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How to Deal

How to get coworkers to accept you without having a master's degree

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By Lily Garcia
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, October 22, 2009; 12:00 AM

I do a job that in many organizations requires a master's degree. I do not have one, but I do have 25 years of experience doing this job. I've been at my new company about a month and a few co-workers have made comments like, "oh, so you're not really a [job title]" when they find out I don't have the master's. It bothers me because my years on the job and everything I've learned about my job during those years are being completely disregarded. I was hired to be a [job title] and that's what I am. I've always gotten excellent reviews and nobody has ever complained about my work. The lack of an advanced degree doesn't bother my current supervisor, just my co-workers. Tips for handling without letting it get to me more than it has already? I'm tired of the snide remarks.

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FWIW, I do value education and I'm actually slowly working on that advanced degree at night so that I don't cut myself off from future job opportunities

I would hire a person with 25 years of practical experience over a neophyte with a master's degree any day. And maybe that is what has your coworkers so bent out of shape. They may have the framed diploma, but they do not necessarily have the skills that led your supervisor to hire you. Although they may not realize it, your coworkers worry about the competition that you pose and they are looking for ways to assuage their anxiety by diminishing your relative worth. Their rude and inappropriate comments, in other words, are a sure sign of insecurity.

Although I don't know what you do for a living, I can surmise from the dynamic you have described that you work in an intellectual and perhaps somewhat elitist field. In such professions, fine distinctions are often made among job applicants and employees based upon level of education, alma mater and other presumed indicia of pedigree.

It is fair to assume that one does acquire valuable knowledge from attending classes and that one must demonstrate a certain amount of intellectual potential to be granted acceptance to certain schools. Especially in the absence of other strong evidence of ability, therefore, level of formal education and other academic accomplishments are perfectly valid job selection criteria. Yet, as your supervisor obviously recognizes, there is little substitute for the preparation gained from actually doing a job and doing it well.

You are wise to appreciate that your supervisor's enlightened perspective represents a very small minority. By completing work on your advanced degree, you will eliminate the risk of being excluded from consideration for future opportunities based on education alone.

As for your coworkers, you have several options for how to respond. You could ignore them completely or laugh off their snide remarks. (Few responses are as disconcerting as mysterious laughter.) You could attempt to enlighten your coworkers regarding the discourtesy of their comments regarding your level of education by inviting them to consider how they would feel if such judgment were similarly passed on them. Finally, you could explain to your supervisor that your lack of a master's degree appears to have generated some confusion among other members of the team regarding your job title and role. Ask her to formally welcome you in the presence of others by outlining your past accomplishments, describing the contributions she expects you to make, and expressing her confidence in your abilities. Although it is a little late for introductions given that you have been at your job for a month, this gesture will nevertheless help to legitimize you in the eyes of your teammates and diffuse some of their aggravating commentary regarding your education.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.


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