Does Higher Education Produce Web Professionalism?

Posted: August 04, 2008 Comments(10)

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.

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  1. I’m currently studying towards a degree in Software Engineering but actually have a part-time job working over Summer doing the very web development work I want to do once I finish Uni.

    Would I quit Uni and carry on with this job full-time? Of course not, this is the one time in my life I can easily go through Uni with support, grants, loans etc. In 20 years time, if I decided I needed to study towards a degree it’s doable but a lot more trouble. Also, by having a degree I can get a job abroad much more easily than I could be portfolio/merit alone.

    I got my job based on my portfolio and skills alone, but having a degree gives me a formal qualification I can show later in life and it’s worth it for that.

  2. I agree, earning a degree will not guarantee anyone a job, especially in the field of web design/development , but it at least shows people that you stuck with something for four years and followed through.
    Coming from someone who’s finishing up a second Masters, I can definitely say that employers want someone with demonstrable, marketable (read technical) skills AND someone who can spell and turn in a resume without any typos. While higher ed can’t do much for the former, it certainly can help with the latter.

    I think the nature of the beast is that most people in the field are self-taught; how different would things look if there were good college programs that were credible and affordable?

  3. I’m currently finishing up my design degree, and I must admit it is extremely behind the times in terms of technical knowledge. Most of what I know is self taught. I’ve managed to complain to the head of school.

    However, I do believe there is something very valuable about degrees. You learn to think like a designer. Technical ability can get you as far as doing business cards for your local lawnmowing company. But knowing how to communicate ideas and concepts visually is the real task of the web designer. These thinking skill are what will never change and you can learn from the lecturers who have years of experience with ‘thinking’ in a design sense.

    Perhaps I’m just trying to justify the last 3 years. Who knows. My degree could have also taught me how to be a ‘professional’ depending on your definition. But maybe that’s just experience in the field.

  4. Very well written, Jonathan. I find that our stories are very similar. I went to college, received my bachelors degree, but my passion was in Web Development and all things surrounding it. My peers would always joke with me because I would spend my free time reading books on PHP, MySQL, HTML, CSS, etc. If I wasn’t reading those, I was trying new things on my own website. I read books. I read blogs. I got connected with people who could help me solve my problems. As a professional web developer, the best thing I could ever do is be humble and admit that I always had more to learn. I had, what I consider one of my best mentors, Stephen Rainey, who helped guide me in the right direction. Years after first meeting him and chatting with him, I am now able to work alongside him and I continue to learn more. Surround yourself with people who are passionate and know what they are doing.

    So, all of that being said – I don’t use my degree for anything, at all. I focus my time and my energies on continually learning different aspects of the web. I would agree that I don’t think it takes a degree to make you a professional. In fact, I watched people graduate college and they were just as dumb as when they came in. All they wanted was a piece of paper to help them get a job. They had no passion. No direction. They just wanted a paycheck. I didn’t want to be that person. I am completely self-taught, and continue to teach myself through my peers, my work, and reading.

  5. Great topic, and one I haven’t seen discussed in awhile. I personally made an effort to get at least an associate degree even though I was doing well in web design already.

    I wrote about it on my blog a couple of years ago, all the reasons I think it’s important to get a degree anyway, but the main point I have is this: “You WILL have to talk to and work closely with others who HAVE been to college.”

    Even if you don’t gain anything technically in regards to your particular field, there’s something about the college environment, being an adult student, that just makes for a smarter, more rounded person (in general). To me, a college education–the experience, even without a piece of paper to show for it, is worth at least that.

  6. @Luke L: You’re absolutely right. If one does decide to attend university, I’d have to assume it’s quite a bit easier to do so straight after secondary school. It sounds like you’ve got your path planned and you’re well on your way!

    @jesse: I can’t tell you how many resumes I’ve seen come from college graduates which are littered with typos and cliches. It’s probably quite safe to assume that throughout a college career, you’ll more than likely attend a class in which resume writing is part of the curriculum. Unfortunately it seems as though many students skip that class as well. You’re completely right in saying that (most) employers look past a degree for something in a candidate that demonstrates a desire to do the best job possible.

    @Anthony Short: There’s no need to try and justify your time spent. Degrees do indeed have a value. The thing to keep in mind is the wide variation of value when comparing program of study to program of study. One school could provide you with a top notch education, unmatched by any experience you may have tried to obtain on your own. While another school can barely prepare you for the job market as a result of a lower caliber faculty. In my personal experience, in talking with other graduates, their time at college was exponentially different than mine, but that may not have been a better or worse preparation. There are times when a college professor will be the best resource you’ve got simply due to the fact that it’s their job (and duty) to ensure your education by devoting time to teaching.

    @Nate Klaiber: Me too! Still to this day I get asked why I’m “reading a textbook for fun” – which continues to amuse me. I truly do enjoy reading the books I do, I can’t help it. But I will be honest in saying I haven’t read any sort of novel or non-technology based book in many years. I think that says something as well.

