To Degree or Not Degree - That Is the Question

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If you're planning your future career - or thinking about making a career change - it pays to know whether or not you need a degree for the job you're eyeing.

By Jennifer Berry

With the price of education continuing to rise and the jobs outlook still a bit foggy, anyone choosing to pursue a college degree should be asking themselves one question: How valuable is a degree for the career I want?

"It depends on the industry," says Hallie Crawford, founder and certified coach at Create Your Career Path, a career coaching firm. "For medical professions, a degree is absolutely required. For marketing, not as much."

But how will you know if your dream career requires a degree?

Nancy Ancowitz, business communication coach and author of "Self Promotion for Introverts," recommends that you "reach out to people already employed in the career you're interested in."

Your professional network is a good starting point, but if you're still having trouble finding good advice, ask a career expert.

Don't know any? Fortunately, we've talked to two for you. Keep reading to get the skinny on whether or not you need a degree to prepare to pursue these seven popular careers.

Career #1 - Personal Financial Advisor

If being a financial advisor is anything like the movie "Boiler Room," then all you may need are guts and a take-no-prisoners attitude to succeed. But how does the real financial world view a college degree?

"Without a degree, it will be extremely hard for you to land an interview for a personal financial advisor position, especially at a major firm," states Ancowitz. "In this competitive market, a bachelor's degree is expected as a starting point."

To Degree or Not Degree: The U.S. Department of Labor confirms that financial advisors - who help people with their investments, taxes, and insurance decisions - usually need a bachelor's degree. A degree in finance, accounting, mathematics, business, economics, or law might be good preparation for this occupation.

You'll also need a certification, says Crawford. Certifications (like Certified Financial Planner) might enhance your reputation and help bring in new clients, according to the Department of Labor. To get certified, you'll need at least three years of work experience. You'll also need to pass an exam and agree to follow a code of ethics.

Click Here to Find the Right Finance Program Now.

Degrees for Career Upgrades: If you're interested in climbing the ranks of your financial planning company, the Department notes that getting a master's degree in a subject like finance or business administration might improve your chances of attracting new clients or moving into a management position - but it's not a sure thing.

Ancowitz says you don't need an advanced degree to succeed as a personal financial advisor, but concedes that "obtaining an MBA will not only deepen your financial acumen, it could also boost your starting salary."


Career #2 - PR Specialist

It takes a special kind of personality to handle press, pull off flawless events, and manage the public face of a celebrity or a corporation. Sound like the kind of challenge that would get you out of bed in the morning? Great! So the next question is... Do you need a degree for this career?

"Not necessarily," says Crawford. "You can get into this career by starting out as an intern or a project assistant at a PR firm." While this is true, certain degrees might help open doors when you're starting out.

To Degree or Not Degree: However, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, PR specialists commonly need a bachelor's degree, and employers typically prefer people who've studied public relations, English, communications, business, or journalism.

Click Here to Find the Right Communications Program Now.

Degrees for Career Upgrades: If you're interested in climbing the ladder from PR specialist to PR manager, the Department of Labor says a bachelor's degree in communications, public relations, or journalism is generally required - but some employers prefer a master's degree in public relations or journalism. In fact, in 2010 one-fourth of all public relations managers had a master's degree.

What might be equally as important as having a degree: having work experience in a public relations position, says the Department.


Career #3 - Police Officer

Were you the kid on the playground who leapt in to save someone from a bully? If your natural drive to help and protect others is urging you to consider a career as a police officer, you might want to know what, if any, college degree could prepare you.

"Attending police academy is the requirement here," says Crawford. Most police officers must have a high school diploma, must be U.S. citizens of at least 21 years old, and must meet physical and personal qualifications.

To Degree or Not Degree: The U.S. Department of Labor confirms: Usually police officers and detectives have at least a high school education and graduate from their agency's training academy. Still, the Department of Labor does say many agencies require a college degree or some college coursework. If you're interested in earning a degree, you might consider majoring in law enforcement or criminal justice.

Click Here to Find the Right Criminal Justice Program Now.

Degrees for Career Upgrades: None! For police officers, promotions are usually made according to a candidate's position on a promotion list (determined by scores on a written examination and on-the-job performance) after they've passed a probationary period, according to the Department of Labor.


Career #4 - Paralegal

The legal world can be a fast-paced, high-stakes place - and paralegals are becoming an increasingly important part of it. If this is the type of career you've been longing for, you probably want to know whether or not you need a college degree.

The short answer: You will need some level of education, but requirements do vary. According to Crawford, "You'll need a paralegal degree or certificate."

Jennifer Montalvo, a senior paralegal at an AmLaw 100 firm (a firm ranked in the top 100 law firms by the professional journal "The American Lawyer"), agrees. "Most of the jobs I applied for after graduation required a degree," she says.

