Does Higher Education Produce Web Professionalism?

The average student often wonders as he works his way through school: “What will I ever use this for?” I must admit, I asked myself that question quite a bit as I moved through high school. I wanted to be on the soccer field, driving for the sake of driving, or playing 1080 Snowboarding. I would have preferred to be doing anything but hearing about single celled organisms and cytoplasm.

It seems that there’s always a question regarding higher education proving worth with a resulting career. Does having a degree produce a certain level of validation for someone in their field? There’s been a bit of conversation surrounding the issue as of late, and I thought I’d offer some thoughts.

Degree requirement to become a professional?

Martin Ringlein of Maryland Media recently posted Do Web Designers Need Degrees?, a piece in which he questions the requirement of a degree to become a professional on the Web. His question doesn’t limit itself to that of Web design professionals, while his piece is aimed at the demographic, he asks a number of questions which everyone should consider before making the leap into higher education.

A primary concern raised in the article is that of financial worth. Is a degree worth the astounding amount of money it takes to ‘purchase’? Recent graduates are finding themselves in more debt than ever before, would it have been a better choice to move straight into the field? Could the experience gained in the four (plus) years spent at school prove to be more valuable than the degree itself? In the field of Web, that’s a valid question to ask.

If you haven’t read the piece yet, I’m begging you do, especially the conversation that follows. In all honesty, it’s one of the best conversations I’ve read in quite some time. There are many well-prepared responses bringing a lot to the table.

Preparing yourself for employment

Andy Rutledge, a person I greatly admire, has also recently published an article on this very subject. The Employable Web Designer comprises suggestions to “help aspiring designers to better craft their own preparedness and, if necessary, adjust their degree plans toward a more effective and responsible result.”

I can sympathize with the many students contacting Andy to confirm that they’re on the right track. As a student, I think it’s fantastic to question the education you’re receiving. I think that’s a big part of higher education; question what is being taught. Confirm things for yourself. Only then can you truly trust what you think you know.

If you’re new to professional work on the Web, this piece should be required reading. If you know someone who plans to find a career in Web design, please send them a link. Not only are technical details touched upon, applicable life skills are mentioned as well. I can’t say enough how much I relate to the article, and support it entirely.

My college experience

I did in fact choose to attend college, and I’m glad I did. I have a degree in Information Science and Policy, but that piece of paper didn’t do much to start my career. Please let me be clear in saying that I believe my choice to go to college did have a direct correlation with my career this far. I do believe, however, that I could be in the same place without my college experience.

Although I went to college and did obtain a degree, my entire skill set is completely self taught. I was so engrossed in Web design and development, I would spend my off time constantly reading, trying to learn how things were done. Not for the sake of trying to better prepare for my classes, but because it was a hobby, it was something I loved to do. I found myself entering classes already knowing the curriculum for the entire semester.

My college experience didn’t prepare me for the real world in the sense of my technical skill, but it was an experience I’m very happy I had. I found many social benefits to college, especially in learning how to be responsible. My first professional Web development job was only made possible by my active enrollment, which in turn had a direct effect in my finding the position in which I currently reside. As mentioned, I believe that it is possible that I could have ended up in the same exact position had I skipped college, but I believe that many things happen for a reason.

My first professional position was a perfect starting point. Not only was it my first ‘real’ interview, the job taught me that a career in Web development was exactly what I wanted to do. I learned what it was like to work on a team, what skills were necessary to get the job done, and how to refine certain processes to become more efficient.

I’m very glad to have had the college experience I did, but I know that many students spend four years wasting time and then wondering why they can’t find a decent job anywhere. My advice to students would be to use your college experience to research a profession, making sure it’s how you want to spend your life. Make the right connections, ask the right questions, learn what you’re doing wrong.

I’ve learned so much from “the community”

I can attribute nearly all of my technical knowledge to the Web community. There are so many authors providing a better education than any university could, and they’re doing it for free. You can’t get more bleeding edge than blog posts, and I think that’s one of the biggest hurdles for a college to overcome; being outdated in their practices. It’s so important to have a faculty which isn’t “behind the times” teaching the new wave of professionals how to do things if it were ten years ago. While important as a reference, modern knowledge is of equal value. Outdated curriculum was a concern of mine in college, and I’m sure my university isn’t the only one with a few old lesson plans.

Some of the most respected names in Web design (as with countless other professions) have no degree, and I believe that speaks volumes in answer to the question whether a degree constitutes professionalism or not. I know far too many designers with degrees who do anything but produce quality work. A degree doesn’t make you any more qualified than anyone else in the room. I believe that experience will be your most valuable asset. Spend your time wisely, improve your skill by doing actual work. That will by far prepare you in the most effective way. Keep reading, keep writing, keep designing, keep developing. Find mentors in the community and (appropriately) follow in their footsteps by reading their articles, following their projects, and respecting what they’re doing.

College can be an extremely valuable experience, and act as a fantastic start for your career, but that’s only if you choose to use college in that way. Don’t let a degree limit your potential, there’s no reason for that. Again, I wouldn’t change my path if I was given the choice. At the end of the day I’m glad to be so enveloped in the profession, constantly refining my knowledge based on a continuing education from the Web design and development community.