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Let's say a degree with few classes short, but have taken most of the important ones like algorithm, data structures, OOP and others.

Do employers consider unfinished degrees like this useful? If so, how should this be documented on the resume?

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What was your reason for not finishing? That may make a big difference for at least some employers. Also, algorithms and data structures courses are important, but not to many employers - being able to use prepackaged libraries is sadly, for most of us, more important than building and analyzing our own. –  Steve314 Dec 8 '11 at 5:48
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@Steve314 - Why sadly? Your job is to provide solutions, not waste time reinventing warm water. –  ldigas Dec 8 '11 at 5:51
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@Idigas - agreed, but given the chance, wouldn't you rather be doing the most interesting work possible at all times? CRUD is real life, but it's enough that we develop it - it's unfair to demand that we love it. Now admittedly, reimplementing red-black trees over and over would be just as tedious, but if that's what you got from your algorithms course I think you missed the point. –  Steve314 Dec 8 '11 at 8:12
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@andy, "some projects of my own" is not more valuable than "finishing the degree". Consider "did I finish my education" similar to "can I finish and ship projects". –  user1249 Dec 8 '11 at 9:52
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@Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen, this is not necessarily true. Microsoft was a pet project of a univerity drop-out. Facebook is another example. Many people here (including myself) are developers best known for their pet projects, with their degrees being in entirely unrelated areas. I can't remember when was the last time I had to use my irrelevant stupid diploma. But I use the skills and knowledge I've got from the university every day. –  SK-logic Dec 8 '11 at 10:19
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9 Answers

We can't answer how every employer will look at such a thing. Some people may see it as "well, it's better than nothing"; others will see it as "he can't finish what he starts". Whether it is helpful, or not, it will depend on which type of person is doing the hiring.

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+1: 'he cant finish what he starts'. This will probably be the prevalent thinking among employers - that for economic terms, once a project is started and the payoff for finishing is clearly beneficial, a person/team/company should persevere to finish it (i.e. bearing short-term costs). Do not let the "sunk cost mentality" fool you into not finishing your degree - sunk cost only applies to things for which "finishing" has a negative payoff, which doesn't apply to your case. –  rwong Dec 8 '11 at 9:20
    
@rwong: totally agree! –  Dean Harding Dec 8 '11 at 9:48
    
A degree can also be seen as breadth of knowledge. You might get into a job without one, but when it comes to downsizing (read redundancy/layoffs/firings) those without a degree are often the first targeted due to perceived onward value to the company. –  NWS Dec 8 '11 at 13:08
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If it's dropped out of school to pursue building my own software company, kinda like Bill Gates! then that's different than dropped out of school cuz I didn't wanna –  bobobobo Dec 8 '11 at 13:28
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They way employers see it, unless you have a really good explanation for not finishing school, you would have been better off not even starting. –  Brian Knoblauch Dec 8 '11 at 13:39
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We hire people with nearly-finished degrees all the time. They are called interns. They perform useful work for us, but not critical work, and are paid commensurately. We consider it a good investment because an internship is like a semester-long interview. We hire some very good new graduates that way, and also discover some new graduates we wouldn't want to hire. Note that I don't think you can get an internship most places without a planned graduation date.

Outside of internships, whether an unfinished degree is useful or not is largely irrelevant. You are competing against people with degrees and usually professional experience as well. Interviewing someone is time-consuming, so unless you've done something else to make yourself stand out, like running your own software company, you're unlikely to even make it past the HR screen.

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Why not get a minor in CS then?

In any case, the defining trait of our field is skill - if you have that commodity and it shines, it's easy to see. And if nobody sees it, go code something and sell it. Or start a software company.

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On "start a software company" - that could need far more than programming skills. –  Steve314 Dec 8 '11 at 5:49
    
What's a "minor in CS"? (coming from a different educational system, I undestood a "major" is a degree. –  ldigas Dec 8 '11 at 5:50
    
@Steve314 - good point, yes, it's very hard! –  Adel Dec 8 '11 at 5:55
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@idigas - A 'minor' is sort of a like a secondary, less formal degree. Its not a degree in of itself, but often by meeting certain requirements (such as 20 credit hours from a particular set of classes), one adds a minor to their degree. For example, a Comp Sci student might 'minor' in Math, meaning that he focused on math in his non-comp sci work, enough that he met his college's requirements for a Math minor. That then might get listed on his diploma. Not every school has them, though I think most in the US do. –  GrandmasterB Dec 8 '11 at 7:47
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Around here, a "minor" is something you get with a degree, a decoration if you will. It isn't a degree or a replacement for one. If you had a BA in Literary Theory you could have a CS minor. If you don't have any degree, you don't have a minor. –  David Thornley Dec 8 '11 at 15:04
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An unfinished degree is going to worry most potential employers. Even if the techie who interviews you doesn't mind some rules based moron in HR will probably object.

Your best bet would be to try finishing the degree part time, at least you could then honestly tell a prospective employer "I am completing a CS degree" which just sounds so much better.

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When I look at CVs, gaps will get me thinking. And besides that a potential employer wants to know that somebody is actually interested in the profession. Leaving out something like that, will take away that point. You have proved, that you can reach a partial objective after all. Dropping out without any completed courses, is of course something different.

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When you look at others' CVs, you also do look at the apostrophes and commas at the right places, I believe? –  Kris Dec 8 '11 at 8:48
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@Kris Why not? Attention to detail is important in business. –  quant_dev Dec 8 '11 at 11:25
    
@Kris Err um yes. –  Portree Kid Dec 8 '11 at 11:34
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It all depends on the reason why the degree was not finished (and also whether the person intends to finish it in the future). If you had a serious illness and could not complete the course for example then this could be acceptable.

Of course you may fall at the first hurdle if you send in a CV (Resume) and the employer thinks - "this guy cannot finish what he starts" - "I'll file this one in the round filing cabinet"

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Be encouraged that Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and others seemed to do OK not finishing the course. However, would they be the exception that defines the rule; I would think their companies would prefer employees who had finished the course. Real, relevant experience is what counts and the ability to prove and communicate it to who you want to work for.

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Not finishing anything is never a positive, and usually a negative. The best way you can put it on your resume is to list relevant course work. The best thing would be to keep working at finishing even if its only 1 class a semester or less. A target date for earning a degree looks a lot better than never earning one even if the date is far in the future. A resume is about getting an interview, an interview is a chance for you to explain and justify things, but you are starting off at a huge disadvantage if your resume needs an explanation.

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It's only hurt me once. I didn't finish because I was offered a job, so I never had the problem of looking for work with no degree and no experience. I have a sneaking suspicion that I may have been offered lower starting salaries, but I've never been turned down for a job just because I didn't have a diploma.

The only time it was a problem was when I interviewed for a university "think-tank" research group (for a non-research support position). The researchers were all either Ph.D.s or doctoral candidates, and I was told afterwards by one of them that I was the best-qualified candidate, but the director refused to hire someone without a degree.

I'd suggest going to local user groups and trying to meet people. Find somebody whose company is hiring and give them your resume. They can (hopefully) get it directly to the hiring manager, plus they may get a nice recommendation bonus if you get hired. Once you've got a couple years of real-world experience, not having a degree is less of an impediment.

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