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Should I Go Back to School?

Grad school can feel like the next logical step for many people after receiving their undergraduate degree, while for others the decision of whether or not to pursue another level of education may come at a midpoint in their career. Deciding whether or not to go back to school (for a new degree, a graduate degree, or otherwise) is a big decision, one that asks you if you’re ready to commit potentially thousands of dollars and years of your life to the cause. 

Now may be the time to pivot. This could be your chance to get extra training in skills that you need to expand your career, attain degrees and certificates that could boost your profile. My mom went back to school after 50 and finished her undergrad degree, and I was 38 when I received my doctorate (it took me 10 years and I had 3 kids along the way) - ANYTHING is possible! Higher education can be expensive, but aid is also available and at a lower interest rate than usual. I truly believe that it’s never too late to change your direction, to meet your dreams, or complete something you didn’t finish in the past.

But, it’s complicated. Do you really know that you’ll achieve your desired goals by attaining a degree? Will the promotions and pay raises be a sure thing? Or, will your time in school simply be a good gap between life phases? Everyone has their own stories to tell, but, as an educator, I’ve seen people take a variety of nontraditional paths in education - some good, some not so great. Here’s how you can tell whether or not it makes sense for you to go back to school.

My mother, earning her degree

If you just got your undergraduate degree…

This is probably the best time for you to go back to school, logistically speaking. You likely don’t have a bevy of responsibilities yet, and are still in the groove of higher education. However, I’d only recommend this route immediately after your undergraduate experience if you have a clear idea of your path beyond higher education. Choosing to go back to school simply because it feels like “what’s next” for you isn’t a great reason to make the commitment. Do some research into your desired career path or area of study and ensure that more experience will allow you to delve deeper into an established interest or create valuable connections with others in your field.

If you want to get into academia…

Expanded credentials are usually a prerequisite for becoming an educator or even a higher-level employee at a university. If you can see yourself pursuing a professorship, I’d recommend applying for a program in your focus area and taking on elective credits in education to round out your skill set.

If you are already in the workforce, but want to earn more money…

Pursuing a masters or doctorate degree can be a great way to bump up your pay grade, but it’s not always a foolproof option. Depending on your industry, a graduate degree may not have the ROI that you hope to receive from your efforts. For example, fields like marketing, business, human resources, finance, and more can benefit big time from an MBA. Pursuing a certificate or extended training in an important skill is another great option for mid-level career men and women. This can allow you to attain designations that make you more desirable in the job market, or simply do a better job at work, leading to better reviews each year. Certificates and ad hoc classes are more attainable than ever because of the increase in remote learning necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps you could attend a program that you’ve dreamed of attending that would normally only be available in person!

If you don’t know what your next step is…

Losing your job or just feeling lost in your career can be incredibly disheartening. In a difficult job market, it may seem like a good opportunity to head back to school instead of spending months looking for your next step. Grad school or certificate programs can be an incredible place for exploring new aspects of your chosen field, or for connecting with professionals who can open up new doors for you. However, it’s not the best move for everyone. Heading back to school requires a discipline and a sense of purpose to get through. If you’re feeling less empowered by that statement and more confused, I’d recommend investing in a career coach or conducting a series of informational interviews with aspirational professionals in your area instead.

As you’re weighing your options, remember that this isn’t a life or death decision. Going back to school can be such a beautiful, enlightening experience if you choose to make it so. It’s all about perspective, and I could make a case for furthering your education to just about anyone. However, if you’re really stuck on the decision for financial reasons or otherwise, do your research first, and then make an educated leap. Your path is your own, and, whether or not it includes grad school, you’ll end up exactly where you are meant to be.

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