Thoughts on Life Without a Degree

There is a great deal of pressure in today's world (or at least in the USA) to have at least one college degree, regardless of your chosen career. It has gotten to the point that in most cities, the lowest-paid clerical positions (typist, receptionist, etc) require a degree. At least in theory. Certainly the ads demand a degree, although if you ask, experience will sometimes count - which is rather amusing in a twisted sort of way!

What's the Point?

I am in no way disparaging education, or even degrees. Many positions require a certain level of education; a degree is the simplest way to show competence in a field in many cases. Obtaining a degree can also show determination, the ability to see something through, and so on.

On the other hand, it could simply say, "Look! I'm a sheep! A sheep that jumps through hoops! The same one everyone else jumps through!" (Bonus question: can sheep jump through hoops?)

Unfortunately, for all the degrees running rampant across the countryside, much of the populace is provably less educated as a whole than, say, a decade or so ago. (Hopefully this does not surprise you. If students can't divide a pizza, they probably have other educational deficiencies, and one wonders just how they can get a degree!)

I believe a large part of the demand for degrees is actually laziness and/or incompetence. Far too many people have blown right through the Peter Principle, well past their Level of Incompetence, and many others simply don't want to think, or don't want to buck the system that has grown up with a mania for degrees. The result is a huge number of people screening applicants by lists of checkboxes:

"Hmmm. Three PhDs, two years of used auto sales, a week at Philmont Ranch, your own calling card, three turtle doves, two French hens, and a partridge in a pear tree. Oh, dear. We checked off every box except the mandatory ability to de-fang a rattlesnake with a Spork[tm]. I'm afraid there's no possible way you are qualified as a telephone sanitizer without that. Preferably a degree in it, in fact."

Some fields, however, offer many opportunities for the degreeless. Strangely enough, there are many such opportunities throughout the high-tech industries, particularly in the computer arena.


In pursuing a degreeless career in the "real world", a couple of options stand out.
  1. Starting your own business. If you have what it takes, just do it. Michael Dell did.
  2. Small firms tend to worry a whole lot less about degrees, if you can convince them you can do the work. They are at least probably open to being convinced. Any firm which has ossified into one or more bureaucracies will be difficult - such monsters tend to have more checkboxes than anyone. "Why do we need this? Because we always have required managers to have candle-dipping experience. We no longer make candles, but so what?"
  3. Certain careers, such as auto mechanic, seamstress, etc, require no degree. Of course, this can be said about sewer sanitation, too, and I never saw anyone other than Art Carney too excited about that...
  4. Businesses started & run by people without degrees tend to not be too picky. Dell, for instance, is run by a guy who never finished college - Michael Dell. Even their radio ads only "prefer" a degree for many positions, especially if you have experience, and you can definitely work your way up through the ranks at Dell if you are a capable worker, whether or not you have a degree. (Recently, this has begun to change, and moving into management at Dell may require a degree. But someone else will happily take Dell's better workers who don't happen to have a degree!)

Education comes in many guises

Barring debilitating disease, I don't expect to stop learning until I die (at which point I actually expect to start learning even more, but that's another story.)

Moving ahead (or in some cases just staying even) requires continuing education. Some people are capable of learning everything on the job. But there are plenty of other opportunites available: classes (including colleges, whether or not you are pursuing a degree), books, journals, magazines, conferences, experimentation...

When I was at Georgia Tech (various parts of the 70s and early 80s), it was pretty much a self-study school in many aspects. Freshmen, in particular, were welcomed in droves, and weeded out by throwing hordes of them into huge classes in subjects such as calculus, taught by professors who hated teaching freshman calculus, or by TAs. Even at the junior level, many of the professors (at least in the EE department at the time) would far rather have been doing research than teaching undergrads. (Notable exceptions included Dr. Eugene Wagstaff, Dr. John Peatman, and Dr. Wallace, to whom I am grateful beyond words for their interest in their students!)

As a consequence, much of what I learned, I learned on my own. My disgust with, and response to, the system was such that my grades plummeted (if the professor didn't care, neither did I!), even as I learned what I wanted to - primarily by experimentation and discussion. This is what everyone should learn to do anyway, regardless of possession of one or more degrees, to truly move forward. Not the "not caring" part (I've "learned" better), but the "just do it" part.

For the record

My father has a PhD in chemistry from Georgia Tech. My mother has a BA in Business. Both of them are intelligent, and both got a lot out of college. My father is one of the smartest people I have ever known (since he was a professor, and I grew up around academia, I've met a number of brilliant people, and he stands out). The right course for him was clearly the path he chose through the degree maze. Mom got married, had children, and stayed home - her degree didn't help in obvious ways. [Mom, how did it matter?]

So I'm not saying degrees are useless. I'm not saying you, or anyone else, should not attempt to get one. Life without a degree can be interesting, to say the least. You have to be willing to pass up certain whole classes of opportunities (the odds of working at Bell Labs without a Masters are probably similar to the odds of waking up one morning to find that you are King or Queen Midas). You have to expect a certain amount of incredulity, and even harassment, when interviewing.

On the other hand, I have a good job in the software industry, and am making a salary pretty close to what I would be making with a degree. It's all a matter of hard work - whether in school or out.

Last updated: 08 December 1998

Copyright 1995 Miles O'Neal, Austin, TX. All rights reserved.

Miles O'Neal <> [remove the "XYZZY." to make things work!] c/o RNN / 1705 Oak Forest Dr / Round Rock, TX / 78681-1514