Degree of Necessity

By Adena Schutzberg

A post this week to GISLIST suggests that a four-year degree to is not necessary to perform GIS and that perhaps universities have perpetuated the degree to fill seats and make money.The writer requested that academics defend this state of affairs one way or the other.As I write, not a single academic has yet chimed in.

That said, I'll quote one non-academic respondent who put it quite boldly: "It is arrogance and laziness on the part of hiring managers that consideration of a job candidate only begins after establishing that there is a degree." I fear there is a great deal of truth in that statement.An applicant with a degree has a "shortcut" with hiring managers.

And, such shortcuts are, alas, all around us.I was informed at one point by an interested party that the best way to determine whom to date was by evaluating their alma mater.It seems the smart articulate mechanical engineer from Syracuse University I'd selected did not fit the bill in this fellow's filtering algorithm.I'm guilty too.During my time at large consulting firm, two of the chief scientists I worked with on the Exxon Valdez project had masters degrees.A third, I learned when preparing a proposal that included his bio, did not.How could John possibly be a chief scientist? He had only a BA! (It was in biology, something about which I have barebones knowledge, even today.) I kept that in mind as I worked with the three of them, both in the field and in the lab.It took me some time to learn that I was out of line on that determination.John was every bit as competent as his colleagues and had the full support of the study directors.He should have had mine too, only I was too young, stupid or lazy to realize it.

Since then (that was my first job) I've worked with many technical and non-technical people without degrees.Usually I learned about their lack of degree when they left "to go back to," or just "to" school. Their lack of degree did not distinguish them in any way from their colleagues.In fact, I think it's far more important to examine what they had in common with some of their degreed colleagues.What's that? The interest and ability to learn on their own.

The best employees want to learn more and they have the tools to do so. Moreover, they have the confidence to act.They use the online help to learn about new software features.They teach themselves programming languages.They pick up a book to learn about Internet security.They call the expert in the company to explore new options for a routing algorithm.Some people need to go to school to learn to teach themselves.Others do not.

In any case, motivated employees who have managers that encourage such activity can go very far within the organization.Those that don't should probably find a new employer, when the time is right.

But the writer is correct; it can take more energy for hiring managers to find these people among those with degrees, simply because of society's bias and perhaps some "arrogance and laziness." On the other hand, the ball is in the court of potential employee (or later in promotion situations, the employee) to be able to document skills, including the ability to learn independently.

Published Tuesday, February 15th, 2005

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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