Why proving what you can do is better than improving your qualifications

Scott Young is taking a 4-year MIT course in Computer Science. But he’s taking it in just one year. And for less than $2000.

Scott says the future of learning will be personal, rather than steeped in official qualifications. The Internet already provides learning for everyone, which is exactly how Scott is taking the MIT course himself, at his own (faster) pace.

Many top universities provide lectures and course content free online. And now startups like Udacity, Coursera, and Khan Academy have come along to provide even more academic classes for free. You can learn at no cost in the comfort of your own home, room, library, garden…whatever!

Scott won’t receive a formal degree award from MIT when he completes his class, but he doesn’t mind:

“Our society incorrectly equates knowledge with accreditation. Getting a piece of paper is great, and for many lines of work, it’s completely necessary. But the equation is made so strongly that people forget the two things are different.
“I have nothing against college. University was an amazing and worthwhile experience for me, and it could be for you as well. All I hope is that by showing an alternative, people who feel the current system doesn’t work for them can find another path.”

You have a chance to find your own route, whatever your current situation is.

Once you take this route, the key is to prove your worth in ways that don’t rely solely on the degree you’ve been awarded. Traditional methods of bettering yourself for career and job purposes rely heavily on improving your qualifications.

But that’s because many people are used to those methods. It’s ‘normal’. It’s ‘what everyone does’.

And, of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. Taking your own route can be so valuable. For a start, you automatically stand out. Hopefully for all the right reasons!

Formal routes are sometimes necessary for legal purposes or compliance reasons. Not everything can be bypassed without another thought. And that’s fine. Make it part of your route and do your own thing where you can.

Like Scott, I also have a lot of time for university. I’m sure you guessed that. The name of this blog is a clue… And if you need further proof, I’m called @universityboy on Twitter. I’m not about to give up on the wonders of university.

With all this in mind, what is more valuable: experience or a degree?

This question was asked over at The Student Room. My take is that both experience and degree are useful for different reasons and in different circumstances. A direct comparison is unhelpful.

One person gave a good explanation to the comparison problem:

“…it’s like saying which is more valuable, lungs or a stomach.”

Think of your experience and your degree as a set of situations about YOU. Translate these situations into what you’ve managed to get out of them. Sell yourself, not your grades. Talk about a range of experiences with purpose, so you can include what happened at university alongside everything else.

When you take this view, remember these two things:

  1. Tailor your approach each time you reach out to others – Why? Because perspective changes. Both yours and theirs. Consider things like this: Why are you reaching out to them? What are they looking for? How can you help them? What are the variables in this situation?
  2. Embrace failure – Why? Because no matter how much you prove what you can do, the context is taken out of your hands every time you interact with someone else. There are numerous stories of now famous authors who struggled to find a publisher. They had to submit their first book to many different publishers before one of them said ‘yes’. Imagine if all those authors had given up after the first try.

Jane Artess is director of research for the Higher Education Careers Services Unit. Speaking in the Guardian, she said:

“…one student’s stretch is another student’s yawn; one employer’s view of what constitutes talent may be written off as simply average by another.”

Put simply, no specific route is guaranteed. That’s why your own route is valid and why you must be careful before comparing things that don’t need a comparison.

Your route should include a mixture of traditional methods and unique ones. Find what works for you and not what seemed to work for someone else. Do take their advice and find clues, but don’t bother emulating the same successes, because it’s already been done.

You may or may not have aced a whole bunch of exams and studied to within an inch of your life. What does it truly make you? Shape your qualifications around your own narrative and unlock the story of you.

It’s not the grades that stand out, it’s the individual.

photo by HikingArtist.com

photo by HikingArtist.com

Qualifications: Shaping, Not Dictating

Will a master’s get you a job?

The simple answer is: no, it won’t. But, as a piece in The Guardian says, “students are still heaping their dreams on them”.

Before you get too engrossed in that dream, wake up for a minute and remember what gets you a job:

YOU will get you a job. A degree helps to shape you, a master’s helps to shape you, any qualification helps to shape you. Your choices make a difference, but they don’t automatically get you a job.

That’s not to say that unemployment is solely the fault of an individual. Everything impacts upon your plans, which is why qualifications make a difference. Your achievements help shape the future, rather than dictate it.

photo by Quercusivo

If everyone held the same degree, how else would you stand out? (photo by Quercusivo)

What about big plans? The Independent questioned who gets the head start in life when comparing someone who went to uni and someone who went straight into employment.

In isolation, it doesn’t make sense to ask who had a head start. Neither had a head start based on the choice, even though it’s a big choice to make.

Life is complicated and each person’s life is unique. The most successful person in the world may have been more successful if they had made different decisions. But we’ll never know. What happens happens.

You can’t make the most of your lot by going to university with no good purpose, or without making considerations about the path you’re taking. Yes, you may still make good use of your time and end up with a great job soon after graduation, but that doesn’t mean uni was the best choice and it doesn’t mean you had a better head start than someone else.

All this talk of best choices and comparing one thing to another will keep going forever more. But it misses the point. Bypass this conversation and make your own plans clear. A confident view will guide you toward making the right choices.

Once you get serious about your plans and you still decide a masters degree is the way to go, The Guardian has updated their guide to postgraduate courses this month. As with any league table, it can only serve as a guide. But when you’re making plans, it all helps.

Will you make the best choice every time? Obviously not. But the odds are stacked in your favour when you ditch the general and get more specific.

Standing out and finding success

When the economy is in trouble and the job market isn’t brilliant, a standard choice for many is to stay in education (or return to it) and take a higher qualification.

Getting another shiny new piece of paper that sets you above the rest seems like a good idea.

But how distinctive is it really?

photo by Mike Bailey-Gates

photo by Mike Bailey-Gates

BBC’s Director of the North, Peter Salmon, spoke to students at Edge Hill University recently about opportunities and finding success.  He said something that may lead you to question why another qualification isn’t necessarily enough to truly make you stand out:

“You have to be able to develop your own voice and make yourself distinctive and ask yourself how far you’re prepared to go to make it.”

The sentence may appear quite vague and difficult to achieve, but there’s a deeper point here.  Another BBC employee, the head of editorial development, Pete Clifton, said to Salford students:

“When somebody like me looks at job applications, I’ve got to come up with a way of distinguishing between people. One of those ways is if they’ve got a link to what they’ve done. If I can go away and look at it and see it’s good quality then they’re probably going to have a chance.

“This is why you should think about ways in which to showcase what you do.”

What makes you tick? Where have you made a difference? What can you show off right now?

The main point here is that you can start being distinctive right now.  You don’t need to wait for someone to give you a green light and permission to shine. And you don’t always need to rely on another qualification just to look better on paper.

If you want to do more study, great!  If you simply want to use that study as a gateway to distinction, start thinking about the other gateways out there.  There are more than you think.

Qualifications support your quest for future success.  But you are the driver.  How far are you prepared to go to make it?