To Degree or Not Degree: There may be a bit of wiggle room here. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, some employers hire entry-level paralegals without any legal experience and train them on the job - though you'll typically need a bachelor's degree for these jobs.

However the Department of Labor says - and Crawford agrees - that most paralegals have an associate's degree in paralegal studies or a bachelor's degree in another field and a certificate in paralegal studies.

Click Here to Find the Right Paralegal Program Now.

Degrees for Career Upgrades: With experience, you might be given more responsibilities at work. But if you're looking for an upgrade, you're looking at law school, says Crawford.

Career #5 - Social Worker

You've made up your mind - you're ready to devote your life to helping people solve and cope with problems in their everyday lives. For you - social work isn't just a job, it's your calling. But before you answer that call... should you earn a college degree?

"Yes, absolutely," says Crawford. "You need to be certified as a social worker." And certification begins with a bachelor's degree. But this is not to say you have to have a degree to help people.

"A social worker I spoke with said that plenty of people without degrees perform social work tasks - like volunteering at soup kitchens and hospitals - without a degree," Ancowitz says. But if you want to be a direct-service or clinical social worker - you do need a degree.

To Degree or Not Degree: According to the U.S. Department of Labor, a bachelor's degree is required for most direct-service social work positions. The ones that don't require bachelor's degrees require master's degrees. So a degree is definitely necessary if you want to prepare to pursue a career in this field.

If you're wondering what to major in, the Department of Labor says a bachelor's in social work (BSW) is the most common degree, but some employers consider workers with bachelor's degrees in related fields like sociology or psychology. If you do choose a BSW program, you might learn about social welfare policy, diverse populations, and human behavior, according to the Department.

Click Here to Find the Right Psychology Program Now.

Degrees for Career Upgrades: If you're considering preparing to pursue a career as a clinical social worker, you must have a master's degree in social work (MSW), according to the Department, which will require you to complete supervised fieldwork or an internship.

The good news - you don't have to have a BSW to enter an MSW program. The Department says almost any bachelor's degree is acceptable, though they recommend coursework in economics, sociology, psychology, and political science.


Career #6 - Writer

Do you spend a good part of your day crafting stories in your head? When you consider the legacies of writers before you, you might wonder if you need a college degree to head down this career path.

"Not necessarily," says Crawford. Shakespeare didn't write "Romeo and Juliet" in school, and you don't need a degree either to pursue writing. But how do you get started? "Write a book, or generate a portfolio of work," Crawford suggests.

Ancowitz's colleague Maria Murnane, best-selling author of "Perfect on Paper: The (Mis)adventures of Waverly Bryson," doesn't think having a degree will automatically make you a good storyteller - though it might help you learn the difference between "you're" and "your." As Murnane says, "Regardless of how interesting your story is, poor grammar and sentence structure will drag it down - and damage your credibility."

To Degree or Not Degree: It really depends on your future goals. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, positions as salaried writers or authors generally require a college degree. But if you're not aiming to work as a writer on staff, you may get paid assignments regardless of your education. In this case, the quality of your writing and unique perspective will be the best determinants of success for an article. If you do want to earn a degree, consider majoring in English, journalism, or communications, which are majors many employers prefer.

Click Here to Find the Right Communications Program Now.

Degrees for Career Upgrades: "An advanced degree might help if you want a career as a writing professor, but otherwise it's not necessary," says Crawford. If you're hoping to advance in this field, you might want to focus on taking on more complex assignments, building a reputation, and getting published in more high-status markets and publications, the Department of Labor suggests.


Career #7 - Graphic Designer

Do you have a gift for visual communication - and the desire to turn that gift into a career? Graphic design is one path that artistically inclined people can take to turn their passion into a profession - but do they need a college degree to do so?

"Yes," Crawford says. "You'll need a degree or certification in graphic design." That might seem counterintuitive if you're already a good artist - but the tools of today's graphic designers include computers, software, and knowledge of how to design for the Web as well as for print and TV.

In addition to a degree, you'll also need a strong portfolio that shows what you can do, Ancowitz advises.

To Degree or Not Degree: A bachelor's degree in graphic design or a related field is usually required to get started as a graphic designer, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. “However, those with a bachelor's degree in another field may pursue technical training in graphic design to meet most hiring qualifications.” Aside from graphic design courses, the Department of Labor recommends studying writing, marketing, and business.

Click Here to Find the Right Graphic Design Program Now.

Degrees for Career Upgrades: Like writers, advancing in this field will likely depend more on your talents and your successful campaigns than on advanced degrees. According to the Department, experienced graphic designers might get promoted to chief designer, art or creative director, or other supervisory positions.

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