Career Advisor by Edgar Saadi

Education and experience: too much, not enough?

Finding the employment sweet spot when it comes to the amount of education and experience you need for the position you want

August  1998
[Next story]
[Table of Contents]
Sun's Site

This month, Edgar counsels two brave individuals who want to break out from their current jobs, but aren't certain what type and amount of education and experience it takes to get to where they want to be. Also, a contracting newbie gets tips on where and how to start. (1,400 words)

Mail this
article to
a friend

Dear Edgar,

I work for an Internet development company specializing in e-commerce. I started working here just coding HTML (boring production work); however, I worked hard and taught myself some valuable skills. I'm now one of the lead programmers developing and implementing shopping-basket technologies. Although I've received increases in pay, I feel I'm underpaid. I plan to discuss my salary, but I need to prepare myself to move on if I'm not satisfied.

My main concern is creating my resume. I do not have a college degree and often feel I will be passed over if I inquire about a new job. I hope you can give me some advice about making my resume's education section look better, or not as bad. I plan to start testing for a technical certificate such as MCSE -- would I list this in the resume's education section? After all, I didn't attend a class to obtain the MCSE.

What Degree?

Dear What Degree,

Don't worry too much about education and your ability to garner attractive offers. If you are technically skilled in today's technologies, you are a valuable commodity. Many people would die for your experience. We get calls all day long from people with advanced degrees and tremendous specialties who want to know how to get experience.

Further down the line in your career, however, you may indeed be limited by your lack of formal education. Oftentimes, to reach the uppermost echelons of an organization, you often have to prove your worth in part by having the right degree. At this point, perhaps you will decide to seek the education and the degree. But today's marketplace is in need of people with the right skills; and the marketplace is willing to pay.

In terms of your resume, you clearly want to downplay your lack of schooling. If there is really nothing to speak of, leave the education section out altogether. One good option is to put your MCSE in a separate section called "Additional Training," or "Training and Certificates."

During any comprehensive interview, a mention of education will invariably come up. Address it plainly: you taught yourself, at work and on your own. There's nothing to be ashamed of, and there's no reason to waste valuable eye space on your resume glossing over something that you don't want to emphasize.

No "real-world" experience?

Dear Edgar,

I'm interested in making a career change, from teaching as a college professor in computer science to being a software engineer in the computer industry. My ultimate goal is to become a consultant.

I have been having a difficult time obtaining a position with a salary comparable to my current salary as a professor. Employers have been quick to slight my lack of experience programming in the real world. As a result, I've only been getting offers for entry-level positions.

Because the salaries are less than what I'm making now and the hours are longer (a full year with two weeks vacation versus nine months with three month's off), I haven't taken any offers. Although I do not have real-world experience, I believe the experience I obtained getting a PhD and my experience as a professor is substantial enough to warrant a position slightly higher than entry level. I don't need any training in any language such as C/C++ or Java. What I don't know, I can learn on my own rapidly. The only thing I believe I lack from experience is designing software in a business environment. Can you offer some helpful advice?

Too Academic?

Dear Too Academic,

You should not be taking an entry-level position with your credentials. Although you may not have the business environment experience, there is true value in your knowledge of C, C++, and Java.

First, tap your network of people. If you haven't been keeping in touch with any of the students you taught who have gone on to corporate jobs, the time to reestablish those connections is now. Look up a few of your former best students and see what they're doing now. If nothing else, the world of academia should have provided you with a lot of commercial leads.

There isn't a large company out there that doesn't occasionally use consultants to bring in knowledgeable expertise in certain fields. There are also some academically-based institutions, such as SRI (Stanford Research Institute), that have built impressive records in the corporate world. You may not be able to command a $100,000 salary straight out of the university world, but you are clearly above entry level.

Your poor luck may have something to do with your geography. The kind of demand and opportunities that I'm describing apply in Silicon Valley and many urban environments. If you are in a rural town that does not have a lot of big businesses, you may want to consider relocating to a place where there is more demand.

As far as the three-month vacations, you'll have to kiss that perk goodbye -- you can't have it all.


Getting started as a contractor

Dear Edgar,

I've been writing C++ code for the last five years at a large drug company. I've done some study on object-oriented development and Java. I am also about halfway through the MSCE+Internet certification.

I've thought about doing some contracting, but I don't know how to get started. What do you recommend?

Contracting Newbie

Dear Contracting Newbie,

The best way to start looking for a job, whether it be full-time or contracting, is through word of mouth. Get a referral. Talk to friends and business associates who have done contracting or dealt with companies that place contractors.

Unless you have a network of possible employers, it can be difficult to move straight into this realm and get work as a contractor. First talk to who you know. If this doesn't pan out you will probably have to seek out the help of a placement company.

There are plenty of firms out there that specialize in placing contractors. Pencom Systems Incorporated (where I am senior vice president) places contractors and full-time people. The benefit of using such a firm is that it can offer a lot more possibilities than you can hope to find on your own. Through a firm you can shop around, see what's being offered and what the market will bear for your skill set.

To find such companies, again, speak to friends and associates first. Then look in newspapers. Pencom doesn't advertise in newspapers -- relying largely on word of mouth -- but I know there are many companies that do advertise. Another good place to start is the Internet, a natural home for many job-related services in the computer industry.

I must leave you with the caveat that there are plenty of less than reputable recruiting firms. Keep your head and get referrals whenever possible. Once you develop your own reputation, the work will generate itself.


About the author
[Edgar Saadi's photo] Edgar Saadi is senior vice president of Pencom Systems Inc., the largest open systems/advanced systems recruiting firm in the US. In his many years in high technology staffing, Edgar has helped guide the careers of thousands of open systems professionals. Visit the Pencom Career Center & Online Salary Survey.

[Pencom Interactive]
Reach Edgar at

What did you think of this article?
-Very worth reading
-Worth reading
-Not worth reading
-Too long
-Just right
-Too short
-Too technical
-Just right
-Not technical enough

[Table of Contents]
Sun's Site
[Next story]
Sun's Site

[(c) Copyright  Web Publishing Inc., and IDG Communication company]

If you have technical problems with this magazine, contact

Last modified: