update from the reader who was job searching without a college degree

Remember the reader back in October 2012 who asked about how to interview well when you’ve been successful without a college degree? Here’s her update.

In April 2013, my husband of 25 years had a stroke. After a few months of recovery where I had taken significant time off (and he was released as a full recovery), I went back to my job which I more or less enjoyed, and realized I hated – I mean absolutely despised, disliked and didn’t trust – my boss. This wasn’t new news – she had completed what could only be called a hostile takeover on my prior boss about 18 months prior and I had known her for years as a back-stabber on a power trip. What changed was my willingness to put up with that crap. And after seeing firsthand that work and stress can seriously affect your health, in addition to your bad habits or genetics, it was time to take action. After reviewing every expenditure, debt, obligation and hobby we had, I decided to quit my well paid position to find greener grass.

Thus began the Great Job Search. I have worked in employee benefits for nearly 25 years now. But you see, there is no degree in employee benefits. And while it is insurance, an insurance or risk management degree is more “the other side” of insurance. My side is very personal and there is no such thing as “best” or “worst” – it all depends on a particular employee’s situation. Instead, I have years of experience. I read laws. I read legal reviews. I ask questions and get answers. I pester insurance carriers to no end. I have been on the agent/broker side and the employer side. I really love what I do. I have great references and a great reputation. Yet I do not have a college degree.

My kind of position is 1-to-a-company. There aren’t going to be 2 or 10 of me. Just one. And I see all these positions available and some not only require a bachelor’s degree, but some want a Masters. In what? “Related field.” Seriously, what the heck is that? I have a friend in the same line of work who has a degree in speech therapy. How is that related and make her a better candidate? I love her to death, but seriously!

Your advice, and those of your loyal commenting followers, helped restore my faith in the world. There are some really stupid companies (and company policies) that have no real purpose. And the right company is NOT one that has those policies that do not support you as an employee. I finally found a great company, in a different state, that valued what I could prove I knew, versus a pedigree which assumed I knew something. We moved halfway across the country and couldn’t be happier. Oh, not that everything is roses and sunshine, but it is manageable and with much nicer, upright, and ethical people than the former boss-from-hell.

So, here is what I have to offer to your readers. Quitting a job without another one is a risky proposition and not one to be taken lightly. But given the right circumstances and strength of character, you can survive. I repeat though, this is risky. In my situation, it was a great relief lifted off my shoulders and I came out ahead. I personally believe that any well-thought out decision is a good decision. Only you know if you have put enough thought into it. So, THINK! A LOT!

Second, and you say this a lot too – you need to fit your company as much as they need you to fit them. If your values do not sync up with the company values, it is a recipe for disaster. It is one thing to be unemployed and need a job so you leap at anything (almost everyone has been there), but it is quite another to sell your soul to the devil. In my case, I had a great job, great manager, and great company that changed dramatically over time. I needed to find my happy place again and know I am lucky enough that I did. If you are good at what you do, that company is out there. Don’t give up.

That degree? I have tried a few times to restart and get that generic business degree. Maybe even a finance degree since all insurance in corporate America involves finance. You know what? I have no interest in a degree. I am at a point in my life where I value my free time. If my current employer wants me to have a degree enough, they are going to have to ease up on current expectations because this is not an 8-5 position. I think this company would do that, but as long as I continue to perform, I also think they respect my experience in the University of the School of Hard Knocks.

Thanks for being out there Alison! I have referred a lot of people to your blog and they love it, too.

{ 45 comments… read them below }

  1. PJ

    Honestly, this gave me goose bumps! Having also been at a point in my life when I reviewed every aspect of it in order to find my “happy place,” I was inspired anew by your story, and I’m so very glad it turned out well for you. Rock on!

  2. The IT Manager

    What an awesome update! Congrats, LW. You have a lot of wisdom to share even without that college degree.

    I do have a bachelors and a masters, but not in finance or business. I think I would hate it and am baffled by the number of people who study that especially as an alternative to general studies.

  3. AdAgencyChick

    What a great update! OP, congratulations on the new job, and I hope your husband’s recovery continues to go well.

  4. AMG

    I adore this update! It interests me that there is always more going on behind the scenes not directly related to the question being asked.

  5. MaryMary

    Congrats, OP, I’m so glad everything worked out for you! Maybe you and the other commenters can help me with a related dilemma. I’m in the same industry you are, employee benefits, and it’s not uncommon to see professionals in this field who do not have a college degree. However, one of the decision makers are my company has a strong bias against job applicants who do not have a degree. We are trying to change the company culture to be more fast paced and consultative, and he feels that hiring “intellectually curious” individuals (who, to him, must be college educated) is a key part of that.

