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It’s True, A University Degree Creates Perpetual Travel Options

When you head out to travel perpetually you’re eventually going to run out of money and need to find work at some point. While there is an incredible array of self-employed, skill or knowledge based, or grunt types of work out there that travelers can do which require neither degree nor formal education, there are [...]

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When you head out to travel perpetually you’re eventually going to run out of money and need to find work at some point. While there is an incredible array of self-employed, skill or knowledge based, or grunt types of work out there that travelers can do which require neither degree nor formal education, there are also many types of relatively good paying and potentially interesting jobs that do require at least a BA degree. Simply put, having that certificate expands your options, and creating as many potential streams of income as possible is a large part of the perpetual travel experience.

While there was once a day that you could float around the world teaching English with being a native speaker your only credential, this possibility is fading fast. Schools and governments really demand and check the validness of degrees now — so don’t bother wasting $50 on one of the fake ones that you can get in the streets of Bangkok.

If you scheme about financing your travels through teaching English and you don’t have a degree degree your options are far more reduced than they would be otherwise. The high-paying countries, such as Japan, South Korea, the Gulf States, will not even look at you unless you can prove that you have a university degree. While it is currently still possible to find work sans-degree in some other countries where the demand for English teachers is greater than the supply, this window of opportunity is closing rapidly. Even China, which has such a high demand for native speaking English teachers that the schools will pretty much take any Anglophone with a pulse, now demands that foreign teachers have a university degree to be issued a work permit.

university-degree_DCEWhich brings us to another major benefit of having a degree that goes beyond working and making money: that certificate that proves that you completed four long years of post-secondary schooling is needed as a basic requirement to work legally in many countries.

Now, I’ve never had a problem with working under the table and have no moral qualms about it, but when you’re trying to save up a good wad of cash to dive into that next bout of high paced travel, not having to worry about how you’re going to extend that tourist visa for the umpteenth time is an incredibly huge advantage. It’s truly clutch to be able to land good paying jobs on the road and obtain the visas that allow you free reign to stay in a country until you’ve made enough cash to continue traveling on.

Amanda, a long term reader and participant on Vagabond Journey, has been grappling with the university question for a long time now. She’s a traveler, and just wants to get on with her journey, but she had the opportunity to go to college and found herself at an impasse.  “Is it worth it?” she first asked me probably around three or four years ago. “Yes,” I replied, “just do it and get it done with, it will give you wings later on.” She fluttered in and out of school since then, doing some traveling in between semesters off. Now she seems to be at a breaking point: she wants to start traveling the long road but still has a year and a half of school left. She explains:

You are right about me needing to finish school, I simply find myself incredibly impatient… I am getting my degree in archaeology with the full intent of using that as a tool to travel. I have had a minor set back and have to wait a bit longer before I can even enroll in order to complete my degree. My goal is to finish my undergrad (seems like it’s taking me an eternity…), travel and attempt to pay back as much of my student loan debt as possible, then find somewhere to go to graduate school, preferably in another country.

It’s so difficult, though, to resist the urge to pick up and leave at any given moment. Mostly because I now know more than ever that I can and am fully capable of living on the road. It’s difficult to convince myself that being stationary for a bit will benefit more in the long run.

I was in a very similar situation once. I only had one semester to go on my degree and I kept putting it off. I was riding a bicycle across Eastern Europe and had no desire to go back into a classroom. At that point, my school was done dealing with my whims: “Our program is changing, finish your degree now or you have to start all over.” I gave in, and finished the degree. I’m glad I did.

I know what this feels like to look down a long, arduous path, and to know that it’s better in t he end to just walk it. I didn’t get my B.A. until I was 27 years old, though I began going to college a decade before this. I went to university in starts and stops, enrolling, dropping out, changing schools, taking semesters off, taking online courses, studying independently. Sometimes I couldn’t see the point of continuing — I’d already made good headway as an archaeologist and my ambitions really didn’t require a degree — but I kept at it.

Mainly, I continued going to university because I enjoyed it (as well as the fact that I could live off of financial aid). I also went to an international school, so I could travel and live abroad, do interesting projects, study language and culture while cultivate my skills for future travel, as well as get branded with a university education when it was finished. But this doesn’t mean that the path was completely straight forward. I really just wanted to be on the road going wherever I pleased. Sure, the independent study semesters in Morocco and Central America were just about ideal, but I really just wanted to cut the leash and be on the road in full.

I understand Amanda’s drive to move, especially since she studies in the United States and does not have the wanderlust taming perks of going to an international school.  If I was in Amanda’s place I probably would not have made it. By my mid-twenties there was no way that I would have harbored the possibility of going back to my home country to study for years on end. I graduated because I was able to study internationally for three years. While I went to a special international school, many conventional universities offer ways to study abroad for multiple semesters, which is a key way to travel, build up your knowledge and experience, and get university credit as well.

