Globe & Mail, September 12, 2008
Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.
In a softening economy, many people grow more anxious about their jobs, and start to ponder ways to make themselves more employable.
The start of a fresh school year also makes September a time when people think about their future direction, and wonder whether becoming part of student life again might help renew their career.
Going back to school can be a career-enhancing move. But not always. And career isn't the only reason people contemplate a return to school.
Nor does further education come cheap - in money, time, energy or commitment.
Here are factors to consider:
The most important factor in making an informed decision is determining what you want to achieve: Enhance opportunities for advancement? Renewal at midlife? Gain a broader, more-bullet proof résumé? Move onto a new career path? This requires rigorous self-assessment: What's missing in your life? What skills would you like to develop or improve? What would you like to do better or understand in greater depth?
Career progress is slower during tougher economic times. Many people who lost their jobs in the last recession returned to school rather than face a protracted job search. If this isn't the year you're going to get that promotion, or if you do find yourself on the firing line, you may want to take advantage of the slowdown to be better-positioned with résumé-enhancing skills when the economy recovers.
As a general rule, the younger a worker, the more he or she may benefit from a return to school. Off the record, many recruiters admit a sad fact of contemporary organizational life: given two competent candidates, younger ones will be favoured over older ones, even if they are less qualified. Younger workers don't have the same experience to sell to employers as older ones, so they may need the advanced education to appeal to recruiters in lieu of 20 years of demonstrated accomplishments.
But older workers may gain selling points from additional education. Aside from fresh academic credentials, they also can show other qualities employers value from doing the juggling act of home, work and school: flexibility, time management, multitasking, self-discipline.
There's also some sense in putting in a few years of work after an undergraduate degree, to gather enough experience and gain a clearer career concept about how further education might help.
Do have the ability to juggle personal, professional, and academic responsibilities? Are you a vigilant and disciplined time manager? Are you a curious person who enjoys delving into intellectual content?
If you are a midlifer pursuing a program that is primarily populated by younger students, will you be comfortable and fit in? And will you, after years in the working world accustomed to being in control be able to suddenly take on a subordinate role as a student?
A lot of people are also reluctant to return because they feel they've lost their study skills and won't be able to keep up. Many educational institutions recognize these fears and have responded with ways to help older learners.
Career change desires
If you truly want to forge an entirely new career path, going back to school may be the only ticket.
But don't make a mistake common to many midlife career changers: Many workers who have achieved success in one career think that recruiters will recognize and value their past experiences, along with their new skills. It's a rude awakening when they find themselves looking at entry-level jobs in their new profession.
Value to your employer
Further education is not always a magic bullet to a promotion, especially if you have been with a company for some years. For example, people in mid- to senior-level managerial jobs and considered high potential are often held back by the lack of a graduate degree, especially an MBA. This is particularly true in certain roles and industries, such as marketing and finance, in which there is a premium placed on MBAs and other professional designations.
As one HR executive put it, "Extra education will solidify the company's perception of someone who is already considered a star with an educational deficit."
Psychological perceptions also linger. If you've been low on the ladder for a number of years, and then upgraded your education, sadly, many people will still continue to see you in a junior role. The same is true of those who are seen as solid rather than star performers. This is why many people who return to school find they can best leverage fresh credentials with a new employer.
Do research to determine who gets ahead in your industry and profession. Does everyone at the top have advanced education?
Are you in a position to invest the extra hours? What will you be giving up in time and energy? Some who have done the work-kids-school juggling act say it was worth the short-term trade-off of constant fatigue and pressure for a couple of years because of the opportunities it ultimately led to. Others say that being a constantly unavailable and tired parent resulted in their kids paying too high a price.
Are you really interested in moving up the managerial ladder? Organizations value managers over doers, and reward them with status and money; if that's your desire, an MBA may be your ticket.
But the higher up you go, the further away from the actual work you get. Status and money aren't enough:. You also need to be genuinely interested in leadership and management challenges.
If you love the technical problems you solve on a day-to-day basis, think long and hard about whether you really want the headaches associated with managing others. Talented professionals who go back to school often discover when they get that first great management opportunity that they miss doing the actual work; they also don't like having to deal with all the personality issues of their staff.
Obviously, pursuing a graduate degree is a huge investment, both in terms of hard and opportunity costs. Your return on investment will depend on your age. Even if higher education is a ticket to professional advancement - which it isn't always - the opportunity costs associated with paying tuition and lost income relative to years of future work at a higher salary need to be taken into consideration.
Your company may help subsidize your education. Most large organizations have policies of tuition reimbursement to employees.
But whether you will be subsidized is usually at the discretion of your manager. If your courses relate to your current job or future positions in the company, and you are seen as a strong performer with high potential, you are well-positioned to get company help.
Maybe you want to go back to school to increase career options. But that's not the only reason people return.
Many want to finish unfinished business, or to take the road not taken before. In my research, women who returned to school at midlife cited it as one of their major accomplishments. Conversely, those who didn't finish their education to the level they would have liked cited it as one of their major life regrets.
Many who return to school, especially midlife women, also believed they were teaching their kids valuable lessons. Those lessons? You need to be engaged, you can't rest on your laurels, you don't pack your professional bags at the age of 45, you need to stretch yourself and take risks, and you are never too old to learn.
Interestingly, many younger workers whose parents went back to school at midlife have told me that witnessing this was a source of personal inspiration.