Let’s get straight to the point. I’ve seen people in this industry with college degrees and without college degrees that have succeeded immensely in this field. I think it really boils down to how much you’re willing to put in as far as the time to learn all these different things and then build up a portfolio and track record you can then use to get into your next job.
I’m going to talk about this from my perspective and talk about a few of the things I was doing well before I even had the will and desire to give digital marketing and content marketing a shot after I graduated from Georgia State University. So, do you need a college degree to do digital marketing? Here’s my story.
Why Do People Go to College At All?
For me, the reason I went to college in the first place was because I thought I was either going to study art or accounting. Even before that, I was all over the place with what I wanted to do with my life. I looked at so many different majors from electrical engineering to even programming and IT. There was just way too much at the time to choose.
So what I did instead after graduating high school was take a gap year off. I still did a summer semester at Georgia State, where I took sociology and philosophy classes, and then the following year in the Fall I returned and grinded the whole thing out, never taking any breaks and then graduating finally in December 2016. It felt like yesterday but it’s already been several years since that time.
How Did I Get Started in Digital Marketing?
And during college, I was already writing content before I even knew there was a whole industry around it. I wrote for a content mill called Textbroker where I got to earn a little bit of pocket change for the articles I’d give them. The pay wasn’t great but it did give me some very basic SEO-related skills. I also was writing a lot of comments on a blog ironically talking about the “college bubble” and the creator reached out to me and gave me a gig to write several blog posts a week for him, paying me $5 a week. I happily took it because I never had any other work experience before. I didn’t know it at the time, but this also laid the foundation as to how I got into this field in the first place.
Was the initial work I got back then anything crazy? No, not making WordPress sites or anything but it was enough for me to get a feel of what it’s like to produce content for clients and other people on a schedule.
And honestly, I’ve had mixed feelings about freelancing for a long time. If the client is really good and is willing to pay you what you’re worth, go for it, but more times than not, the clients expect the world out of you and won’t pay that well at all. I have a crazy story about how I built a client a website for something very risqué and inappropriate. I won’t dive into that further, but I literally did that website for her for $100-$200.
I also tried out other clients but had the infamous impostor syndrome, so early on in my career, I had a bad habit of taking on way more than I could chew and getting overwhelmed, so I had to learn to become better and I’ve come a long way I feel. I even abandoned several projects I had because of this crippling fear and lack of confidence in myself and my own abilities, even though looking back, I was already doing so much high level marketing analysis for the companies I’ve helped and consistently produced results again and again.
For the longest time I was underselling myself and my own value because I believed what other people thought of me and didn’t have as much self-confidence and worth in myself.
Those are the kinds of people out there on Upwork who want things from us but refuse to pay top dollar, so they wonder why we retaliate or don’t try our very best for them at times. Now I just tell people only do a handful of freelance and volunteer work to get your foot in the door and to have enough so you can use what you did as leverage to get into a startup or full service agency. I went the startup route when I was done with college.
I also took courses online about digital marketing which gave me enough of the basics for me to start playing around with things on my own, especially making a simple WordPress site to try running paid ads to. I was pretty lost at this point of my life, getting into massive trouble, and just not caring about anyone or anything. But that attitude of mine changed as soon as I got out of school and started to take my life seriously.
Turning My Life Around
I said good bye to all these negative, toxic people and groups that were messing my life up and getting me to do horrible things that were against my moral compass. I felt absolutely sick and vowed to never make such a grave mistake with my life again or to hurt other people in the process.
So there I was.
I’m outta college with the degree in my hand. I picked Computer Information Systems as my major cause I really thought I was gonna be able to do IT work. I was all ready to get those certifications at the time, but the only problem was that I took the Cisco CCENT exam twice and failed but was so close to passing, I just needed 25 more points and I coulda been a Computer Networker. I poured my life and soul into studying for it and just to be wrought with abject failure. It was one of the most humiliating moments in my life, but also a turning point.
I had done really well academically in college, but I had no chance of competing with all these people who were able to afford living in Downtown Atlanta and who had the connections to all these top employers. Even my IT internship wasn’t with Georgia Power or anything like that, but the City of Atlanta itself. I am grateful for that internship though because it instilled in me a level of analysis and dedication to offering in-depth value that I still provide to this day for companies.
What Did I Do Instead?
I decided to play the long game, apply for jobs in the marketing space despite not having a formal marketing degree. Not sure it would have helped but I might have ended up at some larger agencies with the right connections. But at the same time, I craved that startup environment for so many reasons even if the pay wasn’t gonna be as amazing at the start.
I got to wear so many different hats when I was at my first digital marketing gig at a startup and at the same time, volunteering remotely to help a nonprofit with their Google Ads campaigns.
Those two experiences gave me the foundation to then be able to get into even better companies. It wasn’t right away however, and I had several bumps in the world, including a stint at a remote SEO agency that just didn’t work out in the end, but still learned plenty from in terms of technical SEO and site speed optimization things. To this day, I always make sure to have conversion tracking on every page on the site. It really is that big of a deal to companies and an easy rookie mistake to overlook that part where you can get into serious trouble if you forget to do this.
