Is a degree really needed?

3 09 2008

Hi guys,

Sorry for the lack of posts in the past week, my mind just hasn’t got around to giving me any more ideas…until now!

I’ve always wondered if my decision to go to university to study interactive media production was the right choice. Sure, I’ve since graduated from uni with a wonderful 3 years behind me and walked straight into my dream job. I know that my degree and the work I produced during those 3 years are the reason I got the job. However, my confidence, willingness to learn and general personality must have been what made me stand out above the other candidates. So many students leave uni every year with a near exact degree that employers have to look to other things to pick them apart.

Would a portfolio and the right ‘can do’ attitude be enough to get a job within the design/development industry?

I often wonder if I had not gone to university, would I have spent the 3 years perfecting my skills through self learning and would this option have proved to improve my work more than the course did? This option would certainly not have meant that I would spend half of my time writing theoretical essays allowing me more time to perfect my technical skills. While a number of my course mates would have said the essays were a waste of time on a web development course, I understood that it was my knowledge of the wider issues surrounding my chosen industry that would get me a job. It was exactly this point that impressed my current employer during my interview with him.

To the technical side. Did my course teach me anything to do with this? Well the honest answer is no. They provided us with a basic knowledge of software and not much else. While our two technical support guys were invaluably amazing, helping me out on numerous occasions, there wasn’t much else. I put a huge amount of effort into my studies because I loved what I do, however I can almost say for certain that a good proportion of my course, who did not care as much, have graduated with a degree but an absolutely unemployable skill set. While i am not worried about the wasters on my course it does make me think that maybe due to my self motivation I would have pushed myself to learn outside of a university course. Meaning three years later I would not be in £13,000 of debt.

During a 6 week work placement (half way through the course) I learned so much more than I had in the previous 18 months of uni. This sentiment was the same for the majority of the course. If I had not gone to uni and have been lucky enough to find someone to give me a break and let me learn the trade unpaid but doing it for ‘real’ I believe I would be further advanced than I am now.

The only question is would i have been given this opportunity without any qualification?

Would you employ an individual with a good portfolio, a great attitude but no degree?

Let me know what your opinions and experiences are on this matter?

I eagerly await your replies…

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18 responses

3 09 2008
Laura

I don’t believe you need a degree – I work in government as a web designer and won my position in two different ministries after competing like everyone else, some with degrees. It all comes down to your passion for your work, your ability to display that passion, your portfolio, and references.

I believe I’ve learned more by being self taught than by sitting in a classroom doing what someone else tells me to do.

Thanks for this post, it’s very interesting 🙂

3 09 2008
Brandon

I think a degree is important but not necessary. If you are talented, smart, and a good people person then you could potentially get anywhere in the business. A lot of the people I go to school with are terrible designers and could care less about the profession. They just want the degree, but in design it doesnt work that way. You need a good portfolio, and if you have a degree on top of that then it makes you that much more valuable.
I’m very thankful I went to school. I used to think design was just computer arts magazine and vector art. By going to school I was able to put my work in context and work very closely with very good designers. I also networked which is going to put me in a very good place when I graduate. For me, School was a better option then not. School trained me to work hard and taught me the history behind what I do.
One good example of a self taught designer is Chuck Anderson. He is from chicago and has had a recent string of success with big companies.
His website is http://www.nopattern.com/nopattern
Yes, he can do beautiful design but what would he do if you hired him to do an annual report? On the other hand, he is an extremely skilled person. If he joined a design studio he could learn those skills very easily.

3 09 2008
Lucinda - eightyone design

What a really interesting article. I often find myself questioning my choice to go to uni, and always conclude that I am glad I did. University taught me to be open minded and I know this sounds daft – but taught me how to learn (be patient, attack a project logically, justify my choices). I’m not saying that you have to go to uni to achieve this, but it was the right decision for me.

Whether you have to have a degree to survive in the design/development industry, no probably not. However I do think it gets you a foot in the door and then it’s down to the strength of your portfolio and your passion for the subject.

3 09 2008
Matt Northam

Really briefly, every time I have this conversation with people, it’s obvious that I’m kinda undecided about whether a degree is necessary or not but like Lucinda, personally – I’m glad I went to uni for a range of reasons.. Primarily, because I can now brandish my 1st in whatever direction its needed and I know for that there are plenty of jobs/future personal development opportunities that would be inaccessible to me without my degree.

Of course you can always say that ‘if I’d spent 3 years doing work, my portfolio would speak for itself’, and that may be true, but personally if I hadn’t gone to uni, I know I wouldn’t have got a job as a designer and built up a portfolio in those 3 years – in fact I’d probably still be working at the Royal Mail, occasionally doing design stuff in my spare time if I was lucky. And I certainly wouldn’t be in the position I am today. But perhaps that’s just me 🙂

I really should come back to this when I have more time as I’m pretty sure I’m rambling a bit but I did just want to comment on:

“I put a huge amount of effort into my studies because I loved what I do..”

I think that it’s this attitude that differentiates people with a degree and people with a degree who are employable. Having that piece of paper doesn’t get you the job but it might get you the interview (along with everyone else with that piece of paper). Proving that you acquired and developed your skills in those 3 years, OUTSIDE of the structured teaching is what’ll get you the job.

