This question comes up all the time. I work in an industry that has never required any sort of post-secondary education certificate to hire people. I knew that while I was at school. So why go through with it? And was it worth it?
My parents were very clear on one thing growing up. We were going to University. That’s it, end of discussion. Neither of my parents were educated until later in life, so they both knew what it was like to go back after a few years. In high school we needed good grades and we all had to pick where we wanted to go. My parents would support us through our degree and make sure we were able to finish.
Seems strict? It wasn’t really. We could pick any post-secondary school we wanted, go into any field we wanted and it could be in any city we wanted. We were free to pursue anything. I chose film school. I had this dream of making movies and I wanted to make that a reality. So I found a program, not a degree program at the time, and my parents supported my decision. I lucked out. The school I chose became a university and my two year diploma became a four year bachelors degree. But it was tough. I did three years, and then had to wait three before the final year was added. When I went back to school to finish, I really wrestled with it. I was already working, already succeeding, and I didn’t want to stop. I was working on film sets in various capacities, making good money, and learning first hand that my industry is all about networking and the people you know. Taking a year off to finish school could really set me back. But in the end, I decided that I needed to do it. I’d already done three years, what was one more?
Well that year sucked! I was overworked, overstressed and generally always tired. I took a few extra courses to make sure I finished in the one year, and I was also working two jobs to continue paying rent and suffering through a failing relationship. It was not a good time for me. I was so burnt out it was insane. But I came out of it okay, and they handed me my diploma at the end.
So what difference did it make? In an industry that doesn’t care about that piece of paper, did I really get ahead? The answer is yes. It makes a difference. My credentials became a little more appealing to potential colleagues and employers. I wasn’t just someone who had worked my way up, I had experience and education. It put me a step above everyone I went up against. It wasn’t required, but it was still impressive.
And it gave me confidence. For some reason, saying ‘I have a degree in film’ gave me a sense of accomplishment. My resume is quite impressive now. I’m educated, and I’ve had some really cool jobs. It’s an edge.
It also makes me worth a teeny bit more. Worth is a touchy subject, I know, but because my credentials are a little above the people around me, I can put my worth a little above theirs. I won’t take the job at minimum wage, instead I’ll say if you want someone like me, you’ll have to make it worth my while. That sounds snobbish, but it’s a lesson that I feel has been lost to my generation. We’ve all been taught to pay our dues. I can say that I have paid my dues. Holy hell, have I ever. And still I have trouble asking for what I’m worth. But having the education and credentials makes you stand out, and anyone who stands out can say ‘I’m worth this much more’. We all under-evaluate our own worth and constantly short-change ourselves. It’s really bad. We’re all supposed to be so honoured just to have a job that we’ll take the bare minimum to get by. In past generations, not everyone when to post-secondary school, so having that education automatically put you on a higher pay-scale. We’ve let it become the equivalent to a high school diploma. Part of that is because it’s so much more accessible now to go to school. But it’s also because we’ve allowed society to degrade it. We don’t stand up for what it means.
Part of my job now is negotiating. How much are my clients worth to you? I’m never going to accept your initial offer because it’s my job to get them more than that. Until now, I never gave myself that same status. My skills were learned through school and through experience, and someone with a specific skill is worth more than someone just starting out. I am no longer entitled to accept the bare minimum, and neither are my clients. You hire them because they’re good at what they do, and you know their ‘fame’ is going to make you money. You hire me because you know I’ll work hard for you, get you what you’re worth and be professional. It’s taken me ten years to prove to people that they want me over everyone else. I’m no longer one of a hundred just starting out, I’m ‘established’. When you go for a facial and you pick the expensive spa, it’s because you know they’re going to do a better job, so you don’t mind paying more.
Do you have a skill? Are you experienced in ways that stand out from the people around you all vying for the same position? Then stand up and know that you’re worth it!
Going back to getting my degree. I would tell anyone thinking about it that it’s totally worth it. Not only did it change my status in my field despite the ‘you don’t need it’ mentality, but it also opened up a whole other world of opportunities. What if I had wanted to leave the film industry? There are quite a few jobs out that that say ‘must have a degree’ without being specific about what kind. A friend I went to school with was hired at a sportswear headquarters recently, and she loves her job. When she applied it stated that all applicants must have a degree. Her degree is in film. How does that relate? It’s about showing that you can finish something and proving that you can get to the end of a gruelling, horrible four year process. The school can give you a boost if it’s known to be a particularly high academic one. It’s also about trusting in that education. I have an acquaintance that didn’t finish the program, and he’s still working in film. He’s making a decent living, but he complains constantly about not getting promoted, or that he can do coordinator or management tasks that they’re not asking him to do. His grammar is atrocious, he can’t spell to save his life, his handwriting is awful, and he just doesn’t come across as educated or professional. He’s certainly not a stupid guy, and he’s a hard worker, but they give the promotion to the people that are more educated because in this world of constant email correspondence, the company feels a more educated person will come across as professional. Writing professional emails is a skill. You simply can’t do the ‘u’ instead of ‘you’ or misspell your ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’. You need to be able to explain things in only a few short sentences and be clear and precise.
My sister is a highly educated individual. She has a full degree with a double major and a second diploma from London. This girl can sit down and write a ten page essay flawlessly, and hand it in to the highest academic programs and get top marks. She can research like you can’t imagine and plan our projects like she was born to organize. And her time management is incredible!! She sent me a cover letter for a job she’s applying for because she wanted feedback from someone who does a lot of hiring (or taking on clients) like I do. I was happy to help. My first comment was ‘damn!.. you educated girl!’. She made me feel stupid just reading it! I mean holy crap with the big words! It was a very high level job so I didn’t tell her to dumb it down at all, but this was definitely a person with some serious academic achievement. It was impressive! I couldn’t fake that. They will take her seriously for sure. Whether her credentials are what they’re looking for is another story, but that cover letter would stand out to anyone. You hire her and she’s going to ensure that the level of on paper professionalism is held at an extremely high level.
Education should not be ignored. It’s not always necessary, but it can put you ahead of the curve as long as you use it correctly. It’s a tool you need to sharpen and expose to recommend you to the people who you want to work with/for. It’s not just a piece of paper. I think too many people cast it away like it’s not worth anything when it is! If you think it means nothing, then you’ll belittle it.
Now, there are lots of people out there who have become wildly successful without going to school. I’m sure you can google ‘high school drop-out billionaire’ and come up with a few major names. It happens. But you can’t count on that happening. You have to collect as many tools in your belt as you can to be successful.
To make this brief. Yes, getting my degree was totally worth it!!