Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Limited worth of formal qualifications

Introduction

Formal qualifications are often misleading: It is, in my experience, quite common for people who claim a certain formal qualification not to have the knowledge and competence to be expected. This article deals with some of the related issues. While dismissing formal qualifications out of hand would be a serious error, giving them too much credibility without deeper checks or other corroboration is equally bad.


Side-note:

This article originally consisted of the below example and discussion. It was later expanded with additional issues relating to degrees and grades, which are natural spin-offs of the original text.

This notwithstanding, the problem is not limited to degrees, but also includes most other formal and semi-formal qualifications, including job titles, extra curriculars, awards of various kinds, and similar. (The size and causes of the problem can vary considerably, however.)


Illustration with a real-life example

A good illustration of the limited worth of formal qualifications is the following: Studying for my second master, I took two courses (program analysis, software architecture) handled by the same professor. Program analysis was hard; it required a lot of thinking, mathematical proofs, abstraction, etc. Even I was seriously challenged. (However, it may be that I, having a background in mathematics, dug down deeper in this area than was actually expected of the students.) In contrast, software architecture was dead easy: Trivialities, things any good developer already knew, long discussions of what software architecture actually was, ...—a course suitable for a first semester student, but not the master students it was ostensibly intended for. I may well have spent ten times as much effort on program analysis as on software architecture—despite the nominal equality in credit and course level.

The courses were examined orally on a passed/not passed scale. The professor started with roughly five minutes on program analysis, never moving beyond the trivial, nothing that I could not have learned in a few workdays of superficial skimming. “OK, that was a pass, but that course does not interest me. On to software architecture.”, said the professor. We then spent twenty or so minutes on the new topic, much of it wasted on the question what software architecture, at all, was. Ironically, I had the impression that he did not like my answers (although I did pass); possibly because I had abstracted to a higher degree than he, possibly because I had earlier made a few suggestions on course improvements to move the course away from trivialities.

Thus: The hard course, which had cost me much effort, and would rightly be a “not passed” for a majority of all students, was tested so superficially that almost anyone could have passed—including the mathematically untalented nit-wit, who could then claim to have succeeded in a brainy course. In a second step, the same nit-wit would have had no problems passing the too trivial software-architecture course, and could have incorrectly claimed to understand something off this topic too.

Excursion on bluffing teachers

The situation can possibly be explained by the professor being new, and perhaps not having had time or brains enough to learn the (inherited) program-analysis course himself. Rather than admit this short-coming and involve a helper, he may have preferred to gloss over his lack of knowledge.

Interestingly, as a TA in my early twenties, I once found myself in a similar situation—and handled it similarly: I assisted on a computer science course given for several different programs at my college. I had so far assisted students with and graded their programming assignments during “lab hours” in two of the programs. Due to a staff shortage, I covered a shift for a third program—only to find that they had a different set of exercises (and a slightly different environment). I proceeded to successfully bluff my way through the session, acting confident when I was not, glossing over details I did not know, even successfully grading (passed/not passed) assignments—if, I suspect, less objectively and justly than usually.

Back then, I thought myself clever, and felt that I knew how to handle unfamiliar situations. Today, I frown upon and despise this kind of [playingAt], and I know that it is destructive and incompetent. In fact, one of my main criticisms against e.g [vpProdMan] and [BA2] is not their incompetence per se, but the combination of incompetence and [playingAt]. I would rather work with an incompetent who is aware of and admits to his incompetence, than a semi-competent who engages in heavy [playingAt]—the latter is the greater threat to his employer, less likely to improve over time, less likely to cooperate, more likely to block sound developments and ideas, and, ironically, more likely to be promoted over more competent people and be able to do even greater damage.


Side-note:

This is a good example of how lack of competence can give someone to career advantages: Someone who regularly finds himself in “in over his head” situations, will have plenty of opportunity to learn both to bluff and how to bluff—until he manages to fool most people into believing in his competence in every situation. The people who are usually on top of situations will not learn this, and may, thus, appear less competent than the bluffer.


Different grade, different understanding

The limits for passing a course are often quite low, and on average there is no comparison between an A-pass and a C- or D-pass. I would even argue that anything below a B should be considered a fail, in a more sensible system.

(It is true that even someone who deserves an A can slip up and receive a C, if the stars are sufficiently misaligned, e.g. through sickness, road work outside the dorm in the night before the test, an incompetent grader, or similar. However, this will almost always remain an exception, and the extra effort to re-take those few tests are more than justified by the higher worth of the diploma.)

Over-focus on raw knowledge, lack of understanding

Unfortunately, many courses and professors over-focus on raw knowledge, and leave actual understanding by the road-side. This diminishes the value of formal qualifications: Firstly, understanding is inherently more valuable, and will be a greater asset in later life. Secondly, raw knowledge is easier forgotten than understanding, leading to a shorter “half-life” of the value that is present.

The professor above showed very strong signs of having walked into this trap. I saw many other cases during the two semesters of business I took in parallel to my first master—something that makes me highly skeptical to diplomas that are not from the hard sciences.

The brain is often more important...

...than the diploma, as I can testify based on my own experiences. I would go further yet: The main value of a diploma is not that it demonstrates a particular knowledge level (let alone level of understanding), but that a higher education serves as a filter that weeds out many of the less intelligent.

Here at least three problems occur:

  1. The dropping educational standards makes this filter less and less effective. The naive view, held by many politicians, that the world were better if everyone had a higher education, is a particular problem, because increasingly lax entry and examination criteria follow.

  2. The above mentioned different value of different grades apply even more to degrees than individual courses: A “barely passed” is near worthless, and I advice employers to not pay weight to a degree not in the top half of the grade scale—if possible, to make even further going limitations. (When hiring for/promoting to a qualified position.)

  3. Degrees from various programs are often highly different in their ability to filter: As hinted above, business is a weak filter, as are many other soft sciences; math and physics, OTOH, are very good filters. Notably, soft sciences have the additional problems that good grades can typically be reached through hard work alone (while math requires a brain) and that grading is often unnecessarily subjective.