Pro tip for anyone just getting into this field. I’m saving you a huge headache right there.
So Why Didn’t You Just Go Job Hopping and Get Paid More
People asked me at the time why I didn’t just leave the startup after a few months to get a higher paying job?
Well, I really enjoyed working with the company regardless. I made a meaningful connection with the founder of the company even though we had our disagreements sometimes and I screwed up a few times myself, but always quick to learn from the mistakes as a budding content writer, content marketer and SEO specialist at the time who also did Google Ads and Facebook Ads.
And she was super supportive and there for me when I was in a car accident, so there was also that. I haven’t talked to her in a long time but I still have fond memories of working there, and I’m forever grateful.
I’d get questions about how much I was paid, and I really didn’t care at the time at all. I just wanted to learn and see if it was possible to grow a startup to the point where we could compete with the big web development companies here in Atlanta. Unfortunately it wasn’t how it played out, but I ended up staying there for a solid two and a half years, even working remotely at the end so that was nice. When it comes to these things, I’m a long-term thinker. There’s a great book out there called Confessions of a Stock Operator and that’s part of where I adopted my long-term mindset, as well as reading The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace D. Wattles. I treat this field like an investor would. There are times where you make plenty of money or end up in gigs where the work life balance is incredible, and other times where it’s an absolute struggle and you have very little money.
The whole end game however is to get into one of those jobs in the field that pays over $100k or somewhere around that ballpark. I’m still determined to prove my worth and provide unique insights and strategies to companies who want them, despite being an introvert myself much of the time and not really into the flashy sales side of things. I really prefer analyzing, number crunching and getting my hands dirty!
Getting Into the Fintech and Wealth Management Niche
From there, I was also able to further work remotely with a company in the fintech sector that was eventually bought out by one of the largest players in the wealth management world. I worked entirely remotely for almost two years and I had a blast, even though it wasn’t all perfect either. I was startled when one day I realized that things were changing and that they weren’t gonna have room for a huge marketing department anymore. Come to find out long after the fact that the company had a successful acquisition and that’s what really happened.
It had nothing to do with me as a person because I look back at all my old work and see that the quality was always there and I provided so many insights that were helpful. And when I was contacted by the founder many months later with someone he wanted to see if I could do SEM for, that also proved to me that what I had done had a lasting effect that I was able to remain on great terms with the CEO of that company too.
Taking Some Time Off and Helping My Family
So from there, I took a break from in-house and agency digital marketing and used my skills to help my family out with several businesses they had, three of which have taken off for the most part or were growing but we ran into challenges with taking on too much business debt so we had to halt those operations for now.
And that’s where I am today. I’m just reflecting on all the years I’ve had in this field and thinking to myself, do digital marketers really need to go to college to be successful?
Here’s My Answer to If You Need a College Degree to Do Digital Marketing
I would say both yes and no. There are some people who are just so good about picking up things quickly that it’s possible for them to skip college and what not. And then there are people who go to college who do benefit from it as well, especially if they’re majoring in fields like finance, nursing, information security, and then can learn about digital marketing on the side and make a unique niche for themselves combining the two.
If you’re in college right now, that’s what I’d highly suggest you do. Even minor in marketing if you can just so you can learn how it was done in the past and so you have more knowledge and context. And take courses that help you think critically and strategically. Take a Critical Thinking course, a Philosophy class, and some classes in statistics. All of these things will put you ahead of most marketers out there today, even those with marketing degrees. I even think basic accounting and business analysis classes are very useful in being able to understand numbers better, because digital marketing is heavily numbers based.
It all depends on you. I’m not one of those people who completely dismisses college but at the same time, you know yourself better than I do and need to make an informed decision if you want to just dive into online courses or take the time to go to college. I’ll also say that if you do, just go to the cheapest commuter school you can or community college and save yourself a lot of money.
Don’t listen to anyone that tells you that community college is inferior to going to a much more expensive school or that you need to follow the “traditional” path when it comes to having a stereotypical college experience.
Digital Marketing is About Your Skillset and Results!
Ultimately, it’s about the skills and what you bring to the table that really matter and the results you bring to the companies you work on, so after a while it becomes irrelevant anyway once you have several years of experience on your belt.
And are you going to make a ton of money out of the gate? Maybe if you already live in an area where that’s the norm, but it’s different for everyone and depending on your experience level. I started out not making much at all in the beginning, and I’ve had ups and downs where I had money and then didn’t have money again and had money once more.
It’s what happens when you take the more entrepreneurial route in this field. It’s risky and it’s a ton of hard work that might not pay off right away either, counter to the get rich quick mentality people have about this field and web development and design too, ignoring the hours and hours of time you have to put in just to reach a basic level before you can go deeper.
I’d say don’t worry about what everyone else is making and just take the jobs that are going to allow you to learn and grow and fumble on the job so you can slowly develop your portfolio long-term.
And then, you get yourself a better digital marketing job and you work that for maybe another year or two and then decide to level up even more.
If you enjoy this post, check out some of the other content I’ve written on this site! Thanks for reading today.