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I'm currently in my placement year and working for a great software development company. It was always my intention of getting to this stage through university, getting enough academic experience as well as the year’s placement and then try to get a full time programming job without the need to finish my degree. I decided this from an early stage as I have never really liked the whole university environment. I was so unhappy at university and I’m so happy now I’m on my placement year, I really don’t know if I can go back.

My question is, do you think companies will take me on if I apply for other jobs after my placement year and not penalize me for not finishing my degree?

I guess at the end of the day I don't want to look back on my life and think "god, why didn't I just spend one more year being unhappy to have a job I love" but I know that even if I get a degree I could still end up without a programming job and this worries me more than anything.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Bryan Oakley, BЈовић, GlenH7, Dan Pichelman, MichaelT Jul 9 '13 at 15:40

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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Good programmers are and will continue to be in demand. If you are worried about regretting not getting a degree, just do the damn work and get it. The job will be there next year. Really. –  Matthew Flynn Jan 5 '12 at 5:03
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If you decide not to complete your degree, make sure that you know beforehand what the limitations to restarting it are. E.g. Can you go back to in 5 years time and finish it off? If so, then work at your dream job until you get bored and restart the degree as an older, richer more mature student. –  Stuart Woodward Sep 14 '12 at 7:13
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21 Answers 21

Every company and every hiring manager is different. Some will value hands-on experience more than a degree, but many will not look past the lack of a degree, especially in large companies where hiring is done by a HR department.

Basically lack of a degree:

  • will be seen neutral to slightly positive in most small startups
  • will matter little when you get a job via personal recommendation
  • will get your resume thrown out at a very early stage when applying through the regular channels at most large companies (and many smaller ones)

Overall, I'd say it's a considerable (but not unsurmountable) obstacle to getting a job.

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That last bullet point is important, +1 for it alone. I have known cases of people being told outright "you would be interesting to us if only you had a college/university degree". Something to keep in mind! –  Michael Kjörling Jan 4 '12 at 10:50
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@MichaelKjörling: That happens, but the bullet-point isn't at all accurate. I've had success with big companies, through regular channels, including the job I'm in right now. I have also hired for large companies and (obviously) don't discount people based on the lack of a degree. That all large companies have over-bearing policies like this is a myth, and those that do aren't the ones you want to work for. –  pdr Jan 4 '12 at 11:07
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@pdr: I've made the statement less absolute. I also don't think it's a matter of over-bearing policies, but of having to deal with hundreds of applications and not enough time to read each one thoroughly, so people resort to simple formal criteria to reduce the number to a manageable level. –  Michael Borgwardt Jan 4 '12 at 11:15
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@pdr +1 for "those that do aren't the ones you want to work for." –  kieran Jan 4 '12 at 14:08
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@Adam Robinson: There's a certain contempt for degrees in parts of the startup community (caused by bad experiences with CS graduates who had no actual programming skills). Of course it's not the lack of a degree by itself which would be considered positive, but the act of deciding against a degree in favor of staying in the industry. –  Michael Borgwardt Jan 4 '12 at 15:47
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It's probable that you will be able to get a job. It's possible you will even get a good one. I've done all right and I know for a fact that I'm not unique in that.

But you will be penalised. Make no mistake about that. It took me a lonnnnng time (upwards of 10 years) to get up to a rate of pay equal to peers with similar skill-sets. And, even now, I expect that if all other things are equal, I would be rejected in favour of someone with a degree.

Luckily, it's rare that all other things are equal.

But think about it this way: you may have to do some pretty miserable jobs to get to where you want to be. Would it not be easier to put up with a miserable year or so back at university and have the world at your feet at the end of it?

