Do you REALLY need a degree to be happy?

Cap and diplomaLeandro from Brazil wrote in with a classic and crucial question: Do you need a college degree to be successful? Leandro is 21 and currently studies computer engineering and does NOT like it. His parents think he absolutely needs the degree – he doesn’t :o)

My take: No. You don’t need a college degree to be happy and successful.

I myself have a university degree (a masters in computer science) – but I chose my studies 100% based on my interests at the time. I was a major geek and my studies let me do some pretty cool stuff.

And while I would not have gotten my first “real” job without my degree, I would of course have gotten another job – even without the degree. And anyway, my first job sucked :o)


I believe success comes from doing something that:

  1. You’re good at
  2. You like doing
  3. Someone is willing to pay you for

You need all three. Does this such an area currently exist for you? Be realistic!

If such an area does not currently exist, you can make one for yourself – and one way to do this is to study.

But considering how many possibilities are out there, I refuse to believe that this can only be achieved by suffering through 4-5 years of boring, unpleasant studying, just so you can wave a piece of paper around after you graduate.

Also, ask yourself this: If you truly do not enjoy your studies – how much can you possibly enjoy working in the same field later?

For a long time we’ve been telling people that “Sure, studying is not much fun, but you just have to get through 4-5 years of it and then everything is gravy.” First of all, this rarely turns out to be true, and secondly, this tends to make higher education an exercise in conformity – not learning. Those who complete their studies are not necessarily the best and the brightest, but those most willing to knuckle under and do as they’re told.

If I were in Leandro’s shoes, I would either:

  1. Find a way to make my studies fun. Study with some fun people, go for some fun classes, work on my strategies and the way I spend time.
  2. If that’s not possible, I’d witch to some kind of studies I really liked and found interesting or to a different school, where they didn’t make things as boring.
  3. Or alternatively get a job or start my own company and do something really cool

What’s your take on this? Did you enjoy studying? How did you choose your studies? Are you happy and successful with or without a degree?

31 thoughts on “Do you REALLY need a degree to be happy?”

  1. I have a university degree in Biomedical Engineering BUT I work mostly as a computer programmer. I do have an “Assistant Programmer” degree from my highschool but that’s just another piece of paper.
    The only thing that the university does for you is put you in contact with smart people in the hope that some of that smartness will rub on you. It teaches you how to learn BUT most of the time what you learn will not help you very much.
    That used to be the only way people could get an education BUT this is not true anymore for lots of fields. You can use the Internet and educate yourself with the help of volunteers from various forums and mailing lists.
    It all boils down to “value”… Are you able to provide value? If you cannot it is because you didn’t took enough time to discover what makes your soul “sing”. Be honest with yourself and find what service to others makes you truly happy.

    “whoever you are, or whatever it is that you do, when you really want something, it’s because that desire originated in the soul of the universe. It’s your mission on earth.” ….”And when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to acheive it.” – Paulo Coelho

  2. All this talking raises up the rule of laziness.
    I think with my myself if someone is feeling unpleasant and lazy studying in some university is because that area is not the right one or this person is totally out of focus, with his energies spent out on wrong things (like this person would do many things and few of them would make he – or she – happy).

    This makes me take a conclusion…the rule of laziness is to warn when you are on the wrong path…when you’re lazy and/or unpleasent with your routine you need to review your priorities, or even better, review your true desires and aspirations.

  3. I will tell you right now that at least in the US, if you don’t have a degree, (and a fairly recent one at that), getting the job you want becomes harder by an order of magnitude. These days, far too many companies have moved the job of reading resumes away from the hiring manager/actual boss to HR. Well, HR doesn’t, nor should they know the ins and outs of every position. HR has one stated duty: To manage all the human interactions not directly related to the actual job, and one unstated, yet far more important duty: To protect the company from the employees.

    So an HR resume screener has a list of checkboxes, and if you miss any one of them, BAM, into the trash your resume goes. If you don’t have at least a bachelor’s degree, you don’t have enough experience to make up for that, (and I am speaking as someone with over twenty years in the workforce, with experience as long as your arm and no bachelor’s degree), especially in the computer/tech field. Larger companies are even more immoral about this, wherein the create almost unfillable job descriptions, then, when (SURPRISE) they can’t easily fill them, they whine to Congress about the “desparate need for H-1B employees”. No kidding. What company doesn’t want employees you can pay half to a third of what you’d pay a local, and who exists at your pleasure. H-1B employee pisses you off? Oh well, back to wherever you came from with you.

