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Summary:

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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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 :)

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.”

    http://www.woot.com/Jobs.aspx#Designer

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

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  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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  11. Lack of formal education becomes especially apparent when one is asked to write software documentation, or a design spec. Perhaps 37signals doesn’t care about those skills because they don’t believe in functional specs.

    For designers, a solid foundation in visual art is extremely helpful. Being able to draw well, to articulate ones ideas clearly and back them up, is a tremendous asset.

    Having said this, clearly there are talented people out there who are able to do good work without formal training. However, I think this was more true in the early days of the Web, when everything was so new, and few people understood what good Web design was. The “wild west” days of the Web are drawing to a close, and good web design practices are becoming more codified and more “teachable”. I hope the art departments out there are doing a decent job of preparing students for a career in web design.

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  12. At the very least, a degree is a seal of competence; it shows employers that you can do things like work to deadlines, carry out research, write a coherent report, etc. And in your working life, those skills that enabled you to *complete* the degree are often more important than the specific subject of the degree.

    But of course a degree isn’t the be-all and end-all.

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  13. I think it really depends on where you’re headed with your career.

    For designers, yes, it’s essential to have a formal art education. Don’t underestimate the importance of that.

    If you’re only interested in freelancing or contract work, it couldn’t matter less. Clients only care about your portfolio and how quickly you can turn out a quality project.

    But if you plan on landing a high-income salaried position somewhere, remember that 95% of the time you’ll be competing with and working for marketing and business managers that hang their hat on that MBA. If you don’t even have a bachelor’s degree, you’re just going to have to work that much harder to prove that you’re worth being paid more than a meager hourly wage.

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  14. Formal education is ALWAYS an asset. I have never been asked about my own education and have found that no one cares, as long as your professionalism and skill can deliver a job well done. One author (unfortunately, I cannot recall her name) called it the “GSD Degree” (Get S*** Done).

    If I still had a very expensive education to pay off and discovered this, I’d be a bit miffed. ;-)

    I think a degree will always matter to larger companies – and it depends a lot on the specific work, but in my experience it matters a lot more to keep up with trends and technology and to easily adapt to constant and rapid change.

    Great discussion!

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  15. Many web framework and technology is still in beta phase, and new technology or web standart is coming almost everyday, so it is quite time consuming for web developer to learn a new framework –regardless he/she has degree or not–

    Between the day job and catch up the changes…

    Thanks for posting this great article. It makes me think…~~

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  16. despite the fact i work for a large digital agency, doing challenging work on big sites i very much feel like a hobby coder, only having a “certificate in web apps development” from the Open University. when i see the work my (younger!) colleagues here do, i can really tell the groundwork laying courses they must have done (C#, db theory, …) pay off.

    After a year as a php developer, i still have to check books to see how complex arrays and stuff like that work. Id imagine that wouldnt be the case had I done a real degree in Computer Science.

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  17. I think a degree is very important. It shows strength in discipline, maturity, critical thinking, and commitment. I have 8 years of “Real World” experience plus a BS in Comp Sci. Although I would argue the definition of “Real World” experience, having 3 of my 4 college years programming with an array of languages beats those 18-19 year olds doing production work and writing HTML all day. Stop fooling yourself that a degree doesn’t matter, a degree is an extension of the person, it is an upgrade. It is not a waste of time; you have your whole life to work.

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  18. I work for a staffing company in Boston, Hollister Staffing (www.hollisterstaffing.com) and constantly get asked the question of degree vs. experience. While both are extremely important, most of the time it is completely circumstantial about which is preferred. If someone has the skills and experience for the job then they should also be a candidate, degree or no degree. I will say this though; in this knowledge based world, it is much harder to find a job without a degree. The job market is extremely competitive, and more often than not whether or not a candidate has a degree is a huge distinguishing factor.

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  19. [...] How Important is Formal Education in Web Working? – Celine Roque The idea here that being successful is not completely dependent on your formal education but mostly what you make of it; apart from the fact that it is not a requirement to succeed [...]

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  20. [...] Article: How Important is Formal Education in Web Working? [...]

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