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Do You Need a Degree to Become a Pilot?




I’ve heard the question many times, do you need a degree to become a pilot? 

The quick answer is no, you don’t need a degree. But it’s more complicated than that. 

A four-year degree is always recommended if you are seeking a career as a professional pilot. Here’s a look at why.

Why Should You Have a Degree to Become a Pilot?

A quick search of pilot job openings will prove that nearly every airline flight crew position includes a bachelor’s degree listed as “recommended” for the job. 

Some of the major airlines go so far as to say it is preferred or even required, though post-Covid many airlines dropped it as required. It all depends on how selective the airline wants to be in picking its pilots. 

This means that airlines actively use educational backgrounds to screen candidates. 

Much depends on the state of the job market and the industry while you’re searching for your first airline job. 

If the airlines struggle to fill positions, they’re more likely to overlook the need for a degree. The same may apply if an airline struggles to find pilots for other reasons, such as their pay scales or scheduling. 

Thrust Flight airplane flying

In other words, you may be able to survive as a professional pilot without that four-year degree. 

But doing so makes you less competitive than other pilots, which may mean you have a harder time landing jobs in some job markets. Worst of all, the jobs left available may not be your first, second, or even third choices. 

What Degrees Are the Airlines Looking For?

If you want a career as a pilot flying for a major airline, you’ll want to get a four-year bachelor’s degree. Interestingly, airlines don’t usually care what that degree is in—they only care that you have it! 

That’s a bonus for pilots who want to switch to a flying career later in life. 

But it’s also an opportunity for students looking at majors and considering applying to airlines later on. It’s logical to believe that a Professional Pilot or Aeronautics degree would be best. 

Indeed, that’s exactly what these degree programs are designed to prepare you for—a job flying professionally. In many cases, you’ll even be able to earn college credits as you earn your pilot ratings, too. 

college degree to become a pilot

Choosing the Right Degree

But there’s a problem with these degrees. 

What if you change your mind or a flying career doesn’t work out? A Professional Flying degree won’t prepare you to find another career if that happens. 

Keep this in mind when shopping for colleges with aviation programs, and always ask what sorts of jobs the degree program is designed to prepare you for. 

Most aviation degree programs can be classified into two categories: either they are focused on science, giving you an engineering background, or they are focused on business, giving you a management background. 

Both are good options, so it’s up to you to choose one that suits your talents. 

College is easier if you get to study something you’re already interested in, so pick based not only on the job prospects (beyond professional piloting) but also on your interests and skills. 

Non-Aviation Degrees and Pathways

Does the degree you pick have to be in aviation?

Not really.

The airlines do not care what you studied in school, and most airlines will treat your four-year degree as little more than a filled checkbox. Of course, they’ll give your flight training and aviation history more scrutiny. 

That provides another opportunity for students researching what college to go to.

In truth, it doesn’t matter to future employers where you go or what you study. Picking a non-aviation university and doing your flight training concurrently at a local flight school may be a way to pursue two possible paths and save some money.

But, there are two important caveats that you need to know.

Colleges with aviation programs

First, remember many airline pilot pathway programs require you to graduate from a participating aviation university. Following a pathway program is not necessary for landing a job, but it can be a great way to network and meet people in the industry.

Secondly, you will not be eligible for the Restricted ATP certificate if you don’t attend an FAA-approved aviation university program.

This reduces the flight time you must have to apply for first officer jobs from the standard 1,500 hours down to 1,000 or 1,250 hours, depending on your degree program. That extra 250 or 500 hours would have to be made up with more time working as a flight instructor. 

Prioritizing Flight Training

Now, after reading all of that you probably think jumping into a collegiate aviation program is the best move. However, there’s another important factor to consider.

In the airline industry, seniority is everything for pilots.

Which means the faster you can land a job as an airline pilot the sooner you start building seniority.

So, a popular path among many students is to go straight to full time flight school instead of college first. Then, once they’re hired by a regional airline, start attending an online school to obtain a degree before applying to a major airline.

There’s many routes to a career as an airline pilot and there’s no one right way for everyone. If you want to dive into the issue more be sure to check out our article on what airlines require a degree.

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