    One of the problems is that we have long term employees who do not have a degree who are not comfortable with technology, unwilling to learn new things, not proactive, and inflexible. However, I’m sure we’ve all run into 23 year old college grads who meet the same description. To me, experience or a degree should be the screening criteria, and the rest you sort out in the interview process. We’ve had candidates everyone else loved, but since they didn’t have a degree he wouldn’t hire them. Any suggestions on how I can steer him away from seeing a degree as a must-have?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      A degree is shorthand for having some basic education and the wherewithal to stick with something for four years. With candidates who don’t have much work experience, it’s useful because they don’t have much track record to look at otherwise. But once someone has a track record of work experience, you have a much more reliable way of seeing what they’re able to achieve: their track record in the work world. I’d encourage him to look at ALL the data you have on people. A degree is one piece of data but far from the whole story — particularly the longer someone has spent working.

      Degrees are shorthand that tell you what people are likely to be able to achieve, at a time in their lives when you don’t have much real data on their work performance yet. That’s not the case here; you already have the data on him that matters — his 20+ years in the work world.

      1. MaryMary

        Alison, I agree with you wholeheartedly. A lot of what I struggle with is that he equates college graduates with a certain kind of person. That whether it was 4 years ago or 24, someone who chose to go to college is more determined, ambitious, and intelligent than someone who did not (please note, I do not share his opinion). For example, he hired me, and I think the fact I was in my college’s honors program, 10+ years ago, was as much of a factor as anything I’d accomplished professionally.

        1. Joey

          Sometimes its a perception issue. For example I know of a lot of jobs that require a degree where it is absolutely not needed simply because they want to your their staffs credentials.

          1. LCL

            Where I work, when management at the top changed, college degrees became required for most management jobs. This was and is still seen as a deliberate effort to clean house, since most of the old line management rose through the ranks and didn’t have college degrees.

            1. Jessa

              Which could be seen as age discrimination – people who worked through the ranks of other companies and are applying to yours are probably older workers.

              1. Anonymous

                They could just as well have degrees. I read the moral of the story as the *current* set of workers didn’t have degrees, so they used that as an excuse to push them out.

        2. jennie

          If you can show him examples in your own company of successful people without degrees or people who wouldn’t have been hired by him who are thriving, that’s good evidence.

      2. Jessa

        Exactly, unless the job requires one (as in a MD or something, IE there are regulatory reasons that a person has to have a certain degree or certification,) I think that every job that asks for a degree should also have “or equivalent experience” attached to the requirements.

    2. Observer

      Google “learning organization”. If you look at studies, you will find out that schools – including colleges have the lowest record of fitting the criteria for being a learning organization.

      The point is the colleges, and the attendant degrees are generally not about fostering curiosity or the habits of life-long learning, which is what you are looking for.

      1. Not So NewReader

        “The point is the colleges, and the attendant degrees are generally not about fostering curiosity or the habits of life-long learning, which is what you are looking for.”

        Entire books could be written based on that one sentence.

        Nice job on that, Observer.

    3. Kathryn T.

      Maybe try walking him through the holes in his logic? For example, he believes that college degree == intellectually curious. Which, OK, there’s probably a strong correlation there. But you could ask him, do you think it’s true that 100% of all intellectually curious people will wind up with a 4-year college degree? Can you imagine a situation in which someone could not have that degree, but still be intellectually curious? Someone who landed an internship and then permanent position in their dream field right out of high school, someone who left school to join a software startup in the mid-90’s, someone who traveled abroad doing field research for a book?

    4. Anonymous

      It’s too bad he sees things so narrowly. My dad’s girlfriend doesn’t have a college degree, but she is the most “intellectually curious” person I know. She takes random courses at the community college when she finds something that interests her, she reads a wide variety of books, has a lot of hobbies, and is very well-traveled. Any employer would be an idiot for disqualifying her for not having a degree.

    5. Not So NewReader

      This could almost be fun.

      So let’s see according to your boss’ criteria he would not have hired:
      Henry Ford
      Michael Dell
      John D Rockefeller, Sr
      Rachel Ray
      Andrew Jackson
      Julie Andrews
      Bill Gates

      I bet other readers can add more names. I only googled for a few minutes.

      1. webDev

        I get where people are going with lists like this, but it’s almost a case of “here are the exceptions that prove the rule.” The other list is so much longer.

  6. Andrea

    I love this update! OP, you sound like a positive person who gained some valuable perspective after your husband’s health crisis. I am glad you’re doing better, and I sincerely hope that he is, too—and based on what you’ve written about your professional life, I have no doubt that you will continue to achieve success in that realm of your life. Congrats on finding a great job and thanks for sharing your update.

