Dear Evil HR Lady,

I love your blog.

I work for a small entertainment company (25 people). I was hired as a production manager, and was expecting to be mentored by the producer who hired me. Unfortunately, the company lost a bid and the expensive producer was the first to go. I was suddenly thrust into a role far above my qualifications. I’ve managed to get the knowledge I need (your blog has helped immensely for HR matters), and the company gave me a 31% raise a few months ago after winning a different bid. Here’s my situation:

Due to the circumstances of my childhood, I left home early and didn’t know how to get into, nor could I afford, a regular college education. I went to art school until it became too expensive, dropped out, and took job as a letter carrier. Eleven years later, after buying and selling a few houses and getting myself together, I quit work and went back to vocational art school. I only hold an associate degree from a small, regionally accredited private school. I moved to the big city and have managed to climb the ladder in production management very fast. I’ve held jobs in a few major studios and have some nice volunteer work on my resume. I also have a pilot’s license. Now I’m 42. I’m worried about retirement and am wondering how long I can run the rat race in a youth filled industry. This job will probably end when the movie contract ends, and there are no retirement benefits here. I want to transfer my PM skills over to a stable industry, perhaps in internal publications or training videos at a finance corp. However, with just an AA degree, how am I going to get past the first glance? Is there a way to skirt the issue? Does self-education and experience count for anything? I admit that even I give preference to employees with college degrees when I’m recruiting…If the answer is “go get a degree”, well, I’m struggling with the idea of having enough energy to start from scratch while working 12 hour days, plus it will take years and years going part time. Any other suggestions for older people like me?

I’m going to be brutally honest with you. Does it matter that you don’t have your degree? Yes. It does. There are some companies that will not so much as read the rest of your resume if you do not have a 4 year degree. Do I think those companies are wise? Well, no…and yes.

The HR department I work in will not consider you for a professional job unless you have a degree. Just flat out will not. Doesn’t matter how many years of experience you have or what your knowledge base is. No degree, no dice. Now, your degree can be in vocal performance or underwater basket weaving (both only incidentally related to Human Resources as a whole) and we’ll look at you, if you have the requisite experience.

There are some good reasons for this. A degree is a “proxy” for patience, endurance, knowing how to follow stupid policies and procedures that have no functional purpose. (Hey, it’s all becoming clear now! This is why HR requires a degree.) It also says, “This person has accomplished something.” And what that is is very defined.

Now, on the average resume it will say, “5 years project management experience.” I don’t know what that really means. But Bachelor of Science, Mathematics. I know what that means.

Now, does this mean we miss out on some quality people? You bet. Would I change the policy if I were Queen of HR? You bet. 20 years of experience in the working world does not equal 4 years at a University, that mom and dad funded where you spent most of your time doing things your mom and dad still don’t know about.

So, you have experience and no degree. Are you sunk? No. You have one big advantage–you have experience on the creative side. Creative work is generally recognized as not requiring the strict structures that, say, accounting does. People tend to be a bit more lenient on the degree requirement on that side.

You are either creative, or you are not, and no number of “How to write a screen play” classes is going to change that. (Not that such a class isn’t valuable. It is. It will teach you how to write a screenplay. Really. I, myself, took playwrighting (and yes, that is correct, you “forge” a play, you don’t “write” one, although both spellings are correct) and learned how to write a play. Which I did. Would you like to read it?) There are tricks and requirements that you need to know.

However, you can learn that sort of thing on the job as well, which you have done.

My advice for the resume. Experience, first, education last. (Actually that’s my advice for everyone not straight out of school.) Don’t bring it up randomly in conversation, (“oh, I hope you’ll consider me, since I don’t have a degree…) and don’t worry about it.

You will probably be automatically disqualified from some jobs, but not for all. Not everyone has the strict requirements that my department has. Don’t be ashamed of what you’ve accomplished (I’ve produced a movie, managed a production team, written winning proposals but it’s all worthless because I never took Biology 100). Be confident, be honest and if asked, say, “I have an associates degree and a pilot’s license.” And then talk about your pilot’s license. My husband has one and boy, do people think that is cool.

Good luck with the job search. Nothing more fun than a good job hunt!

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14 thoughts on “Degree Required

  1. Excellent advice, as always. I do bristle at company policy that says the price of admission is a college degree. Even though, as they say in the South, I have more degrees than a thermometer, I don’t think that’s what’s made a difference. As you say, it’s about experience and interactions. It’s about delivering.

    I’m wondering as the new few years go on if a degree will matter nearly as much. Now they’re a dime a dozen, and in creative fields, it’s about creativity. Sure, a lot of HR is rules, so that will stick. And there are professional programs (law, medicine) that require advanced education. But give me lots more Richard Bransons (he quit school at 14) and far fewer Catberts. (Lots more Evil HR Ladies, too, because your advice is always so right on the money.)


    Frank Roche

  2. For retirement, get to a bank and see about getting an IRA or something like that started. Even young folk are unlikely to be in the same job long enough to collect retirement.

