Formal education in Oxford University

Self-Education vs. Formal Education: Which Is Best?

A college degree used to be a prerequisite for employment in most companies. But now, ‘wise companies’ accept non-degree holders, acknowledging that stellar employees can be self-taught too—which opened new doors to people preparing to enter the workforce. Thanks to the Internet, unlike previous generations, they now have a choice to do self-learning in addition to, or instead of formal education, but which is best for you? 

Self-education is suited to people who are independent, self-disciplined, and practice good time management. Formal education is for those who need structure, routine, constant guidance, immediate feedback, and enjoy being part of a classroom environment.

You may ask: Why should you spend tremendous amounts of money on university fees when you could be learning for free? On the other hand, if you lack the motivation and discipline to build your own learning agenda, then you need to invest in the convenience of having this done for you. Read on to know the pros and cons of each side and determine which path to choose.

Some who plan to start their own business don’t feel the need for formal education because they’re going to be their own boss, anyway. Others who plan on applying to companies feel the need for a diploma or certificate to prove they would be capable employees. There is no right or wrong method of learning.

Benefits of Self-Education

A lot of books lying on bookshelves for Self Education

Self-studying is a method in which you direct your own learning sans direct supervision and away from the classroom. It offers these advantages:

It Puts You in Control

This is one of the major advantages of self-study. You have dominion over what, when, and how you learn. When you have control, you are more invested in learning. It becomes fun and ceases to be a chore. 

It Provides a Wider Scope for Learning

With self-study, you go beyond the limitations of what your instructors teach. The Internet, its search engines, and high-tech resources have changed the way people in this century learn. Information is available anytime, anywhere. People are no longer restricted to the confines of physical books, tangible tools, libraries, and museums.

It Shows a More Efficient Path to Engage

When you explore a topic on your own, it prompts you to actively engage with the information. You can delve more deeply into it and make connections. When you are fully involved, you can remember facts better. Self-learning builds new neural connections, improving problem-solving ability, memory function, and cognitive ability.

It Builds Study Skills and Boosts Self-Esteem

Self-education helps improve study skills for exploring new topics or tackling demanding schoolwork. You discover more about the topics you’re studying compared to what you are taught in class. Many self-learners become more confident because they prove to themselves that they can accomplish things without anyone helping them.

It Allows You to Learn at Your Own Pace

You can set your own learning pace without rules and curriculum demands. This allows you to focus on areas of your choice and those you want to understand better. This minimizes the stress, frustration, or boredom common among students in a classroom setting.

It Encourages Curiosity

This is a major motivator. Without it, students absorb less information. They study to memorize rather than understand. Self-study allows you to choose what excites you, leading to a more fulfilling learning experience.

It Cultivates Street Smarts

Self-taught people are forced to embrace the working world without the protection of the school environment. They don’t have any preconceived notions or illusions about it. They have stronger guts and can handle criticism, constructive or not. They are in control of their emotions. They cultivate professionalism and effective communication through exposure to difficult scenarios and dealing with temperamental clients.

Self-Study Methods

Tap Your Ingenuity

A lot of books and some notes for Self Education

Search for resources that give you more information on your chosen topic. Understand new concepts through publications and educational videos. Attend workshops, webinars, seminars, and conferences. Read a couple of articles daily. Once you establish a learning routine, you will retain and process information better than when you’re in a classroom.

Discuss Your Field With Like-Minded People

Get together with people who are studying the same topics as you are. Discuss the dimensions of those you’re most excited about. This is an excellent way to heighten comprehension and motivation to learn and share.

Mix Up Various Study Techniques

Choose the study method that works best for you, like consulting websites, watching videos, reading books, creating mind maps, or any activity that processes information. Contribute to blogs and participate in forums.

Use Traditional Providers That Offer Online Education

Ever think it’s impossible to attend prestigious institutions like MIT, Stanford, and Princeton? They now offer free online courses through Academic Earth, a provider of online courses in various subjects, including science, business, engineering, and the humanities.

Arm Yourself With the Appropriate Tools

A successful self-studier is well equipped and always prepared. For an effective self-study session, have these study tools at hand:

  • A study area—free from noise, distractions, and clutter
  • A computer or mobile device (and ideally, a printer)—essential to peruse online resources 
  • Study tools—stationery and office supplies

Self-Education and Career Prospects

Before the Internet, there were limited options to educate oneself outside the traditional academic environment. But these days, anyone can obtain quality education through other means, like apprenticeships and volunteer programs in an actual workplace.

Many traditional universities do not teach students how to deal with organizational complexities. Self-learners have an advantage over traditional students, as they learn adaptability, creativity, and resiliency while facing real-life situations.

