What’s in a degree? Not so much, apparently

Real-world experience more important
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/22/2014

On the television show Suits, only one thing truly matters: Where you went to school. If you want to work as a lawyer at Pearson Hardman, the fictitious law firm in the hit show, then you have to be a graduate from Harvard Law.

Rachel Zane, a paralegal at the firm who passes her LSAT and wants to become a lawyer, sums it up thusly: "I don’t want to go to law school. I want to go to Harvard."

But in the real world, it seems the name of the school on your degree doesn’t matter all that much to employers. As news editor Liz Bernier outlined in one of this issue’s cover stories (See "Does alma really matter?" page 1), two surveys found not many organizations are using the school as a pass/fail filter.

And that makes a lot of sense. Where you got your degree is important — there’s no doubt some schools are generally better than others at preparing students — but what you get out of education, particularly post-secondary education, depends on what you put into it.

In its 2014 ranking of universities, Maclean’s rated McGill University in Montreal and UBC in Vancouver as the top schools in the "medical doctoral" category. On the bottom of the list were Quebec’s Sherbrooke University and the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

But I’d be willing to bet the top student from U of M or Sherbrooke would be virtually indistinguishable from the top student at McGill or UBC.

And I bet you can’t tell me where your family doctor, CEO or go-to employment lawyer went to school — because it doesn’t really matter. The institutions all provide a foundation, but it’s the quality of a person’s work that’s really important.

I’ve hired quite a few editors over the years and never have I screened an applicant based solely on the institution that issued the journalism degree. Having a degree is critical, but what matters is whether or not the candidate has the skills we need to produce Canadian HR Reporter at a high level for our audience.

And the longer you’re in the workforce, the less the educational institution — or even the degree — matters. I’ve always thought that once you’ve been in the workforce for five years or so, experience completely trumps education. If you’re looking to hire a CFO, do you really care that she went to McGill? Or do you care more that she’s been in charge of successfully running the finances and growing the business at a major organization for the past 10 years?

I finished my journalism degree in 1996 and while I’m still using the foundations of journalism I learned then, the world of media has changed immensely over the past two decades. For example, I processed my own film and prints in a darkroom during school and in my first job as a reporter. But I haven’t even seen a darkroom in the last 15 years — newspapers simply don’t have them anymore.

The same metaphor can apply to any profession. Where you receive a degree isn’t critical — it may help land the first gig but, after that, work ethic and experience trump almost everything else. (Let’s leave nepotism off the table for now.)

In the realm of TV shows, the practice of only hiring Harvard graduates can make for a successful and entertaining (albeit stressful) law firm. But in the realm of Canadian workplaces, it’s what’s in the head — and not on the paper — that ultimately makes the difference in a successful hire.