What is your qualification?

Some people have a “nasty” habit of asking qualification during the introductory meetings. I feel that this could well be rude, especially to those who are attending the meeting with no appropriate or relevant qualification. To them, such questions could be rather embarrassing.

I remember several years ago, I was in Vienna attending one of the UN meetings on the subject of Cleaner Production. A senior official from the UK Department of Environment was in the chair. Before commencing the meeting, the Chairman asked each one of us to introduce. He insisted that we tell our qualifications (degree) so as to understand the expertise on the Committee. Most invitees were representing their organizations and were not really the experts.  There was no Google and LinkedIn those days.  So, we didn’t have a clue about the qualifications of the participants who were attending.

We started telling our names, organizations, qualifications and a bit about our experience in cleaner production. One of the persons representing a UN organization introduced himself as head of technology information system. The Chairman didn’t let him pass with this short introduction. “Qualifications please Mr”, he insisted.

We expected the Head of Technology Information system would be qualified either in cleaner technologies or in information systems. I could see that the gentleman was really embarrassed. He said in a sheepish tone: BA in Comparative Studies. The Chairman had a smirk on his face on listening to this answer. Clearly the person was misplaced in the meeting but then I thought the Chairman was rather crude and rude in “exposing” him. The gentleman did not stay throughout the meeting and left early saying that he had to catch a return flight. He was clearly hurt.

(Later this very gentleman, studied further and completed master’s in information science after 10 years of this episode and earned a doctoral degree in information systems after another 10 years! So was this embarrassing incidence a driver?)

I remember a more recent incidence where we were holding a meeting with a company who had contracted us on a project related to organic farming. This was a field meeting and a number of stakeholders were present such as the facilitators and farmer champions including the CEO of the company. We requested one of our senior consultants with a long career in the agriculture sector to chair the discussion.

Unfortunately, this gentleman had a (bad) habit of asking for qualifications right in the introductions. So, after a few opening remarks, he asked each one of us to get “introduced”. All of us spoke about our degrees or qualifications as this information was asked. When the turn came to the CEO of the company, the CEO said I am the Chief Executive Officer. I expected our senior consultant to spare him but no avail.  He insisted. The CEO flatly refused and said that for this meeting qualification by degree did not matter. He was absolutely right.

It’s a debatable issue to what extent your basic qualifications matter later in your career. The case is particularly relevant to the interdisciplinary sectors such as environment and broad canvas such as sustainability. Because of the passion or sometimes due to opportunities, many seem to transgress in this area and surprisingly settle very well and take even anchor positions. For example, many of the CSR heads in the corporate hold qualifications in Public Relations and Human Resource Development. The Chief Sustainability Officers (CSOs) come with wide variety of qualifications ranging from chemistry, forestry, economics, policy, law, Environment Health and Safety (EHS), communication and business management. Indeed, their job descriptions are not so much pinned down to a particular degree or qualification.  Experience and aptitude matter. The subject of environment is so rapidly evolving and expanding that all have a role to play. Indeed, we see sustainability getting increasingly ingrained into the business and governance and so everybody has an opportunity to contribute and grow irrespective of the qualifications.

My Professor Friend is however very traditional and does not understand this changing perspective. He expects some basic or core qualification to deliver responsibilities related to environment. He still asks stupid questions while interviewing environmental engineers like “have you heard of Fair, Geyer and Okun? (the grandfatherly book on water supply engineering), What do you know about Imhoff (he is referring to the Imhoff’s classic pocket handbook on wastewater treatment here) Did you study Arthur Sterns celebrated volumes on Air Pollution? etc.” And he is always disappointed with the answers.

To the environmental scientists from MSc programs, he will ask whether the students followed books by Ross McKinney and Sawyer and McCarty.  He expects that someone working in the subject of Environmental Impact Assessment must have read books by Larry Canter, Ron Bisset and Richard Carpenter. He is amused when the applicant tells that instead he/she is familiar on how to fill applications for Environmental Clearance and has successfully facilitated clearance of 50 odd projects just in a year! To this candidate that’s the “real” qualification.  And I don’t get surprised anymore with such a perception.

Last week, Professor joined me for taking interviews of the “ESG Analysts”. In just few interviews, we realized that most of the applicants were not sure about the full form of ESG. Was it “Environmental & Social Governance” or Environment, Social and Governance”? After listening to the candidates regarding the work they do, he said to me in despair “Well, Dr Modak, the basic qualification of these folks should be proficiency in Microsoft Excel and use of search engines and no qualification are needed related to environment and sustainability. Besides these basic skills, they should be able to work in different time zones to timely supply their clients the “raw data” and should have a submissive attitude to work with blinkers and follow company protocols and directions”.   I thought he was getting unnecessarily harsh.

Other day, an “environmental business lead” came to meet me regarding some novel designs his company had developed for wastewater reuse. He gave a very impressive PowerPoint presentation and handed over some of the catalogues. To me the “technology pack” looked more like a black box with no process and engineering details available for discussion and validation. When I asked him his qualifications, he said that he was a mechanical engineer with a diploma in marketing. When we got into an informal discussion, he said that he would be better or at least at par with a traditional degree holder in environmental engineering.  “We are selling proprietary technology Sir, that’s not in the textbooks nor taught in the classrooms”. I thought he was rather honest. Perhaps, qualifications such as master’s in environmental engineering are not essential anymore to market pollution control equipment. A week of “finishing course” to speak the right vocabulary in wastewater treatment in a confidence should be sufficient. Is teaching activated sludge treatment process (ASP) using Lawrence McCarty equation in the class any more relevant?”.

So while my Professor still gets perturbed when he meets folks in the environmental management and sustainability space with no “proper” qualifications (as according to him), I stay quite neutral if I come across a “mismatch”.  The question is do “core” qualifications matter at all, in any interdisciplinary and emerging areas today. Environmental discipline is just one example.

I asked my Professor Friend for his final view.  He smiled while lighting his cigar and said.

“Well Dr Modak, honestly when students come to me which branch to opt in undergraduate studies, I tell them that be selective on the institute first and not the branch. The air you breath on campuses of some of the great institutions opens your wings and then you fly with a strength and vision that is unparalleled.  I have learned that institution you study is more important than the qualification you hold. The name of the institution speaks”.

Friends, would you agree?


Image sourced from https://www.callcentrehelper.com/staff-qualifications-knowing-your-nvqs-from-your-mbas-170.htm

If you like this post then follow me or circulate across your network




  1. Very interesting article.
    In different situations qualifications really do not matter. In a construction company if the person is responsible for getting the work progress with political pressure, he is not required to know or hold degree in construion engineering.

  2. Dr. Modak, it is an amazing article. Often this surfaces as mentioned during the introductory meetings, even I had to introduce my qualification when I met my father-in-law and to my landlord while taking the house on rent!

    It appears that somehow that qualification alone can contribute in character building. These days on job experience, new technological alternatives and unorthodox approaches have emerged which may provide higher probability of success.

    I have some so successful entrepreneurs who have not even completed high schools. As you correctly mentioned that times are changing and so are perceptions though it might take some time.

    Your article brought back memories from similar ‘encounters’!

  3. I met many professionals who keep dropping name of the institution along with the qualification.
    I believe the courage to explore passion matters with or without degree. I agree with the article’s mention about aptitude, a constant steep learning curve through out the life. Life long student-hood.
    The name the institution may speak but certainly how wide and deep one explores speaks aloud.

Leave a Reply