Qualification as shortcut

I have seriously considered obtaining advanced degrees 3 times in my life.

They were born out of the desire to identify, to conform, and to exploit.

  1. I wanted to get a master's in public policy to feel as cool as the Harvard grads I met in college (2014)
  2. I wanted to get a master's in human computer interaction to pass the requirements for a Facebook role (2016)
  3. I wanted to get a master's in business administration to bypass the managerial career ladder (2019)

They're hardly noble intentions. Education is theoretically meant to assist one in achieving something, usually knowledge or qualification. But what I was trying to leverage was not the mastery nor the training. It was the institutional branding and its ability to create a narrative around myself. It was an attempt to bring myself closer to this ideal figure of man inside my mind. A possible migration then, is an added bonus together with the higher pay. The extended optional practical training (OPT) duration remains the most viable method for foreign nationals to legally work in the US while bidding their time for H1B employment visa or a green card.

And perhaps even these intentions are duly acceptable after all to survive financially and socially. A person seeking to improve their welfare through upskill-ing is a cause to celebrate. Economically it helps to supply highly proficient labors. Individually it gives a sense of accomplishment and a promise for a better future for one's family. Despite all this, what I found to be problematic is how I've kept lying to myself by subconsciously accepting the notion that learning is only possible through a formal admission to exclusive programs. Perhaps it's an even bigger lie. I did not want to learn. I only wanted to acquire what's needed for me. What I was seeking was permission to call myself a professional or somebody with an authority.

I once told a friend how I did not believe in any edtech startups. They all eventually converge into a body that issues certifications and offshoot licenses in an attempt to be profitable. An online platform that generously charge $5 and offer unlimited courses is often seen bleeding while an institution that certifies you for $500 is oppositely thriving despite its questionable background. The latter's value proposition is a brand new entry at LinkedIn and the ability to give yourself dubious titles like Scrum Master and Financial Adviser through one-time webinars. They're convenient, and the only reason I can imagine they're so successful is because it fulfills a purpose. It satisfies a need.

In retrospect, that's what a traditional institution have also became: a gatekeeper of qualifications. But sometime this is by design. You don't want surgeons who call themselves one after a single workshop of cutting and stitching a wound. You don't want self-branded architects who try to build actual houses because they have built LEGO models on weekends.

The above examples mirror what I was trying to achieve when I considered getting my master's. It's a sobering realization: I was a pot calling the kettle black. I, too, wanted a quick and relatively painless way to justify myself in a field where performance is relative and outcomes are unbelievably hard to track. It's a shortcut, a mere hurdle to jump with unbelievable rewards at times. Simply breaking into the right circle earns you recognition and opens many doors. People pay attention to you now. People actually pay you better too. And despite all this cheat-like benefits you're still playing by the rules officially. I mean look, you got some Ivy League certs to show! You're indisputable!

There's an argument to be made where fields like policies, HCI and venture building are still areas I am genuinely interested in, but they hold surprisingly little weight compared to the reasons stated above. I don't go out of my way to put hours into practice to learn about them. I enjoy them to a certain degree, then I realized with minimal efforts I could milk them by posing as an expert. The only thing stopping me each time is a sliver of last-minute rationality and participating circumstances. This way, the important process in democratization of learning is then meaningless to me as long as I still hold such primitive mindset. That formal qualification are merely tools wielded for my narrow-minded purpose. I'm writing all this to create a reminder for myself: the 4th time I attempt to do all this shit again I should put learning first and benefits second.