I wish I could say I knew the exact moment when I decided to drop out of university.
My sixth form, like many others, prioritised going to university above any other path, so with little knowledge about other options, I applied to study journalism. I thought I was going to take the usual route into the profession: a degree, perhaps a master’s or an NCTJ followed by a series of internships and finally – hopefully – a staff job. Instead, I left the course after the first year because I struggled to engage with it; I realised I’d be better off learning on the job.
After two years in retail, a spell in marketing and a lot of pestering editors and applying for jobs, I landed a staff role on a weekly magazine before going freelance at the beginning of 2016. With hindsight, I don’t think my career would have taken off any quicker had I completed the degree. Some people I’ve met were still interning two years after graduating and, in my experience, success rates seem to have more to do with contacts and a decent portfolio.
Of course, some careers will always require a degree – medicine or academia, for example – but I believe many industries, particularly creative ones, don’t necessarily require a qualification.
When asked whether I have a degree during interviews, I always tell the truth: I left the course because it wasn’t right for me, but I gained experience of my own accord. Both times I’ve been questioned, I’ve been offered the job, but it doesn’t often come up in conversation.
Don’t be afraid
I wouldn’t actively encourage anyone to drop out of university. If you’re really unsure about going, it’s better to look at alternative options rather than start a course and run the risk of quitting. Find out if vocational options, like apprenticeships or diplomas, are available in the industry you want to work in. A hands-on route into a career might be better for you than an academic one.
But if you are considering leaving university, do as many work placements as possible to come out armed with practical experience in your preferred industry. There’s no shame in admitting university wasn’t for you
Research the sector you want to work in and, if necessary, start building a portfolio to demonstrate your experience. Don’t be afraid to contact businesses to ask about work placements and freelance opportunities, explaining your practical skills and that you want to gain hands-on experience.
Be wary of being exploited and working for free – although some volunteering or work experience will probably be required when you’re first starting out in many creative industries. It’s easy to lack confidence when you’re competing with graduates, but don’t be afraid to offer your services as a contractor or pitch for freelance projects, if that’s applicable in your industry.
Likewise, don’t be put off applying for jobs that demand a degree. It is, however, important that you can prove your experience and suitability in other ways, using specific achievements and figures on your CV. And if you chose to put education details on your CV, you don’t have to be specific. I used to include the dates I attended university with no further information, leaving it for the recruiter to question it if they wanted. Now I have a few years’ experience, I leave it off completely.
Research recruitment agents that operate in your chosen sector, and don’t be afraid of side-stepping to get where you want to be. Taking a role that isn’t your dream job but is related to it or requires similar skills will allow you to bulk up your experience.
There’s no shame in admitting university wasn’t for you. Own your decision to forgo it or drop out, if that’s what you’ve done, and craft a reasonable response should anyone ask you why. If you can prove you’re capable of the job in other ways, not having a degree won’t hold you back.