Who didn't go to university but is doing pretty well for themselves?

over 9 years ago from , Founder at UltraLinx

This recent TechCrunch article had me thinking about university and whether it's worth getting a degree - http://techcrunch.com/2014/03/16/googles-eric-schmidt-on-critics-who-say-college-isnt-worth-it-theyre-just-wrong/

Some in the design/tech scene say that university is just a huge waste of money and time. Even though probably most of us have been brought up in a culture where going to university is the best way to land a well paying job.

I personally didn't go to university purely because of the money - I hated the idea of being debt for something which I wouldn't be sure would get me a job or not. I'm now 21, love my job of being a designer/tech entrepreneur and am earning well above the average wage for a graduate in the UK.

If money wasn't in the equation I think I would have gone to university just for the experience and meeting people in the design industry.

Some will say that if you love design you shouldn't care about your salary but I think that's a silly way to think - no one would value the work of a designer then.

So who didn't go to university but has done pretty well for themselves? Why didn't you go to university? What do you think about higher education?

Any other opinions or thoughts are welcome.


  • Tierney CyrenTierney Cyren, over 9 years ago

    I'm probably in a different situation than most students who go to college--my parents are paying for it, which means I don't have to incur debts. That said, now that I'm 1 1/2 years into it, I can't say it wouldn't be worth it if I didn't have that backup.

    I've learned a lot in college, and web design and development (my career of choice) is probably the lowest on the list of things I've learned. I'm taking a technical communications class now, which is greatly helping me improve my professional writing skills. That, plus I learned a lot about writing in general in my introductory English course--I was probably better than most at writing before I took the class, but I'm certainly in the top percentiles of writing ability because of it.

    I've done an advertising and a marketing course, and I definitely understand how to approach a marketing situation at least as well as a designer with years of experience marketing their products. I probably have a few more insights into what it all means and the different approaches that are available than that average designer does.

    This semester, I'm taking a required class called "Applied Media Aesthetics", which is mostly about film and television production. You would normally think this would be related but mostly irrelevant in terms of skills that can be applied to web design. Wrong. I've learned all about the way people interpret things, and the physical mechanisms that allow us to do so.

    That said, I know that some designers go out and learn this stuff on their own or in books or through friends. I can't overemphasize that having a person who is an expert in the field teaching you is an incredible bonus.

    Since you've heard that designers don't need schooling, I'm going to guess you've heard that you can't learn to code through just reading books--you've got to go out and implement the code you're reading about, otherwise it's useless. Well, I would compare college to that. Doing it on your own is doing it blindly. Going to college, you get to implement a dozen different things that you had no idea existed, yet are highly relevant to your learning experience.

    I would say that you can learn just as much about design while going to college as you would if you were working full time as a designer. There's nothing stopping you from spending your (ample) free time designing, which is what you would be doing if you really wanted to be serious about being a designer and were doing it outside of college. You can easily build a portfolio through school and outside projects. You can easily learn all the tools that you want to--in college, you get to gear your experience in whatever direction you want to.

    For example, in my aforementioned English class, all but one of 10 papers I wrote were about web design and development topics. I learned about git, the HTML 5 versus Flash debate, and several other topics.

    Another example: this semester, I'm taking a Social Media class as part of my major (which is design-focused), and I had to create a blog. I chose to create a blog on the topic of JavaScript. I asked for permission to use Ghost as my blog instead of the assigned blogger. Essentially, I was prompted to create a blog on a topic that I love. I've gotten to create a whole social media presence around the blog. Now, this isn't to say that I couldn't do this on my own if I wasn't taking this class or going to school. I'm trying to point out how you can do everything you want to as a designer or developer while you're in school.

    There are very serious designers who work while they're in school. Dan Eden is a great example--he created Animate.css, his typography example site (which have both gained him some fame), and several other project while he was attending college. When he was done, he got an amazing job as a designer at Dropbox.

    Personally, I think it's pretty stupid to think you're going to school to get a better job. I'm not saying you guys are stupid for thinking that's the reason to go to college, but I do think it's the wrong reason to go. College is an experience where you build relationships with networks of professionals in many different fields that can (and have, countless times over) provide you opportunities and experiences that you would not have if you didn't go to school. This isn't to say that you wouldn't get your own unique opportunities if you just became a designer outside of schools. But the doors which are opened thanks to knowing two or three dozen professionals in various fields that are related to your field who constantly have new projects and are friends of friends of just about every important designer, developer, and techie in the world is priceless.

