How to Get Ahead at Work Without a College Degree

by | Aug 19, 2019 | General Career Advice

When I was growing up, there was never a question about whether or not I would go to college. The only question was, where? I was very fortunate to come from a family with the financial means to make this my reality.

However, not everyone has that same opportunity—and quite frankly, many don’t have the interest in college (or interest in taking on the debt required for it these days).

While I definitely believe a college degree can give you a leg up in the working world, not having a college degree is not necessarily a career killer. In fact, some of the most successful people I’ve met and worked with are degree-free.

Still, I’ll admit, there can be some hurdles to overcome when you’re working without a degree. But rest assured, they are overcome-able. If you don’t have a college degree and you’re wondering how to get ahead in your career without it, here are some things to consider.

Quick note: I am a career coach and trainer in the United States and my guidance follows the customs and standards of this country. It may not be equally applicable in other areas.

Don’t Let It Psych You Out

In my experience, the lack of a college degree is frequently more important to the person who lacks it than to anyone else. Many people, in many fields, do not place an extremely heavy weight on the value of a college degree because they understand that real-world experience is often the best education there is. In many organizations and in many positions, the degree you have or don’t have is of minor consequence. (This isn’t true for all, of course, but it’s more common than you might realize.)

All of that is to say, don’t let your lack of a degree be a point of self-sabotage. Don’t let that little voice inside your head tell you you’re less than everyone else just because of your educational background. There are many forms of education in this world; a college degree is only one—and it’s not even necessarily the best one in every circumstance.  

Get Professional Certifications

In some cases, a current, reputable professional certification is actually seen as more relevant and valuable than a college degree these days. Why? Because a college degree is a form of stagnant education. It doesn’t evolve. You get it and you’re done. You have a degree.

On the other hand, to maintain a professional certification you have to engage in continuing education. You have to keep your skills up-to-date in order to keep that certification valid. So, your education is continuously evolving with your field.

I’ll give you a quick example: I earned my Bachelor’s Degree in marketing in 2001. That was before social media was even a thing. Consequently, my marketing degree is actually pretty irrelevant in the modern world because I never did any course work that had to do with today’s most powerful marketing tool—the Internet. If I were trying to work in the marketing field, it would be much more beneficial for me to have current professional certifications that demonstrate I have up-to-date knowledge of the field as it is today.

Depending on how quickly your field is evolving, you too may benefit more from a current professional certification than from an outdated degree.

Recommended Reading: Are Professional Certifications Worth It?   

Engage in Other Professional Development Coursework

Of course, certifications are one option. But, if you’re not up for the time and financial investment, there are plenty of other professional development courses you can engage in—many of which are quick and inexpensive. Quality can vary dramatically, so do your research to find the right courses that suit your needs.

I believe every professional should continuously engage in ongoing professional development, regardless of whether or not they have a degree. But, if you don’t have a degree, this is certainly one way to gain new skills and demonstrate your commitment to continued growth. If you’re so inclined, you can even list the courses you’ve completed on your resume—as long as they are directly relevant to your role and delivered through reputable organizations. (I don’t recommend that you list generic professional development classes.)

Let Your Experience Speak for Itself

Most managers and recruiters understand that real-world experience can be comparable to a degree. That’s why you’ll often see job postings with a required qualification such as, “A degree or equivalent experience.” What that equivalent actually works out to be is subjective. It doesn’t necessarily mean that 4 years on the job is directly equal to a 4-year degree. All it means is that the company is open to considering applicants who do not have a degree. So, if you have experience doing the job, and you believe you have the skills necessary to be successful, apply—with or without a degree.

Go Get Your Degree!

Look, I want to be honest here: Some fields (and some organizations) do require a degree. Without one, you will reach a ceiling. If that describes a field or organization you want to be a part of, you’re better off finding a way to go get that degree. Sure, you can try to fight the system and, in rare cases, you may be successful. But there’s no guarantee. Obviously, there’s a reason the degree has become such a crucial qualification for the work you want to do. It either provides some element of education you simply can’t learn efficiently or effectively on-the-job, or it’s seen as a valuable tradition that people are not willing to do away with. In either case, it’s unlikely that anything else will compensate for a missing degree, so it may well be worth your time and financial investment to obtain it. (Only you can make that decision.)   

If not having your degree is weighing heavily on your self-esteem or if you simply want to have the experience of higher-education, I personally believe there’s never any drawback to learning. The only downside is the financial requirement to obtain it, so do your research and take advantage of every kind of aide possible.

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About the Author

Chrissy Scivicque is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) and certified Professional Career Manager (PCM). She is an author, in-demand presenter and international speaker known for engaging, entertaining, educating and empowering audiences of all sizes and backgrounds. Learn more here.

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