Networks have only grown more complex over the past few decades, and network engineers are expected to design, install, maintain and troubleshoot networks with on-premises and cloud components. That means a lot of education and continual training, but the career is also a rewarding one for many tech professionals.
Graduates with a degree in network engineering can follow multiple (and lucrative) career paths, including network administrator, network architect, network security specialist, or network operations center (NOC) technician, among other positions.
“I would recommend starting with a bachelor's of science in computer science, because there you will learn a lot of network engineering,” says Betty Vandenbosch, chief content officer at Coursera. “Then, if you go on to a master's, you can specialize in the specifics.”
Taking courses in cybersecurity and an intro to networking can help you determine if network engineering is right for you. “To be a successful network engineer, you must understand network design, security… you need to understand the cloud and routing and switching,” she says. “These are pretty detailed elements of how networking technology comes together.”
Degrees for Those who Enjoy Hands-On Learning
Nathan Sutter, global vice president of engineering at CoderPad, says network engineering degrees are well-suited to those who like the idea of being physically deployed and working hands-on with hardware.
“If you're somebody who wants to be in charge of all of the physical type of things, at a company like AWS or GCP, or in a government role, for example, and doing things on-site, then a network engineering degree is probably a good path to follow,” he says.
Despite the proliferation of remote learning opportunities on offer (as well as remote network engineering jobs), network engineering is a field where physical experiences can prove critical. “There's still a lot of overlap with software, but a lot of the actual physical laying out of the networks and routing tables and setting up hardware—you have to have experience doing that,” he says.
Clark Hochgraf, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering technology at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), says getting a master's degree in network engineering lets individuals understand the technology better. “It also gets you involved more in the design and planning and development from a business system perspective of the network and all the things that the network supports,” he says. “An understanding of IP networks and the configuration of network systems are key areas where companies are looking for expertise.”
Certifications Broaden Knowledge, Boost Your Hiring Power
Tom Oh, professor of information at RIT, points out how the advent of the cloud has rendered the job of network engineer infinitely more complex; the expanding threat landscape has also made understanding network-related cybersecurity issues of critical importance. Hiring managers expect to see a variety of skills on a network engineer resume.
He advises those pursuing a degree in network engineering to augment their education with certifications such as Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP), Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) or Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) certification. “If you have a CISSP certification and you're a U.S. citizen, the Department of Defense, the National Security Agency—they want you,” he says. “But every company—even a small company—requires networking.”
Hochgraf stresses the importance of learning how networking integrates with the business process. “Those skills are really where students want to be looking,” he says. “They need to understand the tactical side—the fundamentals of modulation, the fundamentals of digital communication, cybersecurity, and how information is encoded, but also how information is used within an organization.”
Without network engineers, the backbone powering modern innovations—from streaming services to mobile WiFi hotspots—simply wouldn't function. “All those common technologies that essentially every industry uses are developed by students who go through graduate programs in network engineering,” Hochgraf adds.
The Need for Continued Education
Pursuing a degree in network engineering can provide individuals with a strong foundation of knowledge and skills, as well as ongoing opportunities for professional development. As technology continues to evolve, network engineers must stay up-to-date with the latest advancements in the field—which means continuing education long after you’ve graduated.
Organizations are often willing to pay for additional training and education, especially if that will help network engineers master the technologies critical to the network. “Good companies have lots and lots of options they offer to their employees," Vandenbosch says.
For those making a switch to a network engineering career from another tech field, she advises exploring any educational opportunities available for free or low-cost before making the decision to commit to a degree. “Try it out, see if you like it. In terms of what the next thing is going to be, you need to read your trade press and stay in the know with what's going on in your field,” she says. “That's the only way that you can determine whether you need to learn something.”
Oh agrees it's important to keep advancing your skills. “It's also important to recognize that the certifications may get you a job, but the education gets you the job satisfaction, the advancement, the ability to really contribute,” he says. “To really make a contribution, learning how to think in a certain way makes you a long-term contributor.”
For network engineers who want to move beyond a technical role into management, business courses can also prove valuable. “You want to constantly be evolving your thinking about how to apply this technology,” Oh adds. “Being able to see that in a broader system requires a different perspective.”