I’ve been a professional writer for nearly 15 years. Before that, I was a corporate training manager and a trainer. I began my career as a sales professional (and a good one, at that). I often hear that you need a degree to do these things. But is that true?
Do I need a degree to be a writer? No. I, the author, don’t have a degree (though I did go to university 3 times, twice on undergraduate programs and once on a postgraduate program) and I am a writer. More than that, I’m a professional writer. Would having a degree help you become a writer? Maybe. Let’s take a look at that in greater detail.
Do I Need A Degree To Be A Writer?
There’s no need to have a degree in writing or, indeed, any subject at all to become a writer.
My Own Lack Of A Degree: Three Universities And No Paper?
I went to two British universities as an undergraduate.
Staffordshire University where I read chemistry. I quit in disgust after a year, the university’s teaching was abysmal, and the standard of student meant that the university was cheating to get people to pass. I have the equivalent of a Higher National Certificate in Chemistry from that experience.
Then a couple of years later I read chemistry and physics at Keele University, ostensibly a much better institution. In reality, it was just as bad.
I quit after the second year after being accused of plagiarism because my fellow students nor my professors could not carry out an experiment that my lab partner and I had done well.
This wasn’t a major issue. If nobody else could do it, how could I have copied it off of anyone? The disciplinary issue was over in less than 2 minutes.
But that combined with an unexpected crisis in my personal life led me to realize that I wasn’t going to waste any more of my time at university and I dropped out – at the time of leaving the course my pass marks in examination averaged >90%, I didn’t leave because I couldn’t do it.
I have the equivalent of a Higher National Diploma from that frustrating experience.
I was later accepted on to an MBA program with a global consortium of elite universities, the less said about that ridiculous experience, the better.
Why Does This Matter?
Well, none of my clients know this. Unless, of course, they’re reading it here.
In fact, last year, I earned nearly $80,000 and I did so without a single client asking to see a single qualification of any kind.
And I have loads of professional qualifications including a six-sigma black belt, a certificate in training practice from the CIPD, technical writing qualifications, content marketing from Hubspot, project management, kaizen, Total Quality Management, accountancy, Google AdWords, and many more.
And they never asked about any of them.
In fact, I can’t remember the last time that anyone asked me about my qualifications at all.
By the way, you don’t need any of the qualifications that I have either – I did them for professional development and for interest’s sake.
Could A Degree Help Me Become A Writer?
OK, if a degree isn’t essential to become a writer, is it an advantage to have a degree in writing or journalism?
It very much depends on the kind of writer that you want to be.
Writers, Degrees and Elite Schools – The Inside Track
If you take a careful look at literary fiction circles, you will notice that a fairly substantial percentage of the writers come from a small group of elite universities.
The same is true if you look to national newspapers and their lists of journalists, elite schools. Even the ones that claim to represent “the people”.
In these fields, there is an absolute advantage to having a degree from an elite university but…
I suspect the real advantage is from networking at these universities more than in the paperwork itself.
If you have powerful, connected friends they can open up otherwise closed worlds to you.
So, if you are good at networking and smart enough to get into Harvard or Oxford (depending on which side of the pond you are on) and their ilk, then yes, it’s possible to gain an advantage through a degree.
Writers, Degrees and Specialist Subjects – The Inside Track
There is, of course, also an advantage to some writers that wish to specialize.
For example, if you’ve always wanted to write about physics for Scientific American or the New Scientist, the odds are pretty good that they will want to see a physics degree.
You’d probably find studying pharmacy pretty useful if you want to be a medical writer for Eli Lily too.
However, unless you are incredibly motivated to write in a very specialist field and are aware that there are very few jobs of these types and that a degree does not guarantee success in any of them – it seems like a big risk to spend 3-4 years at university to study a specialist subject in order to write for a living.
Caveat Emptor A Degree Is Not A Passport To A Writing Career
I have looked at degrees from a more generic “digital nomad” perspective here and here’s the rub.
