Mid Career- Do I need a degree?
January 24, 2013 3:58 PM   Subscribe

I'm a web designer/developer. I've been self taught my whole life, but now that I'm getting higher up in my career and more people interested in me as upper level management experience. I dropped out of college and taught myself everything I know. Now, though, I'm wondering if I need to go back to school for a degree to progress any higher.

Someone just recommended me for an executive level position at a different company than I am currently. For a variety of reasons I wasn't interested at this time, but the job itself seemed to be exactly where I want to take my career. One thing that concerns me going forward is that I dropped out of college early to work in the world of the internet, and taught myself everything I need to know and continue to do so. I think that's why I've become as well respected in my field as I have, I'm good at self-guided learning, and that has put me on the cutting edge of most technology for the past 15+ years.

However, I'm afraid that I may have hit the upper limit and jobs are going to want to start seeing that degree I never got. And to be honest, I've always felt a little bit embarrassed not having one so I might not be the best judge. Most people seem impressed that I do what I do without schooling, but my lack of degree still makes me doubt myself. I've been in conversations with coworkers where they'll talk down about someone because they didn't have a degree (sometimes I point out that I don't have one, some times I let it slide). Most of my friends are college grads, and still find it hard to believe I got where I am without a degree. Not in a mean way, but a "holy crap, how'd then do you know so much" kind of way. (Part of this I attribute to when they were going to school, there weren't the classes teaching what I was learning for myself on my own).

What got me thinking about this is that recently I found out my current job almost didn't hire me because of my lack of degree. HR wanted someone who was significantly less qualified because she had a degree, but the hiring manager won out because I was way more experienced and and had the qualifications they were looking for. Yay for me, but I wonder how many times this has happened and I didn't get the job. And how many more times it will happen as I am climbing higher up my career ladder.

So, mefites, are there those of you without a degree that have achieved higher levels in your career? Or will I be stuck without one? And if it is necessary to got a degree, is there a good way to by-pass a lot of stuff I already know, or am I going to have to do the time? I have about a years worth of credits between two different schools (One semester at community college, a couple oddball classes at a state school).
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I hit a wall career progression wise recently, which prompted me to (somewhat begrudgingly) go back to finish a degree to prove that I could do the job I've been doing for the last decade. The school I picked allows for a lot of CLEP credits, and I am also in the process of working on getting rid of over a semester's worth of classes via prior work experience credit. It's still going to be two years before I'm done.

I think there is definitely a bias if you don't have a degree in a lot of places. However, there are some companies who don't care, but I've found them much harder to find in the last 5 years or so. I can't say definitively if this is changing any time soon. I spent a long time deciding if it was worth it to me to go back, and ultimately settled on yes. I had spent my last few interviews explaining why I didn't have a degree, and I got passed over for a job purely because of my lack of degree. I think the key is whether it's important to you and whether you see it as a problem moving forward.
posted by Nimmie Amee at 4:25 PM on January 24, 2013

I work at a digital agency, and it always seems to me that degrees matter less and less as you get more senior. Experience, reputation, portfolio - these are the only things I really see discussed. If you're on the client side, your experience of course may be different.

If you do go back to school , upgrade with a professional designation of some sort - I doubt a straight up general degree will get you anywhere.
posted by Kololo at 4:44 PM on January 24, 2013

It really depends on your company. More progressive-thinking management probably sees your experience as more valuable, but there are many companies out there that see a degree as proof that you can succeed, work through the problems that school presents, etc.
posted by MMALR at 4:46 PM on January 24, 2013

Its pretty crazy. I work in IT, and I have had jobs for which "a degree is required". Good thing I've got that unrelated degree in Music! At some places, that's all it seems to take, you can tick a box that says you have a degree.

If you personally want to go back and get your degree, then I would say Go For It! If you are doing it just for your career, I would look around, talk to people informally (at the pub after a few beers, if that's your thing) and see what they think about career progression, in your city and field without one. If it is seriously holding you back from where you want to be, then yes you should do it. But as kololo points out, experience, reputation, proven track record ... worth more than a degree in my view (and hopefully those in the organisations you want to progress in).
posted by Admira at 4:56 PM on January 24, 2013

If I was in your shoes, I'd consider going to a biz school and getting a degree in something like operations management, or maybe one of the social sciences like economics. And I'd try to convince my boss to pay for it.

I wouldn't recommend a "tech" degree because you'd learn so little given your level of expertise. I can't imagine anything more tedious than getting a degree in something you already know.
posted by grudgebgon at 5:05 PM on January 24, 2013

Hiring manager here, been working in IT for about 20 years, mostly medium to large sized organizations. I've seen this come up a few times. It seems to come up in two broad scenarios.

First scenario, there is a job opening and someone has an internal candidate in mind already -- who doesn't have a degree. They will lobby to pull the obligatory college degree requirement in the job description and will usually get their way. If the position is senior and more execs have to sign off on the hire, or possibly a board, it might become a referendum on the value of a degree (have seen that happen once).

