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I studied Social Sciences (Development Economics concentration) at one of Europe's top ranked universities and achieved excellent grades, but had to interrupt my studies just before taking two final exams, entirely due to personal reasons - thus not completing my undergraduate degree.

While I was at uni, I obtained grants to run a new research project in my field with sponsorship by some well-known professors. The progress of my work was published in an international journal and also a few industry magazines. I was also heavily involved in other projects around the university. I mention these little details just to make it clear that I was not at uni just for the sake of getting a qualification, but because had a genuine intention of contributing to my field, to research and maybe become a professor.

While I was addressing my personal issues, I started working, first freelancing but later at a mid-sized company and have worked my way up to middle management. My job is somewhat related to what I studied and also very analytical, although it's obviously business-focused.

I am wondering what options I have... - if I wanted to return to a research based position; - especially, if returning to university might turn out to be too hard/long (might have to re-do the entire undergraduate studies while working) - and whether it might be easier (but also possible) to try applying straight into think-tanks and development focused positions.

One of my concerns is that despite my good CV in business, I don't have the same quantitative-analytical and research skills of someone who studied at postgraduate level. It's one of the subjects I enjoyed most and even enjoy at work, but how can I prove myself to future employers?

I think my question boils down to: how much do my achievements matter, and what else do I need to do to make up for no degree?

UPDATES / Answers to questions in comments: I dropped out of my own, for very personal reasons. In fact, I almost disappeared without notice and had to leave to another country. I am also a bit reluctant to discuss with my university about what those personal reasons were, but trust me they were very serious. So I would have mixed feelings about returning to the same university. I am sure I have disappointed many people there, and they would not understand why I left...

UPDATE 2 / Answers to rocinante's update :) There must have been a misunderstanding. I didn't mention nor imply anywhere that I considered faking my credentials to advance my career. I started at entry level with my current employer and progressed from within, i.e. there were no academic requirements when I started, but I proved them that I had the skills required for my current level. To be more specific, I am asking about whether there might be chances for alternative training to get into a more advanced research path. Adult learning, online courses, non-degree professional certificates. For example, I have heard of several people getting into MBA programs after 5-7 years of work experience, but no degree. Are there analogue routes into research? I hope this clarifies.

UPDATE 3 / Answers to Ben Webster and rocinante Thanks both of you. It's true I should consider my old university; I am just very afraid that it might not work and considering what alternatives I may have should my attempts fail. I am also not belittling the value of degrees, BUT simply wondering how else I could prove myself, improve my knowledge, use a professional body route rather than academic etc. if the old university option won't succeed. I know many doors will close, but I am determined and convinced that my potential, passion and skills far outweigh what's on paper.

  • For clarity, I dropped out about two years ago. – LessOptionsStillDriven Jan 3 '14 at 12:42
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    The university might let you finish your degree; have you asked your department chair? – Jonathan Landrum Jan 3 '14 at 14:07
  • Two things I suggest you consider: 1) It's not up to the school. They can't arbitrarily decide to withhold credits that you've earned and paid for. If you want to transfer or something like that, transfer. 2) If you're still considering Option 1 bear in mind that some schools have dates-to-completion. If you don't complete your degree within a given period of time you have to start again. – Dave Kanter Oct 1 '14 at 18:32
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I'm with @rocinante here: you're handicapping yourself if you can't get past whatever block is preventing you from discussing this personal issue with people from your past university. I don't know whether it's embarrassing or emotionally painful (and you don't need to tell us, we're just yahoos on the internet), but you have to be able to give some account of it:

  1. First of all, you should make a good faith attempt to finish your degree at your old institution. I'm sure you did burn some bridges there when you left, but if you can't get past that to try, that doesn't sound especially driven to me. Credentialism may be a little silly, but you're locking yourself out of a lot of doors if you don't finish your degree.

  2. Also, if you want to be successful getting a position in any area of research, recommendations from "one of Europe's top ranked universities" would be pretty helpful (for getting into a graduate program of any description, they are essential). I know less about think tanks, but in most graduate admission committees, even with a completed bachelor's, no letters from professors you had as an undergraduate and an unexplained gap in your transcript that's not explained extremely well in your personal statement would be an immediate disqualification. So, not only should you go back to your old university, you need to set up meetings with the professors you disappointed, apologize sincerely, explain your situation, and knock their socks off with where you are now.

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You need to establish a working relationship with of some kind with some department. Once you have that you can start working on your "deficiencies" (i.e. the courses you either have no record of taking or have a record of not finishing successfully).

Once you have that relationship you can talk to the department hear. You're probably going to have to tell him or her something about this mysterious personal emergency.

But here is the thing, (at least in the US) the requirement to have a Bachelor's degree to start advanced work is a gate-keeping tool: the department uses it to avoid having to filter out at lot of self-deluded know-nothings. Once they know that you know something the odds of them letting you simply start graduate studies go way up.

So how do you get started? Apply as non-degree or apply as an undergrad with a lot of transfer credit (they are likely going to ask you to take at least a year's worth of course-work).

The important step is to get a foot in the door and establish a working relationship with them.

There is something to be said for choosing a a small-to-medium sized department for the campaign.

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