In my four years of web working, it is rare that people ask for my resume, and even rarer for them to ask about my educational background. Usually, all they want to see is my portfolio or a list of URLs where they can see my previous work.

This raises the question: what does formal education have to do with web working?

In my four years of web working, it is rare that people ask for my resume, and even rarer for them to ask about my educational background. Usually, all they want to see is my portfolio or a list of URLs where they can see my previous work.

This raises the question: what does formal education have to do with web working?

Educational attainment statistics

According to a survey conducted by A List Apart, 68.2% of the respondents, who were mostly web designers or developers, have at least a bachelor degree. The remaining 31.8% reported having completed junior college, high school, or have no degree at all. Another teleworking survey showed that 72% of participants were college educated, while another one reports the figure to be at least 60%.

Despite these figures favoring college graduates, public perception is different.  In the same A List Apart report, 46.6% of respondents said that formal education was irrelevant in the field of web design, while 53.4% said it was relevant – closer figures compared to the the actuality depicted above.

Career opportunities

The education vs. experience debate is especially prevalent in freelancing. For writers, although offline positions generally require degrees, blogging tends to be more flexible. Web design is a similarly talent-driven industry, so there’s still debate on the weight of design education. And formal education in SEO is a trickier subject.

However, some companies are known for not discriminating against those who don;t have degrees. 37Signals openly admits that they don’t necessarily require formal education when it comes to their employees. From their website:

Of course we don’t hold a formal education against anyone, we just don’t pay much attention to it. We’re more interested in someone’s experience, real work, and point of view than we are with their diploma, degree, or GPA. Formal education is probably last on our list of qualities we feel make someone qualified to work at 37signals.

It’s also hard to say how the scope of a degree influences a web worker’s career path. Many job titles today, especially for online work, didn’t exist 5 to 10 years ago. It also follows that some college students today might end up in jobs that don’t exist yet.

In addition to that, many web workers, especially among freelancers, are multi-disciplinary. Raise your hand if you’re a blogger/web designer/SEO. The truth is that we can’t make rigid career plans anymore.

What’s the point?

If experience is equally or even more important than formal education, then what’s the point of formal education? I guess that would depend on the student, on what they want to get out of the experience. College students shouldn’t equate a degree with a magical certificate that tells them they know everything about a certain field, nor should they see the degree as a limitation on what careers they will have after graduation. You don’t get a degree so just to say that you have it – you get it because it happens to be a by-product of your learning process.

Of course, this learning process is lifelong and is not limited to a university building. As we’ve noted above, there are opportunities for others to thrive in web work even without formal education. Since web working tends to be more results-oriented, it’s probably not the formal education itself that matters. What matters is how you use it.

Do you think formal education matters in web working? How often do clients ask about your educational background?

Image by Amelia from sxc.hu

  1. As I mentioned in my post (linked above), I wonder … In the world of web design, what is more valuable; quantity and quality of work or a degree? If the work ultimately outshines the degree, should we question spending half our first decade getting into debt as opposed to building a career? You might suggest one do both; why do both at your youthful prime than not later at your matured stability? At what point does experience trump a degree; does it ever? And forget debt as an issue; if quantity and quality of work do matter most then your time and how you spend that time is now most valuable.

  2. I’ve had this debate over and over again with hiring managers at companies I’ve worked at and in my personal experience it boils down *need*.

    If I need to get a project done asap and I have two resumes in front of me, one person has four years college experience and the other four years real world experience, then I am picking the person with real world experience.

    Alternatively, if I am hiring for the future, ie. I don’t have a need now but I want to grow someone for possible future needs and I don’t have a huge budget, I am going to hire the person with four years of college experience and pay them the minimum.

    It really is on a case by case basis I think.

    I say this with being a person that has 9 years of real world experience and have been going to college on and off over those 9 years.

  3. When you have little experience, having a degree to cling onto is very comforting indeed.

    It doesn’t even have to be a degree in the field you want to break into. For example, I have a degree in law, but want to make it as a freelance writer. When the going gets tough, I just remind myself that I’ve proved that I can get through a tough education, and that my brain is capable of gruelling work.

    It helps.

  4. I’m taking both paths at the moment. I’m studying towards a degree in Software Engineering because in my Internet work I tend to lean more towards the heavy backend development stuff. But over the Summer months I’ve been working with a great team of designers making live, large-scale websites (as in not a site-for-a-family-friend, but sites visited by 25K+ a day). All my web clients care about is my portfolio, but in industry a resume can be very useful, even to the point of invaluable, to actually get a foot in the door and show what you’re capable of.

  5. This is just the old ‘how do you break into the first few gigs’ issue. A degree relevant to the field gives you some credibility starting out and even one not relevant to the field proves you can stick to things and accomplish at least enough to finish a several year project.

    But with experience, the degree becomes less and less important since you can demonstrate your knowledge in a form that other people have actually paid for. The education can still be valuable in that you might have formal knowledge that helps, but most of that can be obtained without formal education.

  6. I would say that the degree shouldn’t matter as much as it does. However, in the real world, most companies *require* a college degree for even entry level jobs. I think most of us with jobs that don’t tie directly back to a specific educational path in college (engineering, medicine, etc) will tell you that there is little to no correlation between our degrees and our success in post-college life. I’m not convinced that the experience of surviving 4-6 years of college really tells us that much about the person.

    Hopefully, the tide is turning and employers are becoming more like 37 Signals.

    PS – I have 3 degrees, I’m not a disgruntled non-college graduate :)

  7. It really depends on what sort of work you are delivering through ‘web working’.

    In coding jobs, perhaps experience is more important; but if one is working on investor advice, involving quant modelling and/ or qualitative but deep assessments, the clients look for assurance in many forms. Relevant experience is of course one of them but being adequately and appropriately qualified also helps. New clients particularly pay attention to both; existing clients come to rely on experience and demonstrated knowledge.

    What I find interesting is the wholesale trend in the US to suggest that college degrees do not matter. If we are to compete with India and China in the future – both countries where formal education is valued highly – perhaps it will be worth holding on to ‘old fashioned’ views on education for just that little bit longer.

    I also find it distressing to see that older people with degrees tend to advise youngsters that degrees do not matter.

  8. Older people with degrees sometimes discount degrees because we were misled about their value. Several variables tend to get woefully confounded in this discussion, among them: the actual content of the education, the college’s “brand” (including the notion that people who got admitted certain places were “smart” to begin with), the grooming and class status that certain school names signal on the resume, the networks.

  9. Woot doesn’t care about formal education, either: “We’re not looking for a diploma, we’re looking for a designer. We’re looking for somebody who can show us that they’ve done the work and can do it again.”


    Personally, I haven’t even been asked at my last two jobs over the last four years.

  10. I think the degree is somewhat necessary. For me at least and I happen to be in a unique situation. I’m currently a controls engineer/operations supervisor for a large industrial gas company. I run a large plant that makes pure hydrogen gas to sell to refineries so they can scrub the sulphur out of gasoline and diesel. Prior to that I was a nuclear power plant operator.

    I’ve decided to make a career change into something I actually enjoy, so I’ve been working on my BSIT. Ideally, I want to develop web applications, and my thirteen years of real world experience are not going to directly help me get that. Not saying a degree is giving me any of the necessary skills either, but at least it shows I’m serious about making the change and can start out on a solid foundation when I begin interviewing.

    I completely understand that any real skill or talent is going to be developed in the real world, not while following a typically outdated school curriculum. The benefit of my particular degree is the more than eight industry certifications that are built in, including most of Sun’s entry level Java exams. That’s worth the cost of the tuition for me. And I may just happen to be an academic masochist.


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