STEM Coursework More Valuable Than Grades or Alma Mater

Ivan Schneider, Writer, specializing in financial technology | 1/21/2013 | 20 comments

Ivan Schneider
LinkedIn has started to ask its users to enter the highlights of their educational experiences. This data collection effort has immense implications for IT recruiting and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education.

Upon viewing your new LinkedIn profile, you're encouraged to expand on your educational achievements by adding as many course titles as you wish -- along with the course number. The courses worth sharing highlight core professional strengths you would want to promote with connections and recruiters. It also stands to reason that you'd list only those courses in which you received a good or excellent grade. The result is an edited, abridged, and self-reported version of your transcript, leaving out all the core requirements, experiments, and failures and leaving in the most marketable course numbers.

Facilitating the talent search
The aggregation of course enrollment data gives recruiters powerful search capabilities.

An October 2012 LinkedIn Talent Blog post shows how to search profiles by school, degree, and field of study. Once LinkedIn users start to fill out their profiles with their coursework details, those search capabilities will become even more granular and therefore even more valuable for recruiters.

For example, if a company needs to hire a computer graphics programmer, a recruiter could search by course number (e.g., Computer Graphics I is 15-462 at Carnegie Mellon) and find a targeted list of students who have reported taking the course. The recruiter would still have to follow up and validate whether that person is a good fit, but the initial screening would be trivial.

Compare that with the current process, where recruiters have to conduct keyword searches to find candidates to be interviewed. These searches typically turn up excessive noise -- those in the early stages of learning a skill, for instance, or people who have worked in the industry in a different capacity. In addition, keyword searches necessarily skip over qualified people, such as people with past coursework in computer graphics who didn't think to include that salient fact in their profile.

Implications for students and educators
A select few schools of computer science confer a halo effect on their graduates. If you have a degree in computer science from CMU, MIT, or Stanford, that alone opens doors.

The objective quality of the teaching may be just as good or better further down the league tables, but the talent at those schools will be distributed more widely between top coders and the merely proficient. If you're enrolled at one of these lower-tier schools, you'll need to be at the top of your class to expect anywhere near the same attention as an average graduate of a top school.

One recommended approach to differentiation is to build up a portfolio of code through participation in open-source projects.

However, nontechnical recruiters are hardly in a position to assess your contributions and reputation. You may indeed be the best person for a computer-graphics programming job, because you've already written an open-source 3D rendering engine, but that's little consolation if you and the hiring organization are never introduced.

LinkedIn's course-listing capability allows students at lower-ranked schools to signal their ability to recruiters by taking the most marketable courses or (as a show of fitness) the most notoriously difficult classes. Taking the right classes will soon become more valuable than having the best grades.

Moreover, taking the right classes may soon become more valuable than going to the best school. If recruiters find that they're getting acceptable results from specialists coming out of midtier schools, they may reduce their reliance on high-achieving generalists from the top schools.

Consequently, universities at all levels will see an enrollment shift by juniors and seniors away from esoteric-sounding courses and into those with the highest earning potential. In the same way humanities departments have gotten the axe in favor of STEM fields, resources within individual departments will flow toward the most popular courses. Students who would otherwise dedicate themselves to graduate-level coursework would seek to rack up course numbers that are popular in recruiter searches. This will pose a challenge to research universities trying to maintain a broad base of inquiry, even within well-funded departments such as computer science.

The biggest beneficiary of this trend will be enterprise IT departments, who can hire lower-cost workers with more precise targeting, drawing from a wider range of credible candidates.

In the comments, let's hear what courses you'd want to put on your profile. Would you have chosen your courses differently if you knew they could be searchable keywords for recruiters?

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tekedge   STEM Coursework More Valuable Than Grades or Alma Mater   3/19/2013 4:16:00 PM
How much can you lie
It does not matter to me now, but for the current graduates , once they figure our how recruiters even get to their resumes, they are going to add the tough courses that the recruiters want to see. But I think anyhow the supply and demand for a particular IT field will also determine the time frame what these newbies have to put up so it is going to be a difficult dance .
tekedge   STEM Coursework More Valuable Than Grades or Alma Mater   2/19/2013 9:30:41 PM
Re: how much can you lie?
@sara. I agree your job experience matters more than your transcript!
Zaius   STEM Coursework More Valuable Than Grades or Alma Mater   1/29/2013 12:15:12 PM
Re: the class not taken
Obviously, there are few regrets everyone has. At the same time, ther are regrets of  taking some useless classes, as well.
kstaron   STEM Coursework More Valuable Than Grades or Alma Mater   1/25/2013 8:41:22 AM
the class not taken
Oh, this could get ugly. Recruiters would have to know which courses were the "weeder" courses for each discipline. I've taken 400 level courses that were less challenging than a 200 level course that was seen by the chem. department as a weeder course for chem. majors. And college students would have to understand which courses would make them money. The real problem is the needs of companies change and the "most valuable" courses now could change drastically in 10 years. Graduates could end up realizing they've  taken all the wrong classes. Are there any classes now you wished you've taken?
Zaius   STEM Coursework More Valuable Than Grades or Alma Mater   1/23/2013 7:46:58 PM
There is reason behind looking for course number
The course numbers usually also convey some other meaning: how difficult the course was. 
For example, Computer Architecture -CpSc 327 is differet from Computer Architecture CpSc 668
sohaibmasood   STEM Coursework More Valuable Than Grades or Alma Mater   1/23/2013 6:26:06 AM
Re: Competition
HH, I agree with you. I don't see a problem here as companies are already looking out for the best talent. Why else would they have graduate programs where graduates from all the top ranking universities participate to try and get a position. 
sohaibmasood   STEM Coursework More Valuable Than Grades or Alma Mater   1/23/2013 6:23:48 AM
Re: how much can you lie?
Sara, I might be a bit off track here but would you really like to put up a copy of your transcript on LinkedIn for the public? Putting up a course number and grades is a different thing as compared to putting up a scanned copy of the transcript. 

It could be used for forgery by others, couldn't it?
Ivan Schneider   STEM Coursework More Valuable Than Grades or Alma Mater   1/22/2013 5:13:20 PM
Re: how much can you lie?

I wouldn't say that only recent graduates should play the game. If recruiters in your field are looking for people by course number, why wouldn't you include that easily-indexable keyword on your resume if indeed you took the course? 

Adding a course number is roughly equivalent to displaying a tech certification such as the MCSE, A+ or similar. These certifications thrive because "B.S. in Computer Science" is so non-specific and amorphous as to be effectively indistinguishable to recruiters. Auditable information about which classes you took is like brandishing a fistful of certifications. 

To be sure, a portfolio of completed projects will go farther in convincing people that you're qualified for the job. However, it's harder for recruiters to search for required skills by looking through portfolios.

User Ranking: Blogger
Sara Peters   STEM Coursework More Valuable Than Grades or Alma Mater   1/22/2013 2:45:59 PM
Re: how much can you lie?
@Ivan, et al  A "verified" transcript would certainly be an intriguing addition to one's LinkedIn profile, but do you think that anyone other than recent college graduates would decide to add this to their profile? For many of us college is such a long time ago that it hardly seems relevant -- the school and the degree achieved are still relevant of course, but your actual grades? Shouldn't your job experience be a better indicator?
Sara Peters   STEM Coursework More Valuable Than Grades or Alma Mater   1/22/2013 2:43:41 PM
Re: how much can you lie?
@Ivan  Yes, good point. If I were to list a number of courses that I took, then the company wanted to see my transcripts, and I said "uh... no" they'd probably assume the worst.
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