It's a debate perhaps as old as higher education itself, and never more relevant than in a tough economy and tight job market: what matters most when it comes to getting a job? Does that higher degree get your foot in the door, or does work experience count? And beyond actually attaining a job, will experience or education serve you best for staying employed, growing in your career and making a decent wage? (For some help on getting hired, check out No Wonder You're Not Getting Hired!)

The arguments are varied, but the main ones go something like this:

  • Argument 1: Higher Education only proves you can succeed in academia, not in a real-world job.
  • Argument 2: Success in actual work means more than success in education.
  • Argument 3: Work experience doesn't necessarily provide the skills you need for the next job you'll have.
  • Argument 4: A higher degree guarantees a particular skill set (which can be translated into work skills).

The reality of the experience vs. education debate is that no single argument can cover all the potential situations of job seekers, potential employers and career success.

Reality: It's Not Really an Either/Or Situation
George D. Kuh, writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, states that "research suggests that working during college is related to acquiring such employer-preferred skills as teamwork and time management."

In the ideal case, you - the job candidate - can show that you have both education and experience which equip you to better perform in the job you want to get. To end up with this combination, you might have to take a slower route through your higher education journey, in order to have time available for employment while you're in school getting those advanced degrees. You'll lose time, potentially; but you'll end up with experience and education, and you'll get to make money along the way. Approaching potential employers with a substantial degree, accompanied by a good work history, can help you not only get the job, but be sure that you're applying for the job you actually want.

According to Kuh, "[Working during college] helps students see firsthand the practical value of their classroom learning by applying it in real-life settings - which, additionally, often helps to clarify their career aspirations." (For more, read Should You Head Back To Business School?)

Reality: There Are Many Variables
The timing matters. A degree you obtained 20 years ago, especially in a technological field, is almost useless now; if you haven't been accumulating related work experience in the 20 years between getting that degree and applying for the job, then your education won't help. Things have changed too much, and a large part of why work experience does matter is because (ironically) it shows that you keep up with the trends, keep learning, keep studying and keep educating yourself adequately in order to do your job.

The actual field of work matters, as well. Margaret Steen, writing for HRWorld.com , advises potential employers to remember that "A graduate degree, especially from a top school, may give a candidate an edge for an engineering position ... In a field like sales, though, results are what matter most - and you don't get sales results from a graduate program." Some lines of work demand higher education; others may demand a level of work expertise that a degree just doesn't offer. (Check out Experience Or Education: Which One Lands You The Job?)


Reality: What the Numbers Tell Us
We can argue all day long, but there's an easy way to determine which will get you the better job, if you define "better job" in terms of pay check. A 2010 report from the National Bureau of Labor Statistics sums it up this way: "Education pays in higher earnings and lower unemployment rates." According to the chart, as the level of education increases, from high school diploma on up through various college degrees, the earnings increase with it - but only up to a point. A master's degree gets you more money than a bachelor's degree; a professional degree gets you more money than a master's degree; but a doctoral degree, the highest point of educational attainment on the list, actually gets you less money than a professional degree. So, higher education pays higher wages to a certain point.

Higher education does result, also, in lower unemployment rates, and that trend stays consistent all the way to the top of the chart. Doctoral degree holders have the lowest unemployment rate of all the educational candidates on the chart, and in this economy, there's much to be said for job security. A slightly smaller paycheck, after all, is better than no paycheck at all. (For more on find a job, read 5 Tips For Finding Your Perfect Job Online.)

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