Offering your work for free or posting your masterpieces for royalty-free use would give you valuable exposure. An online portfolio is indispensable for attracting future clients. In the area of web design, for example, if you don’t have a formal design education but have acquired considerable knowledge and experience, you can still apply for a job at an agency. Some smaller design firms hire experienced staff without formal education.

You might earn less than someone with a diploma, though. But this shouldn’t prevent you from climbing the ranks. Seek advice from more seasoned colleagues. Their experience and life lessons are as valuable as those offered in an academic environment. Sometimes, even more.

Benefits of Formal Education

prestige university in UK

You Have the Advantage of Structure

A well-designed curriculum equips you with the necessary skills to prepare you for the working world. You don’t have to flounder around with the learning process; all the steps are laid out for you. The structured environment of a school also ensures that you have a constant learning pace.

You are also no longer limited to brick-and-mortar institutions for a formal education. Online degree programs are now available.

Many Companies Still Hire on the Basis of a Diploma

Most companies have traditionally overemphasized a formal degree. Unfortunately, even today, many still view the college degree as a criterion for a post without considering if the degree is really needed.

Their basis for this practice: university-bred students are trained to memorize large amounts of data, take standardized tests, and write papers. A degree and high grades may prove that a person can focus on a goal and take tests, but test mastery is not necessarily important for developing creativity.

The university’s role is to mold an individual into a ‘rounded’ persona who fits into corporate society. It does not set out to create a perfect employee. Evolved companies recognize this, so they look past a diploma for new hires. There aren’t that many of them, however.

You Have Access to the Latest Technology

Educational institutions (the well-funded ones, at least) are equipped with the latest technology and foster pioneering use of it. They encourage collaborative methods, cultivate curricular innovation, and advance global perspectives. 

Arizona State University, for instance, holds facilities like the altitude chamber, flight simulator labs, digital printing lab, photovoltaic testing lab, microelectronics teaching factory, and the Haas Technical Center, where students take part in real-world projects using cutting-edge technology.

Networking Can Lead to a Job or Enhance Your Career

Classroom learning and being part of a campus breaks isolation and fosters social connections. Networking adds value to career development and provides growth opportunities. Relationships ease career transitions needed to pursue better working environments.

You Can Participate in Exchange and/or Collaborative Programs

Many universities and colleges have work/study programs with affiliates. Others have study-travel exchange programs with institutions abroad. Hong Kong Polytechnic University, for example, interacts with its School of Design, prompting collaborative programs and projects in textiles, manufacturing, engineering, business, medicine, sociology, multimedia, and tourism.

It Builds a Solid Foundation

Some building on the top floor and sun is shining on it in the evening

A university degree proves that a graduate has the ability to dig deep into research, analyze data, and integrate it into a practical solution.

A formal education provides a solid basic foundation, teaches accurate processes, inculcates discipline, and demonstrates methods of brainstorming and concept creation. The right institute will cultivate your technical abilities and influence conceptualization, paving the way for your unique style.

It Saves Time

The guidance of instructors saves you a lot of time because they lay out the steps for you. The syllabus is specifically designed for progressive learning. Their availability to be at your disposal face-to-face when you run into problems is a luxury usually only offered by formal educational institutions.

It Expands Your Borders

A big advantage of getting a formal education is the opportunity to take up other related courses. In the design field, for example, extra courses help develop visual literacy skills and let you practice explaining the underlying principle of your ideas and designs.

It Gives You an Advantage Over Those Without Certification

Documented proof of your abilities is important for career advancement. Even if you’re an excellent coder, for example, and have tons of experience, your target company may choose a degree-holder over you if you do not have paper certification.

It Is Essential for Research and Teaching Positions

If you want to work in the sciences, mathematics, law, engineering, analytics, and academia, degrees are mandatory. A postgraduate degree makes you an expert in your chosen field. In teaching and research, a doctorate is a veritable advantage. In a hierarchy in academia or economics, a post requiring a doctorate degree usually offers the highest level of compensation and benefits.

It Intangibly Molds You in Unexpected, yet Beneficial Ways

Formal education imperceptibly influences you. It not only teaches you, but it also socializes you. It progressively changes how you think, what you view as important, how you compare yourself to your peers, the value you place on family over career, and the kind of life you value after you complete your studies.

Formal Education and Career Prospects

Study methods are outlined for you in a formal education. You just have to follow them; no guesswork necessary. We instead look at how the traditional method helps in career development. To do this, ask the institutions you’re considering this all-important question:

What are my chances of finding a job after graduation?

Find a job that will properly compensate you for the time and expense spent completing your degree(s). Ask educational institutions what the employment rate is for their graduates. Ask how strong their links are to prospective employers. An institution with strong links with both public and private companies is likely to offer more chances of future employment.

