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Is a University education worth it?

Careful! This post is looking a little old and could be inaccurate in many, many ways

I frequently see posts that ask the question of whether or not formal training in the form of a degree is necessary to become a Web Designer. The response is usually no, as given enough hard work and determination you should be able learn it all yourself. From what I can tell most responses simply consider that any learning done at University could be done at home, but I don’t think this is the only consideration. So I thought I’d give my opinion, and start that with ‘it depends’.

As always personal situation comes into play, for many who ask this question in the community the simple fact that they have asked and are talking to the right people probably means they’d probably do just fine without going to uni. My case was a little different, it’s possibly unique; I’m not sure.

When I applied to University I had no idea where I was going or what I was going to do; only choosing Web Development as my first option later. All I knew was that I needed to go to University to specialise in a specific area in order to get a job. On reflection with a bit of learning on my own part I didn’t need University to specialise.

Even though I’m fairly confident I could have learnt everything from my time at uni at home and in a shorter timeframe I still see that I needed to go to University for another reason. Although I could have done all this outside of uni it’s likely I never would have. Instead I’d have deemed the task too large and complex to do at home, and would distract myself too often. I needed the structure of formal education to get me going and at least learn the basics.

It’s for these two reasons I went to University, as without a degree I’d likely have never got into the industry. Unfortunately for me University wasn’t as good as it should have been. Between myself, the university and the lecturers the information I left University with only just gave me the necessary skills to get a job. Instead my University course failed in a few areas:

  • Useless modules: Communications and Intro to Games stand out here as modules that gave me nothing usable in my career with communications only purpose being to be that one class you manage to consistently fall asleep in.
  • Software: It was also drummed into us that we were not learning the software but when you have modules in Freehand, Flash and Director you’re not learning much else. Also why on earth they chose to even show us Director is beyond me.
  • Languages: There was HTML & CSS, JavaScript, Visual Basic, Java, Perl and all taught at one point with the majority of these either pointless in the web environment or not taught in enough depth to be useful. Also where was PHP?
  • Methodologies: A great example of spending time learning theories rather than stuff that most would actually need in a real job.
  • Real world examples: Over the 3 years I built only a handful of websites with most programming languages teaching functions rather than how they might be used in an actual website. Seeing how it all worked to create an actual site would have been much more beneficial.
  • 40/60: At the start of my course more marks were given to a project than its supporting essay. For my final year project that was reversed yet most of my time was still spent of the project;, the bit I’d need to be good at in the real world.

These examples are probably unique to my University as at the time as it was, from what I understand, the first University in the country to have a full Web Development course and this was the first year it was run.

Since learning the basics at University I’ve learnt 10 times more stuff actually in the job doing the work day in day out. So with this in mind if you are thinking of going to University first consider a few things:

  1. Do you know enough to get a job already?
  2. Do you know the syllabus of what will be taught on your course, can you tell if it might be a bit basic?
  3. Are you willing to supplement your own learning while at University, possibly even taking on freelance work?
  4. Are you prepared to stick with it, even if you find it hard? No one likes a drop out.

And as one last point if you do go to University make sure you make the most of it as it really is one hell of ride.