Career Development Skills

Why A Degree Is Not A Career Guarantee

Did the headline pique your interest?

I guess it’s not the obvious thing you hear. We’re told from a young age that a degree is a great option to unlock a field of opportunities. And this is certainly true for many of us, but it’s wise to remember it’s not a guarantee.

And it certainly pays to be wise with the spiralling costs of higher education.

The Education Data Initiative found the average cost of college in the United States is $35,551 per student per year, including books, supplies, and daily living expenses. Which means the average cost of college has more than doubled in the 21st century, with an annual growth rate of 7.1%.

So, this thought is a mash of a few areas:

1) The disconnection of degrees.

2) Why more courses, accreditations and degrees aren’t the only answer for development (and I say most, as doctors, psychiatrists, lawyers etc need these for safety reasons). 

3) Societies’ fixation on a model more linked to social status than one of benefit in a fast-paced and continuously adaptable environment.

Safe to say, these thoughts might get entangled. 

But, I hope I can at least provide some value and even a bit of reflection on the way our world views the process of growth today.

Anyway, let’s get to it, shall we?

Growth never ends

I’ve always found the notion of people believing growth and learning stop after formal education quite comical.

As if on one particular day, we decide that this is it. I’ve done all my learning now so I now need to never do such a thing again and should be awarded all the riches of life in accordance with the education I have received so far.

Usually, this happens when one completes their higher education studies in their mid-lateish 20’s. But it can happen at any time in our lifecycle.

We could look at this as finite thinking in what is mostly an infinite game. This is something I focused on a lot in my book on thriving and surviving a career in the 9-5.

Now, before we continue, I want to note that I’m not knocking the pursuit of formal education or degrees. For many, this is the right path and one that serves well. My goal here is to highlight the misconceptions of what this route can provide and what some people feel they are owed from it.

A degree is not a guarantee of anything or a debt that society owes any of us. It is, in many areas, what I like to call a ticket to the show.

In some way or another, my whole career has been connected with workplace people development in its now 16-year span. This has given me the wonderful and unique opportunity to meet brilliant people from all walks of life.

One commonality I have found amongst my connections with fellow humans is the way society has programmed us to look at educating ourselves and the status we are owed if we achieve x,y and z.

The words education, learning, and my most hated word of training are loathed by so many of us because of the experiences and untold amounts of pressure and stress that are placed upon us in our younger years to attain a certain level within a commonly agreed-upon system.

I meet many (including myself at one point) who breathe a sigh of relief when they leave any education system and enter the world of work.

Why? Because they no longer have to conform to an experience that does not serve them and forces them to do something which yields little enjoyment and sometimes value.

And that’s a shame, as the real shocker is that we don’t stop learning, ever!

The known international education systems today are not where learning and growth end. They’re merely a chapter in our story. And, like the wise Albert Einstein said “Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.” 

This is why I tend to find many are reluctant to engage in any form of workplace development that mirrors anything like education, learning or training in our minds. We’ve already formed a pretty divided opinion on those experiences before we set foot in the door.

Social learning, mentoring and coaching are popular methods of growth that haven’t been tainted with the experience of formal education. Even though all lead to the same outcome – our improved development as humans.

So, because of the bad rep education gets, in whatever context you view it, people tend to see their time served within these systems as some sort of badge they wave at the entrance of employers and social events to guarantee their status in society.

The funny thing is that life has other ideas.

One life, multiple careers

We live in an area of the multi-career.

Many of us will change what we do several times during our lifespan. Opportunities to diversify and build new skills and behaviours have never been more accessible. We also have more of us than ever shunning what is viewed as “typical careers”. 

Instead, we focus on becoming social media stars, gaming streamers and content creators in all forms.

It has never been more popular to not have a defined career. The non-obvious path has become obvious.

And you know what? That’s ok.

Our world is fast-paced, high delivery and full of pivot points where we need to adapt. Sadly our education system is not.

So still telling people that you have a degree in philosophy with a master’s in this and went to this university when you’re in your 40s as some kind of validation as to why you should be given a new role or promotion is not going to fly.

Today, what we need most are those who understand the skill of intentional and continuous learning.

A ticket + hard work = 🌟

As I said before, a degree is a ticket to the show. We need to continue to do the hard work and become the star of it.

On some levels what I’m saying here is that we can do better as a society in setting this up as the norm and making it part of the conversation when we talk about education in all forms.

Learning is an everyday behaviour and one we’re all engaged with more than we realise. And yes, learning can be fun too. It doesn’t need to involve classrooms, textbooks or stupid assignments. It can be over walks or a coffee conversation between others.

Anyway, what’s my point here? 

Perhaps, my focus is on us to not put all our eggs in one basket and reject continuous growth (I get I’m probably preaching to the choir with most reading this).

Perhaps, it’s also recognising that a degree doesn’t equal an advantage or a divine right in the game of careers. It’s a ticket to the show but you still gotta put in the work.

Here’s a little story for you before we depart for the rest of our day.

Many years ago, I worked with a company that recruited 100 fresh graduates a year on a 2-year rotational scheme. Each had a degree. and even a master’s in some cases.

They had done what society told them to do. Get a degree and increase your earning potential. This is somewhat true depending on your profession. 

Anyway, about those grads, how many do you think remained after the 2-year programme completion?

Go on…throw a number out there.

The answer is that 5% made it. Yes, really, only 5% were left after all was said and done. 

And why was this?

Because a degree alone is not enough to succeed. 

We need the full package. Adaptability, resilience, a thirst for continuous learning and the motivation to make things happen.

You may be done with school. But you can-and should-see the rest of your life as an education.

Bill Gates, Microsoft Founder

These are the traits I’ve seen in people who have become high performers in their domain by the measurement they use to define such success. No matter if they have a degree or not.

I tend to believe that if we focus less on one-time activities and hacks or quick routes, we’ll recognise everything we do is about moving forward and getting a little better. Day by day, challenge by challenge.

This feels like a good place for us to end, friend. I hope my non-obvious thinking might spark something in you.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments 👇

Before you go… 👋

If you like my writing and think “Hey, I’d like to hear more of what this guy has to say” then you’re in luck.

You can join me every Tuesday morning for more tools, templates and insights for the modern L&D pro in my weekly newsletter.

One reply on “Why A Degree Is Not A Career Guarantee”

Leave a Reply