    It’s even worse than that, as I have a friend with a computer science degree, who is one of the leading experts in Javascript/AJAX, but because her degree is TOO OLD, companies turn her away.

    So Leandro, at least in the USA, if you want to work, get the degree. Period.

    Alex, if you really want to do the computer workers of the world a favor, start asking major companies, especially in the US why they are driving the people who helped create the tech revolution out of the field.

  4. Get a degree for YOURSELF, not a job. Sure, their are innate problems in education of any kind (its human fallibility) but I’m a better (albeit poorer) person for going to college. Thanks.

  5. I found that a solid education doesn’t give you everything you need, but it does teach you how to think and ask better questions. It is a fallacy to expect education-only or experience-only to fill the gap. There must be a combination of the two.

    Yes, some people succeed without an education. Most people don’t even work in the field in which they have their degree. But the process of earning the degree(s) is invaluable.

  6. Eric, the problem is that no one cares about the degree beyond the degree itself. Hell, the DATE on the degree is now a problem too. (What, it went bad? There’s a shelf life? The 20+ years of experience along with the degree don’t count?) If you want proof, look at how diploma mills have become a thriving industry. The degree is now a checkbox, nothing more. If they handed them out in boxes of Tide, they’d have the same value with the way they’re treated.

    The degree has become a magic spell of competency: If you have one, you are competent, educated, able to do the job. If you do not, then what you are considered capable of involves “You want fries with that?”

    As well, your reply shows the underlying fallacy of the degree requirement: that without a degree, you are uneducated. There is a HUGE difference between being uneducated, and not having a degree. But that requires looking at a resume and a person beyond a series of check boxes. I don’t as of yet, have a degree, for a variety of reasons. However, I will happily put my *education*, formal and not, up against anyone holding a Bachelor’s in CompSci or IT any time they wish.

  7. Depending on how far through the degree he is, you might just want to stick to it & ride it out. The extra options available to you could give you more freedom.

  8. John,

    You said, “…no one cares about the degree beyond the degree itself.” That is why I didn’t earn the degree for anyone but me. I believe it gave me a good foundation for the practical experience I received.

    I also did not mean to imply that people without a degree are uneducated. My reply showed no such thing. I simply stated that earning a degree is invaluable and offers something that experience-only avenues do not. I prefer to work with people who have both education and experience.

    In my professions (ministry and writing) it is very common to see people leading without any form of degree or training. So, I come from a very different perspective.

    From the tone and passion of your response, it sounds like you have had some very bad experiences. I am sorry for that.

  9. I also did not mean to imply that people without a degree are uneducated. My reply showed no such thing. I simply stated that earning a degree is invaluable and offers something that experience-only avenues do not. I prefer to work with people who have both education and experience.

    Eric, you kinda did:

    Yes, some people succeed without an education. Most people don

  10. I am very curious about this question as my daughter just graduated from high school and has very little interest in college. My concern is that even if she is “successful” in whatever (non-degree requiring) field she chooses, will she be happy in the long-term. I know several people, including my mother, who have had and maintained good (and relatively fulfilling) jobs, but who regret very much that they did not go to college. That regret is a big part of my mother’s life and probably keeps her from being happy.

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  12. Here’s my example. I just graduated a Master in Industrial Engineering and Management. I originally chose to get into this field of studying cause I valued the degree itself. At the point of applying I was not very passionate about anything. This field is pretty wide and offers many possibilities to specialize in. For me having a degree is a sort of safe haven. Now with a degree in my pocket I can focus on finding that something that really makes me tick. Also, like someone commented earlier, university is a place where you can hook up with like minded people, learn about learning and cultivate innovation. My 5 years provided me with alot of general wisdom, interesting ideas and contacts.
    Furthermore, having a degree acts as proof of ones persistency. Of course if the studies are totally anti-motivating, it maybe makes sense to change the orientation, eg. get an interesting minor or have a break and work for a while. Getting hands on experience may give a boost to the studying later on. Anyway, I’d definately go for a degree. Unless you are one of those born to be successful self-made-men…

  13. Furthermore, having a degree acts as proof of ones persistency.

    You’d think almost 15 years of direct experience and coursework would too. IN the US, you’d be wrong.