    6 points
  • Adam T.Adam T., over 9 years ago (edited over 9 years ago )

    I went to University but for a completely different field than design- Public Planning, Management, & Geography. Gave me an incredibly holistic view of communities and urban planning and design. I know why things happen where they do, and for what reason because of the fields I studied. But aside from that, I got my first job in the design field at a student group where I did print design for almost all 4 years I was in school. It was invaluable for building a network of friends and colleagues. I'm 23 and co-founded a now angel-backed startup, the opportunity of which wouldn't have come along without going to school. Also, it's fun. Really fun.

    4 points
    • Account deleted over 9 years ago

      I also went to school and got a degree in a completely unrelated field—Global Studies, but completely agree with it giving me a holistic view. Getting a degree taught me a lot about critical thinking and understanding different perspectives, but was it worth the high price? I'm not sure. It definitely doesn't replace real-world job experience, but without the time to develop and figure things out, I probably wouldn't have found my way into starting a career in design.

      1 point
      • Adam T.Adam T., over 9 years ago (edited over 9 years ago )

        Yeah- I paid out of state as well, and it really is quite a bit, but I think people often look at price of education on a per-credit basis, when the experiences you end up learning the most from are usually gained out of the classroom. Which without the price of admission, would be rides you couldn't get on.

        A lot of my focus in school was on globalization- global studies as well- and bioregionalism, which is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. While none of it was taught through an artistic lens, seeing the designed landscape affect people's lives on all scales was inspiring.

        0 points
  • Joshua SortinoJoshua Sortino, over 9 years ago (edited over 9 years ago )

    I dropped out one year into college. Here's why:

    1. Unless you can afford MIT or another prestigious school, having a college degree on your resume won't set you apart from the crowd since everyone else in the crowd also earned a degree.

    2. At the time I started pursuing a degree, everyone in the professional field was starting to learn HTML5 and CSS3. Most colleges I looked into were still teaching "Macromedia Dreamweaver" (which was, at the time, a part of Adobe). Two months into my Web Design 101 course, the students were coming to me with their questions, not the professor.

    3. I have found a majority of students in universities are still testing the waters for what they want to do with their lives. In fact, many students use college as a way to find what they want to do for the rest of their life. However, I was extremely thankful and fortunate to know I wanted to be a designer for the rest of my life.

    4. I decided to take a step back and look at college's purpose in the world. Originally, it was introduced for very specialized occupations (like priests, doctors, lawyers, etc) and eventually grew to encompass everything. Unfortunately, I don't think most colleges do a good enough job teaching "craftsmanship" to students and, at the end of the day, I wanted to be a craftsman.

    5. I was learning 10x faster serving as the creative director in a small agency. People were willing to pay me before I even took on tens of thousands in financial debt. Economically and logically, starting my career immediately allowed me to earn more relevant experience and start the next chapter of my life debt-free. I haven't looked back since.

    There are a handful of colleges which I do respect for design programs, and can see how others may have benefitted from their academic works. Unfortunately, this is the exception and not the norm. Any employer who isn't willing to look past my lack of degree, and see my accomplishments for what they are, probably isn't worth working for in the first place.

    3 points
    • Chris De La FuenteChris De La Fuente, over 9 years ago

      This. I was going to write a whole thing, because I am very passionate about the fact that if you are in the design/tech/dev world you can usually self-teach yourself and jump right into the workforce. I didn't have to though because you literally hit on EVERY one of my favorite points. Good stuff!

      0 points
  • Jeff ShinJeff Shin, over 9 years ago

    I studied computer science at a prestigious (for Canada standards) university. In my first year, I skipped most of my classes - I found computer science interesting, but didn't learning about it in school. I spent the year instead freelancing, doing design side projects for different student organizations and companies, building on the design skills I developed in high school.

    In the summer, I landed an internship at a startup, got offered a full time job as a designer, and promptly dropped out of school after. Shortly after that gig, I landed a job at 500px as a designer. I thought of myself as being in a very fortunate position, to be working in an industry where (for the most part) they don't give a shit about your education as long as you can prove that you've done things and you're capable of doing more great things.

    My stance on higher education is pretty neutral - it's worth it for many, but not all. I'm glad I went for a year, as it let me meet all sorts of people from many walks of life, from all these different countries, studying and being passionate about very interesting things. But for people like me, I'd rather be out in the world getting hands on experience, rather than competing with hundreds of other students on who can memorize something the best, or study the hardest for exams.

    It is all a tradeoff, however. The 4+ years you get in university isn't just to learn things about the work you want to do - it's also about figuring yourself out, transitioning from just a kid into someone ready to take on a full time career. That was the hardest part for me, making that jump so quickly. I wouldn't say I regret it, because I love the work that I do and I've managed to figure some of the whole 'adult' thing out, but it definitely is tough. If someone who's reading this is in university, questioning similar things and would like some thoughts from someone who dropped out, please feel free to reach out.

