If you ask 10 people today if they are working in the field they studied in college, chances are that more than half of those people will answer in the negative.
And yet for most of us, deciding what to study in college felt like the first step on our professional journey.
Were we wrong?
Yes, and no.
It is true that if once upon a time — not so very long ago — a career decision made before or just after college would likely continue to direct your career for the foreseeable future, now radical career change is possible and even probable at some point. It is also true that today, experience and skills are far more meaningful in the job market than education and training.
One of the central reasons for this change is that education and training have become accessible through a variety of alternative channels. Another cause for this change of focus is that to stay afloat in a rapidly changing professional world, the need to adapt and learn new skills in real time has made academic degrees less relevant as predictors of professional success.
Of course there are still professions where it is inappropriate — and illegal — to practice without training and certification from a recognized authority; medicine and law come to mind. There are also more traditional fields where extensive relevant training is paramount, such as scientific research and academia.
Many other professions still require a certain degree of professional training; however that training can now be acquired in less traditional ways, such as courses and internship programs offered by professionals in the field as opposed to officially recognized government or academic institutions. Many fields have opened up to people with professional training in other areas, and the roads connecting fields and professions are becoming more and more densely populated highways.
So why get an academic degree at all?
Of course, if your field of interest lies in an area where you cannot practice professionally without relevant academic training, you will need to get that training. However what if you either don’t know yet what professional direction you will take, or are interested in fields that will not require a specific degree?
As of now, almost every professional field requires candidates to have at least a bachelors degree, and many expect masters degrees as well. This is not, however, because employers feel that the knowledge gained in a specific academic track will be extremely pertinent to the job. Rather, academic training has become a screening tool, both to select candidates who are intelligent, responsible, organized, and somewhat worldly; and to identify candidates whose interests lie in relevant fields and are therefore more likely to succeed in those areas.
This screening can sometimes be unfair, and can work against excellent candidates who have not completed one or two academic degrees; however, as a recruiter and a career coach, I can state that at present, an academic degree is virtually a requirement for almost any professional position, and unfair as it may be, it is a reality that has to be faced.
However, there are other reasons why getting an academic degree can be a worthy goal. One reason is that studying something in a serious framework is sometimes the best way to discover if the field is attractive and meaningful for you. If you don’t yet know what your career direction should be, the exposure to concepts and research in a field you are considering can greatly assist you in defining your path.
Another good reason to get a degree (or two) is to open your mind and heart to different fields, and also to allow yourself to imagine a successful career in those fields. If there is a field that interests you, but you feel insecure defining yourself as a professional in that field, studying and acquiring the degree in it can do a lot towards overcoming your insecurity and reaching for a career in a field that seemed beyond your abilities.
Bottom line — the need for academic training today is a kind of paradox. You can rarely find a good job without an academic degree, however your career may well develop in areas outside your field of training. While this paradox can feel frustrating, it does liberate you to choose your field of study according your intellectual interests, and to keep an open mind towards a variety of fields and studies. All this can make both your intellectual and your professional life more interesting than ever before.