  14. Thanks for all the great comments, people. It’s been great reading the different perspectives on what is, after all, one of life’s most important decisions.

    Peter: What you’re saying reflects my exact experience from university – VERY little of what I was taught in class has ever been useful to me. But the people I’ve met and the stuff I’ve learned indirectly has been of some value. And great quote :o)

    Leandro: I could not agree more. Laziness is not a sign of weakness but a sign that you’re on the wrong path.

    John: Point taken – some companies will not hire you without the right degree. Which is in my opinion a very bad policy that excludes many qualified people from applying. Being excluded because you can’t check that particular box, when you know you’re qualified for the job, is unreasonable.

    I hope we’ll see this change soon and see more companies take a broader view of their applicants.

    Shane: Great way to put it – get the degree for yourself. Not the job market, not your parents. For you!

    Eric: Me too – which brings us back to the fact that what you learn “indirectly” may be of most value.

    Coops: There is that option too – especially if you’re almost there. However if you’re looking at 2-3 years more of studying something you don’t give a damn about then…

    Austin: Interesting career path – I wish you the best of luck!

    catherine: Good point. But these days, you can get your degree at just about any age – maybe you should encourage your mom to go get it now :o)

    You can regret any choice you make later in life – but studying something that doesn’t interest you is something you’re almost sure to regret.

    Kimberly: Thanks – I’m really glad you liked it!

    Paula: Thanks for your story – I like your positive spin and the fact that you don’t feel bound by your degree to have to work in that field.

  15. you can still make 100,000 without a degree ask any good realtor. read rich man poor man by Robert Kiyosaki top of page 110.

  16. Hi, I have a close freind who was a succesful social worker for over 20 years. It has been 5 years since he last worked in that field and is now thinking about going back into the position again. He specializes in the elderly/mentally retarted people. He needs to get his license updated. He took four years of college courses relating to the social work field. He is now in his mid 50’s. When he re-enters this field will he be able to get a good salary at all without a degree? I have found ALOT of places looking to hire someone it requires a MSW or a BSW degree. I sent him some info on online degrees for that. What does anyone think? Any input? I kinda wish he stuck to getting that degree when he was in college! Carrie

  17. It all depends on your abilities and decisions, for example Bill Gates made a revolution in software industry without a degree because he knew his abilities, if you know you can do something without getting a degree then you should be sure that you don’t need one.

  18. there is much talk here about the IT/computer field and the need to have a bachelor’s or above, what about the various certifications that are required to do the job as well. I am currently enrolled in one of the more popular online colleges and wondering if this is the way to go. I feel that a course in religion really will not help me much out in the IT field. I am aiming my sights on one of the online ccna certification courses that are available. Do you really need a degree when there are certifications available?

  19. Jesus, I hate whiny crybaby losers like John C. Welsh, always blaming the world for his troubles.

  20. But I love guys like Wang who are so busy calling people names that they can’t be arsed to spell the name of the person they’re ragging on correctly. Trolling and bad spelling, aren’t you just mommy’s brave little prince!

  21. Really guys! What tangible standard do you expect your future employer to grade you against? Especially in light of the limited time your potential future boss has to scruntize every applicant that is “the man” or “woman” for the job? Until they come up with alternative standards ( perhaps a new industry specific test ) you are going to need to get the degree closest to the field you are going in or you are going to wear the scarlet letter throughout your employment!

    If you somehow manage to get in good with a company, you’re a hard worker etc and you stick it out with that same company ( or very similar) till you kick the bucket then you might be ok. How often are you afforded that in today’s economy though? It just all spells out lack of discipline,determination and sometimes lazyness to think that you can get in and stay in for the long haul without it!!