Second scenario, the position is being competed on the open market and there is not a candidate on the inside track. In that case, a degree is one of the first things that shows up in the minimum qualifications and no one has a reason to take it off the list. The HR people are screening the applicant resumes for minimum qualifications, so if someone applies without a degree, the hiring manager is never going to see that resume. As long as we are getting a sufficient number of quality resumes, this system works fine. The comments made up-thread about progressive-thinking management or the value of experience and reputation just don't come into play because of the "minimum quals" process most organizations use to winnow down the applicants.

Summary: you aren't stuck, but there are certainly some caveats. The larger the organization, the more not having a degree will hurt you. For getting (internally) promoted, not having a degree probably won't harm you. Applying for jobs that are being openly competed will be more difficult because of the minimum qual screening I described above. Certain industries value degrees more than others, and there are organizations where you need a Masters or a PhD to progress above a certain level.
posted by kovacs at 6:57 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

This seems like a situation where one of those "executive MBAs" might be just the ticket.
posted by gjc at 8:46 PM on January 24, 2013

I would agree with those advising to pick a business-friendly, upper-level-attractive professional designation plan and go for that.

As someone also without a degree who was really going places without one, all it took was one shuffle into an organization with more rigid ideas about the importance of a degree to topple me pretty far down the ladder again.

After a couple of lengthy bouts of career questioning and re-balancing in that time, I've learned that even though some of us make it very, very far without a degree, it usually works best and longest for people who own and run their own business in addition to already having accrued capital. In order to keep moving upward and having more independence, a degree seems to be a necessary accessory.

It can't hurt.

congrats, though, on achieving what you have on self-education and diligence alone! I know it's not easy, especially with the self-doubt that kicks in.
posted by batmonkey at 8:58 PM on January 24, 2013

You may find in college that all the courses and curriculum is just slightly outdated, especially in your field where things are always changing on the front line. Better to keep educating yourself on new software, stay up to date with info about who's who in your field, what are the trends, what's being innovated. Also learn a secondary skill that's somewhat related to boost your marketability.
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 11:01 PM on January 24, 2013

This seems like a situation where one of those "executive MBAs" might be just the ticket.

You can't get an MBA without a bachelors degree.
posted by atrazine at 4:31 AM on January 25, 2013

I maxed out as a developer after about 8-9 years. Then I went and got a bachelors in business/management which got me a Software development manager position (I was told I was perfect for the position, but wouldn't have been hired without the degree). From there I went into consulting (still coding). Now I'm in the process of getting an MBA, which will allow a bit more long term career growth.

Degrees don't really mean anything if you're smart and capable, but unfortunately a lot of people use them as a filter when hiring.
posted by blue_beetle at 6:26 AM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

As much as I hate to say it, and as valueless as both my BA and MBA are, sometimes you've just got to tic the box.

When I was being laid off from AT&T, I thougth I'd return to school to become a CPA. I figured I'd do the 6 courses needed, and then sit the exam. I applied to, and was accepted at a local state university, where they informed me that none of my credits, either from my BA or my MBA would transfer. The idea of doing 4 years of University with a bunch of kids....did not appeal. So I didn't do it.

Most corporations have Tutition Aid for folks who want to complete their degrees, about $5650 annually. Apply to the closest state school, and find out how long it would take to complete your degree. You can probably do a combination of night and on-line classes. Georgia State University is now accepting MOOCs as transfer credits. And they may have an on-line degree program.

The other thing is that in tech jobs, certifications are nearly as important as degrees. I'm an Admin in Salesforce.com, but I'm not certified. Most people will want to talk to me anyway, but sometimes it's enough to keep me from making the short list.

Whatever you do, don't go to DeVry or University of Phoenix. If you're going to invest time and money in this endeavor, go to a real school. Like Arizona State. *wink*
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:37 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

There are good reasons to get a degree beyond career advancement. I bring this up, because broadening your perspective might make your decision easier.

I have no doubt that there are limits on the jobs you might get because you lack a degree. I am also sure that if you had a degree, what you have your degree in, and from where, could limit the jobs you get considered for. To a large extent, I think you shouldn't worry about such things unless you want to go in a direction where such things play a major role in every hiring decision, which probably isn't the case for you now.

I will note though, a degree from a sketchy-seeming for-profit school could actually be worse than no degree at all. I for one would take a closer look at the other impressions I had of you.

My suggestion: look at school is a chance to try some things you might not otherwise try, and/or a chance to steer your career in a direction that might be difficult to go on your own. Then go looking for legit institutions that will let you get your undergrad degree as a non traditional student, apply, enroll, go to classes, study, graduate. When you are done, you'll know some things you didn't know before and you'll have a degree that will, at the very least, remove some potential barriers in your working life.
posted by Good Brain at 12:41 PM on January 25, 2013

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