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Do aspiring marketers need to study formally, or is self-learning and and a good portfolio enough to make it as a digital marketer in 2020?

While degrees were once a requirement for aspiring marketers, the digital era has made the world of digital marketing far more accessible to, well, just about anybody with an internet connection. Many new marketing professionals have gotten their start without a university degree, and many seek innovative ways of self-learning using online education platforms, or good old trial and error. High-profile marketing expert Seth Godin has even gone so far as to create a short altMBA course for aspiring marketers and business leaders.

A recent study carried out by ClickMinded revealed that attending graduate school can be up to 10 times less profitable and 3 times slower than self-learning online.

Compared with attending graduate school, learning digital marketing with an unaccredited course and starting a website is:

  • 10 times more profitable, with a return on investment of 521% three years after getting a digital marketing job — compared to a return of 53% from a digital marketing degree.
  • 4 times cheaper, with a total cost (including opportunity cost) of $20,752 in the worst-case scenario — vs. a total cost of $84,086 for attending graduate school.
  • 3 times faster, which on average takes 6 months of self-learning and growing a website full time — instead of the typical 19 months, it takes to complete a master’s in digital marketing.

With these thoughts and findings in mind, we’ve asked marketing managers how they view degrees today. More specifically, we wanted to learn whether degrees are a requirement and why aspiring marketers may still want to get one. The experts also share some best tips for getting educated in marketing and hired without a degree.

Related Article: Marketing Certifications That Can Help You Earn More

Are Marketing Degrees a Requirement?

“In my opinion Marketing degrees are not a necessity depending on the role,” stated Kyle Turk, VP of marketing at Keynote Search. When hiring a digital marketer, for example, it’s often best to choose a candidate with experiences using specific software so they can quickly hit the ground running. “If the role requires technical expertise for certain softwares,” Turk continued, “self-learning would prove to be more valuable.”

Paula Connor, chief content marketing officer at 256 says employers — especially government organizations — still require formal marketing or business qualifications, but that’s rapidly changing. “My short answer is no, [marketing degrees] aren’t useless,” Connor began. “many employers still look for formal marketing or business qualifications, especially in government organizations.” However, he points out, you can definitely learn a lot of digital marketing skills by yourself for free.

When Do Marketing Degrees Still Make Sense?

Tony Mastri, digital marketing manager at MARION Marketing believes someone that wants to move into a more general business role beyond marketing will want to get a university degree. “A university degree will really help expedite the move from entry-level to some sort of senior role or management position,” he said. That’s because marketing degrees cover areas like accounting, finance, economics, management and other business topics as well.

Maddison agreed, “A marketing degree offers the greatest flexibility to pivot, for those unsure about what area of the industry they want to specialize in.” When self-learning, it can be challenging to get a comprehensive insight into all the different aspects of a role ranging from market analysis to data analysis and budgeting.

The main criticism with the material covered by marketing degrees itself is that the focus is largely centered on marketing theory. “The better programs incorporate practical elements,” Connor explained, “like giving students the opportunity to work on real-life client projects, work experience/internship modules and include modules where you would gain practical skills such as obtaining a Google Analytics certification.”

Related Article: 8 Skills Every Digital Leader Needs

The Job Market, Attitude and Experience Are Factors

“In a good job market,” Mastri said, “a portfolio of success (candidates will still need previous work experience or successful project examples) can be enough to land an entry-level position.” He says companies can always try a candidate out with a contract-to-hire role rather than taking a leap of faith. That said, he still views it as a risky decision. There is a small chance I would hire a marketing employee without a degree, but still a chance,” he stated.

“If someone has an amazing portfolio of work to show, can demonstrate their skills and has great references from former clients/employers,” Connor said,  “then we’ll be interested in talking to them — degree or no degree.” Companies that don’t value these factors often significantly limit the talent pool they’re willing to hire from and miss out on great hires. 

For many organizations, however, formal education is not what matters most. “The most important quality for a candidate wanting to start a career in marketing is to have a continued willingness to learn,” stated James Maddison, head of content marketing at iwoca. He says a lot of what’s required can be learned on the job, and marketing degrees are merely an indicator of knowledge. “The industry develops at such a fast pace that the majority of things learned during a marketing course would’ve changed by the point of graduation,” Maddison said.

How to Start Self-Learning Digital Marketing

“Employees can get started with digital marketing using online learning platforms or even just online research,” Mastri said. But he strongly suggests candidates build the right portfolio or examples of work to stand out from college graduates.

“You can get started by learning from the likes of HubSpot, Google, SEMrush and Moz,” Connor recommended. These companies all offer training programs and certifications for inbound marketing, analytics, paid ad manager, SEO and more. “Whether it be a combination of some of these certifications or all of them,” Turk agreed, “it would be more useful for me to have someone who is an expert with the digital tools we already have in place.”

“As a marketing leader,” Turk concluded, “I would definitely hire a candidate without a formal degree as long as they have tangible self-learning certifications that are relevant to our business.” It looks as though marketing degrees won’t be going away anytime soon, but there are alternate paths for today’s aspiring digital marketers.