alternative to consider. There are pros and cons related to this path, too, with bootcamp graduates often serving as middle ground between college grads and self-taught coders.

Here are the benefits of completing a programming bootcamp:

  • Completing a bootcamp takes significantly less time than a degree

  • Learning is explicitly focused on the bootcamps niche and is more practical than theoretical

  • Getting assistance from instructors or peers is reasonably simple

  • Finishing the bootcamp gives you a formal credential for your resume

Here are the drawbacks of completing a programming bootcamp:

  • Learning experience isn’t standardized across all bootcamps

  • Completing a bootcamp is a rigorous experience, requiring self-motivation

  • Having a bootcamp credential doesn’t carry the same weight as a degree

Pros and Cons of Self-taught

Being self-taught does come with its fair share of advantages. However, there are disadvantages to going this route, too.

Here’s an overview of the benefits of self-learning:

  • Learning using solely free resources is possible

  • Moving at your own pace is an option, making overall balance easier to maintain

  • Pursuing skills that specifically interest you – and avoiding those that don’t – is on the table

Here are the drawbacks of self-learning:

  • Receiving guidance or support is difficult, as it requires building your own community

  • Getting your first job is harder, as you don’t have formal credentials on your resume

  • Developing your own curriculum is often time-consuming, and you may overlook critical skills by mistake

Conclusion

Ultimately, when it comes to deciding whether to become a self-taught programmer vs. degree programmer, there are benefits and drawbacks to both options. Are self-taught programmers better than degree-holding coders? Potentially yes, but also possibly no.

For self-motivated individuals passionate about the field, becoming a self-taught programmer may work. Along with allowing you to take command of your progression, it creates opportunities to focus on your areas of interest while building practical skills. However, getting a degree gives you a clear educational path to follow, and you earn a credential that can make landing your first job easier.

Fortunately, whether you become a self-taught programmer or degree programmer, you can have a successful career. In the end, you need to prepare for the profession of the future by choosing the strategy that works best for you.

FAQ

Is a self-taught programmer worth it?

Becoming a self-taught programmer is worthwhile if you’re highly motivated and want flexibility about how your career takes shape. You can focus on the niches you find engaging and hone practical skills that translate well on the job. However, since you don’t have a degree, landing your first job is typically more challenging.

Is a computer science degree better than self-taught?

When it comes to self-taught programmers vs. CS education programmers, neither is inherently better than the other. Each has its benefits and drawbacks. A computer science degree creates a broader foundation, while self-taught coders have more practical skills. Pursuing a CS degree gives you a specific timeline for your education and an established curriculum, while self-taught options let you work at your own pace. While computer science degree holders have an advantage when trying to land their first job, once they gain experience, self-taught coders usually keep pace with their counterparts.

Is it worth it to learn programming without a degree?

Programming skills are valuable to employers, regardless of their origins. When you can code successfully, you can help companies develop new applications, maintain existing ones, and handle a variety of similar tasks. Plus, many fields are increasingly featuring programming elements, even if they are specifically coding oriented. By having programming skills, you provide companies with additional value, and that can benefit your career.

Can you get a job as a self-taught programmer without a degree?

You can get a job as a self-taught programmer without a degree. In this regard, the main difference between a college degree and self-taught programmer is those with a degree have a credential to add to their resume that makes landing their first position easier. However, self-taught programmers that develop a strong portfolio can also achieve career success, even if they never further their formal education.

Why do 95% of self-taught developers change their profession soon?

Many self-taught developers move away from the profession because they struggle to land a career-launching job opportunity. Without formal credentials, some employers won’t consider a programming candidate for a position. Additionally, self-taught programmers may accidentally overlook critical skills that must be developed to work in the field. Again, this can lead to employment challenges, including finding a position or excelling in one that they’re able to secure.

Can I become a Python programmer without a degree?

Yes, it’s possible to become a Python programmer without a degree. Both self-directed learning and bootcamps can prepare you for the role, giving you alternatives to formal college education.

Does Google hire self-taught programmers?

When you’re comparing a self-taught vs. college programmer, one area where the two align is that Google may hire professionals with both backgrounds. As long as you can demonstrate the needed degree of expertise and the required skills, not having a degree might not stop you from getting a job at Google.

What do self-taught programmers lack?

While some may say that the answer to “Are self-taught programmers better?” is a definitive “yes,” self-taught coders can have shortcomings. When you compare a self-taught programmer vs. a degree programmer, self-taught ones don’t have a full computer science background. They may also be less familiar with common jargon or vocabulary used to discuss the field, or since self-taught programmers usually focus on a particular niche, they might be missing specific skills that are necessary for the overall job requirements.