Having that degree, though it’s a big investment of time, and, in many cases, money (mine buried me with $80,000 of debt), is ultimately a major advantage on the road. If you are a native English speaker and you have a degree you are pretty much ensured employment in the non-Anglo world as a teacher. Just stick your finger down on a map in a country that’s outside of the cultural West, and chances are you’ll be able to find work there. This is a powerful ace in the hole to be able to lay down at your leisure. If you’re credentials are in a particular discipline like IT, engineering, management, medicine, logistics, business, marketing, etc . . . then your options are even more wide open.

I’m not going to go as far as to say that you can’t work legally abroad or live the PT life without a degree, but I will say that less doors will be opened to you. I traveled without a degree for many years, so I understand the limitations that are presented as far as employment or getting work visas are concerned. I had the chance to wipe away these limitations, and I took  it.

Though I can’t say that I’ve really used my B.A. for much of anything yet, the fact that I have it means that I can leverage it at will. Who knows, maybe I will wake up tomorrow with the urge to take a teaching job in Japan? Or maybe I will go broke and find myself applying to some newspaper or magazine? Or maybe, if things get real hot, I may find myself digging holes again on an archaeology crew somewhere? On the incredibly small chance that any of this happens, I’m prepared — and that’s power.

Preparation for travel is about having the skills, knowledge, and credentials to make the most of living on the road and giving yourself as many opportunities as possible. That degree expands these possibilities many fold.


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Filed under: Education, Perpetual Travel, Travel Tips

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3720 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

5 comments… add one

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  • joshtate90 February 21, 2013, 10:39 am

    I would not be as arrogant to tell you your premise is flawed as you have carved out a brilliant niche for yourself, but getting a university degree will be less important in the coming years as the internet creatively destroys the 1000 year old brick and mortar model. The cost of something represents the cost required to maintain it ie libraries, student digs, food, equipment etc. Getting yourself into tens of thousands of pounds/dollars of debt is going to be daft when you can get accredited in months rather than years because things like Udacity will break down the educational establishment, and not soon enough in my opinion.

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    • Tristanbul February 21, 2013, 4:30 pm

      @joshtate90 It’s true that going severely into debt is not the best way to start out traveling, but if you get creative enough and find cheap universities/good scholarships/study in countries with free or low cost education, you can get out with a manageable amount of debt or none at all. 
      I won’t deny that things like Udacity can be great for teaching yourself new skills — with enough drive and creativity you can have an extremely fulfilling life of travel without ever setting foot in a university.  But if you want to stay longer in a country than the tourist visa permits, you’re going to need some type of long-term visa  — you have to justify to the host country why you should be allowed to stay there. Unless you’re still a student, or plan on buying property/opening up a business in the foreign country, you’ll need a work visa.
      In many countries you have to prove that you have a degree from an accredited, internationally recognized institution or else your visa application will be thrown out. Although every day there are more ways to support yourself financially without formal education, bureaucratic offices don’t really care. University might be a terrible choice for some people, but for many, it opens doors. To sustain your travels in the long term, the more choices on the table, the better. As Wade said, a degree is a great ace in the hole. This daft little piece of paper is an insurance policy for me if I ever need to gain travel funds quickly.

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    • Vagabond Journey February 21, 2013, 7:57 pm

      @joshtate90 I would actually argue that it is exponentially more important to have a degree now that it was even ten years ago. The fact of the matter is that incredible amounts of university educated people from culturally Western countries are now going abroad for work. Partially this is because many are finding it more difficult to land sustainable work in their own countries and partially this is because it has been broadcast loud and clear that it is possible (and even easy) to live abroad and make a decent living. Whatever the case, there are literally floods of degree laden foreigners filling the appropriate job niches all over the world, and if you want to compete that piece of paper is going to help. Even when I began traveling nearly 13 years ago a degree-less native English speaker could waltz into Japan, South Korea, China, etc . . . and land a good job and get the residency permit/ work visa. With the flood of people like us the requirements have been raised, and this is no more, and all too often the ultimatum is set: no degree, no visa.
      I agree with you that the power of a university degree has been diluted, they are now sort of like how a high school diploma was a generation ago in the USA. If someone wanted to remain in the USA I’m not so sure I’d recommend going to university — trade schools like you point out are becoming ever more of a powerful option as the weight of a degree lessens — but if you want to live abroad and go PT, that certification is going to come in real handy when navigating the bureaucratic loops to find legal work. 
      On another note, as Tristan points out below, going to university does not inherently mean lots of debt. If I went to a state school in the USA I wouldn’t have had any debt.

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      • joshtate90 February 22, 2013, 5:12 am

        @Vagabond Journey
        Accreditation is the main thing here: once employers accept that Udacity and the like offer rigorous courses that properly educate its students, the university model will fail. The only benefit to a university education at the moment is the social aspect, but social networking can solve that. The Western University model is the last of the old establishments alongside politics to have been relatively untouched by the internet. Politicians pay lip service to open source government but they remain secretive and corrupt. So whilst your first paragraph is something I entirely agree, it won’t remain that way for much longer. Once the accreditation problem is solved, the world is an open door for anyone to walk through if they have the balls

      • Vagabond Journey February 22, 2013, 7:54 pm

        @joshtate90 Thanks for the Udacity tip. Your last sentence here is right on regardless of all other factors.