Career Advice: Degree vs Experience

Why does it have to be one or the other?

I am often asked by people I meet in my travels about the benefits of a college degree and it’s value in the workplace.  To set the playing field, let me begin by telling you that every occupation is different, and so is every company.  None of what I am about to share can be taken literally for every position you are interested in.  You have to learn to read the environment and use the information I provide, along with the good advice and experience of others, as part of your research into a career field.  I would love to be able to provide advice that would match up exactly to your situation in life, but that is not how any of this works. This week, I was riding with a Lyft driver in Raleigh, NC.  Her name was Tracey, and she was currently driving for Lyft while she was in the process of figuring out what she wanted to do next.  Apparently, she has a Masters in a medical field and has become less enthusiastic about medical research monitoring/auditing which was where the bulk of her experience was. We spoke for a bit about what influenced her degree choices and what she was interested in now.  I know many young people are currently trying to decide on a field of study or a career field.  There are many people who will read this article and find themselves making the tough decision of whether or not to attend an institution of higher learning.  I hope that some of what I share will make that decision easier.

There was a time when many parents expected their children to attend college after high school.  In the last 15 years or so, this has greatly changed as many great jobs can be attained without a college degree.  However, the point of this article is not to rule in favor of skipping college.  I don’t think it is as easy as laying out a list of jobs which do not require a degree and then choosing which side you align most closely to.  As I mentioned, there is more at play than the field.  Many companies are particular about hiring candidates who have gained knowledge and life experience from a university. What then are the factors that determine the route one should take in beginning their career and choosing whether or not to attend college.  I will share my thoughts and some anecdotes throughout this article and I hope many of you will provide additional commentary in the comments below.

First, I would say that one should look at the field of their career.  As part of the research, one should begin to look at actual job postings and see which require a degree.  Many job postings will ask for a certain number of years of experience in lieu of a degree. Having been a hiring manager at one time, let me share with you what is often happening on the back end.  The companies I hired talent for were simply exchanging, on a one-to-one basis, years of higher education for years of experience.  Now, the problem with this is that most people are aware of the difference between a freshmen year in college focusing on theory and a first year in a career field where you are actually presented with real world problems to solve.  There really is no comparison.  That is where I lean on the value of experience over a degree. I used to think that a couple of years at a technical school made someone more qualified than another who had a couple of years in real world application of skills on the job.  However, I learned quickly that there is no substitute for the real thing.  Even a technical school focused on a field with simulation labs and personal hands on work, cannot replace time in the workforce.

The second area that I would draw your attention to is the companies in which one is interested.  It would be important to learn about the hiring processes of any company you are interested in. As I mentioned earlier, there are some companies which will require a degree.  If the role is less technical in nature, then it might be true that a degree is more warranted as the company is more likely to be focused on the knowledge you attain during school than what you can provide in the way of hands on support to the organization.  For instance, a career field like accounting, requires more knowledge of taxes and laws concerning finances.  It is critical that you know the facts and not so important that you understand the systems and infrastructure that provide the basis for doing the work.  When something breaks, you call the person who has experience in fixing it.  There is no hard and fast rule that will easily shed light on this subject.  It is something you should begin speaking with recruiters about now.  If you know the company you would like to work for, reach out to their recruiters and find out what they are looking for.  Attend job fairs and ask questions.  This will help you align your goals to theirs and give you an edge on your competition.

Lastly, I would say that it is important to keep your options open and not to judge yourself harshly regarding the path you take.  You will make mistakes along the way and they will become your opportunities to learn and grow.  Be flexible and patient while you work toward your goals.  There is no longer a social stigma against those who choose not to attend college.  I have been in IT for a long time and I have worked with many professionals making over six figures who have no college degree and have never had any formal education after high school.  That number is not as small as you might think.  Those people have had to prove themselves in the market.  Do what you fell will provide you the best edge and do not second guess your choices.  Time will show you what is best and you have to be able to mold yourself to fit the career field you have chosen.  Some people say that if you find a job that aligns with your passion, you will never work a day in your life.  Forget that saying.  You will always have days that feel like work, even when you are doing something you enjoy.

I see a lot of kids in college who are racking up student loan debt that will not be paid off until their child starts college.  That is not something you want to have on your shoulders as you enter the workforce.  So many people come out of college expecting to make amazing salaries only to find that the entry-level jobs they are qualified for pay very little until they are able to prove themselves. Don’t be trapped in the idea that everyone needs college, but also do not dismiss college as a waste of money.  Take time to weigh your options and make decisions based on research and interaction with potential employers.  There is no reason to be close-minded on this subject today.  I hope some of these thoughts help you as you make the decision that is best for your career.  If you have questions and want a sounding board, I would love to interact with you.  Please leave a comment or email [email protected] and lets discuss your situation.

2 Comments


  1. I don’t have a degree and I have a decent job. I think that too many companies think that degrees make people smart. I also know that every degree program is different.

    Reply

  2. While I understand your comment about degrees, I have been responsible for hiring people in the past, and I have found those with degrees are typically more mature.

    Reply

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