Queensland University of Technology, for example, has close ties with industry, professional associations, and the government to make sure their courses are relevant in the workforce.

George Brown College in Ontario also draws from its close relationships with industry to create and continually enhance relevant programs and curricula to produce highly sought after, workplace-ready graduates. Nine out of 10 George Brown grads get jobs within six months of graduation.

Where Tradition and Self-Sufficiency Meet

crosswalks for pedestrians

If you want the best of both worlds, you may want to try attending online colleges. They are perfect for people balancing job and family, as they offer flexibility in project or assignment completion. The learn-at-you-own-pace aspect of self-education is alive and well here.

Most classroom discussions and coursework are held online, but you may be required to attend a physical classroom part-time, especially as you get closer to graduation. An online degree is as valuable as one you attend in person. And yes, accredited online educational institutions offer legitimate degrees.

Two Programmers Who Chose Opposing Study Paths—A Comparison

Elisa Doucette, Managing Editor of Simple Programmer, interviewed two programmers who employed divergent study methods. Through their answers to Doucette’s questions, we get to see both sides of the coin.

Basel Farag, self-studierJason Lowenthal, formally educated
Did your education give you the necessary skills, or did you need outside help?
Self-teaching gave him the skills he needed, but he had to dig deep into some material. He attended meet-ups and asked computer science professors for help.
“One is not ‘self-taught’ simply because they understand the material. There is a great difference between understanding and practicing.”
He became an experienced learner in school, as he had guidance from dedicated professors. Spending a year learning something completely foreign to him prepared him for a career in software engineering.
Beyond the classroom, his formal education gave him easy access to paid professional internships. These exposed him to professional soft skills he continues to apply today.
Did you get a good return on the time/money you invested?
Absolutely, especially compared to the huge sums his peers spent.
He learned a vast majority of his knowledge through effort, being an active participant in his tech community, and by just using the computer and programming.
He got his money’s worth, no doubt.
He claims one of the things he got with a college degree was a built-in alumni network, which gives people with the same Alma Mater an unspoken edge in (job) interviews.
What did you miss out on by not choosing the opposite path?
As he enjoys the company of others when problem-solving, he missed the opportunity to interact with people with the same passion. “Passion feeds you as an individual and creates cyclical success.”
He says if your classmates are equally passionate, you will be inspired to further heights. He adds, however, that one can find these people at local meet-ups.
He regrets not getting his education for free. He claims a major growing pain was a lack of significant practical knowledge of the technology stack he was working in. They only scratched the surface in college.
He scaled the learning curve quickly, but his lack of practical, applicable hard skills meant he had to start at the bottom of the curve instead of having already reached it halfway.
Has your education been enough to build a profitable career?
He’s not sure, as he only just secured a plum position with a great company.
He backtracks by saying it’s definitely been profitable but also a tremendous amount of work compared to what he did in his undergraduate years.
He says his chosen path was necessary to put him on the right track to a profitable career, but not sufficient. Interest isn’t enough. People really have to invest effort. It takes a great deal of passion and work ethic. If they lack either, the journey will be difficult.
His career is extremely profitable. His earnings potential has him competing for jobs with a national salary level.
He feels exceptionally confident experimenting off the job and tinkering because of the preparation his formal education provided him.


There are many ways to learn. Everyone does it differently. We must choose the method best suited to our inclination, temperament, and life circumstance. 

Self-study and formal education need not be adversaries. You can combine them to get the most out of learning. Together, they help you retain information more effectively, boost comprehension, improve grades, and provide motivation.

What we should be aspiring for is a holistic education—one that balances the emphasis on foundational knowledge enhanced with constant upgrades on technological skills and professional development. Ideally, all this would be followed up with lifelong learning.


3 thoughts on “Self-Education vs. Formal Education: Which Is Best?”

  1. Just stumbled across this site today, July 11. Never seen it before, wondering how long it has been up. Did a site search for ‘electronics’ and hit your Electrical Engineering page. No book recommendations there. But EE is a pretty high bar for strictly self-learning. Where is electronics technicians page?

    But things have changed a lot since I dropped out of EE at Illinois Institute of Technology. We can simulate electronic circuits on Android tablets. The Internet is a threat to traditional education.

    Teach Yourself Electricity and Electronics (2006) by Stan Gibilisco
    Practical Electronics for Inventors by Scherz & Monk
    Scherz & Monk has a better cover than Gibilisco

    EveryCircuit by Igor Vytyaz

    The Art of Electronics 3rd ed(2015) by Horowitz and Hill

    1. Hi Karl, thanks a lot for taking the time to share those books and videos, some really useful resources there, much appreciated – thanks for dropping by 🙂

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