28 May 2013

Does degree class matter?

There was a recent media flurry where the esteemed Medic & academic Robert Winston put his neck on the line saying that he actively did not recruit individuals who had a First Class degree.  His theory goes that he prefers more rounded individuals who have spent their undergraduate years becoming people, being involved in lots of different things – not just studying.  It got me thinking on a number of levels and specifically does degree classification and indeed do degrees matter in the marketing sector. 

As ever, there isn’t a clear answer to the question.  It’s subjective and dependent usually on either an organisational bias or personal feelings of the hiring manager.

I also believe in the marketing sector, that the degree classification is largely only relevant in your first or perhaps second career role.  After that, it’s experience that counts.  However, don’t underestimate the importance of getting the ‘right’ first role and for that reason, I do think it’s important to come out of university with at least a 2.1.  It gives you choices and options.

At my most fundamental level of thinking, I believe a First class degree is never going to do you any harm. Most employers are impressed by them.  Equally a 2.1 is always considered a good degree to have . Interestingly I see a lot of candidates with straight As at A level come out of university with a 2.1 rather than a First (do they slack off the academic stuff a bit once they are outside of parental control?!).  Clients who do look at degree classification, do tend to look down on a 2.2 or below and for a graduate entry role when employers are looking at CVs, they would naturally go for someone with a 2.1 over a 2.2 with all other factors being equal. In this way, it can give you an edge.  Certain sectors can be more selective than others. For example, Law or Accountancy firms will ALWAYS want a 2.1 and a CIM qualification.  Conversely, I’ve never come across a marketing agency who use the CIM qualification as a selection criteria.

Many moons ago when I was an undergraduate, things were different.  We did degrees without any real sense of what career path we were going to follow (obviously with the exception of Medics, Vets & other vocational courses). In the old days, the degree classification was all important as it demonstrated the ‘transferrable skills’ of a candidate.   As a Chemistry graduate I routinely trotted out lines at interview that doing a solid scientific discipline had given me great analytical skills,  and that whilst I didn’t see myself as a ‘bench chemist’, I’d learned a whole range of other skills that would make me a truly fantastic  Marketeer!  Incidentally, I had to work my absolute socks off for a 2.1, Dr Winston’s model falls down a bit there as with over 35 hours of lectures a week, I didn’t actually have much time for making me more ‘rounded’.  
Fortunately (for me), many moons ago, there weren’t the range of ‘modern’ degree courses in marketing, media studies, PR, Events Management and various other marketing disciplines.  So for my first industry role, I was a Marketing Assistant for a global chemical company.    I was also fortunate that my first employer put me through the CIM Diploma which enabled me for all future roles, to cite my ‘marketing qualification’ at the same level of a Masters.  

This strategy still works.  I have several clients who want candidates with the following:

1)      Good A level grades
2)      Attendance at a good/old school university
3)      Minimum 2.1 degree

I’ve never come across a client who only wanted people with First class degrees so perhaps Dr Winston has a point!  Generally clients want employees who are bright, engaging and most importantly who have a commercial mind/outlook.  This can make it tricky if you’ve done a degree in something like History or English Literature.  You won’t have done a work placement during university so you will have to work hard to prove that you a) really want a career in marketing and b) you can adapt to life in the commercial world.  In the old days, during our university vacations, it was enough to work in the local pub or hotel to enable us to say we were ‘hard workers’.  These days in marketing specifically, if you don’t have some relevant work placement experience, it is increasingly difficult to secure that first break.  If you don’t have a marketing or business degree and you don’t have any work experience in marketing, you’re going to find it tough (not impossible though) to break into the sector.

So in response to Dr Winston.   I would say that in the marketing sector, you should strive for as high a degree classification that you are capable of.  University choice is still important. If you go for a ‘new university’ do justify your choice with some demonstration of why that course was right for you.  For example Leeds Met is particularly good for it’s PR Degree course but many employers are a little sniffy about the old polytechnics.  What I believe is absolutely the most important factor is getting work experience.  You should start thinking about this as early as possible during your degree.  Send out letters directly to marketing departments, creative agencies, digital agencies – whatever you are interested in.  Ask for a placement.  Whilst most agencies do pay their interns, it’s worth working for monkey nuts as ultimately this experience will pay off.  Get in touch with your university careers service as soon as possible to find out if they have any links to local marketing agencies or blue chip companies. Go to any careers service talks or events which are being given by local businesses.  I think if you focus on just getting a First class degree first and a job second, you’ll find it tougher than someone who got a 2.1 but who put a bit of time into researching local businesses and getting some placement experience.

I’d like to finish this one by saying that I did have a candidate who had parents who were both Doctors.  She loved art and creative design but pleased her parents and did a deal with them that she would do a science degree (Pharmacology) and then review her career options.  During her degree, she did make sure she kept up her creative work and steadily built up a small but high quality portfolio.  She got a 2.1 in her degree but knew at the end of it, she didn’t want to work in the field.  She’d sent her mini portfolio to lots of Manchester agencies and because there was quality work there and she had a strong pitch, she got a couple of placements.  She is now working for a top London creative agency and is a very happy bunny indeed.  I think her parents are happy that she is happy!  I like this story because it proves where there is a will, there is a way.  If you want something enough, you can achieve anything.   There’s certainly not many Graphic Designers out there with science degrees!

My absolute final point is that I think things will change over the next few years with certain degrees becoming slightly less important.  There are a few agencies now who have training schemes aimed at A level finishers (admittedly mostly the big agencies like McCann Erickson). You’ll need a lot of ambition and chutzpah to get accepted onto one of these schemes but ultimately after 3 years with a great company, you’ll have been earning and learning relevant skills at the same time.   Of course, you’d need to be reasonably sure that you want to work in marketing and I’d also look into doing CIM or a part time distance learning degree simultaneously (many of the agencies do offer day release to do this) but it’s worth considering to get ahead. Particularly with degree courses in say Public Relations. It’s a very practical area of marketing and I’m not sure that ‘studying’ it for three years makes you a better PR Account handler than someone who has been ‘doing it’ for three years*.  The most important thing whether you go down the degree route or not, is getting relevant experience. I can’t stress that enough.

*Views entirely my own!