To university or not to university, that is the question

If I was to start again, as a fresh faced high school graduate, I would not go to university.

Well okay, maybe that’s not true. I might go to uni, but it wouldn’t be for the first rate education, it would be to bum around for 3-4 years, meet people and have fun. I work as a programmer, and there are many problems with tech courses at university:

  • Tech moves fast, universities don’t. The syllabus is always a decade behind.
  • Assignments are extremely short term projects. You don’t have to live with your mistakes or work effectively in a group.
  • At the end of your course, you’ll have a shiny piece of paper, a large debt, and nothing show people or employers and say “I made this!”

In contrast with university, online resources for learning have gotten dramatically better:

  • Think Python is a great book on learning the fundamentals of computer science.
  • Khan Academy’s computer science section is great.
  • Stack Overflow is a great resource for asking questions (and answering them, to build a reputation).
  • Github is the one stop shop for hosting your projects, showing off your work, and collaborating on volunteer open source projects to learn and prove your skills.

The main downside to not having a university degree is that some employers might not consider you if you don’t. I can’t speak for others, but when I look at people’s resumes (which doesn’t happen very often admittedly), I don’t even consider it. And this is coming from someone with a first class honours degree.

But it’s not all bad, I can see some advantages to university. If I’d tried the self education approach when I was younger, I might have slacked off a lot. University gives you some focus and direction (aka deadlines). There’s also an emphasis on written communication at university which always comes in handy. Not to mention actually getting feedback (aka grades) on your work and progress. And the whole physically-present-with-other-like-minded-individuals thing, as opposed to being a lone coder in your mother’s basement.

One thing is for sure though, you need more than just a degree. Work on a project outside of your studies, post it online for all to see. Contribute to an open source project of some kind, or start your own. Make something. That’s where you’ll learn the most.

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3 thoughts on “To university or not to university, that is the question

  1. Universities will adapt. Like schools, they are slowly integrating some of this clever online content into the classroom. Honours years have also long been about projects that are supposed to be real-world relevant. Guest lecturers from industry are helpful, perhaps underused. In engineering, we have work placements too. There are other opportunities too, if you’re motivated.

    I’m guessing part of the problem is that there aren’t the resources/people to do a syllabus review every year, the point of which is to make sure graduates are getting the range of skills they currently need. Although, I think the syllabi focus mostly on which classes to take, so within the class the lecturer probably has some scope to change. But then it comes back to time, with research projects and PhD students it would be hard find the time to come up with fresh content every year.

    Having said that, I think university gave me a good background knowledge of the areas I might be working in. In the sciences at least, the fundamentals don’t much change. And when the knowledge does change, the skills and techniques don’t much. I guess computer science is a bit of an exception here, but I’m guessing that even if you learn an old language or whatever, you’re better set up to learn new ones.

    Mostly university is about building general skills, about having a degree, not the exact content. Hell, even a PhD is primarly about the skills you learn, not the papers you write. University is training you to have a job in your field of interest, not to have purely practical experience, I guess if you want that then go to the resources you mention. I think, therein lies the difference between uni and TAFE/online learning: you’re set up with a more rounded skill set. You learn about how to learn, how to write, present, manage time, the history of your field – everything that also makes you more employable.

  2. I have never been asked for my degree. Every single (worthwhile) job I’ve ever had has been obtained through experience. The first time I was ever asked about my degrees was when it turned out I could get paid $3 an hour more if I had a Masters degree. That was last year, when I was editing a thesis.
    But, every single job and tip and project and subsequent work has come from the contacts with people and general skills I picked up in doing those degrees. And the only reason I did them was because I was interested in them. The skill set was just secondary, even unconscious.

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