Penguin Random House announced today that they are removing the university degree requirement from job applications to attract candidates from more varied backgrounds that might not necessarily have the qualifications. I read about this on The Bookseller and after thinking about it all day, decided I needed to put my two cents in.
I think that I’m probably one of the most stereotypical candidates for a publishing job. I’m in my fourth year of a degree in English Literature (and Hispanic Studies JH – please let that make me stand out!), I love books, and I’ve been working tirelessly at building up contacts and experience for the last two years (since I decided that publishing was the thing for me).
I’ve been lucky enough to have two work experience placements with two big names in publishing: Hodder & Stoughton and Penguin General. There are some people saying on Twitter today that unpaid experience is really only available to people from wealthy backgrounds. I definitely wouldn’t say I’m from a wealthy background, but a comfortable one. But my background and my parents’ jobs have nothing to do with me gaining experience. I gained my experience from putting myself out there, emailing as many people at as many companies as I could and proving that I could put my skills to good use. The only thing my background guaranteed me where others might not is that my uncle lives in London so I could stay with him for the two weeks of the year I did experience.
But that’s something that does hold me back, like so many others. I don’t live in London, I can’t spend hours working unpaid with the knowledge I’ll have somewhere to go back to every night. It’s not enough to have an uncle in London because I really don’t think he’d want a 21 year-old living with him for more than 2 weeks. So if you are lucky enough to live in London, make the most of unpaid experience because just by living there, you can afford at least 2 weeks.
The real problem is the unpaid experience and the unpaid internships, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about today.
I (will) have a degree (by July), which I got not through my background but through student loans and debts and a desire to further my education. I know that’s not an option or a choice for everyone, but it has been the choice for me because of pure academic want, rather than the knowledge that I needed one like you might do for Medicine or Law. But what PRH are saying today isn’t that now people with degrees are “excluded” but rather that the gates are opening for more than just those that do have. So hopefully my degree (along with the transferable skills studying has given me) will be useful when applying, but these days it’s not a necessity.
It seems like a bit of a knockdown sometimes when you read things like this after having spent 3 and a half years working on a degree. It feels a bit like that time I read that ‘English degrees aren’t a necessity anymore’ and I wanted to cry into the Complete Works of Shakespeare. But I understand that it is time to open the doors to something new and to acknowledge that traditional routes aren’t the only routes into the industry.
At the end of the day, I will say that I do believe my degree has been useful, in the main because of the transferable skills and opportunities it’s given me. I have a more analytical mind now than I did at the start of my degree, my writing and communication skills have improved, and I studied abroad in Spain for a year, which I would’ve been unable to do without my degree.
But if you have other experiences and other ways of attaining transferable skills, like these or other ones, there should be no reason why lack of qualifications should hold you back. Like Neil Morrison (of PRH) says it’s about attracting talented people, of any background or walk of life.
So rather than debating whether it’s necessary to have a degree or whether this is a good move, we should be finding ways of building up our skills and experiences in order to put our talents to their best use, whether that’s directly into a job or into perfecting our dissertations (as I should be right now).
Also, there are plenty of ways of getting experience that might not necessarily be traditional; i.e. it doesn’t have to be in publishing house. The wonderful Maria of Jobs In Books (check out her blog Once Upon The Book) taught me that: try bookselling, or admin work, or volunteering. These are all experiences worth having on your CV, which don’t necessarily require qualifications.
So I (will) have a degree, you might not. As long as we both have skills, there should be nothing stopping us. It’s great to see the doors opening for so many people – the harder part is seeing supposedly entry-level jobs that say at the end of the description ‘at least one year’s experience required’. Maybe that’s what we, as an industry, should be tackling next, along with those pesky unpaid internships.