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@Ramhound: No, I don't think so; I think after 10 years plus, your degree is pretty useless compared to your experience. Any employer who doesn't get that is following some silly rules to define your worth instead of looking at your actual worth to the company. That said, it's also true that getting good experience without a degree 20 years ago was probably easier than it is now. –  pdr Jan 4 '12 at 15:12
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I certainly recall being turned down for an interview when I had 7 years experience on the basis that the company in question wanted a 2.1 Degree and all I had was a Pass. You'd think after that length of time it wouldn't matter, but it did then. –  Zhaph - Ben Duguid Jan 4 '12 at 17:23
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I have NEVER heard it said in a staffing meeting "I'd love to hire him, but HE HAS A DEGREE". I have REPEATEDLY heard the opposite (e.g. DON'T hire him because he DOESN'T have one).

Finish your degree. It WILL NOT hurt your job prospects... it enhances them!

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::sigh:: The cult of the degree. The funny thing is, many of the people responsible for breaking new ground and doing amazing things have done so in spite of having a degree. There's something to be said for sinking 4 years and tons of money into an education that will give you a baseline to start a career (and a lot of schools that offer an education that can't even do that). Especially, in the tech industry where formalized education is lagging far behind the curve. –  Evan Plaice Apr 20 '12 at 16:56
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Your lack of degree is a constant recurring issue, every time you change jobs, either because you don't like your current job or because of layoffs, you'll have to overcome your disadvantage. There was a recent question by someone that had a similar question, the main recommendation was to suck it up and finish your degree. I was also glad to start working, but I remember college life wasn't that bad (quite a bit a spare time, flexible hours), although I graduated in the Dutch system, which might differ from the US. In addition, I became a scientist, so I might have a bias towards an academic environment :).

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I started out in Computer Science in 2000 and left after 3 years when my internship offered me a full time job. I was ecstatic that I was making more than I was paying to go to school. Now after being at the job for 8 years now I have gained some valuable work experience but have very little to show for it in terms of financial compensation.

I started looking for jobs two years ago because I wanted a change of pace and just to do some different type of coding. Even though I am making good money I know that I could be doing much better in that department with my years of experience and knowledge. What I found was that it was easy as hell to get a job offer but everybody wanted to low ball me on the money side because, "I didnt have a degree." They wanted to hire me for my experience but they also felt they could get me for cheap because I didnt have that piece of paper.

Experience is valuable to the employer while your degree is valuable to you. Unless you start your own company and it becomes very successful, you will never make as much money as you can working a job without a degree. Plain and simple. I learned this the hard way.

I know it sucks right now but stay in school and finish so you can get that out the way. And if you have time maybe get some experience on the side too. But don't just drop school. Your future employers will hold it against you for no reason.

Also I make decent money without a degree but I am talking six figures possibly with a degree if you play it right.

Hope this helps...

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I recall my father saying that a college degree, and in many cases any college degree, can increase ones income by 20-30% throughout your career. You might spend 50k on the degree, it many times, pay for itself. ** Disclaimer ** Not all college degrees are created equal, I am talking about your typical 4 year, 120 credit college degree. –  Ramhound Jan 4 '12 at 14:58
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I would rather be getting paid and have some debt then be broke as shit with no debt. It depends on what you are going to school for. I think very few degrees are worth it but a CS degree will get you paid if you love what you do and are in it for the long haul. –  B Woods Jan 4 '12 at 19:32
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The thing about a college degree in the US is that it's the only legal way companies and government agencies have to determine and compare an applicant's general intelligence. That's why having a degree serves as a gate keeping function at many companies. Some companies take it even further and look for specific degrees from specific universities, believing that this will provide them with the best and brightest employees.

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There are some good answers here, I'm just adding this one due to my own frustration in the past (and nobody else has mentioned it yet).

Working abroad

If you don't have a four year degree, you may not be eligible for Visa sponsorship in many countries. I have upwards of 10 years of experience myself and have run into this issue (was a couple years ago and things may have changed, but I doubt it).

If you have your degree, then the world, as they say, is your oyster.

