Exec Laments Lack of Degree, But Does It Really Matter?

By Perri Capell

Question: I started with my company fresh out of high school 15 years ago and rose to president. I know my experience and work ethic are assets, but my lack of a college degree is a big hole on my resume. What advice do you have?

-- Susan, Columbus, Ohio

Susan: I suspect this is a bigger hole in your psyche than it is on your resume. You have already achieved a level that many college graduates will never reach. A lot of people who have had extraordinary careers never finished college, while many highly educated people can't hold down a job.

Employers are crying out for people who can get the work done and, obviously, you can. Put yourself in the shoes of a hiring manager considering two choices for a leadership role: Candidate A has an degree from a prestigious school but has never turned around a profit center, while candidate B launched a new division and made it an $80 million-a-year moneymaker. I don't know about you, but I'd choose B. "If the person does indeed have a track record of success, a degree is a non-issue," says Gary Roberts, a partner with Cabot Consultants Inc., a Tysons Corner, Va., recruiting firm that often works for venture firms backing early-stage companies.

Still, you'd be wise to avoid Fortune 500 companies, which may screen management candidates for college degrees without assessing the value of their experience. You're better off sticking to smaller and midsize companies and helping them grow. Many industries -- most notably retailing, hospitality and insurance -- are peopled with non-degreed executives, while sales is and has always been a function where accomplishments matter more than pedigrees. Software and information technology is another area where know-how matters more than a sheepskin.

As to your resume, whatever you do, don't fudge it. Job seekers are more likely to lie about educational credentials on their resume than almost any other fact, and there's a good chance you will be discovered sooner or later. If you lied on your resume and still manage to be hired, then you're a real risk-taker who enjoys the thrill of living with a secret. In time, you'll likely be caught and summarily fired -- with a bad reference.

Make your resume irresistible by stacking it with your accomplishments. List any professional training or certificate you've earned over the years in a section entitled "Educational Credentials," suggests John Marcus, a resume writer in Sarasota, Fla.

Then research potential employers before contacting them. Find out if their top executives have degrees. People typically prefer to hire people who are like them, and accomplished self-starters without advanced degrees will quickly see your worth.

When you get the interview, don't apologize for what you lack. Instead, talk about what you can offer. "People hire accomplishments and the ability to lead, not the degree, so don't bring it up," says Russ Jones, managing principal at First Transitions, an Oak Brook, Ill.-based outplacement firm. If the employer mentions the issue, acknowledge that you didn't get a degree because you wanted to start your career and turn the conversation back to your achievements.
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If you still feel the degree is important, why not get it now? It's never been easier, thanks to online advanced-degree programs. Some Internet-only schools, as well as some traditional bricks-and-mortar institutions, give course credit for life and work experience. Who knows? You may have that degree faster than you expect.

Ms. Capell is a senior correspondent for CareerJournal.com. Have a question about job hunting or career management? Write to frances.capell@dowjones.com with your first name and the city where you're located, which we'll show if we answer and post your question.

Article from CareerJournal Online – April 2005

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