Education vs. Experience


“After returning to the U.S. after many years of working in the German business context, I was stunned by how immediately I was taken seriously and valued for my extensive experience abroad.

In Germany, despite proven work results over six years and my fluent German, I was still regarded as somewhat of an underling because I only had my American bachelor’s degree.

Is this mentality in Germany changing with the new Bachelors/Masters degree system?“


This is complex. My response will be lengthy. Please be patient.

Americans stunned

Good that your expertise was honored. It is not easy to learn a foreign language, especially German, and on top of that to succeed in Germany. It is a complex and competitive place.

And so few Americans have lived abroad for an extensive period of time. Many of those do not learn the language of the country they’re living and working in. So, your high level of expertise was grasped immediately by your American peers.

Work results and fluent German

Fluent German certainly impressed your German colleagues, but only to a certain extent. After a few years in Germany, however, they may have viewed your language skills as a given.

And even if your work results were very good to excellent, the question remains if your German colleagues saw it that way, too. And if so, were they willing to recognize your work. There are several possible reasons why it could go either way.

Treated as an Underling

Maybe your colleagues truly saw you as that: not as good as them or they saw you as their equal – or even better – but wanted to keep you down. Again, there are reasons (explanations) for either way. And those reasons would be both German and human.

To what extent your treatment as an underling was based on the differences in academic degrees – Bachelors vs. Masters or even Ph.D. – I cannot judge in your case.

For those readers not familiar with changes in European higher education, the so-called Bologna Process of recent years has aimed at harmonizing the university degrees in a way similar to Anglo-American countries: Bachelors, Masters, Ph.D. It remains quite controversial in Germany, and might even be rolled back.

Interestingly, you titled your question “Education vs. Experience.” This is, indeed, what your question is driving at. It goes to the heart of the issue of how Germans and Americans respectively define competence, ability, capability.

And it is a highly sensitive, highly charged question, which almost always is at play – consciously or unconsciously – whenever Americans and Germans collaborate, as colleagues, as business partners or in customer-supplier relationships.

Bachelors Degree as incompleted studies

If literally compared to the German university degree system (pre-Bologna), the American Bachelors is the equivalent of the Grundstudium in a German Diplom or Magister program. The Diplom is the term for Masters-level work in the sciences, engineering, business adminstration and other fields of study.

The Magister, also Masters-level, is for degrees in the humanities or liberal arts, such as Philosophy, Theology, History, Literature. There are overlaps depending on the university.

The Grundstudium is the first half of the Diplom or Magister program. My B.A. in History from Georgetown University was accepted as completion of the Grundstudium by the Freie Universitaet in Berlin, where I completed my M.A. in History.

If literally translated into the German academic system, a Bachelors of Science (B.Sc.) from an American university – for example in Engineering –  is the equivalent of the Grundstudium in a German engineering program.

If a German does not continue on to get their Diplom in Engineering, they have factually broken off their studies. They could be called a Studienabgänger, in English a college dropout.

Add to this the fact that many Germans go on to get their Ph.D., especially in certain engineering fields, and you get the potential for Germans looking down at their American colleagues in terms of academic achievement.

Ph.D. versus B.Sc.

Americans, on the other hand, value education primarily for its use in preparing people for their future work. Americans send their young people out into the world sooner than Germans do:

Finish high school at eighteen years; finish Bachelors degree at twenty-two. Enter the work world as soon as possible. If additional theoretical knowledge is necessary, either return to school in the evening, while continuing work, or take the two to three years off, then re-enter the workforce.

By the time a German with a Ph.D. takes on their first serious job at approximately age twenty-eight, or older, their American counterpart may have already worked five years.

Knowledge in Germany

Germany is a high-wage, high-social welfare country. It can only maintain those by developing and marketing high-priced, -value, -margin, -technology products and services. They have to maintain a very high level of science, technology, innovation and Wissen (knowledge) to “keep the place going.”

The Germans are a well-educated, intelligent people. There is no dispute there. They have a demanding primary and secondary educational system. Germans are curious, restless intellectually, have very active and critical minds.

Area of work

Depending on the area of work (substance) you are in, the Germans will see a minimum required level of knowledge. And those requirements are based on their own standards, their own definition of knowledge. Often – and not surprisingly – they judge other standards to be lower than theirs.

And Americans – like every culture – judge the ability of others based on their definition, their standards, American standards. They will look less at academic degrees, and far more at the person’s actual performance, their so-called track record.

Knowing versus Doing

In Germany, knowing is often more important than doing. The doing can be left to others. The knowing is more essential. You can score points in German organizations by knowing more than your colleagues, but not necessarily by acting on that knowledge. In fact, pointing out the shortcomings (or failures) or others’ actions can move you ahead just as well as having done better than others.

In the U.S. context one can seldom move ahead by knowing, but not acting. In fact, Americans believe that you can do successfully without knowing the subject matter deeply. Key to success – certainly successful leadership – is identifying what you don’t know, then finding people who do know. In the American context doing always trumps knowing.

Germans are highly skeptical of learning by doing. For them, it means having not learned how to do something correctly. It means trial and error. And the Germans are no fans of error, thus no fans of trial and error. They strive to get it right the first time.

Learning by doing is part of the American cultural dna. It is how America has developed as a country and as a people. Americans are pragmatic, experiential, empirical. They do not cleanly separate between learning and doing. They go hand-in-hand.