Twenty Something Struggles: Education VS. Experience

Contributed by Devynn Maclure

It’s a tale as old as time for many millennials, and as much as I wish it were a fairytale about the importance of inner beauty as told by dancing animated silverware, it’s far from such. The debate between higher education and career experience is a looming reality that nearly all of us will deal with at some point. Including me. 

This past week, I had the privilege of attending the Alaska Forum on the Environment, an annual meeting where environmental activists and professionals come together and discuss Alaska’s unique environmental issues through seminars and career networking opportunities. 

As a sustainability major, this was like Comic-Con for me. Perusing the booths of the major environmental corporations had me feeling both star struck and excited for my post-grad future. That is, until I began speaking with company vendors about future career openings and heard that classic, disheartening phrase, “Sorry, we’re looking for people with experience.”

Well shoot. I’ve been so busy focusing on education and immersing myself in environmental studies that I didn’t even think about making time to work in my field. Did going to college waste my time and money? I began considering alternative outcomes. What if I hadn’t gone to school and tried to get a job right out of high school? Wouldn’t they have told me the same exact thing? What if I did get an opportunity in my career field, but needed a college degree to move forward? The vicious cycle spun around my head until I realized I couldn't reach a conclusion. 

Millions of people, especially young adults, are finding themselves in this exact situation. With 40% of us currently pursuing degrees, it’s easy to see why this common dilemma might be causing additional stress, anxiety and in some cases, depression. So, what do we do? How can we gain experience if no one will hire us based on a lack of experience? No, seriously. I’m asking. How the heck are we supposed to work around this major roadblock? 

While I can’t offer a concrete solution, I can give a nugget or two of optimistic advice and suggestion. First and foremost, remain true to yourself and stand up for your decisions. Beating yourself up over a choice you made years ago is a huge waste of energy. If you spent four years getting a degree in something you love or even just sort of like, then it clearly wasn’t a mistake, especially if you got to make friends and try new things along the way. 

If you find yourself in need of more education because you’ve been in the work field, then you’re at an okay spot to take a pause and get some courses under your belt. The cool thing about college is that there are no age restrictions and you can go at your own pace. When you’re consumed in panic over prior decisions and future plans, remember that being flexible and trusting yourself can take you as far as you need to go. You’ll be okay. 

For those who are working through college and are in need of career experience, take every opportunity you can get to do something related to your career field. Internships are a wonderful way to get your foot in the door at either a company you’d like to work for or a field you’d like to go into. If you’re beyond the internship phase, then you can gear your classes towards the technical skills needed for your future job. 

For example, science majors might want to try a GIS or scientific writing course, English majors can take a clerical skills or grant writing course and art students can throw in a business or financing course. This ensures that although you lack actual experience, you have the skills that experience can grant you. 

Maybe you decided college wasn’t for you, or have personal or financial reserves on attending a university. If this sounds like you, know that there is no cookie cutter way to attend college. There are junior colleges and vocational schools that can offer you the skills and education you need without the hefty tuition and four-year commitment. Also, some companies will pay for the furthering of your education, so be sure to inquire about higher education benefits and reimbursements.  

Finally, if you’ve tried a little of both college and work and you feel stuck, have no fear. 
This situation can provide the perfect opportunity to broaden your scope and try something new. Life isn’t about sticking to one thing for forever, it’s about being resilient and collecting experience in every endeavor. It might be scary or exhausting or downright annoying, but the benefits that come from discovering a newfound passion or interest are well worth the journey.