We live in a world where degrees are overvalued and misinterpreted, and from an efficiency standpoint, I understand why this is. It’s very difficult to thoroughly evaluate the depth and breadth of a person’s knowledge, so degrees serve as a shortcut of sorts. They supposedly offer proof (or at least evidence) that the possessor has learned a certain set of information and skills, both specific to a field and of general use. In truth, though, they are often more a measure of tenacity than of learning. If you can follow directions and buckle down and do what you’re told, you can get a degree, and that degree will be indistinguishable from one earned by somebody who learned and explored and bettered themselves. And although the degree is a poor measure of a person’s retention of knowledge and abilities, it’s the system that’s in place and until something better comes along, it’s what people will continue to use. And I can’t blame them — who has the time to do a comprehensive analysis of every job candidate’s true level of education, and how many job seekers would tolerate it? No, we can’t get rid of degrees, however inadequate they may be.
As an aside: my father works in IT for a government contractor. Co-workers are often impressed by the depth of his knowledge, and from time time to time will ask where he got his degree. They are often surprised to learn that he has none. This reaction is ludicrous. It’s as if the population has been brainwashed into believing that attending a major university is the only way to learn anything. Perhaps this is the reason so few people read anymore — maybe they believe they cannot possibly learn anything from it because there isn’t a professor or tuition involved.
What a horrible way to live your life.
There is a solution, however to this whole “degree” mess, for some people if not for everyone. That solution is self-certification.
I encountered the idea of self-certification at a talk given by Cem Kaner, a prominent figure in the world of software quality assurance. Mr. Kaner was asked whether he believed it was worthwhile to pursue the numerous “testing certifications” available to QA professionals. He recommended instead a path of self-certification, which he explained consists of writing articles, giving talks, and generally making a name for oneself in one’s chosen field. Effectively, if your reputation precedes you, your lack of a degree is irrelevant.
This, I imagine, plays better with a self-employed lifestyle than with traditional employment, although I can’t imagine that being a recognized authority in your field could fail to help you get a traditional job. But self-certification requires some attributes that formal education either does not or helps to provide. To become self-certified, one must be internally motivated — there are no due dates or deadlines, no assignments to complete, no tests to study for, except those that one chooses to seek out. It requires a much more pro-active approach than going to school, where your primary task is to do what you’re told. Self-certification requires you to seek out ways to contribute, opportunities to create and share within your field, chances to get your name out there by helping others in a public forum.
Self-certification is a very different type of process (and in some ways a more valuable one) than seeking a degree. The very act of seeking to make a name for yourself in this way is a double win — your skills improve, allowing you to provide even greater value, while you simultaneously approach your goal of having a way to demonstrate the value that you already have. By pairing the strategies of self-education and self-certification, you can avoid the inadequacies of both traditional education and the degree system that goes with it.