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+1 and more if I could. Back when I was doing Flight Simulator hardware I remember being asked when I entered Canada for a contract job, "why didn't the people who hired you hire somebody local to do the job." The answer was simple at the time, "Because there is nobody local with the skill set required to do what I do." Software development affords no such clear distinction. –  Evan Plaice Apr 20 '12 at 17:03
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In addition to what others have said about the lack of a degree being a recurring issue every time you go looking for a job, which at best is a factor that doesn't work to your disadvantage, I would also question your thought about "years experience", particularly starting out.

I'm not involved in hiring decisions, but if I was faced between the choice of one candidate who is a college/university dropout with maybe 1-2 years of experience, and another who completed higher education and has the same amount of experience, all else being equal (which of course it never is) I would probably pick the latter because, knowledge aside, it also shows an ability to finish what you start on.

Now, it is of course possible that you have some other quality that will work in your favor and which might even outweigh the fact that you dropped out of college/university, but you will still have to get past the requirement for a degree every time you apply for a job, particularly if you don't have a personal recommendation. This can be a major hurdle, particularly early on in one's career before one has gained a lot of real-world work experience and built a large network of professional peers.

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"Now one can argue the university system today is nothing like it use to be, because everyone has to be a winner..." Now one can also argue that that statement is very likely largely locale-specific, and not a general truth. –  Michael Kjörling Jan 4 '12 at 15:01
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do you think companies will take me on if I apply for other jobs after my placement year and not penalize me for not finishing my degree?

Some will, and some will not. My advice, as well as the advice of others on this thread, is that you should complete your degree. It is very appealing (and easy) to look at the short-term costs/benefits without considering the longer term costs/benefits.

This is one of the few well-paying careers open to people without college degrees. It is also a bastion of libertarianism and one of the last meritocracies in America: what you can do is almost always more important than who you know. It will not always be this way.

I've got a close friend who has been a contractor for the past 20+ years. For him, the software development environment changed around 2009 and now he is finding that his lack of a college degree is what is getting him rejected. At his age, he'd be over 60 by the time he finishes a bachelors degree if he starts now. His experiences, as well as those of my other friends over 55, tell me that I need to have an exit plan from this career before one is forced upon me, and this is why I'm working on my 3rd bachelors degree (this particular credential - a bachelors in accounting - is required to sit for the CPA exam). From my own unscientific surveys, CPAs retire when they want to, not because someone wants to hire younger people in the office.

On another - legal - viewpoint, NCEES (the organization that makes the Professional Engineer exams) is developing an exam for Software Engineering. This means that at least 10 states have expressed an interest in the exam and are interested in licensing software developers (hey, here in Colorado, we license kickboxers and hunting guides as well as doctors, lawyers, accountants and hair dressers). NCEES started developing this exam in 2009 and usually it takes them 2-3 years to develop and prepare one. Currently, to sit for a PE exam, you will have to have a bachelors degree. By 2020, states will change the requirements so that you'll need a Masters (or PhD) to sit for a PE exam. A licensure requirement for software developers will cause a lot of grief and complainery. Whether you like it or not, this sort of thing is coming. If you are not prepared, then you may end up switching careers long before you burn out on development.

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Could you add some citations to your post? Also I think you're overstating the scope of the problem. My understanding of the PE work requirements is that a person with a PE certificate has to be involved in (lead?) and sign off on the project; not that all the underlings also need the same piece of paper hanging on the wall. –  Dan Neely Jan 4 '12 at 18:09
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If it's pride that's preventing you from going back to school, let it go. A degree is a powerful thing, it opens doors. It's a challenge, but you sound intelligent, I recommend you figure out how to balance your personal and work life and go back to school, even for an associates degree.

To answer your question, number of years equivalent? 7-10 years at the same job. Toss on a certification exam and I think you'd have a level playing field.