    2 points
  • C___ F_____C___ F_____, over 9 years ago (edited over 9 years ago )

    I went for one year and didn't really see the benefit, so dropped out. I'm now working on some pretty cool things. Would I say that I'm doing pretty well for myself? I don't know, but I am really enjoying working right now.

    There are plenty of websites which facilitate critiquing of your work, and the internet is a treasure-trove of design-related writing. These two things can pull together and be more valuable than some design degrees.

    As long as you're somewhat intelligent with plenty of motivation, you should be able to find yourself a design job. Demonstrating a genuine interest in design and willingness to learn with self-initiated projects is massively more valuable than a piece of paper, IMO.

    2 points
  • Orpha Leighton, over 2 years ago

    It seems to me that the university remains an important stage in everyone's life, because higher education is important in any field and must be obtained. Of course, many people give up higher education when they are aware of all the difficulties that may arise in the learning process, but it should be understood that there are now many such cool services as https://papersowl.com/research-paper-writing-help, which are fast and can easily help you in writing a research paper and more. It is very easy and convenient, so remember that you should not be afraid of difficulties, you will succeed, the main thing is to try.

    1 point
  • Ryan LeFevreRyan LeFevre, over 9 years ago (edited over 9 years ago )

    I've debated with my friend and previous coworker about this a few times. In the end we both landed in the middle ground that simply "college is great but it isn't for everyone." It doesn't make much sense to have this debate with fully polarizing viewpoints. Everyone learns differently. He has a great blog article from his personal experience about this that gained some traction when it was written.

    Personally, while the academic value of college wasn't amazing, the discipline, experiences, and breadth of knowledge are what I found to be valuable. During my time in college, I:

    • Discovered that I didn't want to be an electrical engineer, and instead found my love of programming, which had previously been a hobby.
    • Spent 7 weeks in Cape Town, South Africa working with families in informal settlements on improving infrastructure and learning about urban planning. At the end, we presented our proposals to the city and got to meet the mayor.
    • Went snowboarding at many awesome mountains in the snowy northeast.
    • Learned how to modify the Linux kernel (successfully).
    • Took an entire course on how to hack programs and websites.
    • Made some great friends and met some amazing people with similar interests.

    And much more, of course. I definitely have no regrets spending 4 years in college.

    1 point
  • Isaac Paavola, over 9 years ago

    I dropped out of high school and started freelancing full-time. I had enough success at that to able to move out independently when I turned 18, to a city with more opportunity. An agency there found my work and hired me shortly after.

    I'm 21 now, and I've worked for 3 agencies. I consider the collective experience gained between them to be what college is supposed to be. I left my last agency job (which I loved) a couple months ago, because I wanted to start my own team and work on my own projects.

    Salary was good, sure, but that's not how I would ever define my success as a designer. As long as I can live in my city and support myself/my family, I'd rather scrape by working for bootstrapped startups that I believe in than make bank doing work for the massive companies that were my agency clients.

    Every day I get to work on projects that I chose myself, that excite and engage me, that my efforts can actually make an impact with. I can't see how anyone could possibly think I'd be better off in my junior year of a design program right now.

    1 point
  • Lewis FludeLewis Flude, over 9 years ago (edited over 9 years ago )

    I was on BBC Radio 4 on Monday morning talking about this. https://soundcloud.com/lewisflude/young-directors-interview-with

    Just to quickly summarise. I begun working at my first startup when I was 16. It was an incredible experience, the flurry of knowledge. Eventually, after the four years that followed I've found myself having done a mixture of freelancing, contract work and full-time gigs at some incredible startups.

    Now I'm working on my own thing, which is presenting new challenges and redefining what I do day-to-day. It's a whole ton of accelerated learning, but I'd be lying if I said I couldn't keep up with it.

    The romantic idea I have of university as a place without real responsibilities, the time to explore new ideas. If I could've I would have chosen to study graphic design, computer science or photography. However I find myself now in a position to practise and do my 10,000 hours on any of those things without the burden of having to pay for a formal education.

    1 point
  • Joseph EkloffJoseph Ekloff, over 9 years ago

    For the sake of multiple opinions, I'd also like to hear about those who haven't pursued a degree, and and are not living the dream yet. What has been your biggest struggle (seen as too risky being an unschooled independent, companies skip over you on paper without education cred, small portfolio, etc)?

