#atozchallenge: education vs. experience

Tonight, I added a quick thought to a conversation that was taking place on Twitter, about grad prep programs and over saturating the market.  My comment was simple, but probably not shared by many of my colleagues (I’m actually surprised no one challenged me on it).  I wrote:

“You do not need a master’s to do what we do. Just saying.”

Ironically, I am working on my master’s degree as we speak.  However, the student affairs/higher ed masters programs in Canada are nothing like the ones in the US.  We’re just starting to scrape the surface and only a limited number of universities offer programs geared towards post-secondary administrators. Many programs in Canada also require a certain amount of professional experience in the field before being admitted to the program.

When I think about where I’ve learned more, as it relates to my career, it is the experience I have had over the last seven years.  Sure, my M.Ed program has helped me to further hone my research and writing skills, but a theory in a text book cannot give me the instinct on how to react to a student in crisis.  That has come from experience.

I enjoy learning.  I would even go as far to call myself a lifelong learner (as cliché or overused as that term may be).  I just don’t think that learning is done in a vacuum.  Learning is everywhere, in everything.   As interesting as my Supervisory Processes in Education class was, I was able to engage more fully with the content because I had prior experience with both good and bad supervisors, and could connect the theory to the practice in a real way.

I guess what I am getting at is that education and experience should go hand in hand – and education need not result in letters at the end of your name, although they sure do look nice on a business card don’t they?  Just ask yourself – who are you trying to impress? How impressive will it be if everyone has those same letters?

When people ask me about diving in to grad work, I tell them this: Make sure you do it for the right reasons.  Don’t do it simply because you see “master’s degree preferred” on a job posting.

What are your thoughts on this? What does education give you that experience can’t? And what do you gain from experience that education can’t match?


For more information about the a to z challenge, click here.



  1. Kate, I didn’t know how the Canadian system worked, but I absolutely LOVE the idea of having to have experience in advance of entry. It underscores the importance of the “book learning” supplementing practice, rather than pushing all to earn a degree and allowing that degree to represent competence. I’ve always been of the belief that you can be brilliant at this work without a degree, and unfortunately also woefully incompetent with it. I just hope that the dialogue of this conversation will spark some significant questioning and eventually action about how this field prepares its workforce.

  2. Hi Kate. I guess my only comment is that when we work at a university whose mission is to deliver degrees such as Masters and PhDs it is hard to argue that it isn’t a qualification of being involved in the process of delivering those credentials. I agree with you 100% that you can be brilliant without it and terrible with it, but I get how HR policies are formed along the lines I have seen happen. More and more Canadian postings in our field are making the comment that a Masters is preferred. I cannot lie and say that my current program hasn’t made me stronger in terms of understanding organizational relationships and systems, etc. I saw the patterns before, but it has allowed me a finer sense of recognition, understanding, and response, especially in terms of our student staff development.

    I’ve always proudly said that I totally am amazing at this job and well compensated (light years ahead of the US for the same role) without the benefit of a Masters but I did feel very lonely in terms of credentials at NHTI last year. Out of the 30 delegates I was only one of two without my Masters and the other one was halfway though. Food for thought I suppose.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Tim. It’s good to hear that your program connects those dots. Your comment about feeling out of place at NHTI for not yet having a masters is interesting. I’d ask you to consider if you felt “less than” any of of the other delegates because of it. Are they better at their jobs than you? I suspect the answer is no.

      I wrote a post about credentialing a year ago – https://katekinsella.wordpress.com/2012/01/19/who-knew-credentialing-was-such-a-dirty-word/ – and I get at the same idea. Continuous learning is important to staying current in your field, but there are many ways to achieve that.

      At the end of the day, when all entry-level student affairs positions require a Masters degree (and we’re not far off now), it will force those who want to work in the field to complete one. This now becomes an access issue. Those with the financial means to complete a graduate degree will do so, and go on to obtain positions, and those who cannot will be left out of consideration.

  3. Hi Kate,
    I first read about this topic through the twitter conversation. I am currently pursuing a Master’s in higher education and student affairs in the United States. My program requires an assistantship for the duration of the experience (or a full-time position in higher ed for part-time students) in addition to a one-semester practicum. I believe my coursework would be irrelevant without the practical component of my assistantship and practicum. At the same time, my classes have allowed me to intentionally reflect on and process the practical aspect of my program. Without this outlet for assessment, I would not be pushed to make meaning of my experiences with students.

    I would also like to highlight that I am not a traditional higher ed Master’s student. I graduated from undergrad in 2003, moved abroad for three years, and then spent roughly five years working in the food-service industry. I am also the only full-time student in my cohort with a child. Considering the significant break I took before returning to school, I felt as though I had to obtain a Master’s in order to work in higher ed.

    I am nearly finished with the first year of my program(two years total) and I am so grateful to have the opportunity to participate in a program that emphasizes the importance of theory to practice. I believe these are both necessary components in preparing student affairs professionals for the field.

    • Courtney, thanks for taking the time to read and share your thoughts. This is exactly the discussion I was hoping for!

      Having no first hand experience with the SA grad programs in the US, I can only write about my own experience. It sounds like your program offers you ample opportunity to connect the theory to the practice – so important! Our programs (and there are very few) are geared towards working professionals, and so, do not include graduate assistantships as part of the program. Instead, most programs require professional experience before a candidate is admitted. The hope is that what is learned in the program is connected to the student’s full time work. Many of the programs are distance, which is an added challenge. I’ve never met any of the other students in my program. I do miss the collaboration and camaraderie that comes from sharing the experience in person.

      Best of luck with the rest of the program, and as you transition back in to the profession.

      • Kate,

        I’m curious to know more about what your grad program looks like. I am guessing that you have courses on SA history, theory, etc, but what about electives? Are you expected to learn about the differences between higher education in the U.S. and Canada? I lived in France for three years and my husband, a French native, has a hard time understanding the field I am entering. He attended university in France, but the entire system there is completely different from the United States in that SA doesn’t really exist. I decided to go back to school because of my passion for international education. I think that is why I am so interested to learn more about your take on the differences between SA in the U.S. and Canada.

      • My program isn’t SA specific. When I started my M.Ed I thought I would return to teaching, so the program I’m in is more for K-12 administrators (although a lot of the content is relevant and transferable). The institution I am with does offer an SA focused program, and you can learn more about that one here: http://www.mun.ca/educ/grad/postsec.php

        Most Canadian PSE institutions have some form of student affairs on campus, although they do vary. I’m originally from the UK, so understand that institutions in Europe are quite different. Canada is more similar to the US in that regard.

        It’s good that you’re interested in learning more. I don’t think enough of us take the time to learn how other countries approach student affairs.

  4. Hi Kate,

    I did an intensive international MBA program, but someone said to me at the beginning of the program, “You’ll learn a bit from the books, some from the professors, and maybe a bit from the workshops. But you’re going to learn the most from the interaction with your fellow students.” I remember doing a case study and we had an Austrian consultant, a Japanese accountant, an Irish investment banker, and me (American marketing guy). Who knows what the project was about, but we learned to work with each other. That, to me, was experience, and that’s what was worth the cost of admission.

    Nice to see “meet” you on the AtoZ!

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