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How about, wasting 4 years of your life doing work that has little/no production value (Ie non-PHD academic work is practice not development), money, being talked down to for 4 years by professors who have little/no real-world experience. But, more importantly, lets say you go back after gaining 5 years of substantial experience in the industry. What's the likelihood that HR is still going to measure your experience starting from the point when you earned the degree, vs using the work you did prior to school as the baseline. –  Evan Plaice Apr 20 '12 at 17:13
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I do not have a degree. It has not affected my ability to find work. I however have spent lots of time studying on my own to gain the knowledge I have (e.g. discrete mathematics, compiler theory). Without guidance, it was quite difficult at times, since I did not know what to learn first. I also spent the earlier part of my career as a contractor, so work was not steady. However, excluding the dot com bust, I have always been able to find work within a month of leaving my old contract.

I have worked for some very well known companies, but only later in my career. The skill set on my resume is what got me in the door. What sold them on me were the things I have accomplished, not the skill set that was on my resume. I'm sure I have missed opportunities due to the lack of a college degree, but I feel that it is only because those companies are filtering on a college degree and not my accomplishments.

I would much rather work for a company who hires programmers that enjoy and love what they do; not a company who simply wants people with college degrees.

To summarize, without a college degree, yes there will be missed opportunities, but there are so many opportunities out there that you won't notice them.

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I expect a candidate to be able to manage algorithm analysis as well as the formal analysis required to understand and create more sophisticated concepts. That is taught in a comp sci degree. It is of course debatable as to whether they learned it, but it is taught.

Without amazing experience, portfolios (github et al), and recommendations, I would not recommend hiring someone for programming without a math-based degree, regardless of years of experience.

If someone drops out of college because they didn't want to finish it (that is, they didn't have health, family, or other practical reasons preventing the finish), that's pretty much a DQ. I don't want to work with a quitter. College is not that hard to complete in the US.

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I dropped out of college because, I was offered a full time position and the pay was great at the time. However, after three years I was laid off. Since then (6 months), I have not been able to find a job, and now more than ever I need the money. Don't do it, no matter how smart or experienced you are most companies require a degree and there is no back door or short cut to a dream job. Otherwise, more people would drop out their Jr & Sr year.

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Personally, I feel that I learned more in my last year of school than I did in the first 3 combined. I'm not sure how your curriculum is structured but as I went on I had less required courses and was able to pick more courses that were interesting to me. If your curriculum is at all similar I would recommend going back as it's possible that if you don't you will miss out on the most valuable part of your education.

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I would agree with what many have said above me and I would say that you should 100% go back and finish your degree in order to get the best full time position possible. Although your skills may be up to par, companies really look for the degree on the candidate in order to know they are qualified and although the college scene was not for you, there are plenty of online options out there that could be a good fit. In terms of money I think you will see a major increase with a degree than you would without. Like I said earlier there are plenty of options of online education that might be a better fit for you than a stand in class or big time university setting. I know mostly all accounting firms and financial firms that will only hire people that carry a degree with them and they are very excited about students that complete them online. Check out http://accountingcertificateprograms.net/ as well for more information that might help you find a program online that could fit what you are looking for.

Its a well known fact that right now the financial industry is doing very well and they can always use top notch programmers. I would check out http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Business-and-Financial/Accountants-and-auditors.htm as well in order to learn about what kind of opportunities you can get with your degree rather than trying to pursue jobs with out one.

Just personal opinion, but I think you are on the right track to find a good job you like but in terms of getting a degree I feel its a must in today's professional world and it will only help you find the best job that fits what your looking for.

best of luck!

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Not having a degree can definitively close doors to full time positions at some of the larger companies as they can write their internal standards in such a way that having the degree is a condition of employment. There are some ways around this such as being actively matriculated into a program (depends on the company and how much they want you) or by just working for them as a contractor (although you might not get paid as much as someone with the same experience as you and a degree), but you will find doors that are closed and in some cases you will not know about it unless someone tells you. Likewise, HR departments typically use keyword filtering on CVs that are submitted and might discard yours if it doesn't mention having a Bachelors or at least an Associates degree.

