Four years. You could spend them surfing on the beach in Florida, you could spend them hiking the Adirondacks, you could spend them writing the great American novel. Or, you could spend them working and building a skillset or getting your education.
When it comes to looking for work, if you have to choose between the education and the experience, which holds more weight to employers?
Four Years of Experience
If you forewent the degree and went to work, you might be wondering what this means when you are considering changing jobs. The fact is that it comes down to what kind of experience you have. Here are some possible scenarios and solutions for them.
Lots of experience, no focus- If you spent the last four years moving around to different companies or moving within the same company, you may have too broad a skillset. The “jack of all trades, master of none,” principle works against you here. In our experience, someone who has an ambiguous answer for what they do has usually moved around a lot, tried lots of things, and hasn’t focused on one career path effectively.
If this is you– It’s ok to have a couple different resumes. If you are applying for an accounting job, sort through all your experience that may apply to that position, and line them up at the top of the resume. Then, when you go into your job history, list your responsibilities in order of relevancy. Title your resume with a title that you will recognize as your “accounting” resume. Don’t label it directly, as often the recruiter will see the file name of your submitted resume.
Four non-consecutive years of experience- Maybe your career was off to a great start, but the company you worked for shut down. Then you had a few months or years of job searching and ended up finding something great and getting another job. But, that gap in employment looks bad and will get a lot of questions from recruiters and hiring managers.
If this is you- Come up with a list of things you did and learned during your “time off.” You may have picked up freelance work, you may have taken a part time job, you may have started your own business. It’s unlikely that you spend the time eating bon bons. Extract as much value as you can from those missing months and add them into your resume.
Low value experience- Truthfully, when weighing the value of a four year degree and low level employment, a degree is vastly more beneficial. For instance, a job working as a receptionist for four years won’t hold a candle to a college degree.
If this is you- Consider asking your current employer for opportunities to learn and rise within the ranks there. Since they know and trust you, you have a better shot working with what you have already built. It’s hard to take trust and relationships with you to a new job, so leaving that behind without high quality experience or a degree might be problematic for you. If that’s not an option for you, consider going to school, finding a certification program for something that you are interested in, start putting some meat on the bone. Employers are looking for aptitude, grit, and a willingness to learn. If your job experience doesn’t reflect that, find a way to demonstrate it.
A Four Year Degree
Again, there are some mitigating factors to consider here. Is your degree from a reputable university? A for-profit university? Is your degree relevant to your chosen career path? Is the degree itself respected?
If you got your degree from an online school that doesn’t get a lot of respect in your industry, there isn’t much you can do to dress it up for employers. So, you might as well wear it proudly. Yes, you chose a university that doesn’t turn many heads, but you still worked hard and got that degree. It’s worth something.
If you chose a degree that is extremely general or specific (i.e. liberal arts or Russian lit.) you can add a “concentration” onto the education line on your resume. If you studied culinary arts, but minored in business, include that. It will make you look more well-rounded and demonstrate the amount of work and education that comes from that degree.
If we absolutely must choose, a four year degree is probably preferable to four years of mediocre experience in most industries. There are some, actually many, exceptions to this. In computer programming and many other tech jobs, experience and provable, current knowledge is invaluable. And this doesn’t necessarily mean a college degree. In fact, some believe that universities can’t offer a truly current, up to date education in tech.
Carefully consider your career path and make the alterations that are needed here. Because, let’s face it, experience AND education is what employers are looking for. If you are lacking in one area, find a way to remedy that.
Also, don’t get discouraged. If you are looking for that dream job, that career that takes the sting out of Monday, keep searching. Liz Ryan, CEO and founder Human Workplace, says, “The key to success — financial, emotional and every other kind of success — in this new millennium is to understand that the world is big enough to embrace and exalt your talents. If you believe in yourself and know your stuff, you will find an organization that will value you and your background.”