  3. Having just successfully completed a job search myself, I would high recommend you to start to work around the resume question now and network with anyone and everyone you can think of in your industry right now. Later, when you’re looking you may be able to [at least partially] circumvent the whole “flush my resume down a black hole” process all together and just call up a friend. LinkedIn is a good start.

  4. As a mid-career professional who also lacks a four-year degree, I certainly feel this person’s pain. In my current job, I think the absence of degree sort of escaped the notice of the person here who would have kicked my resume based on that fact, and it wasn’t until the end of the interview process, when I think they’d pretty well decided they liked me, that they asked for clarification on the list of school names and dates I include on my resume.

    In your situation, I’d just put the school and the year, maybe mentioning the topic, but not the level of the degree. You’re at the point where your experience is the more important qualifier than your education. If your school is one that offers both 2- and 4- year degrees, so much the better. Let them make the assumption or ask about it.

  5. Hi Evil HR Lady and everyone who offered comments on my plight.

    I appreciate the brutal honesty. You’ve all convinced me to forge ahead and get my BS. I’m looking into online universities, which I think will have to be the compromise. I know an online degree does not carry the same weight as a brick and mortar school, but at least it’s better than no bachelor at all.

    Enjoy your weekend!


  6. get your online degree from an accredited university and it will carry as much weight as any degree from that university.

    No one can tell if a degree was earned online, in bricks and mortar, or from outer space.

    Now.. Harvard isn’t going to give you an online degree, but that isn’t your college anyway.

    I finished my BS online and got my MA completely online.

    No one has cared at all.

    It is, as evilhrlady notes, often a requirement to have a degree.

    So get one. An accredited one. By any means possible..

  7. Great post! I currently consult for one of those companies where a degree is the price of admission. No degree…see ya! Fortunately there are lots of companies that don’t have this policy. Years ago it was predicted that a graduate degree would be needed as well. While there are some jobs that require it, the vast majority still only require an undergrad degree. I recommend that everyone get a degree if there is any way to do it. Graduate degrees are great too but graduate level experience actually counts for something…

  8. Richard Branson Barry Diller, Michael Dell, William H. Gates III , Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs, Sheldon Adelson, Kirk Kerkorian,Donald Newhouse, David Geffen, Ralph Lauren…..Ted Turner its just silly really…..

    I suppose that if you have the talent to make a bunch of cash without a degree in the first place, you are going to figure a way to massage the requirement if you ever run up against it. Maybe consulting or some other dodge.

    I like the commenter’s idear of the online degree.

    we seem to have bifurcated into a fast track (degrees tied to licenses) and no track ( a bazillion kids partying in college for no real reason) situation over the past 30 years anyway. What was funny in “Animal House” is not funny now- billions wasted for little gain to the economy.

    What probably will happen is that assessment technology will advance and degree requirements will slacken in those areas where people without degrees, but with skills, can impact profits.

    Arbitrage opps like that are hard to maintain !

  9. Here’s a bit of self analysis. In the bit of hiring I’ve done for a professional position at a small company, I started off thinking I wouldn’t necessarily require a degree … but then I found I kept getting annoyed by job seekers who didn’t have one.

    You KNOW it’s a minimum standard for a good job, you have every opportunity to get one (online, evenings, whatever), so why don’t you? If you don’t have one, my default assumption is that you’re too dumb, or too lazy, or you’re too busy cooking up meth in your trailer.

    Ultimately — if you’re Bill Gates then you won’t be coming to me for a job, I’ll be coming to you for a job. If you’re NOT Bill Gates, then show me a degree.

  10. Is the college degree the new high school diploma? Sounds like it to me. Meaning that a couple of generations ago, it was high school graduation that was the indicator of those basic qualities mentioned in the post. many jobs now requiring a college degree then only required a high school diploma (perhaps plus relevant experience).

    Guess what? In the early 1970s the Supreme Court held that it was ILLEGAL to require a high school diploma for a job if it had a racially disparate impact, unless the employer could PROVE business necessity.

    This is still the law, and in most instances, I doubt employers can prove necessity for a college degree requirement. (And suspect the requirement has a racially disparate impact, disqualifying more black applicants.) Can anyone say “class action”?

  11. George, Right ON — I love what the Supreme Court stated in one of its earliest interpretations of Title VII:
    “History is filled with examples of men and women who rendered highly effective performance without the conventional badges of accomplishment in terms of certificates, diplomas, or degrees. Diplomas and tests are useful servants, but Congress has mandated the commonsense proposition that they are not to become masters of reality.”

    Can one imagine IBM not hiring Bill Gates for an executive position because of lack of Degree? (age discrimination would come to mind) — and if they did hire him, then imagine the legal mindfield that is now created in regards to all those other Qualified Candidates they turned down to lack of degree..

    It is just viable for a company to add THREE MAGIC WORDS – OR Equivalent Experience
    Karen M

  12. Degree is "Proxy" on each and every level during your decision.

    Stuff is too interesting.

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