I don’t see a degree as entirely worthless.
There are good reasons to read for a degree in nearly any subject.
There are also terrible reasons to read for one.
For me, if you want to write for a living and can a.) get into an elite university and b.) afford the fees without significant hardship then going to university makes sense.
Having an “old school tie” to fall back on can never hurt.
Trust me, I know. I went to the same school as the King of Thailand (though his majesty is older than me, we didn’t attend at the same time) – mentioning it still opens doors for me when I need it to.
The Risk Of Getting A Degree To Become A Writer
Getting a degree is a huge expense.
$50,000 or more.
That’s a lot of money to bet on a piece of paper with no direct relevance to success or failure in a writing career.
If you want to be a writer, you can launch your writing career today.
In fact, if you want to be a qualified writer, you can do it for much, much less than $50,000.
$50,000 For You And Not For The Academy!
More to the point, if you are 18 years old and thinking about getting a degree to become a writer, I can guarantee that if you have any talent and sense of hard work that by the time your peers finish their degrees, you can have $50,000 in the bank.
That is while the graduates get into debt and slave away for free at “big girl’s school”, you could be a.) learning your trade in a more economic fashion, b.) getting experience as a writer and c.) then getting paid as a writer.
In fact, if you’re hard-working and intelligent and can already string a sentence together and you follow a simple method – you could have your own business set up within 24 hours.
Your portfolio could be ready within a month.
And you could have sold your first piece of freelance writing or landed your first writing job within a month after that.
That is by the time that your peers’ hangovers are wearing off from fresher’s week – you’d be earning.
Within a year, with patience, dedication and some hard knocks along the way – you could easily be earning $30,000 a year.
While your peers are spending money and spending money that they are borrowing from their future selves.
You have no debt. But you can invest some of your hard-earned money into a qualification – you could take my “how to start freelancing writing from scratch” course if it’s out by then.
Get Qualified As A Writer – Just Not Degree Qualified
Whatever area of writing floats your boat there are professional courses to be had. They cost from as little as $10 in a Udemy sale (though some are free – such as Hubspot’s Content Marketing course which is well respected as a starting place) to $1-$2,000 for the big-name flagship brand’s courses.
They are much cheaper than a degree.
You can fit them in while you work as a writer.
Your real-world work benefits from your studies.
This allows you to increase your rates.
The End Result: A Richer Writer
By the time your friends finish paying for their degrees, you ought to be commanding $5,000+ per month as a writer.
And here’s the thing.
Your university friends?
They will never catch you up.
I know, they’ve been told you get paid a premium for the rest of your life as a graduate and it’s sort of true.
But only for 2 reasons.
- The calculations for those graduate returns were done at a time when hardly anybody graduated, now roughly half of society goes to university, it’s not “special” anymore.
- Most people who don’t graduate or go to trades school have no plan – thus, they waste their time when their peers at university are preparing for the job market.
You, on the other hand, have had 3-4 years of professional experience. You’re published, a lot. They’re not. You’ve learned your skills from industry pros with a razor-sharp definition on the skills that pay. They learned theirs from lecturers who have never done much more than publish their own textbook on their university press.
Most importantly, you have not learned to be an academic writer.
You do not fill your text with gibberish to mask your lack of confidence in your words and to promote pseudo-intellectualism.
You write copy that sells. You write copy that engages.
You write copy that motivates, and you write copy that educates.
They will never catch up.
Do I need a degree to be a writer? No. You don’t. And while there are some fringe cases in which getting a degree can be advantageous in fairly specific writing careers, most of the time? Having a degree is a waste of a writer’s time.
Spend 3-4 years working on a focused plan and you’ll have a blog, clients, professional qualifications, and a healthy stack of cash in the bank – while the graduate is doing nothing but accumulating debt to burden them for the rest of their life.
A lack of a degree is no big deal to a truly talented and motivated would-be writer. But if you were planning on sitting around doing nothing at all while your friends go to university? That’s a terrible plan.