Should you go back to school?
This is a question that comes up often, as it should. Education is important. We all learned that growing up. Whether or not to go back to school can be a tough choice.
On one hand, going back to school can feel like the “right” thing to do. You’re always supposed to be learning right? On the other, it’s expensive and time consuming.
To compound things, you’re not as young as you used to be. You have responsibilities like a spouse, children, a house, a job,… The list goes on and on.
I’ll be honest. The marketing higher education puts out bugs me a little. They’re selling a hope of a brighter future. If you’ve ever visited a fertility doctor, it reminds me of all the photos of babies on the walls. They’re selling hope. Hope that may or may not be fulfilled, due to a number of factors (like your age and how much money you have).
So, back to the question at hand… Should you go back to school?
The first question I have is this. Are you looking to get a second (or third) degree? Are you looking to finish a first degree? Or, are you looking to take one off classes to keep your continuing education up?
If you’re looking to complete your first degree, or keep up your continuing education, the answer is much more straight forward. If you haven’t finished college, I am definitely an advocate of going back. It provides some level of stability, especially as you enter the later part of your career.
Over the years, I’ve worked with a number of job seekers who never completed college. They had great careers and were stellar at their jobs. Then something happened. For example, their company went out of business. It wasn’t their fault, or a reflection of their work. Suddenly, they were on the open market, trying to explain to employers why they don’t have an advanced degree. It’s stressful and can create a sudden decrease in salary in a situation like the one described.
When it comes to getting a second or third degree, there are a few things to think about.
First, why do you want to get the degree? There’s this rumor floating around that a degree in a particular field will guarantee you work. Let’s be honest. That rumor is not true.
The result of getting a second degree is highly dependent on lots of things, including what your degree is in and how needed the degree is in the job market.
A few reasons you might consider getting a degree are — You want to change career paths and re-brand yourself with a new degree. I did this with my MBA. I have a computer and systems engineering degree from undergraduate school. It was hard for me to get people to look past the fact that I knew how to write code. My MBA helped solve this issue.
Or, perhaps you’re a lifelong learner. Your company pays for you to go to school and you have the time. So, you think — why not? It’s almost like a hobby and something you’ve always wanted to do. It’s for yourself. I can get behind this. Self improvement is an important part of life.
So, say you’ve decided to go back. Now what? How do you decide where to go?
IMHO, deciding where to go to school is almost as important as whether or not to go at all. Very often, I talk to people who went to a for profit university. They invested years of their life and have huge student loans. They are shocked to learn that some employers don’t take their degrees seriously at all. So, what can you do?
Learn as much as possible about a school. Thinking about why you want to go can help to narrow down your choices. For example, when I entered business school in 2004 (wow, that was a long time ago!), I wanted to learn about starting a business. So, I found a school that had a concentration in entrepreneurship. It was also around the same time that Enron fell apart and Martha Stewart went to jail. I felt a bit concerned about ethics in business, so I looked for a program that put an emphasis on this topic in their coursework. And, I hoped for a scholarship. I put myself through school (after quitting my job), so going to a school that could help me financially was important. That’s how I selected Pepperdine University.
Another thing to check out is what’s called the “post-graduation report.” This is a report that both colleges and graduate programs publish once a year on their graduates. It explains which industries their grads are working in and how much they make.
Often, the career center helps you to get your first job out of school. And, that career center will have existing relationships with certain companies. For example, my engineering college sees many graduates going to work for places like NASA. Pepperdine however has graduates going to companies such as Disney.
You also want to pay close attention to the part about how much the graduates are making. It’s sometimes surprising to think about it, but companies often pay different amounts for graduates based on which school they went to. You can argue whether this is right or wrong, but it just is.
So, if you have two graduate programs that both cost $20K per year in tuition (for example) — and one has graduates who make $70K after graduation, while the other has graduates making $95K, it can help you to pick between the two schools.
Another good place to look for these rankings are sites like US News & World Report. They have lists of the best schools. The lists contain lots of data that can give you an even better sense of the school and how it’s viewed by the world.
One trend I’ve noticed with people returning to school is that they consider enrolling in an online program pretty frequently. It’s easier. You can fit it into your life better. It’s less disruptive.
I would caution you against doing any kind of online degree program. Think about it this way. A big part of what you get out of business school (for example) is networking contacts. You meet new people who go with you through the rest of your career. They’re your friends. Your colleagues. You help one another get jobs and with projects. You aren’t going to make those strong connections through an online program. You’re going to make them when you sit next to your classmates day in and day out in class.
The same logic applies to something like engineering. How in the world are you expected to truly grasp onto engineering concepts if you never set foot into an engineering lab?
Last, think of school as an investment. As with any investment, you should evaluate the ROI. There are many calculators online to help you to figure this out. Here’s one from Learn Vest you might try. It helps you to get a sense of how much you’ll put into school — and how much you’ll get out.
Going back to school is a highly personal and highly individual decision. There’s no one answer for everyone. My bottom line recommendation here is DO YOUR HOMEWORK. When you finish school, you want to be sure that you end up with the results you were expecting to.
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Angela Copeland is Founder and Coach for Copeland Coaching, a great way to jump start your job search. Follow her on Twitter @CopelandCoach for tips on finding the perfect job for you.