Thoughts about startups, tech, marketing, and life

graduation cap

Over the weekend, my buddies and I had a conversation about how much it matters where a candidate attended college when he or she is applying for a job. The context was that if I were to review a stack of resumes, how powerful of a signal is their alma mater?

One of my friends said that the university attended is a strong differentiator. He works in the pharmaceutical industry, and his argument is that many of the candidates have worked for other strong pharmaceutical companies, and that work experience is essentially equivalent. Thus, the college degree from a place like Stanford will trump the one from Rutgers. (Sorry, Rutgers.)

The other friend, who works in advertising and creative, argued that work experience trumps all, and that this experience will almost never be equivalent across candidates. Where the candidate went to college carries very little weight, and the companies where the person worked prior and the quality of work that he or she produced is a much stronger signal that can be defined.

I agree with both of them, because both situations are so different.

In the first scenario, I think where the candidate went to college is more important in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines. These “hard” subjects are more clear-cut and objective, and the differences in formal training and education can be vast from college to college.

Also, it may be more difficult to differentiate the work each candidate has done in prior pharmaceutical and other scientific companies. Many times the work contains research that may not come to fruition or management of drugs that have been around for decades, so the impact of a single candidate can’t be determined accurately.

In the other scenario, I love the fact that employment can be based solely on the quality of worked that is produced – a pure meritocracy – and pedigree is a much less influential factor. A job really comes down to how you perform, so why shouldn’t your selection be based solely on your performance in prior jobs?

I do think this may be a bit easier to execute in “softer,” more creative jobs, those where you can actually produce an end product. If you’re a graphic or web designer, you can have a portfolio to display your work. If you’re an advertiser, you may have ad campaigns that you’ve worked on that can be seen, heard, and assessed, even if that assessment may be subjective.

Startups align more with the second scenario; if you are a co-founder, your success is judged solely by the performance of your company.

On the other hand, I think that some venture capitalists will look at the founders’ pedigree as a strong signal of whether to fund the company or not. A software engineer from Stanford or MIT may be more likely to be funded than a business major from the University of Central Florida. (Sorry, UCF.)

I can certainly see both sides. I have degrees from Lehigh, Georgia Tech, and NYU; nothing elite, but very respectable schools. So I can probably get by on my pedigree in certain situations, but chose the route where merit rules.

I just hope that I don’t ever have to apply for a job again. 🙂

Regardless, like many other things, the value of an alma mater comes down to the specific situation.

How important is alma mater when you’re assessing who to hire? And how important has your alma mater been in your career?

Tell me about it in the comments!

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