Degree? We don’t need no stinkin’ degree!

Degree? We don’t need no stinkin’ degree!

In the weekend journal, Chris Gammell wrote an interesting post about the “good ol’ degreeless days,” in which he writes about trying to hire someone without a degree. I’d like to respond with some of my thoughts on the problem, focusing on the flip side of the coin: getting hired without a degree.

I see a degree, at least for those fresh out of school without an established career, as a proof of competence. Trying to get hired without a degree, naturally means finding another way to convincingly demonstrate that you have the necessary skills. In other words, “show me what you can do.”

Now in some fields of study, I think this is perfectly reasonable.  For example, compsci majors can go develop a web sever or an app and graphic design students have a portfolio.

In some fields, however, the resources required to build a portfolio are just unreasonable for an individual to develop. Good luck finding a spare reactor to hone your skills in nuclear physics. It’s not going to happen outside of a university setting.

In my personal experience, I look back and feel like I got a little lucky. My company took a risk hiring me, because I didn’t have much experience in plastic part design or in the medical device industry. As consultants, with a wide variety of work, they cared more about my ability to learn than my work experience (although I should say my work experience did show an ability to learn.) It turns out that I’m rapidly acquiring those skills.

In the end, it seems to me like there should be a better way to establish what you have learned (or your ability to learn) outside of a degree. What would it look like? A testing service? An apprenticeship program? Or are portfolios enough? Or maybe just a shift in how people perceive the value of a degree is all that is required. What do you think?


I have mechnical engineering degree and I am unemployed for about seven years. I am still looking for a job to work as a mechanical engineer. Of course this has nothing to do with my degree and I think partly this is because of my own personal environment. In my opinion although my degree did not help me to be employed in any one of my desired companies, but still I think that degree is required for getting a job. Degree shows that not only you have passed some required courses but also you have gotten some social experiences. It shows that you can be a well organized employee and you are able to do teamwork in any organization. We need these social experiences in colleges and it is like a transition period of life to take full responsibility in future.

An engineering degree implies you speak the language of engineers. That qualification alone may be sufficient to get you a job… in certain cases. If you are hired to perform a dimensional analysis on injection molded parts, it is likely that no industrial experience is needed–your degree suggests an ability to properly compute straight-forward equations. However, if you are asked to design a new style of injection molding equipment, it is equally probable that no amount of college study will have prepared you for the task. So hiring managers often turn to claims of past experience as a proxy for the possession of tacit skills that cannot be taught in school. Requiring a portfolio might help in this regard, as it could weed out candidates who “talk a good game,” but are unable to perform assigned duties.

While a portfolio may reveal both explicit and tacit knowledge, it does not necessarily expose important interpersonal skills. Nor does a college degree say much about one’s ability to work well with others, as academic assignments typically require that you work independently. Many engineers fail to recognize that they operate as part of a distributed knowledge network. Much of their time is spent communicating with other technical professionals, gathering information and discussing analyses. This requires strong social and communication skills, despite the common stereotype of engineers as reticent wallflowers.

An engineering apprenticeship (even if it is informal) is probably the best training method, as young employees get to see how experienced engineers break down social and organizational barriers as they go about solving technical problems. It also allows the apprentice to make mistakes under the watchful eye of someone who can (hopefully) alleviate the damage. Unfortunately, such training is expensive, patient mentors are hard to find, and many corporations have put off the hiring of new engineers for so long that there exists insufficient time for the transfer of professional knowledge.

It will be interesting, Sam, to see what happens as you, and other engineers like you, assume managerial duties in the coming years. Will an interest in the “maker movement” cause you to look more kindly on non-degreed “doers?” Or will you want to ensure that your staff is filled with fully “certified” engineers? I suspect it will depend on the function of your department, and how much time and money you can afford to spend bringing new hires up to speed. In other words, hiring someone is likely to remain a messy and murky process, with few clear-cut methods for guaranteeing a “good fit” between the company and candidate. If you come up with a better method, however, please let me know. I’d be very interested!

Would co-op programs be considered an apprenticeship or are you referring more to a new grad, entry level situation? If done right a young engineer on co-op gets to work under older, more experienced professionals learning the tricks of the trade and how things get done in the real world. They also get to build a portfolio of sorts if they are allowed to work on projects with some meat on them.

Co-op programs can absolutely be considered engineering apprenticeships, if done right. I’d certainly recommend that every engineering student avail themselves of the opportunity to get industrial experience as early as possible in their career. It can add meaningful context to the abstract concepts being covered in the classroom. Unfortunately, not all organizations have strong co-op programs, and not all engineering students get the opportunity to participate.

Agreed. I feel very fortunate I got to do a number of co-ops while still in school and that our Co-op Office had firm rules in place with the employers that ALL co-ops must be paid and assigned meaningful work, not just making copies and coffee. It definitely helped me decide what area of EE to focus on and tie the theoretical concepts I learned in lectures to reality.

I did 3 coops, two in a row at a very small company (3 people) and one at a huge semiconductor company.
The coop at the small company, spanning 3 projects and on and off for 3 years was fantastic. I got to do everything from coffee making to PCB layout and circuit design. That job gave me my career as it was basically an apprenticeship working under a senior designer/entrepreneur.

The coop at the huge company was terrible, I spent most of my time hacking into their server since all they gave me to do was data entry.
Potential employers are more impressed with Big Semi Company on my resume than Little Mom and Pop.

To me, a candidate or project partner is most valuable when they’ve done an apprenticeship.

Thanks a lot for posting such a thought provoking blog article. I think that in American Nations like USA, Degree is not so important as much as talent is. In Asian Nations like India, more stress is given on Degree than on talent.

A degree is hardly “proof” of anything. I insist that a 2.5-3.0 GPA graduate (for example) is not a competent engineer utilizing certain study techniques. It is common to cram, or be given study assistance, and drink on the weekends-forgetting most of what you know.


I have read many of the comments above and there seems to be a lot of you with the view that degrees are necessary, however, I would like to fly the flag for degrees from the university of life and GCSE’s from the school of hard knocks….

I am 21, did a engineering apprenticeship with a large M&E contractor, left after I finished to get rid of any apprenticitus, and have done interviews every 6 months to keep myself sharp… I have been offered a job at every interview and the last one was only a few weeks ago and offered me 40k + car. Much over the market value for a young engineer…….. with NO degree.

I am a firmware engineer. All my knowledge is either self taught or work experience. My engineering degree was useless. My professors were people who could not get jobs in the real world so they took to teaching. In fact I wrote video games before I did my degree and that I is what carried me through to low level software, FPGA and electronic design. All from reading books and doing. I have been offered a job at every interview I have been to. I worked in commercial aerospace, NASA and the defense industry. That is because I know my subject because I am constantly designing and learning. I went back to get my masters and the classes were boring so I stopped. I felt like was waiting my time. I was far ahead of the class. So my getting the degree was useless. But people are different. So do what’s best for you. Main thing I have seen is how you do at an interview. So even if you have a highest degree, if you flu m the interview you are out.

In some fields, however, the resources required to build a portfolio are just unreasonable for an individual to develop. Good luck finding a spare reactor to hone your skills in nuclear physics. It’s not going to happen outside of a university setting.

I put my testicles on two different nuclear reactors… No degree…and of course they were shut down.

Bottom line is…although a university degree has it comprehensive depth of knowledge, it doesn’t make you more capable than me.

Navy nuke retired

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