    I went to a university, and personally, it definitely accelerated my potential. Back in the day, I couldn't get design jobs right out of high school, nor did I have many worthy projects under my belt. If I initially had industry connections or found a fruitful company to learn under, I may have never went to college. That route wasn't the right fit a t the time, so I went to a community college, then found scholarships for university.

    My best friend (not a designer) didn't want to go to university, so he offered to intern for free somewhere he though would help out in his career. He's been climbing up the ladder for several years with the same company. So it definitely depends on both the person and the current opportunities. If you have enough dedication, you could make both paths work.

    1 point
  • Mason LawlorMason Lawlor, over 9 years ago

    I had my eye on one of the top 3d animation programs in the country. They told me that I was going to be getting good at one specific thing. One person doesn't usually create a whole animation, many people do different pieces. One person does clothing textures. One person does hair.

    Didn't sound fun. So I skipped college entirely, and now I own an agency in Austin, TX at age 22. I wouldn't have even graduated until I was at least 34.

    1 point
    • Mason LawlorMason Lawlor, over 9 years ago

      Edit: I wouldn't have graduated till I was *24

      1 point
      • Mason LawlorMason Lawlor, over 9 years ago

        University will waste the two things you don't have to waste: time and money.

        I took a college multimedia course while still in high school and realized the curriculum was shit. It did teach me flash though ;)

        3 points
  • Kevin N. Kevin N. , over 9 years ago (edited over 9 years ago )

    I didn't go to university and already had a job as UI and UX guy for pretty well known app. That means I started designing iOS apps a few months before I started working in this company and then millions of people used and saw what we did there.

    So like you can read it all over the internet, motivation blogs, medium articles. You just need some luck and passion.

    Why didn't you go to university? I wanted and still want to make money and learn during the day what I need for the next few years.

    What do you think about higher education? It's cool if you have the time, some money or your parents as backup but if you have to pay monthly bills you have to decide what's more important for you.

    As you can see in my current position I always wanted to be able to build my ideas so I started digging deeper into coding and here I am.

    1 point
  • Mark Bennett, 1 month ago

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    0 points
  • Dan SherrattDan Sherratt, over 9 years ago

    I dropped out of University after 1 year, I then spent 3 years working in a bookshop before spending a year travelling.

    When I got home I had one of the worst times of my life as a designer and a human, working night shifts in a chicken factory, then a locker factory, then a bar, then unemployed.

    During this time I was constantly undermined by the job centre, applying for around 50 jobs a week, jobs I was more than capable of doing, but not having a degree I can't help feeling put me to the bottom of the pile.

    After around a month of applying across the country, I'd applied for no less than 250 jobs and found myself at one interview, for a job I didn't get.

    I started taking absolutely any freelance work that I could find, eventually getting my foot in the door at a friend's company 4 years ago on a very basic day rate. The company eventually offered me a full time junior contract and I've spent the last 2 years working solidly to be in a senior position I am genuinely proud of.

    I'm doing well for myself now, but would I have had to slum it in a chicken factory if I'd have stayed at University?

    Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Do what you think is right for you.

    0 points
  • James ThomasJames Thomas, over 9 years ago

    Why didn't you go to university?

    I decided not to go to University due to rising costs, and because I knew which career route I wanted to go down. I got into web development when I was 10, inspired by an uncle who works in technology, albeit not web. That coupled in with really bad experience with University open days. where presentations were shown to the sorts of websites created for final year, all examples of work that I'd already completed for others, and at a larger scale.

    I'm completely self-taught, and made sure that I learnt something new on a regular basis to put myself in a good position when the time came to get a job.

    Due to this, I managed to attain work experience at MoneySupermarket.com where I was offered a contract at the end of the period. I went on to pass the Zend certification for PHP in order to strengthen my position as a developer.

    While I freelance in my spare time (more as a hobby and love for web than anything), I'm currently Lead Technical Developer for Bank of America UK, own 2 houses and I'm just 21. Compared to others that I attended high school with, they've not long left university and starting in trainee roles, where I'm already well established as a developer and freelancer - something I can't complain about given how the UK economy has been.

    What do you think about higher education?

    My personal opinion is that there's no need to spend the time and money if you're set on a career that doesn't require you to go. Doctors, barristers, etc are the types of jobs that I see requiring a university education (while I know there'll be some exceptions from time to time), but otherwise, there's normally a short-course or learn-on-the-job opportunity (or teach yourself) in order to get into the career you want.


    Overall, I'm an advocate of self-teaching, which I know won't suit all, but with a strong mental attitude I believe that anyone can achieve their goal if they're firmly set on it. To me, it's all about learning from failure to reach success.

