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Slightly offtopic question about higher education

  1. Jun 30, 2008 #1
    I am curious as to when it became customary to require that people obtain a university degree in order to practice an occupation other than teaching.

    Isn't it true there was a time when a degree was not required of people wanting to be engineers, for example? I know that some people became lawyers without a formal education, by reading for the job.

  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 30, 2008 #2
    There's a saying that the bachelor's degree is the new high school diploma. I think that just over time, with societal evolution, education became more and more accessible to the "common" man. So there was a time when only the elite were educated, so it wasn't to hard to get a job without being educated.

    Over time, more people were educated, so for a decent job you needed a high school degree. I'd say we're coming into an age now where an associate's, if not a bachelor's, degree is becoming the norm.

    It's a bit strange to think what it might be like in a hundred years. Will the PhD be necessary to get ahead even in a non-academic setting?
  4. Jun 30, 2008 #3


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    It already is in a lot of consultancy jobs where they want to put it on the proposal to impress the client. An MBA seems to be required to do any sort of management job now.
  5. Jun 30, 2008 #4


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    My first job out of high school was with a company that had a self-taught electrical engineer. He was highly regarded, and would come up with solutions that were like no one else's. He thought that a university education was valuable but that it made all the graduates think alike...I think he was correct about that, to a point.

    BTW, he was self-taught because during WWII, he was living in Belgium during the occupation. His parents wouldn't let any of the kids out of the house, so out of boredom he started reading his dad's engineering books.
  6. Jun 30, 2008 #5
    The other day I met a self taught electrical engineer (mostly building and designing audio equipment), and he didn't know a damn thing about anything. Of course, instead of reading his dad's engineering books, he learned his trade on a strictly "if it doesn't electrocute me, then it's okay" policy. He was similarly of the opinion that getting a formal engineering education saps creative thinking, but also he wasn't a very good engineer.

    I think there's some truth in it, but my hypothesis is that a lot of people aren't cut out for engineering, but they're perfectly capable technicians that get an engineering degree for the money, e.g., not all graduates think alike because of their formal education, but too many people get a formal education without ever learning to think! (Which I'm pretty sure is at the heart of the problem this thread is addressing)That said though, I think the reverse-elitism that comes from a lot of people that make it without a degree is unwarranted.
  7. Jun 30, 2008 #6
    That is another way of looking at it. I thought of it in a different way, that precisely because it is easier to obtain knowledge in modern times without going to school, attending school after secondary school was not really necessary anymore.

    I think a degree is only required now because people who have them are now a dime a dozen, as another saying goes. Since the dot-com bust, it seems as though due only to the fact that employers can be picky, they ARE being picky and requiring a degree for jobs that a few years ago did not require a degree, only some experience.

    Before I posted, I did a little Googling and found that for some jobs, employers would rather hire someone who has a certificate or a two-year degree and no experience than one who has a four-year degree.
  8. Jun 30, 2008 #7


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    From pollywoggy:

    Some kinds of certificates indicate the certificate holder to have been trained for a job; in constrast, a degree is usually (except for maybe engineering?) education, which is not the same as job training.
  9. Jun 30, 2008 #8

    Andy Resnick

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    I read the very interesting book "Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University" by William Clark:


    It used to be a capital offense to claim one was a (medical) doctor when one had no licence to practice. One may not practice law without passing the Bar exam.

    But, PhD's in Physics were only invented around 1900; that means all those giants we discuss here (Maxwell, Faraday, Lagrange, Newton, etc..) had no formal degree in Physics.

    I'm not sure one must have any degree to practice engineering (other than a P.E. for some types of work); for that matter one need not have a degree to perform scientific research. I've worked with plenty of engineers (as per their job title) that did not have a BS. Or even a BA.

    In modern society, given the required specialization to perform most types of technical work, the degree serves (in theory) as a garauntee that the recipient has been trained in some canonical body of knowledge and skills. This is useful for hiring purposes- I have a need for someone with specific skills, for example.
  10. Jun 30, 2008 #9
    You also have to remember that in those days, the body of knowledge was not as vast as it is today. I imagine that the education then was more mainstreamed and common among the majority of students; it was the research that made those men scientists.

    As a more modern example, I know that some of the first electrical engineering departments grew out of the physics departments. Once the knowledge base in the electrical sciences grew large enough, the powers that be decided that it was to be its own separate field.

    Even today we are seeing more and more universities spawn separate departments to take on nano-scale science. I hope I am not getting of topic here; I just think that this thread could be an interesting look at the dynamics and evolutionary trends of higher education.
  11. Jun 30, 2008 #10
    Same thing with chemistry spawning off of physics and computer science spawning off of math departments.
  12. Jun 30, 2008 #11


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    I don't think it's the required knowledge ( you can argue about the content of current degree courses vs 20years ago!) it's simply an inflation / weeding out process.
    You have 5 vancancies, you want to deal with 20 applicants not 200 so you up the requirements, then in a boom you are desparate for anyone - you lower the demands.

    Add in goverments wanting more people to go to university, either to lower unemployment figures or to be seen to be doing something (education=good m'kay) plus watering down requirements in schools so that a degree is now pretty much the minimum requirement if you want someone who can read and write.
  13. Jun 30, 2008 #12
    I agree with the statement that it is not about the required knowledge; it is not about education. It is really about overcoming hurdles. The applicant that has jumped through the most hoops gets the job.
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