To be or not to be … without a degree … that is the question
To be or not to be … without a degree … that is the question

Finding work in an ‘academic’ world…to what degree do you need a degree?

Recently I met a client who said to me, “I’m 31 years old and I’m now realizing that I may need to start pursuing a Master’s degree – not to distinguish myself as being more skilled than other job applicants, but just to keep up. Everywhere I look, it seems like someone has several degrees.”


Degree earned celebration had (black woman)

In today’s world, job experience, skills, and basic work-related training seem to have been replaced with the importance of a post-secondary certificate. How does a degree (or degrees) compare with work-related experience? Are they equivalent? How is that my client who has a four-year degree, and over 8 years of relevant work experience struggles to compete with someone who has a Master’s degree but no actual work experience? Can someone who has only lived within a student atmosphere really be more qualified than a seasoned job applicant?


In the past, I have written blog articles on common concerns and questions such as “Do I need a university degree to get a job?” Similarly, I have addressed issues regarding established employees who have worked in a position for years, long before degrees were an essential requirement. Now they are rapidly reporting they are stalled in their field of work with no opportunity for promotion unless they acquire post-secondary qualifications.


Additionally, older workers face the threat of being replaced or downsized in order to make room for younger and cheaper employees who are often armed with several academic degrees. Despite the growing requests for job applicants who have college diplomas and/or university degrees, my outlook remains optimistic that there are still options for people who don’t have these credentials. But these candidates will need to approach their job search differently and possibly consider alternative forms of employment. They may also have to promote themselves more strategically and rely on their interpersonal skills to compete with someone who has a higher education.


Older worker, no degreeClearly, there are distinguished occupations that require a degree or multiple degrees… that is a given. There is no way to work around that fact. In these cases, it’s essential that you put in the time, money, and effort into your education for a specific profession. For example, we cannot substitute degrees in law or medicine with experience, appropriate soft skills, and intelligence.


It can be hard to decide whether or not to invest your efforts – both financially and mentally – on earning a degree after being in the workforce for a while. Returning to school to achieve more education, especially for mature workers with families and mortgages isn’t a decision to make lightly.


Catch 22?

I realize that I may seem to be contradicting myself. On one hand, I acknowledge that more and more jobs demand degrees from applicants. On the other hand, more and more recent graduates are struggling to find full-time work. This is part of why we are seeing such high rates of student debt and underemployment among people in their twenties.

Evidently, there are pitfalls and risks when taking the academic route – and there are also struggles when someone does not have a degree. So, before venturing into the very expensive post-secondary education system, which doesn’t always guarantee profitable, steady employment, you might want to try some different tactics while on the hunt for that perfect job.


Burned by degreeFeeling the burn of rejection…5 steps to keep you ahead without a degree.

1. Networking helps you learn about fresh opportunities before they are even posted online. This means that you can make your case before an official search for potential employees starts. It also helps to know someone who is established in the hiring organization and can vouch for you. People are usually surprised how common it is to find work through a simple but reputable referral.


2. Strategic volunteer work is another avenue to take. Often, it’s a role where you can demonstrate your skills and abilities and nurture potential job references and people who may know about job vacancies early.


3. There are various online courses and certificates that you can take. In some situations (especially new, cutting-edge fields), you’ll be able to make your case that the online training you’ve acquired is very relevant. Samples include traditional online courses offered by colleges and universities. Also consider MOOCs and options through, Coursera, and EdX, etc.


4. Avoid applying for jobs that are posted online and have very strict/specific screening criteria that will automatically exclude an applicant that doesn’t have a degree. Hint – when they ask for a post- transcript, they are screening out people who don’t have that credential.


5. Craft an interesting cover letter that showcases your talents, work capability, and other positive attributes. Depending on how many resumes you are sending out you should write a variety of cover letters that will appeal to different employers (see this for more ideas about cover letters).


Need help getting your career on track? I invite you to contact me by email, phone, or via direct message on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn if you’d like to discuss any of these topics in more detail.


More than career coaching, it’s career psychology®.


I/O Advisory Services – Building Resilient Careers and Organizations.


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