• Barbara L. Ciccarelli, PhD

Tackling the "degree vs. experience" debate

I got into a discussion with a girlfriend recently over the more and more commonly heard “degree or experience” debate.

First of all, let me say that I have friends and family with different levels of education, and the level of education is never an issue in terms of the closeness of the relationship--just as her education was and is not an issue for me.

The topic became an issue, however, when it seemed like she wanted me to agree with her that degrees meant nothing, that they didn’t add value in terms of the development of the person or the person’s profession. She argued that she had worked with many degreed managers who were totally incompetent. Of course, we eventually agreed that it partly depended on the job and the profession. But I got the impression that certificates or degrees were just something typed on a CV as a “tick in the box” rather than something that contributed to making you who you are.

When I finally summarized my opinion on the matter, I said that our education choices showed our differences in values. In other words, if she or her parents had valued education more, she might very well have pursued a degree. Of course, it is easier to argue this topic from the side of having than not having.

In the meantime, I received dozens of essays from my students at my professional university. The subject is Personal Branding and the assignment is the Personal Statement, detailing their Past/Present/Future. One student, an adult learner, is taking the class as part of a credential for his future job. His essay struck me because in the past section he wrote that he didn’t pursue higher education when he was young because his parents thought higher education was just for rich people. I thought this meant perhaps that it was a matter of cultural assumptions created by discrimination. In other words, an atmosphere of who does or does not belong can establish the road map, not for who is excluded, but for who does or does not try to enter.

Well, I was blown away by this information, and it made me realize that I had not been open to all possible perspectives and experiences regarding my friend. I was hammering on the idea that everyone has a choice and that I made the choices I made for education despite having no money and no place of my own to live at times, but I forgot what I had learned from life and scholarship. That choice can be a reward of privilege.

I had fallen into the old trap that many do, that the poor, for instance, could help their situation if they only tried harder like the rest of us. What I’m saying is that it is hard to say what cultural messages certain groups of people are getting and not getting that contributes to their choices and decisions not to mention their futures.

For instance, I emerged from a family with an immigrant background, and we ate, drank and breathed the potential promises of the American Dream despite living on a tight budget. The future had no limitations. I realize now that I do not know if there is a dream in the Netherlands for the Dutch or the immigrants and if it is similar or different from the well-known American Dream. I do know that the education system in the Netherlands is quite different and that that alone paints a different picture of future possibilities.

I can’t say whether my realizations here relate to what my Dutch girlfriend was trying to convey to me. I do know that it is complicated, and you have to listen whether or not there is a difference in education, class, nationality, or anything else.

Stuart Tannock writes in his journal article, “The Problem of Education-based Discrimination,”

“To take a stand against education-based discrimination is not to take a stand against education. It is to insist, however, on rights and equality for everyone, no matter what their level of educational achievement, qualification, opportunity or ability; and it is to demand an end to the casual and wanton acceptance of differential treatment and consideration based on education, without any reflection as to whether such differentiation is just or discriminatory” (447).

Tannock emphasizes that the issue is whether the highly educated are given preference when it is not just. He is not saying that education or degrees lack value. The real issue is when those with degrees are given preference for available jobs because they can put “a tick on the box” and not necessarily because they are the most competent. My Dutch girl friend’s comment harkens back to me. Perhaps it was not the degrees of the managers that offended her but rather that they got privilege for the “tick in the box” when their performance on the job proved they were less than competent. In other words, the degree and its value in and of itself weren’t the issue.

Having said all this about the value of the degree, I’m aware that there is a hiring crisis for PhDs in Academia and a freeze due to the pandemic. L. Marin Wood, writing for the The Chronicle of Higher Education, warns,
Once faculty hiring does resume, much like after the 2008 recession, there will be an even bigger glut of Ph.D.s competing for faculty positions, and jockeying for adjunct work and postdocs.”

Wood recommends that PhDs get their “Plan B” ready and look for work in different private sectors.

So what does this all mean? It means that due to the pandemic a lot of people with degrees must show their competence for jobs that probably don’t require a PhD or ABD and require instead that they show how their experience translates into transferable skills. In fact, propping up the degree in other sectors might backfire if the other employees aren’t as highly educated. Imagine working hard to earn something and then being tempted to hide it to have a better chance at getting hired.

Basically. there are many sides to this debate, and it can’t all be resolved in a few pages. What is clear however is that discrimination tears people apart whether due to education or another foundation of culture. It is important to listen to the other and be open to different perspectives because it is those perspectives that inspire you to new ideas and new actions such as this one.

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