    I can’t stress enough how much I agree with you saying that you’ll never feel you’ve learned it all. I think if someone reaches that point (and not just Web designers) they’ve lost their desire. Claiming to be all-knowledgeable will do nothing but hurt your integrity as a professional.

    @Natalie Jost: That’s a fantastic point to raise, and I’m completely on board. I think the most valuable thing I got from my college experience was… the experience. It taught me a number of things I couldn’t have read in a book and I can thank my college experience for getting me where I am today.

    Thanks to all for posting! Some really great points raised from everyone.

    “Surround yourself with people who are passionate and know what they are doing.” I couldn’t have said it better. I think that’s why I devote so much time to ‘the community.’ I can’t even keep up with the wealth of knowledge published week to week.

  7. I agree 100% that a college degree is a “nice to have” in this field. I received my degree in Chemistry, and while it helped me get that first job, I spend most of my time maintaining/developing my company’s websites. All of this knowledge, with the exception of Java, was self-taught. (One other note: I do not consider myself to be a designer, but more of a developer because I rarely create new design ideas; I simply tweak our graphic designer’s work).

    In general I do not find the current academic setup to fit my learning style or those required for a constantly evolving field like this. It seems like most of my classes were an endless cycle of cram then regurgitate information. There was very little understanding going on. This was made painfully obvious by the whining and complaining by the “A level” test takers attempting (and failing) to utilize their “knowledge” in the lab.

    I think that in the ever-changing web world, you almost don’t want someone who is bound by the education they receive in school. You need to have habitual problem solvers who will discover new and inventive ways to approach design issues instead of sitting there scratching their head saying, “I don’t remember seeing a sample problem like this….”

    Hope I didn’t ramble too much.

  8. Many high schools engrave the notion of “you have to go to college to be somebody”, so many students leave high school thinking they have to go to college.

    After high school I found my self taking a year off and then attending University. After 4 years of formal schooling, I received a degree of Bachelor of Fine Arts. When I think back, and after $100k in dept, I wish I didn’t go to school. I feel like i could have gotten this job am at, without attending school. They didn’t even look at my diploma. My resume stated i finished school, maybe they took my word for it and decided if i should get the job based on my portfolio.

    I do agree with you, that college was a learning experience and a great source of resources and connections. But, were those resources and connections worth this money. I don’t know.

    The only way I see college helping you elevate your career is if your aiming high, if you don’t want to be entry lever or bottom feeder for the rest of your life.

    I’ve learned so much from my experience in and out of school. One thing is, go to community college first than make your way up. Many community colleges have guaranteed admissions to certain universities.

    For example: North Shore Community College, in Lynn, MA has agreement with Northeastern University and UMASS Amherst, that if you achieve 2.5 GPA your automatically in as junior with all of your credits transferred. I wish I went that route.

  9. I’m in my last semester of a degree in graphic design, and i think that pursuing this degree has been the right choice to take – even though all of my web skills (UI/UX/IA and CSS/HTML/JS/AS/PHP/MySQL*) are self taught (blogs, books, and experimentation) and I already have a junior web design job part-time (an amazing way to stay out of debt, it sure beats burger king).

    1) I’ve learned presentation, communication, and professionalism.
    2) I’ve learned how to interact with designers and other creatives (my course is alongside a photography course – and some of the conceptual/theory classes are merged. It’s fantastic).
    3) I’ve learned how to self teach. When it became clear the ‘web and interactive’ lecturer didn’t actually know anything about programming (even basic PHP) I had to learn how to learn things on my own.
    4) I have confidence in my own competency.
    5) I have background beyond my area of focus. I can make my own business card, I can edit a video, I can take a decent photo, and do passable illustrations both digitally and traditionally.
    6) I have learned to love subjects I barely knew existed: especially typography.
    7) I have learned the value of a certain level of specialisation. Although I’m the sort who loves learning anything and everything – I’ve learned the value of leaving some things to the people who know what they’re doing, and love it more than me.
    8) I’ve learned how to think conceptually. To be more than a photoshop/dreamweaver monkey.

    And I’ve made friends with a lot of very creative people.

    *What’s with all the acronyms used around the WWW?

  10. I’m 18, and as all my friends are heading off to uni in the next couple of months, I’ve landed myself an amazing job as a web developer at Yorkshire’s #1 design company — — on more money than I would be in 4 years time after I’d graduated (like for like, considering the cost of living and inflation etc.)

    I, obviously don’t hold a degree, but I taught myself over the last two years more than a web development degree course would have…

    A degree is not essential to success in the web industry, *however*, and that’s a big however, if in ten years time I decide I don’t want to be involved in the web, then what? No degree, and a long background in one industry isn’t going to be worth a lot…

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