Making the decision to go back to university to continue your education can involve multiple considerations from how to finance your degree to how it will enhance your career prospects. A big question prospective students of online master’s degree programmes are sure to turn over at some point in their minds is how their current/future employers are likely to view their degrees, and whether they are likely to equate online degrees with those earned in a traditional brick-and-mortar campus setting.
In a pre-pandemic world, online degrees were scarcely the norm with 45 percent of hiring managers and employers demonstrating scepticism about the amount of work it takes to complete a credential online, according to a 2018 study by Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy. Today, the pandemic has given the largest boost to distance education reports the World Economic Forum and employers are quickly changing their perceptions towards online degrees. FutureLearn’s findings from their latest survey of hiring managers backs this up stating that ‘Three-quarters of hiring managers were more likely to hire applicants with solely online education today than they were prior to 2020.’
While most students today will have taken at least one online class, knowing how to promote your learnings from your online degree programme to show you developed skills beyond what is included in the curriculum can help you stand out from a crowd of candidates with similar qualifications.
Tips on how you can turn your online degree into one of your biggest assets during a job interview
- Demonstrate your drive to succeed:
Students of online degree programmes do not typically fit into the same student demographics as those enrolling in a traditional on-campus programme. According to the 2021 survey report ‘Digitally Enhanced Learning and Teaching in European Higher Education Institutions’ by the European University Association, ‘adult and mature students’ were the main focus of most online degree programmes. These ‘non-traditional’ students may already have successful careers, or may be career changers, stay-at-home parents returning to the workforce, or those with a lot of life experience behind them like volunteer work, travel, or caregiving responsibilities.
Employers want to know these stories, to know that you are a well-rounded individual who has used their life experiences to succeed. Showing that you have the willingness to gain new knowledge by putting in some hard work despite your other commitments can show potential employers that you are a driven individual who can work under pressure and are adaptable – a skill McKinsey, in its report ‘Skill Shift Automation and The Future of the Workforce’, says is growing in importance and demand from employers.
For example, when asked to say something about yourself, you can say something like ‘I always wanted to earn a post-graduate degree. However, my current work commitments and erratic travel schedule made attending university in a traditional setting nearly impossible. Instead, I chose to earn my degree online even if it meant studying in the evenings, on flights, and on weekends.’
Many employers prefer hiring candidates who have graduated from accredited programs as accreditation can demonstrate that the education they have received meets the professional standards needed to work in the industry today. Northwestern University in its 2018 report ‘Educational Credentials Come of Age’ affirms this saying that 58 percent of hiring managers felt that an institute’s reputation was an important criterion while considering the value of a candidate’s credentials – regardless of whether it was earned through traditional means or online. Universities are keen to close the gap between online degrees and on-campus ones too. The BBC cites an example of this where the Harvard Business School changed the name of its online learning division from the distinct ‘HBX’ to simply ‘Harvard Business School Online’ in 2019 to help equate perceptions of their online and in-person offerings.
While most degrees do not state whether you have earned them through online study or not, being upfront and explaining your programmes accreditations can show your future employers that the education you have received is as relevant as one earned via traditional means. In fact, FutureLearn reports that a whopping 97 percent of online students listed this fact on their CVs. So don’t be afraid to tell your story and say where and how you earned your degree on your CV.
Describe how you received a high-quality education, ‘I researched the university and its accreditations thoroughly before I enrolled. I had the same professors for my course as students going the more traditional route and the online programme held the same accreditations as its on-campus counterpart. The programme was accredited by XYZ which is a leading accrediting body in my field.’
- Show Off Your Soft and Transferable Skills:
Some soft skills are innate, like empathy for example, while others like communication can be learned. McKinsey reports that the demand for social and emotional skills is expected to grow by 22 percent across all industries in Europe between 2016 and 2030. Entrepreneurial and leadership skills are also expected to be in high demand. The European Union in its 2020 Eurostat report on tertiary education states that employers are increasingly looking for staff with the skills to manage complex information, think autonomously, be creative, use resources in a smart and efficient manner, as well as communicate effectively. Add today’s remote work scenario to the mix and you have a long list of skills most online students develop during their course of study.
