Why Do People Like Degrees/Courses/Certificates?

Simple answer – because it’s easy. Not that I mean to say they are easy to get – ask someone who is working on an MBA at Harvard – I am sure it’s not easy. I mean to say it is easy in that the path is defined – you read the books, you take the test, you get the degree/certificate, and then you get a promotion/new job. Then, when anyone asks: ‘why you?’, you have something to fall back on. The path is clear, defined and reliable – it’s the easier path.

Why is it Easier?

Let’s face it, most people like a path that is defined for them. It provides us with something we love: clarity. I now know that if I do A, B and C, I will get a certain result. That result might be a certification, that result might be a degree, but I get those things – it’s a defined process where the outcome is certain, and almost all of us like certain.

Let’s look at the other path:  not taking a course. To be certain I don’t offend anyone, I will make up my own course – shoe sales. Let’s now say that you have just graduated university, and have decided to pursue a career in shoe sales, and you have two options:

  1. take a one year shoe sales course, earning a certificate
  2. enter the industry and learn independently

Most people would take the first option – I mean hey, you get a certificate! So for a year you go and take a series of courses, complete a series of tests, regurgitate a series of material, and come out the other side certificate in hand.

The Pro’s and Con’s of a Course

Well, first let’s start with the upside. You have established a ‘floor’ for your knowledge. Any firm can look at your certificate, and safely assume that you know some minimum of information – it’s good to establish a base experience. However, it doesn’t say anything beyond that.

Now let’s look at what you are sacrificing taking a course/designation:

  • Self discovery: instead of embarking on a path of self discovery, where you explore the industry (shoe sales!) and learn for yourself, you have now been fed the same pre-canned spam that everyone else is eating – you have been given the textbook education. You don’t get to challenge yourself, and you take on a lot of assumptions from your professors/classmates/material
  • Learn what actually matters: the first thing most students realize (myself included) when they graduate university/college is that 90% of what we learned was useless. Sure, I understand that there is some value in the process – but the question is: is the time you put into it worth that process?
  • Opportunity cost: while you were taking a shoe sales designation, studying after work – or not working at all – you were inherently giving up other activities. These might of involved spending some extra time at work (learning shoe brands?), talking to more senior sales people, or networking in your industry. Whatever it was, when you get out of your program, you will be one year behind. Here’s another way to think of it. If you spend 100 hours in class, doing homework, and writing tests over your one year shoe designation, what would of been the return on that time if you have invested it elsewhere? What is you had taken that time and networked, discovered mentors, and learned areas that you needed to study individually? Just keep it in perspective.
  • Generalized content: face it; you probably won’t need everything you learn in your one year degree. Either you will know it, or you it won’t be applicable to your business – it’s not a total waste of time, but it’s pretty close. Developing your own study plan allows you to focus on what you need to succeed not what you need to get a degree

Area’s Where it’s Okay to Take a Certification/Course


Don’t get me wrong, there are some areas where you have to take a degree or designation, so don’t go open a law practice and just tell clients “well, I could have gotten my law degree, but I am on a path of self discovery, and I think I have the self discipline to pull it off.” These areas include legal requirements, industry requirements, continual learning requirements, etc.


The Catch

It takes a certain individual to pursue a path of self discovery. Face it, since we were only a few years old we have been conditioned to enjoy structure in learning. At the start of every course, you were given an overview, and given the explicit criteria to succeed.

For that reason, the individual path is not for everyone – I know if I would of tried it instead of university it would have been an absolute disaster – I wasn’t ready for it! You need to take a self assessment and see if you have the self discipline and focus to hold yourself accountable, but the returns are worth the increased effort.

Journeying out on your own is never that clear – no one will test you, there is no homework, and no one cares if you fail – it’s all on you.


One thought on “Why Do People Like Degrees/Courses/Certificates?

  1. Pingback: Momentum Monday: A Book for Action « blairlivingston

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