  22. I know this is old, but I have been curious about this very topic lately. My take is that you do not need a degree to be happy; however, it really does depend on what you define as happy. For most people in America, happiness = money (or in most cases debt as they try to keep up with the Jones’). I don’t know why. I will say this from experience, that I have had positions where I made a lot of money (over $75K). I was completely miserable. I had the big house the nice cars the lavish vacations, but I wasn’t happy. I realized that none of those “things” were going to make me happy and that making a difference in the world, is what truly makes my heart sing. I downsized my entire lifestyle. I sold the house the boat the fancy car and I kept my beach house which is now my primary residence and I work for a non-profit organization and I write in my free time. I don’t miss any of my past. When people look at me and they see that I live in a manufactured home and drive a used Toyota they might assume one thing or another, but that is their problem, not mine. I am happy and if they are spending their time putting me down, then they obviously aren’t happy with themselves.

    I realize that many of those replying haven’t been to college in a long time, but perhaps before you speak you should return for a while. Colleges these days are nothing more than diploma dispensers. They don’t teach anything more than how to regurgitate “facts” imposed upon us by someone else. They don’t teach students to think freely anymore, or draw their own conclusions. They want you to paraphrase the book and guess correctly on multiple choice questions without taking the time to fully understand any of it. They are a business, and their goal is to make money. I’m 33 and just now going back to finish a degree I started many years ago. I was completely fascinated and saddened by what I encountered. Kids don’t go to college to learn. They go to college to party with friends. They can’t even form sentences when they write or speak, yet they may have a degree before I do, and to society for some reason, that makes them more intelligent than myself.

    BTW, my boyfriend is in the IT field and he makes over $60k a year (I guess that isn’t much by some of your standards, but it is a whole lot to us and to our parents who scraped by on much less) and he doesn’t have a degree either.

    I guess it all comes down to perspective in life. They don’t teach you that at the university.

  23. Thanks for everyone . I had learnt a lot of experience from u all. Now, I am changing my mind to continue my study. Even though I keep repick my subject in my course .At that moment, I feel very upset. Should I continue to study or just go out to work? I keep asking myself. Is degree or cert really that important.Now I realize that learning should be enjoying. The purpose I go in college is learn the knowledge. Degree is just a cert. Sometimes I compare with my friend who always get the higher marks, I realize that I knew the knowledge are more than him/her. Marks is just invaluable digital. Thanks

  24. Thanks for everyone . I had learnt a lot of experience from u all. Now, I am changing my mind to continue my study. Even though I keep repick my subject in my course .At that moment, I feel very upset. Should I continue to study or just go out to work? I keep asking myself. Is degree or cert really that important.Now I realize that learning should be enjoying. The purpose I go in college is learn the knowledge. Degree is just a cert. Sometimes I compare with my friend who always get the higher marks, I realize that I knew the knowledge are more than him/her. Marks is just invaluable digital. Thanks

  25. College is just a waste of time, money and another way America profits off of people. To be honset, I come from a background of educated and professional individuals. However, if you’re not studying to be a pilot, doctor, lawyer (you can become a lawyer without schooling), teacher, then college is just a waste of time. Majority of instituations provide out of date material and in very general terms…I don’t understand how telling students there will be an exam on chapter 3 Tuesday prepares you for you field of interest? This style of teaching pretty much doesn’t make much use of the brain, telling the students what to study is like giving out answers. I mean scoring high on an exam doesn’t mean anything to me other than you scored high on an exam. I dropped out of college during my last year (after doing 3.5 years) because I realized I wasn’t learning anything that I would apply to what I really wanted to do and I knew as much as the professor because I tended to study on my own the things I was interested in…I mean I could have taught the class if I wanted…Have a look at the college curriculums and tell me if even half the fields of study listed are even applicable to todays jobs? In fact, most of the jobs that are avaialbale today aren’t even listed as courses to study in…Therefore, you’re severely limited before you begin…

    Besides, why spend all your time and money to become another run of the mill employee for a GIANT company busting your butt to make ends meet on top of paying back college tuition. Most people make an average of $30K-$50K a year before taxes with their degrees…the only way to really succeed is to start your business or become successful as a lawyer, doctor, pilot or professor, other than those fields, almost everything else will land you in the “average” zone.

    I am 24years old and I started my own business and I also work…with time, I will become very successful without a degree. I am not discouraging anyone from attending college, but do your due diligence before deciding to commit to a field of study/work…it’ll save you lots of wasted time and money…both which are hard to come by in today’s society…

    PS. There is enough money circulating in the US to allow every citizen to be given over $10K (way above $10K)…I’ll bet that’ll jump start the economy again…!!

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