Future of Jobs Series – Part 3: Degree vs. Subject Expertise: What’s more important?

By: Shriram Shanmugham, Founder – Credait.com – The People Empowerment Platform

Reading time: 2 minutes

The impact of college degrees is limited when it comes to influencing your career. Ask any working professional about this statement and they will acknowledge it. The problem begins with over emphasis to grades in schools and colleges, where our “talents” are measured by the ability to memorize information. However, when it comes to landing our first job, every other parameter is screened in addition to grades. These include oral and written communication, extra-curricular activities, project experiences, internship experiences, etc. The important question to ask is, what is really important moving forward in our career?

At the end of the day, all of us need a career that cements our financial success. We appreciate a job we are passionate about, something where we find meaning and purpose, and if this combined with a reasonable financial gain, then it would be an ideal career. But what guarantees that we always stay in demand by employers while ensuring financial success? There are 2 things:

  1. Super-Skills  (click to read the article)
  2. Subject Expertise

Subject expertise and super-skills are of primordial importance in the age of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation.

“Companies prefer candidates who are adept at learning,

unlearning and re-learning”

So what’s the difference between degree and subject expertise? Degrees are broad with limited knowledge, while a subject expertise are specific with deep knowledge. This is best illustrated with examples:

  1. Mechanical engineering is a degree, but from an automotive company’s perspective, an engineer designing engines would require deep expertise in thermodynamics and fluid mechanics – these are specific subject expertise that require deep-rooted knowledge.
  2. Commerce and Financial Management are degrees, but an investment banking profile would require subject expertise in commodity based hedging and floor broking.
  3. Biotechnology is a degree, but a start-up firm specializing in AI applications to drug discovery may require subject expertise in molecular cell signalling and solid state circuits.

Will a Masters or PhD justify core competence in subject expertise? Yes, in few niche areas, but not necessarily in most areas because of the rate at which technology is progressing. Rather than going through post-graduation that ranges from 2 to 10 years, companies prefer candidates who are adept at learning, unlearning and re-learning. This implies that companies prefer candidates who continuously replenish their self-taught knowledge, in sync with projects timelines.

For example, an automotive firm developing next-generation hybrid engine, to improve efficiency by means of a better cooling system, would expect to hire any engineer or non-engineer who have core subject-expertise in fluid mechanics and thermodynamics. In the event they can’t find such an expert, they would expect an existing engineer in their team to gain this knowledge through courses on MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) platforms, with duration ranging between few weeks to months. The timelines to deliver a prototype hybrid engine will be inclusive of the time taken by the engineer to learn fluid dynamics in a manner that will benefit this project.

Companies usually sponsor some employees for masters or PhD programs to enhance subject expertise, but in the evolving world of AI intervention, companies can’t afford a 2 year or more sabbatical for their employees. The key word here is timeline constraint, and nothing to do with monetary sponsorship for higher education. There will be proliferation of many short-term courses in MOOC platforms, and one can confidently assume that even established educational institutions will switch to this format within a decade, as opposed to 3-4 year degrees. In this regard, a candidate who is a fast-learner, striving continuously to become a self-taught subject expert will have the upper hand in career progress.