Careers advice

Degree vs. experience: which is best for you?

What are employers really looking for?

Whether you’re applying for your first job or considering a change in industry, there’s one debate you’re bound to discover during your research – degree vs. experience.

Depending where you get your info, you’ll either hear that uni qualifications are already redundant, or that you need a PhD to be a successful barista.

So, who should you trust? Let’s take a look at the arguments on both sides, and help you get onto the right path.

Research the sector you want to go into - what are the standard job requirements?

The arguments in favour of going to uni

Some of the world’s richest and most successful people gave uni a miss (think Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg), so why are qualifications important for a job?

1. Some careers require them

Would you want to see an apprentice doctor who is yet to gain their qualifications? Probably not. The same argument applies to a heap of popular and well paid roles such as lawyers, accountants and engineers.

A career in any of these disciplines requires you to have a degree, and this is unlikely to change soon. So, if you’re thinking of heading in a similar direction you’ll probably need to make a stop off at uni first.

Even if the position you’re interested in doesn’t list a qualification as an absolute requirement, it’s common to see ‘degree advantageous’, or likewise, as part of a job advertisement.

2. Degrees provide options

A common worry for people considering uni is that they’ll pigeonhole themselves based on what they study. However, degrees offer a broad range of transferable skills that can open doors to a range of future careers.

Take history courses, for example. The research, data analysis and writing experience you’ll gain could lead to jobs ranging from marketing to journalism to law (with a bit of extra study!)

In other words, time spent at uni can be a first step onto the career ladder, even if you’re not 100% sure where you want to go yet. And if you do end up working in the field you studied, the time and money you spent getting your degree indicates to employers that this is an area about which you’re passionate.

3. Today, uni can come to you

If you're already in work, taking years out to complete a degree often isn’t financially viable, especially where families are involved. So, if you’re considering changing career, and think uni would help make the transition a success, online or part-time courses are a great option.

Sure, they can take longer than physically attending full-time lectures, but they allow you to keep earning while you work towards long term career goals.

Some jobs require candidates to have uni degrees, and these qualifications can open a lot of doors.

The arguments in favour of work experience

The technical skills and professional qualifications you can learn from diving straight into employment mean that opting for experience over a degree can be a smart decision. Here's why:

1. It’s highly prized by employers

Hiring managers and recruitment agencies love candidates with relevant practical experience on their CVs. To them, it means you’re less likely to require intensive training or micro-managing, and they can leave you to get on with the job.

In New Zealand in particular, you can have a fulfilling and well paid career without ever going near a university. Consider trades and services. Our research shows the average annual salary for tradies is $53,000, and this sector has proven itself to be resistant to downturns in the country’s job market.

2. You’ll develop key soft skills

A common argument for work experience over uni qualifications is that you’ll learn what the real world of work is like. On top of technical capabilities in your chosen industry, you’ll pick up vital soft skills such as good communication, problem-solving and time management, which you can then apply to any future role imaginable.

3. University is expensive

Ask any student, uni courses are dear. This means that graduates face a significant amount of debt as they take their first steps into the world of work.

Instead, if your career path doesn’t require formal qualifications, work experience offers the attractive option of earning money while developing your skill set. Win win.

You will learn a lot from work experience, and boost the bank balance as you go!

Degree vs. experience: the key takeaways

Hopefully, this article has helped you come closer to deciding whether a degree or work experience is the right choice for you. To recap:

  • Research your field: there’s no silver bullet answer to the question of what employers want, so thoroughly researching your field is a must. You may even find routes into your dream career you never knew existed.
  • Consider a combo: generally, the best candidates are those with a solid mix of education and experience. As well as online or part-time study, look into sandwich degree courses that include time spent in industry – these are another way you can tick both boxes.
  • Remember to network: whichever path you choose, there’ll be plenty of opportunities to learn from people who have been there and done it, no matter what career stage you’re at.

Be sure to add your achievements to your Trade Me Job Profile as you go. This is a great place to build up an online record of your qualifications, experiences or both that will allow employers to find you next time they’re looking to fill a vacancy.