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Education or experience: What does it take to land a job?

As students work multiple internships while attending university, what matters to employers more, education or experience?

Education or experience: What does it take to land a job?
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

During my time at university, “What will you become, a teacher?” was a running comment for the English Literature and Language department. I had no idea what career I’d choose. I switched majors three times before returning to English Literature and had a delayed graduation. Applying for jobs afterward wasn’t easy. 

“Employers are usually looking for a combination of experience and education, though it’s not easy to get the required experience while still studying,” says Henry Thorne, founder of creative recruitment agency Adcopia. 

Mounir Shaltony, an HR Leader and consultant, says, “I’ve had students tell me they chose X program because it was easy, or because they just wanted a degree, or because they heard there was good money in that field. Compare them to those who said: ‘I studied X because my career plan is to do A, B, and then down the line C’. Who do you think will move in the hiring process?”

Interestingly, aside from more technical career paths involving law, medicine, and engineering, there are people without a degree getting by just fine with experience in their skills belt. 

Felix Kwame Agbetsise, a high school graduate who works as a professional musician and educator, says one can succeed without a degree depending on the line of work. “I am living proof that some employers look out for experience and achievement history, especially for skilled jobs.”


Over the past few years, the job market has become tough and demanding when it comes to requirements. 

Sara Hassan, a high school graduate who now works as a tour operator, says a degree is not a requirement most of the time. “There are other ways, such as portfolios, internships, apprenticeships, and volunteering work, to get experience and improve their skill level. Having a degree speeds up the hiring process.”

Agbetsise adds he relies solely on referrals and networking to get a job. 

For a fresh graduate, the market can be very competitive. “Even with a good university degree, it can be difficult to get that first job,” says Thorne.

More specifically, understanding what employers are looking for as a fresh graduate or a person who doesn’t have a degree can be challenging. Shaltony highlights that an employer looking to hire a fresh graduate understands that they lack the needed experience. However, those with experience in their record, such as an internship, part-time work, an interesting graduation project, or courses aligned to the role on offer, will most likely be the employer’s pick.

Thorne echoes the same sentiment, saying, “Not only does it show that the candidate has the experience, but it also shows that they have a hunger to learn and develop their skills. Employers seek a personality that matches the company and office culture.”

Employers are looking for energy, hunger, and drive from fresh graduates, says Shaltony. “These are not quantifiable, but a fresh graduate who can demonstrate they’ve gone above and beyond the bare minimum will be noticed by employers.”

The job market is shifting, and so is the mindset of the young generation. “It’s important for employers to cater to the high-achieving fresh graduate. Offering a job is no longer attractive for the student who has gone above and beyond; they’ll want to see a proper development program and a career path that rotates them across various projects, roles, and geographies,“ says Shaltony.

Moreover, job hunting comes down to survival of the fittest nowadays, where more than having a bachelor’s degree is needed. “The level of education required for certain jobs depends solely on the industry. For example, in many finance jobs, a Master’s degree is essential. However, a bachelor’s degree is usually sufficient in the creative field.” 

Shaltony explains that it is more about the competition for the position and the candidates in the pool. “A bachelor’s degree may be fine for most entry and mid-level roles, but as you grow, an employer will compare you to the available talent pool when considering you for a new role or an internal promotion.”

He says a bachelor’s degree can get one through the door but not up the ladder. 

“There remains an unspoken stigma about people being managed by someone who doesn’t have a degree — or doesn’t have the right degree in the relevant field.”


Employers also need to make sure they are making the right bet. While they may take a chance on somebody without a degree or without the relevant degree, the employee must work beyond the provided technical knowledge, pathway for growth, and tolerance for mistakes.   

“Having a degree does show a recruiter the candidate’s dedication to achieve. Degrees are difficult to obtain and require much hard work, studying, and tenacity. In my experience, I have noticed that candidates with newly obtained degrees articulate themselves well and present their desire to find work. They want all the hard work to contribute to full-time employment,” says Thorne. 

Shaltony jumps on the same thread, stating, “A degree by itself tells me nothing, but in an interview, a discussion about the degree can tell me a few things such as the logic behind choosing a certain program, if the candidate has the intelligence to plan for the future and sometimes stories from fresh graduates who overcame challenges to study and earn their degree tell the employer that when it’s crunch time, the candidate is likely to put their head down and work hard to pull through.”

Hassan mentions that she has experienced interactive interviews despite the circumstances. “Their questions are more tailored to your experiences, skills, limits etc.. When asked about my qualifications I honed in on my experiences in volunteering, extracurriculars, and related past experiences to the current job offer.”


Whichever path one takes, be it high school to work or the college route, employers take having a degree to better understand their candidate.

“I want to study animation and illustration and see if it is something I want to do for work,” says Hassan.

Similarly, Agbetsise faces the reality of corporate jobs requiring degrees as a vital requirement and intends to pursue a degree. “It will also be a great achievement for me to be able to complete a degree.”

Thorne recommends that students focus on their desired industry while at university and gain experience to advance their careers. “You can have all the degrees in the world, but if you do not have any work experience, an employer will always outweigh education with experience.”

Shaltony urges students to understand that simply hitting the apply button is unlikely to do anything, experienced or not. “Make your profile visible, reach out to recruiters, and have a short introduction that specifies your field of interest to make it easier for the recruiter to help you. Showcase your graduation project/thesis, and list the courses you took on your resume.”

It’s never too late to pursue a degree. “There will always be opportunities to advance in education later. Within certain industries, in many instances, the employer would encourage this and see it as further investment in you. For example, in the creative field, it’s common to attend creative schools while still employed,” says Thorne.

Discussions with your network after high school are also highly advised, says Shaltony. However, he advises against a Master’s immediately after a bachelor’s and to spend at least 2-4 years working before deciding whether you need a Master’s degree and in what field.

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Suha Hasan is a correspondent at Fast Company Middle East. More

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