  7. Lacey

    Awesome update OP, I’m so happy this worked out for you. And I’d just like to add that you really struck a chord with the comments on making sure the company fits you. I’ve been guilty in the past of wanting to move on from my current job so much I’ve taken a job that was obviously not right for me. I’ve started to really understand that I need to sit patiently and wait for the right one to come up, rather than leaping about like a frenzied frog.

    Thanks for the reinforcement of my recent realisation!

  8. She

    I have just sent this link to my inner circle — I quit my “excellent” job of nine years recently, and I don’t think a lot of my peeps really understand why I had to. This post expresses so many things I wish I had said. Congratulations, and thanks for the inspiration — my last day is Friday. *gulp*

    1. Not So NewReader

      If you got to “excellent job” once, you will get there again. You know how to do it, what it takes and what works. Just like OP, she knows that she knows. And no one can ever take that away from you- that internal confidence that comes with knowing your arena well.

  9. Sloop

    Congrats on the new position!

    I work as an EB broker and maybe a solution to the “no degree” concern (if it ever comes up again) s studying for a CEBS (GBA specifically) or SHRM certification?

  10. Nyxalinth

    I am all for intellectual curiosity. I’m no in a position for school, but I try and read and do new things as much as time and money permit. So I do have that going for me. I’ve seen some call centers demand a degree. If they’re wanting me to prove intellectual curiosity…well that’s a bit like wanting snow boots for an alligator, in that they don’t exactly value creative and critical thinking for the most part.

    1. Jean

      Sometimes people don’t go to college because it’s just not a good fit for them. Sometimes people are dealing with diagnosed or not-yet-diagnosed learning disabilities. And sometimes people graduate with all kinds of degrees and zero intellectual curiosity.

      I love the image of alligators wearing snow boots.

    2. Anonymous

      that’s a bit like wanting snow boots for an alligator, in that they don’t exactly value creative and critical thinking for the most part.

      Beautifully put.

  11. Windchime

    I don’t have a college degree. To quote Alison: “A degree is shorthand for having some basic education and the wherewithal to stick with something for four years. “ I would add to that “and the ability to be able to take on extensive debt or be lucky enough to have rich parents.” There is a perception that college is available to anyone who wants to go and that’s just not always true unless one is able/willing to take on massive loans. It’s a fallacy that grants will fill in a lot of the cost; that may be true if you are from a destitute family, but if you are lower middle-class, you probably earn too much to get grant money.

    So….I don’t have a degree. I was very lucky to have gotten into IT back in the day (2000) when you could still get hired with a few community college credits under your belt and not much else. I’m plenty curious and able to stick with something for years; lack of a degree doesn’t prove anything.

    The OP’s story is heartening, but in general I find the whole degree/no degree thing depressing. Call centers requiring a bachelors? Ridiculous. But hey, don’t have TOO MUCH education, because then you are overqualified. Sigh.

    1. Cassie

      I think it’s a bit ridiculous to require a degree for non-technical, entry-level jobs (and I say this as someone who has a BA). For the past several years, our management has felt that (because we are a university) all staff should have at least an associate’s degree. We have a handful of staff who have master’s degrees. Their degrees and their job duties don’t match – you don’t need a master’s degree in education or something when all you are doing is data entry!

  12. Rachel

    “So, here is what I have to offer to your readers. Quitting a job without another one is a risky proposition and not one to be taken lightly. But given the right circumstances and strength of character, you can survive. I repeat though, this is risky. In my situation, it was a great relief lifted off my shoulders and I came out ahead. I personally believe that any well-thought out decision is a good decision. Only you know if you have put enough thought into it. So, THINK! A LOT!”

    This x 10000000000000000000000000000.

    I job searched for two and a half years while I was still employed. I refused to quit my job because everyone knows that “you can’t find a new job without already having a current one.” So I stayed. And I stayed. After interview after interview after interview. I started to spiral into depression, because my job was so toxic and awful it literally drained me of any happiness I may have had. But I couldn’t quit! Oh no, because you just can’t do that and no one will ever hire you! So I stayed. And stayed more. Until I was so depressed I couldn’t get out of bed during the weekend and felt sick having to go in every day. No new job in sight. Interview after interview, but no offers.

    I finally hit my breaking point, had a near-nervous breakdown, and quit without anything lined up.

    Went away to become an RYT (a dream of mine for years), came home, and two weeks later landed my current job right now (I teach yoga part time as my student loan debt does not allow that to be my main source of income, yet). Granted, it was in a totally different field (and one that I ended up really liking), but by that point I was open to anything.

