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Do You Really Need a College Degree to Advance Your Career?
I recently participated in a radio show in which a woman in her 70s called in to ask if she should get a college degree so she could pursue counseling work. That’s a big decision, especially for someone who already has significant life experience.I recently participated in a radio show in which a woman in her 70s called in to ask if she should get a college degree so she could pursue counseling work. That’s a big decision, especially for someone who already has significant life experience.
But her question was one people at various stages of their careers ask all the time: “Do I need to go back to school to advance my career?”
I tell anyone in this situation the same thing: do not saddle yourself with $50-100,000 in student loans unless you can guarantee you’ll be able to pay it back. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that the federal government is garnishing a growing percentage of senior citizens’ social security payments to repay their student loan debts.1
That’s a terrifying situation for people who are counting on social security to see them through retirement, so think hard before committing to a costly degree program.
To Pursue a Degree or Not to Pursue a Degree?
If you’re on a corporate track, a college education is a prerequisite for walking through the door at major companies. But a bachelor’s degree today is the equivalent of a high school diploma back in the days of the Baby Boomer generation. Everyone has one, so you’ll need at least a master’s degree to distinguish yourself. Some corporations require an MBA from a top-20 business school just to apply for leadership positions, so if you work in the corporate world, getting an advanced degree is in your best interest.
However, if you want to freelance or become an entrepreneur, going back to school is unnecessary. In this case, it is all about leveraging knowledge to get results. In the entrepreneurial world, it is all about meritocracy. Credentials don’t matter. You can learn business skills for free through online platforms such as Udemy, Coursera, and EdX. Those sites offer classes from some of the most prestigious universities in the country, including Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and Yale. For a nominal fee, you can receive certifications after completing skills development courses that you can add to your résumé and LinkedIn profile.
Online learning platforms are also valuable for people who want to advance professionally but haven’t had formal skills training since college. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) and nanodegree programs such as those offered by Udacity enable you to develop cutting-edge skills without going back to school.
Google sponsors a free nanodegree course through Udacity, and participants can pay to become certified once they complete it. Executives from Google monitor graduates’ scores to potentially offer jobs to high performers, proving that where you went to college matters less in today’s job market than whether you can code and which programming languages you know. Meritocracy rules!
How to Build a Better Résumé
How you craft your résumé matters as well. Many people submit old-fashioned résumés that are little more than lists of data and dates, but that’s no way to get noticed. Companies care about the skills you possess and the value you bring to the table. Help them connect the dots by weaving your experiences into a narrative about why you’d be an asset to their teams. Be explicit about your goals — What do you hope to achieve in this position? What are your overarching career ambitions? Clarifying those answers makes it more likely that you’ll get to where you want to be. Most importantly, connect the dots of how your past experiences give you the ability to help them accomplish THEIR goals. Show an understanding of their mission and how you can help them achieve it!
There’s a saying in journalism that applies to résumé-writing as well: “Show, don’t tell.” Companies see thousands of résumés that follow the standard college, job, date format. Those submissions tend to be uninspiring, no matter how seasoned the candidate. Instead, show them what you can do by saying, “I’ve researched your company and learned that you’re dealing with X problem. This is whom I’ve worked with previously and how I’ve helped them solve a similar issue. Here’s what I suggest you do.”
Not only does this showcase your skill set and problem-solving abilities, it demonstrates the precise value you’ll bring to the company. The conversation becomes richer and more engaging, and you have a better chance of being hired than if you submitted a plain, regular résumé.
Getting noticed in today’s job market requires having desirable skills and being proactive about your ongoing education. Formal degrees are not prerequisites to professional success. But a willingness to seek out learning opportunities is key to building a satisfying career around the work you love. For those looking for help and career clarity, I highly recommend taking a career direct assessment before making major career transitions. That assessment will help you understand your skills, interests, passions, values, and areas of expertise so you can make an intentionally designed move to the area in which you’ll have your greatest success!
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