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Do I need a university degree to succeed in digital?

Full Disclosure I have a BA and an MA, so this is a really difficult question for me to answer unbiasedly. However, I would be lying to you if I said that you need a university degree to succeed in digital. The reality of the job market, specifically digital is very different.

I have worked with professionals who are educated lawyers, but work as digital coordinators, with literature graduates as content marketers, and high school dropouts who lead engineering teams globally. All equally capable of executing their job duties. 

If someone asked me do I think my children will go to university, I would say absolutely. I would expect nothing less, but what was a sure way to success has now become quite outdated. 

Let’s dial it back and look at facts, as well as, the benefits of having a university degree when starting your career. Let’s also discuss scenarios where a degree might actually hold you back, and have a negative impact on your career. 

No degree, no worries

When do skills outweigh a university degree? Are there specific roles, or situations in which a degree is less important than your skills?

If you think you can be a neurosurgeon without a degree, please don’t! There are, however, jobs where your degree won’t be the deciding factor of your success. In fact, a recent article showed that Google, and Apple are on the list of companies that don’t require a degree to work there. You can now apply to work at Google as a Product Manager with an average annual salary of almost 200k USD, with no degree in hand.

A degree is not the first thing that employers look for nowadays. 

Recruiting for the right attitude and work ethic are the most important in my humble opinion. – Gabriel Goldenberg, VP Services at CoversionRateOptimization.co

We can name over 100 successful businessmen and women who have made it to the top with no higher education, and actually Business Insider has already done that for us in this article. 

Successful without higher education

Like I mentioned there are examples of successful entrepreneurs who have no, or little education. Take Sophia Amoruso, the CEO of Nasty Gal, a fashion empire she started aged 22. She was one of the first to break into the fashion industry selling vintage clothes on eBay, then on her own site. The New York Times called her “The Cinderella of Tech”, but Sophia’s life before that wasn’t about attending college, she was hitchhiking on the west coast, dumpster diving, and stealing. If you want to learn more about her particular story you can follow the chronicles of GirlBoss on Netflix, or purchase her book.

Most of us are not Sophia Amoruso, Henry Ford, Ellen DeGeneres, or Kim Kardashian. We read about them only after they made their fortune, and often there is little understanding around the circumstances of their success.

The Harvard Business Review released an article that looked at a study completed by Kim Rosenkoetter Powell, Elena Lytkina Botelho and Vamsi Tetali, who have spent over 20 years helping groom CEOs and C-suite executives. They assembled a data-set of more than 17,000 C-suite executive assessments, and found out that a diploma did not mean someone would be good at their job. They did find a few things that were key to their success.

89% of CEOs without college degrees “grew up” in the same industry where they served as CEO. –  Harvard Business Review

They also spent 40% more time in the industry where they became CEO. These CEOs’ had a deep knowledge of the industry, and established relationships, which compensated for the lack of formal education. 

The Harvard Business Review article breaks down three areas in which these uneducated CEOs excelled. 

  1. Become a proven insider. Know your industry better than anyone else, and create long-term partnerships. 
  2. Overindex on results. Let your results speak for you instead of your degree. 
  3. Be a talent magnet. Be humble, and surround yourself with strong talent.

Degree or no degree, industry knowledge, great results, and staying humble will definitely take you far, even if you haven’t set your sights on being a CEO of the next Nasty Gal empire. 

But, will a humanities degree set me back, or be my meal ticket?

We now know that ivy league college education does not guarantee you a prosperous career. Heck any degree won’t get you very far without some serious hustle from you. However, a humanities degree can help you enter, and dominate a digital workspace. Just look at Anna Pickard. 

Anna Pickard, has a theatre degree from Manchester Metropolitan University, and she is the Editorial Director at Slack. For those of you who haven’t heard of Slack, it’s a cloud-based team collaboration tool widely used by global tech companies. She invented one of  Slack’s key features called Slackbot, with the aim of providing “users with extra bits of surprise and delight.” 

Also, she was hired by Stewart Butterfield, the CEO of Slack, who holds a degree in philosophy from Canada, and an MA from Cambridge in philosophy, and the history of science. 

Software companies find that liberal arts thinking makes them stronger. – George Anders, Forbes.

George Anders, the author of “You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education“, writes about how a liberal arts degree has become integral to the survival of the tech boom. Tech needs humanities graduates almost more than it needs software engineers!

To give you another example. According to Forbes, Uber needs twice as many brand ambassadors, and operation roles than software engineers. Similar numbers apply to Facebook.

I also went back to my first job in digital, and asked the then acting COO who hired me, why did he hire a humanities graduate who had no idea what digital meant.  This is what he told me. 

There are more and more companies that are doing business in several countries around the world, but they can’t do it without hiring globally minded people who can speak at least one foreign language. – Ivan Bjelajac, CEO at MVP

There it was, “globally minded people”, I looked around and realised that the time spent studying art, literature, language meant I could understand people at a level that others couldn’t. I could identify with a target audience, research for hours, and be detail driven. All the things I learnt at university. 

Don’t be a degree snob

Right at the beginning of the article I told you I would explore how a degree can have a negative impact on your career, and so far I have only found one way – if you let yourself become a degree snob. 

Just because you have a degree doesn’t mean you are better than someone who doesn’t. I value my degree very much, and I would always chose to go to university, but the reality is you can’t learn everything from a book. 

You degree also does not give you the right to start in a higher position, especially not in digital. This is something that you have to come to terms with, because working in digital levels the playing field. Degree or no degree everyone starts at the bottom.

So, why bother you might ask?

Here is what I think … 

The landscape of the job market has changed quite drastically over the last 10 years. We are the generation caught in the fourth industrial revolution, where online technology is centre stage. 

How we are used to applying for jobs isn’t working today. What our parents did is definitely not going to work for us now. We need to find a new recipe for success, and that means also understanding the value of our education. 

Our degree does not carry as much weight as it once used it, but it isn’t without its perks. Half of the problem is that traditional education institutes are not ready to adapt, and evolve to better support us in our careers.

This doesn’t mean they are useless. The other day I quoted Kafka’s The Castle to a client, and he was blown away. Yes, I could have read Kafka independently, but university taught me to appreciate, to analyse and apply what I learn from books to real life. My boyfriend who is also university educated, but holds a degree in software engineering only reads books listed under the business category. To him those are the only books that can be applied to real-life situations in business. But, you and me know this isn’t true.

As a humanities student, if you put your ego to bed, you can use your education to make a mark in the digital world. The examples above prove that. They also show us that your degree can’t be your only meal ticket. It isn’t enough. Embrace this exciting new future, where you use your degree as just one hand in the poker game of you career. 

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I am the creator of Digital for Students. I wanted to create a space to help Humanities Students learn more about digital careers. It's all the information I wish I had when I was throwing my graduation cap.

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