But then that’s always what I think Uni should be about, especially for a course such as Interactive Media. You can just about scratch the surface and cover the basics in x hours a week of scheduled teaching but if you’re not prepared to do the leg work yourself, there’s really no point in going to Uni in the first place.

Ha! Does that even make sense? 🙂
I’ll be back to clarify..

3 09 2008
Luís

I’m a journalism student and webdesigner…crazy right? I think it´s all about loving it, then you push yourself really really hard to get good…
Of course, getting a degree would save some of effort (or should) on organizing the way you should learn anything. Call it masochism, but i love to solve problems, discover things through experience…it´s like orgam…hahaha

3 09 2008
Macho Man

Here’s the thing, I would have never learned what I have today had it not been for my university, now the choice you make is a crucial one and I’m glad that I choose Full Sail (www.fullsail.edu) where we do the stuff that MATTERS and not write crappy essays all the frickin’ time.

I still, however, am afraid of not getting a job even though I know solid xhtml + css, some php, javascript and of course ajax along with numerous other digital media related skills.

In the end, all it really comes to is what you have, your passion and most importantly your PERSONALITY. So those are the traits I’d look for first if I were to here someone…

3 09 2008
Nate

I just got passed up on a job promotion because I didn’t have my degree. People who aren’t designers and who don’t understand the significance of a portfolio are looking for that little piece of paper that says you know something.

3 09 2008
Alicia

Personally, I don’t think anyone needs a degree. But I would put someone who has “post secondary” education (doesn’t have to be in the same field) over someone who hasn’t any.

Simply because I have seen that people with a post secondary education over some of them out of highschool who started learning at 16 and thought they could rule the world with their not-so-good designs.

At least having the initiative of going past high school shows me you are a go getter.

4 09 2008
Mark

In the design world all that matters is a portfolio. If you spend the rest of your life doing design and web development and nothing else, then yes, the degree wouldn’t have any obvious benefit.

But for most professions a degree is a ticket into the interview room. Without it, you have no chance. Sad but true.

4 09 2008
Jason Schwartz

I totally agree with Nate, people who aren’t web designers care if you have that piece of paper. However, I think that having the degree vs. having the passion really comes down to a per-situational basis.

For example, I have a Master’s Degree in Industrial Design from an American University. Not once has it actually mattered, or come in to play. I have never received the supposed “pay boost” from having the Master’s Degree and I have never won/lost a job because of it either. It’s all about my portfolio, my skills, and my love for design.

Now I am in the position to hire new designers, interviewing many candidates and before actually meeting with them in person, I look at their work first before reading any cover letter, or resume. If they pass the “good design” test, then and only then I will review their stats.

However, it all really comes down to the passion. I will take a chance on an 18 year old designer with an amazing portfolio and a love for design over a degreed mediocre designer with no passion.

4 09 2008
mrswebs

Well, as someone whose job it is to look for people to work on different projects, there are a couple of attributes I look for, besides of course the know-how, which doesn’t necessarily have to be demonstrated by a degree.

One of these is manners, yes, sounds old-fashioned, but it is impossible to communicate by text, particularly if someone simply doesn’t reply to them, and I have given people a try for jobs where they are just so casual about responding, it is impossible to deal with them. So that is one small thing I would be looking at. Little niceties like salutations work for me too.

Also, how mature are they generally? If they are still “high school” in how they relate to others, that will not work with my clients who are my age or older a lot of the time.

The other of course is your body of work – you would be surprised how often “young guns” send you work that is unfinished or buggy. Or just generally ugly, as if they have looked at the minimum requirements to submit an assignment and put it in like that, without any thought or extra effort.

So a degree is useless without any of the above, or rather, the above will be the decider.

5 09 2008
Adam Clark

Degrees mean you can pass exams. That’s it.

I’ve been a web designer for 8 years and I’m currently a senior designer for a very large company. I have no graphic or web design qualifications to speak of.

5 09 2008
Jack Keller

Ironically I was having a discussion with a young go getter last night about degrees in advertising disciplines and how that correlated to landing the job.

In some cases people would hire based on what piece of paper you can hand from your wall, I personally only care about that piece of paper when it’s my Doctor (that’s just me). I started in Web Design/Development when there wasn’t a curriculum for it, once schools started teaching this form of technology I was already beyond what they could have taught me so I looked at it as a needless step. I have always let the work and my attitude land me jobs. For the person just starting out it may be helpful but if you have a well built portfolio and keep up on the latest tech I believe you will have no issues even with no degree. Anyway, my 2¢.

8 09 2008
Matt Northam

Degrees mean you can pass exams. That’s it.

Couldn’t be further from the truth.
There are plenty of degree programmes that don’t use exams as evaluation criteria. And countless more that have exams which don’t form the majority of the course.

It’s easy to look at degrees as poor substitutes for ‘real experience’, especially if you don’t have a degree, but it’s foolish to presume that doing a degree doesn’t afford students with some experience other than ‘how to do an exam’.

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