    Have been there 3 years, and have never been professionally happier. Bottom line, is that “it’s easier to find a job when you have a job” sometimes just isn’t true. In my case, only because I got out of that old job was I able to really prioritize, see what kind of work/company I wanted to do/work for, and become more open to other avenues, thus landing the job I have today.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. MJ

      THIS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It wasn’t until I was fired from a toxic job was I able to find my dream job! I was lucky as I was in the position for less than 6 months so I didn’t have to put it on my resume and I had the ability to collect unemployment. Thank God for my parents and my perfectly located apartment in Downtown DC that I could sublease 3 times the rent during the summer. This helped me really set out to look for a career position, not just a job. Also huge thanks to Allison… she has helped directly in the past and also by continuing this awesome blog!

  13. Mena

    Good news that the LW has been successful in making a change, but I caution others that this isn’t an excuse to not get a degree, or rationalizing abandoning this pursuit. A degree can be a point of differentiation when two job candidates are equal in experience. I pursued an MBA, gained some education, and opened doors to faster career advancement. In my field, an MBA is a given; NOT having one is a huge weakness. Perhaps it depends on your field – if degrees (or advanced degrees) are prevalent, lack of one makes it tougher to even get that phone screen interview. It can also stall someone in their career path. Again, this is likely specific to the field; A BS and MBA are the the price of admission in mine.

    1. Ly

      Agreed. Plus a lot depends on who is doing the hiring. People without a degree are more likely to say it isn’t important and those with a degree are going to say it is, both of which are a reflection of how they feel about their own choices in life.

      1. Mena

        Another key issue is your geographic location. I live in metro-Boston, the land of business schools and all forms of higher education. Everyone you are competing with for a job has a degree and likely an advanced degree. Lack of either is a glaring weakness – like it or not. Perhaps this is less so in middle America but not here!

  14. Anon Today

    It’s great to hear how well things have worked for the OP! I’d like to suggest that if OP is interested in some certification (instead of pursuing a degree), an SPHR could be good. For a professional with lots of experience, studying for and passing that exam would be pretty easy.

  15. Seal

    Congratulations OP! I left a horribly toxic job without another one lined up in 2001 and it was the best thing I ever did for myself, personally and professionally. Like you, I liked the industry I was in but found myself stuck in a dead-end job surrounded by bullies. After 9 months of not working and temping, I got a much better job in the same industry and never looked back. Don’t know that I’d do it again, but at the time it was by far the lesser of 2 evils. And it all worked out in the end!

    1. Windchime

      Sometimes you have to make that tough decision to leave for the sake of your mental health, such as the situation that Rachel and the OP describe. It certainly sounds scary, but I’m glad to see that sometimes it works out for the best.

  16. Kerry

    You know what? I have no interest in a degree. I am at a point in my life where I value my free time. If my current employer wants me to have a degree enough, they are going to have to ease up on current expectations

    I love this so much. It’s not something everyone is able to say, but it’s such a valuable place to be and I’m glad you’re able to say it for yourself so clearly.

  17. Allison (not AAM!)

    Congratulations, OP!!! I agree wholeheartedly – I just finished up a 5-month long job search after a layoff in June. I have 30 yrs experience in my high-tech field, no degree. I did hold out for the RIGHT job, not just ANY job, and the one I’ve ended up with just sort of fell into my lap – they contacted ME because of my reputation. But during the hunt, it was so frustrating getting repeatedly rejected simply because I didn’t have a degree. A degree which would have been earned 30 years ago. A degree which, at this point, would likely have covered a minimum of now-obsolete material. My years of practical, real-world experience far outweigh any ancient piece of paper, but because that box wasn’t checked on my applications, I was immediately dismissed. Granted, I know that for every open job that there are hundreds of applicants, and the autobots that sift through them have to make quick decisions. It’s such a shame that they don’t have an opportunity (or the patience?) to put some thought behind those decisions. Either way, we are all on our own paths, good for you, good for me, and anyone still looking, do what’s right for YOU in the long run.

  18. SerfinUSA

    Great post/letter!!

    I’m another highly experienced person with no degree.
    When I was the age most people start their higher ed path, I realized 4 or more years of meaningless bookwork, followed by massive debt, and still no guaranteed job was not going to work for me. I wanted to buy a house, have a life, have a job not a career.

    I am good enough at what I do (kind of hard to define – coordinate, facilitate, client/information/logistics management) that I get headhunted, but I have decades of experience, a great track record, and can articulate what I can bring to an employer very clearly in an interview (assuming I get that far).

    When I am job hunting, I know there is a huge swath of openings beyond my reach because I don’t have a degree. But my life is going too well to pile on the stress involved with trying to earn one now.

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