Why a degree doesn't equal real-world competence

I was once asked in an HR job interview if working with degree-educated people would be intimidating for me.  While I had professional HR qualifications, I never went to university, and I haven’t got any letters after my name.

“Some of our employees are very distinguished, and very highly qualified,” said my interviewer.  “How will you relate to them, not having a degree yourself?”

I explained that I’d be there to do a specific job, and so I would treat everybody in line with that, regardless of their qualifications.  That must have been a good answer, because I got the job, and I found that speaking in plain English served me well for most of my work interactions.

That interviewer might have had a point, though.  One thing I noticed as I reached the end of my HR career was that all the CVs I sifted through boasted at least one degree.  Surely this would mean a higher calibre of interview candidate?


Generally, it didn’t even mean a higher calibre of CV.  There were just as many poorly laid-out, misspelt CVs from graduates as there were from non-graduates.  Meet them all in person, and you often couldn’t tell which candidates were the degree-qualified ones. 

What mattered most to me when I interviewed people was that they knew how to do (and preferably at least quite liked) the job I was interviewing for, and that they weren’t going to annoy everybody else in the company.  Preferably, someone with good interpersonal skills and a large dose of common sense – two things a lot of people didn’t seem to pick up during their time at university.

While I’m definitely not knocking formal education, one of the reasons I didn’t go to university was because I didn’t want to learn according to a prescribed curriculum (I’ve always been rubbish at being told what to do!).  Instead I learned how to be a ‘proper’ writer through actually writing, reading widely, listening and constantly challenging myself. 

These days, if I found myself competing against a degree-educated writer for a job, I would more than hold my own.  This is because if you pick a subject you love, and then you spend enough time and energy working on it because you love it, you’ll probably end up being quite good after a while. 

Malcolm Gladwell explains in his book Outliers that the 10,000-hour rule – working on a specific task for 10,000 hours – is the key to success.  From the repeat business and positive feedback I’ve received, the focus and deliberate practice I’ve spent on writing ever since I could hold a pen is paying off, degree or no degree!

Can I help you with an important piece of writing?   Whether it’s a new profile or the story of your life, a friendly chat with me will help clear your head and generate some exciting new ideas. 

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