Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Leave the Irrelevant Degree Off Your Resume

An irrelevant degreeI look at resumes all day so I can be pretty critical.  But some people just do things I don't understand.  Case in point, putting a advanced degree on your resume that has nothing to do with the job you are seeking or the career that you have had to date. Now this doesn't apply to your undergraduate degree.  Everyone understands that you likely majored in something that has nothing to do with your current job. This was true for me as I majored in Economics but now work in technology.

But a graduate degree is something different.  First off, you made the decision to go after a graduate degree is totally voluntarily.  While technically getting an undergraduate degree is too, an undergraduate degree is basically a requirement for almost any white-collar job in today's world.   Not only is it voluntary but a graduate degree is also very expensive and time consuming.  I understand that you may be proud of the degree.  I understand it may show you can work and study hard.  But if you got one, but aren't using it, I'm going to want to understand why.  It goes to my assessment of how and why you make important decisions.

Now even if the degree is on your resume, it might not be a death sentence.   What is a death sentence is having a bad answer to the next question, "Why did you pursue this degree and then end up not using it?"  There are a number of OK answers to this question.  None of them involve you telling me that, "I just didn't know what else to do" or "I needed to grow up".  Both responses I have heard.

I will grant two exceptions to this rule

  • You have a gap in your resume you can't explain any other way.  A gap is worse than having an irrelevant degree.  However, it is only slightly worse since I may assume you just took some time off for family issues.  This is a path I usually won't (and can't) go down too far.

  • It is your first job after you got your degree.  This you should explain away by being honest.  Either you have discovered you don't like what you went to study or you can't find a job in that field.  Both are acceptable answers. Just don't expect me to pay you for the advanced degree that is irrelevant for the job.


So what do you think?  Is it a good idea to put your advanced degree on your resume even if it is irrelevant? If so, under what circumstances?

15 comments:

  1. You can put the irrelevant degree down, if you know for sure that the interviewer can relate. For instance, you know the interviewer has the same degree. You could use your degree as a talking point to build a quick rapport with the interviewer.

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  2. I think you're grossly overestimating the "irrelevancy" of an unrelated degree or experience. Diversity extends past making sure your org chart isn't all male / white / Indian / whatever. Having diverse education and experiences should also be seen as an asset. Someone with a random sociology degree may have some insights when it comes to certain areas of designing or marketing.

    A lot of people still don't know what they want to do even when they graduate, so they do a master's. Nothing wrong with that. Some of the more interesting people out there never really figure it out.

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  3. If you're applying for manager or project manager position, listing soft sciences degree (like behavioral therapy, sociology, education, etc.) can help you reach to that level, especially if you've never managed people before. You can at least show the interviewer that you have had training on how to develop or support people.

    Bottom line: A degree could be relevant if it can use it as training for a crucial skill for the job you're seeking.

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  4. If you're adding an irrelevant degree as a conversation starter (like a hobby or foreign languages you speak), then I would advise leaving the degree off. You're going to have to justify why you didn't pursue a career related to that degree, which often times is not easy in itself. What can you say but, "It wasn't what I thought it would be" or "It wasn't a match for me". After saying one of those two things, does that conversation make you look any more qualified for the job you're seeking? No! Did it make you look worse? Maybe. The point is if you're starting a conversation that won't put you in a better position for the job, why bring it up and risk causing the interviewer to be indifferent or dislike you?

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  5. I don't think you can avoid putting your advanced degree on your resume if you got it while studying full time and not working. There will be a gap on your resume, which you will have to explain unless you list the fact that you were in school.
    If I was an interviewer, I would have no problem with an employee with an advanced degree not directly related to my business or field. Just as long as that person knows that their compensation will not be based on that degree. I consider experience in the field more important than advanced degrees. But I won't discredit someone even for a "bad answer" since like someone else mentioned, knowledge is power. You never know, that person just might find a way to relate that degree to benefit your company down the line in ways you can't imagine...the surprise principle.

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  6. Like I said, I agree you need to put the degree on your resume if you have a gap you can't otherwise explain. But this is only important if the gap exists recently. I honestly only look at the last job or two on a resume anyway, so I might not even notice a gap that exists further away.

    The reason I emphasize the bad answer portion of this is because you can literally lose a job on one bad answer. In fact, I bet you that happens more often than not. There just aren't many "good" answers to the question of why you don't use the degree and so you are opening yourself up to questions that could easily lose you the job.

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  7. I think you are an a$$.

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  8. Very insightful comment. Care to tell me where I'm wrong?

    And thanks for the including '$' signs in your comment. Not sure if that was meant to be derogatory or not but it wasn't to me. If money isn't important to you best of luck, but always find it funny when people deride the dollar when it is a store of value, and simply is a method by which humans are able to trade their work.

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  9. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post... nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.

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  10. I think its fine if you also attach a (well written) cover letter explaining how the degree will help you in this new role or why you changed your mind.

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  11. Thank you for this excellent discussion about how the (irrelevant) advanced degree is viewed versus the undergraduate degree. It is good to see how the undergraduate degree has value in the fact that you earned the degree even if it doesn't directly relate. I have a law degree that I always leave off when applying for non-legal positions. I don't show a gap because my resume doesn't go back that far to begin with since I got the law degree almost 20 years ago.

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  12. Thank you for this excellent discussion about how the (irrelevant) advanced degree is viewed versus the undergraduate degree. It is good to see how the undergraduate degree has value in the fact that you earned the degree even if it doesn't directly relate. I have a law degree that I always leave off when applying for non-legal positions. I don't show a gap because my resume doesn't appear to go back that since I got the law degree almost 20 years ago and I don't put the date of my undergraduate degree.

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  13. Hi Terrence, great article! What if your irrelevant masters degree is related to your current job and you want to change careers? For example, I have a BA in Psychology and then went to get a Masters in Social Work. I've worked for three years in the field and realize that I don't like it and it's not what I thought it would be. When I go on the interview they are going to wonder how I am doing psychotherapy with a B.A. degree. Now I'd like to do a more analytical job like Research Analyst in marketing or Research Associate and I do have the Research background prior to the masters and a little after. But...it's not in marketing. Should I take the masters off my resume?

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  14. This is right we should avoid irrelevant degree courses from our resumes because it will bring negative impact on the interviewer.

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