Thinking about going back to school?
The decision-making process to pursue higher or new education is an exciting and stressful experience. After earning my MBA and later my PhD in organizational leadership, I can still clearly remember the days of poring over university websites and deciding what I wanted from my graduate studies.
With myriad factors to consider, the way you navigate this decision-making process can potentially make or break your career.
Two-thirds of graduate degree holders say they felt regrets about their return to school. The effects of these regrets can have unfortunate consequences.
For example, a graduate program can take anywhere from one to five years to complete depending on its structure, forcing you to sacrifice a significant amount of time for family and personal pursuits. And the cost of graduate education can pile up over time, potentially putting you in debt for a program and career path you didn’t end up enjoying.
Here’s the bottom line: The wrong decisions now can have major ramifications for your future—so make your decisions wisely.
Making smart decisions about a return to school isn’t an easy process—nor should it be. There are many life factors to consider and 4,300 degree-granting institutions from which to choose. By taking a step back and answering a few critical questions, you can better decide if returning to school is the right move and choose a program that aligns with your personal and professional goals.
1. Am I going back to school for the right reasons?
Maintaining the right mindset around going back to school is critical. When considering your thoughts and feelings, you must figure out if you’re running toward a goal or running away from where you currently are.
If you’re trying to escape your current career, don’t view a return to school as a way out. For example, your motivation to get a master’s degree shouldn’t simply be “to get a master’s.” Instead, envision the career path additional education offers you and which skills are required to reach your ideal endpoint. Do your research and talk to professionals in the field you’re looking to join about their experience. Truly consider if going back to school will improve your happiness or growth over the long-term, or if you’re viewing it primarily as a way out.
Don’t let the idea of running away pollute your overall decision-making. Focus on where you want to be and where you see yourself in the future.
2. Am I willing to dedicate the time required?
Given that many who go back to school are working professionals, time is a major factor when it comes to enrolling in a program. If you can’t commit adequate time, your learning experience will suffer.
For my PhD program, I needed 20 hours per week to complete my coursework over three years, plus an additional year to finish my dissertation. So, ensure you have a grasp on how much time you can realistically dedicate to your learning. Consider how life commitments such as family, children, and your current job factor into your available time. Likewise, your family should be equally committed to your education. They’re in the journey with you and their support is critical to your success.
3. What type of program works best for me?
Given your own unique life and work experiences, choose a program structure that best fits your preferences.
If you want more in-person learning (which may be difficult during the pandemic), prioritize an on-campus program. If your work schedule is too busy during the week, find a program that offers night and weekend classes. Online programs are another convenient and viable option for those wishing to complete coursework on a more flexible schedule. Some online programs also feature on-campus components if you prefer to digitally learn but don’t want to completely miss out on an on-campus experience.
Outside of logistics, consider how the program will meet your future career goals. For example, if you eventually want to be a cybersecurity programmer, you’ll want a program with courses and faculty dedicated to coding and technical skills as opposed to cybersecurity policy and government relations.
4. What networking opportunities am I looking for?
A return to school is about more than just an education. It’s also about the opportunities and connections the program can create for you after graduation.
Beyond the coursework, analyze what a school can offer for career placement and assistance. Take an MBA program, for instance. Research the institution’s alumni network for potential employers or networking opportunities that interest you. Also, find out what skill-building opportunities the careers services department offers to help you stand out from job candidates in similar programs.
Location is another factor to consider. Geography will likely determine where the majority of your network connections are based. If possible, focus on a program that’s located somewhere you’d like to be based for the long-term.
Returning to school is a leap of faith for professionals seeking to advance their current career path and those looking to begin a new career altogether. Leave no stone unturned in your decision-making process and position yourself to graduate with no regrets.
James Wallace, PhD is the executive vice president of Enrollment and Partnership Services at All Campus.
Read this before you decide to quit your job to go back to school The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ Fast Company.