You U

A sometimes wise approach to career preparation.

Posted Jun 11, 2019

College Degrees 360, CC 2.0
Source: College Degrees 360, CC 2.0

Of course, some careers require a degree, notably in the health fields, but many careers don’t. Sure, in other fields, employers tend to pick degree holders but that preference can be trumped by the self-driven learning process I describe in this post. I call it You U.  And once you’re in a career, the case is even stronger for You U over State U, let alone Private U.

What is You U?

It’s a learner-selected combination of articles, videos, conferences, book chapters, conference attending, job shadowing, and volunteering. You could self-select the learning vehicles or be guided by a mentor or two.

Does You U work?

It works for self-starters who, even for a few months, do the aforementioned concentrated, individualized learning, and who document their activities, learnings, and deliverables in a portfolio submitted with applications for jobs and annual reviews. It’s crucial to include something like the following to employers:

I know that the job normally requires X degree but I have deliberately forgone that because I’ve so often heard that too little of that academic learning is relevant to success on the job. Instead, I’ve chosen to be a self-starter and done considerable on-target learning. A portfolio is attached. I like to think it’s a plus that I was self-motivated enough to construct a valuable learning experience without needing a professor to structure it for me and prod me with a grade. Of course, we now come to the moment of truth: Will you interview me? I like to think that if we talk, you’ll agree that my You U education makes me a worthy candidate. But what do you think?

Creating an Excellent You U Education

Finding a mentor. List five or 10 people who are respected in the area in which you’re trying to get more expert. Sometimes, even a famous person (no, not Beyonce) is more accessible and willing to help than you might imagine. That’s especially true of older experts who, aware of their hourglass’s sand falling, want to leave a legacy. Query five or 10 because the odds of anyone responding are slim. You have nothing to lose by asking. Just don’t be overly demanding. Write a short note or leave a short voicemail requesting, for starters, not mentorship but their thoughts on a question that’s burning within you that’s in the expert’s wheelhouse. For example, I’d surely respond to an email such as this:

Dear Dr. Nemko,

I have followed your Psychology Today writings for years. I’ve particularly appreciated when you present little-discussed, contrarian ideas, for example, citing the solid data debunking pop-psych nostrums and pointing out not just the strengths but the limitations of a collaborative leadership style.

Reading your work makes me want to ask you a question if I might. I notice that you often tell managers to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to supervision. But I’m a manager in a unionized environment and if I treat one supervisee differently, for example, reducing their reporting requirements because they’re unusually responsible, I risk a grievance being filed. Any advice?

I know that you must be very busy but if by chance you might be willing to answer my question, I’d be thrilled.


Cindy Seeker

If a person responds, thank him or her profusely and offer to be of help. For example, Cindy might write,

Dear Dr. Nemko,

I was so happy to get your response and even better, that it gave me an actionable approach. I have now tried your suggestion to first consult the union rep. She suggested that I explain to the staff why I’m relaxing the reporting requirement for that employee, that I got an okay from the union, and that I will look for other supervisees I feel could succeed despite reduced reporting.

Is there anything I can do to be of help to you: read a draft of something you wrote? Promote one of your articles on my social media? Even be a sounding board for your ideas?

In any event, thank you so much.


Cindy Seeker

A week or two later, even if Cindy didn’t get a response from me, she wouldn’t be out of line asking me another question. Perhaps after one more question that I could quickly answer, she might make the bigger ask, for example,

Dear Dr. Nemko,

I’m wondering if I could ask you a more difficult question. I’ve been told that to move up in management, I should get an MBA. I’m resisting that because too many people say it wasn’t worth the time or money because much of the education is theoretical or unnecessarily quantitative. I’d like to try to do some learning on my own, what you call You U. Might I ask what you’d suggest I read, watch, attend, etc.?

I feel a little guilty imposing on you and of course understand if you’re too busy to respond, but again would be so happy if you did.


Cindy Seeker

And that is how a mentorship can be born.

Selecting learning resources

In collaboration with a mentor(s) or on your own, focus on resources that yield maximum learning per minute. An article usually yields the most: An article that you’ve picked from among a Google search's top results has been read and forwarded countless times and thus is likely to be useful. And unlike a book, long video, or course, an article often represents an expert’s distilled wisdom, often their best ideas. So if Cindy wanted to learn management theories, she could do far worse than simply to, in quotation marks, search Google on “management theories.” If she wanted to make her first foray into finance, she might Google “introduction to finance” or “finance for managers.” If she wanted to learn the Agile approach to project management, she’d probably find something good simply by googling “Agile.”

Also time-efficient are the myriad short videos on YouTube, all just a Google search away.

Sometimes, you might want to take on a broader swath. But before signing up for a full-length course, consider taking one or more short online/video courses, for example, on Udemy, LinkedIn Learning, or Udacity. Or, if you’re good at getting the essence from books by skimming, try a textbook. If Cindy wanted to more thoroughly review the field of management, she might pick a textbook by searching Amazon on “management textbook," use its “Look Inside this Book” feature plus the reader reviews to pick a textbook, and then, because textbooks are expensive, buy it used or rent it.

Often, especially for difficult material, a tutor can make all the difference. A likely source would be someone who teaches a class on your target subject at a community college or university extension, where faculty is hired mainly on how well they teach, not on how much research they crank out. Be sure the tutor doesn't essentially teach you a course but answers the questions that emerge from your self-study

A valuable component of a You U “degree” is to attend an appropriate conference run by your field’s professional association. Perhaps it’s a meeting of a local chapter, a regional or specialty conference, or the organization’s national conference. Here’s advice on how to make the most of a conference.

Reading and watching is all well and good but sooner than later, it’s wise to experience your target learning in real life. Ask your mentor or others for an informational interview or even to job shadow for an hour or three.

A final step in a You U "degree" might be to volunteer, intern, or get hired for a project. That allows you to apply your learning and, if desired, add that relevant experience to your resume and LinkedIn profile.


As mentioned above, if you want your You U education to help you get hired or to advance, you should document your learning. For each learning activity, list key learnings and any collateral material you created: from your notes on a webinar to the summary of what you learned from job-shadowing. Attach that portfolio to job applications and show it to your boss in advance of your annual review.

Keeping yourself motivated

You U is only for self-starters. There’s no professor telling you to read pp. 258-374, let alone to read it by Monday or else. You should treat your You U education as you would a series of dentist appointments: calendar them. Or simply remind yourself that once you get immersed in the learning, it likely will be pleasant, if not moreso than are many university courses, and you’ll likely learn more that will make you a competent professional, and in less time and at a tiny fraction of the cost.

The takeaway

Most people need the structure of school: Show up 7 to 9, Tuesday and Thursdays; read this; write that; take these tests. Plus, many people like the social aspect of being in a class.

But if reading this article makes you feel you could stick with You U for at least a few months, You U rather than traditional U may well render you more competent and more successful in far less time at far less cost, plus it gives you the good feeling of agency: you’ve learned what you and your mentor chose personally rather than what some professor selected for the entire class.

I read this aloud on YouTube.