This comes up a lot on digital nomad social media and what you tend to find is a lot of people with very strong feelings one way or another. Some insist that the answer is a categoric “no” and others are appalled that you might want to travel and work without a degree.
We take the middle path. Do you need a degree to be a digital nomad? Firstly, let’s be clear “digital nomad” is not a job and nobody needs a degree to work and travel. Secondly, there are some very clear use cases for having a degree as a digital nomad, even if it’s not essential to do so.
Note: I do not have a degree and nor does Megan. I read Chemistry and Physics as a dual-honors degree as an undergraduate but circumstances way beyond my control saw me leave at the end of my 2nd year of study. I was, however, top of my class when I left and the holder of the University Scholarship Award in Physics. Megan had to leave her degree in tourism after a year due to financial problems.
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Digital Nomad Is Not A Job Description
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again. Digital nomad is not a job. Even now, when I am writing about digital nomad life and hoping that one day, I might make a living out of that writing – I am not a professional digital nomad, I’m a would-be professional blogger.
When I work for clients, I am a freelance writer or trainer. Megan is a virtual assistant. Neither of us has “digital nomad” in our job description. Neither of us ever will.
Nor will you.
Digital nomads are people with the ability to work from places of their own choosing, who choose to travel and work. Therefore, you don’t need a degree to be a digital nomad.
The Two Cases When You Do Need A Degree
We can only think of two good reasons when you need a degree and a third where you might want a degree.
When Your Job Demands It
I have been a salesperson, then a training guy and then, for now, a writer. None of these professions require a degree. In fact, salespeople rarely need a degree – people pay you for your communication skills and personal resilience. A degree might make getting an interview a little easier in sales but it won’t help you keep your job.
I took my experience as a salesperson and learned to train salespeople. Then I broadened my knowledge as a trainer. I do have a training qualification (it’s a Certificate in Training Practice which was sponsored by an employer) though I am not a member of the industry body that awarded it (I dropped out when it became clear that the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development really only cares about HR and training is an afterthought) but that qualification only arrived after about 4 years of working as a trainer. No degree required.
The transition to writer was seamless too. I’d been writing journal articles during my time as a trainer and had run, part-time, a music magazine with a friend too. When I wanted to write, I set up an Elance profile and made my first sale in the first week. No degree required.
There Are Jobs That Need A Degree
However, there are jobs that require a degree. If you want to practice law, any kind of medicine, want to work as a data scientist, etc. then the odds are pretty good that you’ll need a degree of some description to get the work.
So, the first and best case for a degree is this – you undertake a degree when there’s a high chance of getting work that pays well and enables you to pay off your student debt for undertaking the degree.
That’s a “return on investment” or ROI and an immediate one.
So, if your degree has a professional focus and the profession is reasonably paid – it’s worth doing and you shouldn’t let anyone put you off doing your program of study.
If, however, you want to study flower arranging, interpretive dance, sociology, or something else with no clear career path – you might want to think twice.
Students leave university with $50,000+ of debt. Do you really need that hanging over you for life? You can’t even go bankrupt to clear university debt in most places. It’s forever with you.
When Your Degree Is A Hedging Opportunity
It’s fair to say that there are plenty of careers that you can pick up with a degree but there are plenty of others which demand a degree whether or not you actually need one (think “teaching English online” – a job that could be done by a squirrel but which is very hard to get a decently paid opportunity in unless you have a degree).
You will also find that if you ever decide to settle down in another country (not your country of origin) almost all employers will insist that you have a degree before they agree to sponsor you. (It is possible to be QBE – Qualified By Experience – for sponsorship but take my word for it, it’s not easy and I’ve done that 3 times now).
So, you might choose to undertake a degree as a hedge against finding yourself at some, unspecified, point in the future needing a change in circumstances.
You Need To Consider The Risks And Your Own Situation
$50,000+ of debt is a lot of debt to take on when you’re betting that you’re going to change your mind or that you might need other avenues of work in the future.
You should be realistic at this point as to who you are.
Me, I flit from thing-to-thing because once I get good at something, I get bored of doing it. I didn’t move into training because I was a terrible salesman but rather because I was the best at it in my field. I’d been the number one salesperson in the biggest company of its kind in the UK for 2 consecutive years, I could have stayed doing that until I died. But I was bored.
Who are you? If you tend to find your lane, settle in it and don’t often move – then a degree could be a terrible investment.
If, on the other hand, you change like the seasons – a degree can be a good hedge for future use. Plus, if you’re a digital nomad – you can always move somewhere with a very low cost of living with well-paid remote work and pay off your student debt faster than someone who stays at home.
Only you can decide if a hedging position in the form of a degree is worth your while.
One Reason You Might Want A Degree Anyway
There’s always some idiot that says “a degree taught me to think”. If you needed 3 more years of study after nearly 13 years of study to think, you’re probably not actually thinking now. It’s a wonderful lie sold by the education system but it’s a terrible reason to take a degree.
Go and buy a couple of books on reasoning and argument and read them in a month, they’ll teach you all you need to know about thinking for yourself and it will cost you much less than $50,000…
The only good reason to study for a degree other than the two situations mentioned above is this: you want to. You are passionate about the subject and you don’t care if it doesn’t make you money, you have a burning desire to learn about it and don’t feel that you can learn enough from books or other methods for it to be as good as learning at university.
You still need to bear in mind that this opportunity of passion will cost you a small fortune. If you spent $50,000 on personal and professional development that wasn’t a degree – we’re 100% positive you’d know more than a graduate (by a long, long way) when you were done. But it’s your money, not ours, spend it the way you think it suits you.
Alternatives To A Degree
I’d be happy to debate anyone with any level of qualifications in the subjects I know best. I keep up with research in journals, I read hundreds of books a year, I have dozens of professional qualifications, I may not have a degree, but I do have an education.
You can find an education too and one that is far more tailored to your circumstances than a degree. If you don’t need a degree – you can save a ton of money by designing your own education (combine book learning, video learning, online classes, and face-to-face classes too) and making it work for you.
If you have Google, you can work out at least one way to most jobs (though not all jobs) without a degree. Then you can spend your $50,000+ in savings on travel. Which is for us, the best way for a digital nomad to live.
No, you don’t need a degree to be a digital nomad. However, you might need one to join a specific profession or as a hedge against future choices. You might also really want a degree because you’re passionate about the subject you’re studying. These are all good reasons to take on student debt.
Otherwise, we’d strongly recommend you spend your money elsewhere and focus on specific skills and portfolio building to launch and sustain your digital nomad life.