During your interview, highlight how you have collaborated with your peers across the world for projects during your online degree programme and explain how you overcame barriers like time-differences and language constraints to deliver a stellar project. Highlight any initiatives you took and how it helped your team. Doing so can help your interviewers learn you have strong communication, time-management, teamworking, and leadership skills, not to mention that you are no stranger to remote work.
Another important skill your online degree can help highlight is your organisational skills. Telling your employer about how you managed to stick to your other commitments while still earning a degree can demonstrate how organised you are. For example, ‘I led a team of 4 of my peers to complete a project. I made sure my team used online remote working tools like Slack, Trello, and Zoom among others to communicate and ensure we were on track to finish on time. I also coordinated weekly meetings at times that were convenient to all.’
- Your Learnings and Their Applications:
Many online degree programmes help you develop concrete skills that can be applied immediately in the workplace, especially if your studies include similar subject matter to your field of work. Discuss courses you took that are relevant to the position you are applying for and cite examples of how you applied learnings from them directly in the workplace. For example, if you studied management, you could discuss how you applied knowledge you gained during your conflict resolution class to resolve a heated situation at work,
An example answer would be, ‘I try to ensure that I try to understand different viewpoints. When XYX was unhappy because ABC was not pulling their weight on a project they were working on together, I had a private chat with both of them individually. I learnt that ABC had several issues they were dealing with in their personal lives. I then spent some time with ABC to see how our employee programmes could help them deal with their problems and then worked with XYZ and ABC together to see how we could chart out their work to ensure it’s completed on time.’
- Use Your University’s Career Resources:
While the tips above are meant to help you during a job interview, here’s one that can actually help you land one.
According to a joint report by Wiley Education Services and Aslanian Market Research on online students, most universities offer an array of career services like resume creation, career fairs, and more that are available to all regardless of their method of study. The study found that while resume creation and career advisory services were commonly used by online students, services like job shadowing, alumni networking, and internship search assistance had the least uptake. Make sure you keep in touch with your university’s career services department even after graduation – you may just find your next dream job through them. Potential employers recommended by your university may already be familiar with your programme which means you probably won’t have to convince them about the relevance of your learnings and simply have to let your personality shine through.
Job interviews can be daunting and describing a method of learning that a potential employer is unfamiliar with can be even more so. Preparing for different questions beforehand and making a list of your learnings from your online degree programme can go a long way towards helping your ace that interview. Honesty, brevity, and professionalism can take you far.
Learn about some online master’s degree programs that are available and compare their pros and cons here.
Digitally enhanced learning and teaching in European higher education institutions, Survey report, European University Association, January 2021, https://eua.eu/resources/publications/954:digitally-enhanced-learning-and-teaching-in-european-higher-education-institutions.html
Do employers value online learning? FutureLearn, https://www.futurelearn.com/info/do-employers-value-online-learning, accessed August 2021
Educational Credentials Come Of Age, Northeastern University Center for the Future of Higher Education & Talent Strategy, 2018, https://www.northeastern.edu/cfhets/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Educational_Credentials_Come_of_Age_2018.pdf
Online college students 2020: Comprehensive data on demands and preferences, Wiley Education Services and Aslanian Market Research, Louisville, KY, https://edservices.wiley.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/OCS2020Report-ONLINE-FINAL.pdf
Skill Shift Automation and The Future of the Workforce, Discussion Paper, McKinsey Global Institute, 2018, https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/skill-shift-automation-and-the-future-of-the-workforce
Tertiary education statistics, Eurostat, European Union, https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=Tertiary_education_statistics#Participation_by_level, accessed August 2021
Will online degrees become more ‘legitimate’?, BBC Worklife, 30 November 2020, https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20201125-will-online-degrees-become-more-legitimate