Hitting the books

There was a time in my life when I thought that I would never stop studying. Any spare moment was spent buried in textbooks, or feeling guilty because I was preoccupied with procrastinating instead. I can assure you that my room/house had never been so clean.

I finished high school and went straight into three years of university. After I graduated I started a job in consulting, but within a year I was studying for a professional accounting qualification. It was during these two years that life was a misery with no respite. I would work for over forty hours a week, and then go home to cram Australian tax legislation and International Financial Reporting Standards into my brain (and hope it stayed there long enough for the exams). It was a stressful and unhappy time.

Student studying

For me, all this studying was purely for the pieces of paper at the end of it. A qualification was to be evidence of time and effort poured into attending lectures and passing exams.

In days gone by (and still in some countries), going to university was a symbol of higher learning, where one developed problem solving, lateral thinking, and reasoning skills through the debating of ideas. Nowadays, in Australia at least, university is more of a vocational exercise. The piece of paper is the goal, which will lead to your career of choice.

Depending on your career path, studying may continue to be a feature of your life. Continuing education courses, MBA, certificates, diplomas – you sometimes wonder whether the time and effort invested in career development is really worthwhile. I can say with confidence that most of the knowledge that I gained through formal study fell out of my brain soon after I walked out of the final exam.

On-the-job training and experience is one of the most effective ways of learning, and it is certainly how I’ve gotten to where I am now in my career. So when the thought crosses my mind about doing more study to further develop my career, I wonder, is there much point? Will the stuff that I learn actually be retained and benefit me? Is the learning just coincidental to obtaining the piece of paper at the end? Will there be a financial return from the expensive cost of tuition in the way of higher income? Is the qualification necessary as a gate to take the next step up in your career?

The reality is that, for some employers, they like employing a person with that piece of paper. It indicates that the person has met a benchmark or minimum standard and is therefore a safer bet than hiring someone that does not have the same qualification. It’s not necessarily a guarantee that the person will be a valuable employee, since there are so many other important considerations such as personality and culture fit, management style, work ethic, and attitude, but it still gives some employers a level of comfort.

However, for other employers, it is those aforementioned softer skills, as well as years of experience under the belt that they value. Knowledge and technical skills can be taught on the job, but these soft skills can mean the difference between someone being a potential success or a failure.

If you’re at the start of your career, or looking to change careers, having the right qualification will help in getting your foot in the door and scoring a job. But after you’ve been in the workforce for a few years, the next step up is more likely to be awarded through hard work, shouting out about your achievements (or having an advocate shout out about them on your behalf), grabbing opportunities to develop your skills and experience, and making your ambitions and aspirations known to those making the decisions.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that further study isn’t worthwhile, but weighing up the financial cost and opportunity cost (what could you be doing instead with that time and money?) against the likely benefits means that you might be better off looking for other opportunities to develop professionally.

Regardless of whether you decide to go down the path of further study or not, it definitely can’t hurt to look for opportunities to develop and demonstrate your softer skills. Put your hand up for projects, proactively seek to improve the way you currently work, and seek to help others and build your network. These things are probably more likely to develop your career than slogging away at a qualification.

And less likely to make your life a misery!

* Image courtesy of IvyWise

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2 thoughts on “Hitting the books

  1. I agree with you that a university degree or a fancy educational certificate today is seen as a necessity to get one’s foot in the door to a number of career industries, which is sad really – such a judgmental world we live in. And yes, studying while working full time is hard to balance and monetary factors come into play when we’ are deciding whether we can afford to further our studies these days. I think that if we work hard and be very meticulous about saving, we should be able to afford further education.

    I remember the last time I was at university, I loved what I was studying and lapped up what my lecturers taught me. I attended every lecture and class and didn’t mind all the essays I had to write at the end of the semester. In fact, I enjoyed it very much and I was very lucky I did well. Today I have my sights set on the highest echelon of higher education – a PhD 🙂 Like you, there were times when I forgot what I learnt the moment I walked out of the exam hall – but that was because I didn’t like and felt no emotional connection to what I was studying.

    Personally I feel there is no point in studying if it’s something we are not passionate about, or if we feel that what we’re cramming into our heads is boring and a chore. If we’re attempting a qualification to aid our change of career paths (one that we find appealing) or move up the ladder in an industry in which we’re dedicated to, then we should be excited about learning and moving forwards. If we’re moaning about studying in this context, chances are the career path we’re after isn’t something we really want.

    Education opens our eyes to new ideas. So does networking and working. My ideal world would be one where we all work part-time and study part-time. And some time as well for fun and games 🙂

    • I think you’re totally right, that if you’re studying something that you’re passionate about then it shouldn’t be so much of a chore. You should be eager to learn, and soak up everything.

      One unfortunate thing that I’ve come across though is when teachers are teaching sonmething that THEY are not passionate about. Or perhaps they are passionate about it but unable to translate that into enthusiasm for the subject matter and engaging their students. If anything can make studying a chore, I think that this can!!

      A PhD is massive! What area of research are you thinking of?

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