That said though, it does depend upon what you want to do as consultant and contract jobs typically don't care if you have the degree as long as you can do the work that they need you to do. The catch is that you need to keep up with what is the most likely skill set to get you hired.

Also, as others have pointed out, smaller start-ups either don't care, or could see the lack of a degree as a plus as long as you have a strong portfolio of code demonstrating that you know what you claim to know. If you enjoy that type of work you may be good to go already.

Finally, if you want to do some sort of work for yourself (i.e. writing programs for the various app markets) then there really aren't any education requirements beyond being able to learn what you need to learn. The catch is that income could take awhile to build up to where you would be if you were working for a company and you taxes are going take up more of your time.

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I hate it when I miss out on full-time potions! They're much more potent than the part-time potions out there. –  Adam Robinson Jan 4 '12 at 16:03
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1)University degrees are overrated. Who taught the first photographer to take pictures? Expertise is gained over time and with passion/love forr what you do.

Don't believe me?

In 1997 I wanted to be a developer. I was not able to go to university and had to go through a correspondence college to learn basic Java and OOP concepts. I was presented with out of date material and had to find my own resources through Oreilly/online materials.

Unkowingly I had a brain tumor at the time which was discovered in 2010. The size of an orange! Yet I managed to pass SCJP, SCJD, SCBCD, and SWCD. My grades weren't perfect and I evn tempted to get a job, but was unable to cope due to the tumor.

In 2011 After 5 brain surgeries (2 were major 5 hour surgeries). I continue to develop and learn programming. Mostly thanks to online communities and Oreilly.

I don't know if I can continue in this field given my ongoing battle, but surely drive/passion must mean more than a degree?

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It's definitely worth the time in the long run. Case and point is that I was someone that started programming without a degree and was making decent money. I would have graded myself as a pretty good programmer with decent chops; however, there were others that were better than me. Going through the program really forced me to think and learn some hard mathematical problem-solving skills which definitely made me a better thinker and ultimately a better programmer. I am moving into an MS in CS as well and I have to say that many more opportunities opened up after getting the degree.

In terms of the money, I went from being a run-of-the-mill programmer to being the CTO of a pretty awesome company in NYC. The pay went from 5 digits to 6 in about 6 months or so. So, my answer is that the degree is valuable both in terms of learning and in terms of earning the $Benjamins. It's hard and often times you will want to quit but, as they say, nothing easy in life is worth doing.

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There are three angles to having degree:

  1. The formal enhancement of your education - pretty obvious, but if you have some great tutors and colleagues, it can really fine tune the grey cells. In my case it was a piece of paper (actually two pieces) that opened the first door - I had been programming already best part of 10 years.
  2. A piece of paper - it won't open every door but it is unlikely to close many. At the start of your career you don't have many bragging opportunities so a degree is one piece of advertising that could get you noticed.
  3. Extra curricula - this will make you a better person(usually). Time to make some mistakes. Time to try out some ideas. Time to have fun. Time to figure out what you really what. Once you get on the treadmill it is damn difficult to get off - mortgages, wives, kids all get in the way of those great ideas. This can also provide bragging opportunities during the job search.
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  • Unfinished degree without an exceptional reason for not finishing it indicates a lack of commitment.

  • Years of experience mean nothing. You can work in one company for a year and learn as much as your colleague has learnt in another company after eight years.

  • Proven track record is an indicator of your experience. Unfinished degree significantly undermines your proven track record.

  • Many exceptionally good companies won't consider offering you an interview for a reasonably good job if you have an unfinished degree

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Certainly having a degree is not needed to be proficient as a programmer. You should think deeply about what you want to achieve in your career as a software professional. Here are some bullets if you've already decided to drop college:

If you are passionate about programming, you should be self-taught and looking to use your free time to code because you love it and you want to solve hard problems.

Look for companies who want valuable people, invest your spare time attending programming events and find local developers community.

Remember, having a grade is a tool for get a job, but contributing to open source projects and helping other programmers can help you to have great opportunities where people understand hacker culture.

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