    0 points
  • Diego LafuenteDiego Lafuente, over 9 years ago (edited over 9 years ago )

    I've quit the university. I did it well on every job. I had, yes, to learn a lot from the pros while working but I ended teaching in the university many times later when I became more proffesional.

    Leaving university is a bold move. Leave it if you believe you cannot really learn what you want to do, but it's true in University professional graphic designers will help you by polishing your skills before enter the reality.

    When you enter in the market. You will realize you cannot always do what you believe it's right, or it's good designed, you will find out doing shit things just because clients want so.

    0 points
  • Varun VachharVarun Vachhar, over 9 years ago

    I actually did go to university not once but, twice. And mostly for the experience and chance to learn all kinds of stuff. It's a great experience if you go in with a hacker mentality – just try out a bunch of stuff. You're in a safe environment with amazing facilities. That just doesn't happen in life elsewhere.

    I studied Mechanical Engineering and then fine arts. Now I work as a developer/designer. Most of what I use in day-to-day work I picked up from tutorials/youtube/blogs/etc or just messing around on side projects. However, school provided a base of random knowledge and experience that helps me have more unique perspective. I'm not saying it makes you smarter, but it does mix things up.

    0 points
  • James De AngelisJames De Angelis, over 9 years ago

    It's a bit of a binary question in a pretty grey area. There's pros and cons either way.

    Uni is a very useful social and experimentation phase, don't give that up too easily. And as a designer you are your experiences. Just like travel, it shapes your perspectives which ultimately is expressed in your work.

    On another note, no job i've ever had has cared less about education. This includes top agencies and very well known Startups. Their requirement is always the same: Can you make awesome stuff for my company? Whether you came out of an ivy league school or you were self taught, it really doesn't matter.

    So in design, your ultimate currency is your portfolio. Great work will get you to the places you want to be, not a degree.

    0 points
  • Sam GarsonSam Garson, over 9 years ago

    I completely agree with those above who have said it's impossible to see over the fence, however I will add my 2p to try and even the playing field.

    The first think I can't stand is people outright saying 'uni is a waste of your time and money' or 'you can't get anywhere in life without a degree' based purely on envy. People saying "I didn't go to uni, now I'm [X age] and am earning £[Y] a year so uni is clearly pointless" are idiots as fair as I'm concerned.

    I'm about to finish my undergrad Architecture degree, and I have been contracting on UX and branding for the past 6 years.

    The degree has not only let me significantly grow and mature as a person socially and otherwise, the course itself has taught me a huge amount to do with design, and clients. I feel that having an architecture degree may make me stand out from other applicants, it may not. I do know though that it makes my thought process far more uncommon. It has also given me a huge network of professionals-to-be, and taught me to work ridiculously hard (all nighters have become an unfortunate necessity by this time).

    In response to a couple of people: yes you may be earning more than most undergrads now, but in 10-15 years time, there is a chance they'll be earning more than you cos of their degree.

    And I can't say that uni has been a place where I have had so much time on my hands to do side projects etc. When I finish uni in 3 months time and move into a full time design job at a startup in london, my hours a week will pretty much half (that's obviously course dependant). I do about a day and half's worth of contracting as creative lead on a successful mobile platform on evenings and weekends, and I do have a side project going, but I have learned incredible time management.

    The bottom line is that 3 years of an experience like that, if you can afford it, is never not going to beneficial. If you've made a good start without a degree, fair play and go for it.

    0 points
  • Account deleted over 9 years ago

    It helps if you know what you'd like to do.

    I went to college for Environmental Science. I came out with a BA in Design. I'm certain that I wouldn't be a designer at all had I not gone to college. Go figure.

    0 points
  • Clark WimberlyClark Wimberly, over 9 years ago

    Dropped out in the middle of my Jr year and I've loved my career since.

    0 points
  • Ben GoldBen Gold, over 9 years ago

    I briefly went to college. Did my freshman year at one school and then transferred to another where I only did a semester, but not even because I left during finals. I took some design classes, but most of my classes were unrelated required courses.

    Then I got a job at a very, very well known startup (now an acquired company). How I got that job is a long and convoluted story, but it was a combination of luck and working very hard.

    I left that company early last year and worked with a bunch of Startups, some of which are also very well known. Now I'm full-time again, working on several side projects, and making a very good living.

    I don't think there is anything wrong with higher education, but for the kind of work I'm doing now, I know there isn't a school out there that could provide a curriculum as educational and beneficial as what I learned on my own. Gaining real world experience was a much better use of my time.

    0 points