Should I Go Back to School? 4 Questions to Help You Find Your Answer
You’re driving home from yet another get-together to celebrate a friend’s promotion at work, and it’s left you wondering why everyone around you seems to be climbing the career ladder while your job has been stagnant for years. You know you’re good at your job, but you can’t seem to prove to your boss that your contribution is worth a promotion.
It seems like a no-brainer that earning a degree will also earn you a promotion or allow you to transition to a career with more advancement opportunities. But you still second-guess yourself every time you ponder returning to school. How can you know for sure that investing in your education is the right move for you?
While there’s no crystal ball that will predict your career future, there are some strategic questions you can ask yourself to decide whether going back to school is your best option. We’ve rounded up insights from other college grads who’ve grappled with this question. Learn from their experiences with these four questions to help you decide if you should go back to school.
4 Questions to help you decide if you should go back to school
1. Is your motivation for returning to school clear
Going back to college is a big undertaking. Pursuing higher education requires making sacrifices and spending long hours studying when you might prefer to be watching Netflix. You’ll be more likely to succeed if you have a strong motivation pushing you forward.
“Find your ‘Why?’ and you’ll never worry about finding motivation,” says Jacob Murphy, a business owner at GPS Tracking Made Easy and a CT and MRI technologist. Murphy found motivation in being a good role model for his kids, but he encourages others to uncover a “Why?” that means something to them.
It could be fulfilling a childhood dream of earning a college degree—proving to yourself and others that you have what it takes or gaining confidence in your industry-specific skills and abilities. Doing some soul searching to uncover your inner “Why?” can be the most important step you take in deciding whether or not to go back to school.
2. How will this degree program help you accomplish your goals
No matter what your underlying motivation is, chances are you’ve got some concrete goals you’d like to accomplish by earning your degree. Maybe you want to pivot into the new career you’ve been dreaming of for years, or maybe you want to stay at your current workplace but have more opportunities for career advancement or salary increases. Knowing your career goals will help you make wise decisions about continuing your education.
Not all degree programs are created equal. “Investigate how [your] proposed degree plan will meet the criteria and standards set out by certification and licensing bodies,” advises Christopher Gerhart, who has gone back to school to complete both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree. “It would be a shame to spend a lot of time and money on a degree that does not improve your career.”
Narrowing down specific career goals will help you determine if going back to school is the best way to accomplish them or if there are other paths that might be a better fit for you. If you do decide that college is the right choice, then keep those goals in mind when selecting a specific degree program to ensure that you get the most bang for your buck.
3. Do you have the time and money to commit to your education
Achieving a college degree requires both time and money—two valuable resources that not everyone is willing or able to give up. “I try to be very careful about how I balance school, business and being a dad and husband,” Murphy says. “You will have to give up some things in your life now in order to stay properly balanced.”
Conventional wisdom has it that for every college credit you take, you should plan on studying for two to three hours per week in addition to the time you spend in class. Staying organized and being willing to sacrifice certain hobbies or activities can help you make room for college in your schedule, but if this sounds completely unrealistic, you may want to reevaluate if this is the best time for you to jump into a degree program.
And what about money? College has a reputation for being expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. Don’t forget to look into financial aid programs and scholarships for ways to make education more affordable. You can even ask your company if they’d be willing to finance a portion of your education if the skills you’ll gain are applicable to your current job. Once you’ve gathered all the numbers, you can do the math to find out if college is an affordable option for you right now.
4. How do you learn best
You may envision your college career as taking place behind the ivy-covered walls of an aging brick building, but there are plenty of alternative options for earning a degree thanks to today’s technology. Many colleges offer flexible options like online courses or night schedules that can help you squeeze your classes into your busy schedule.
Online courses in particular can be a saving grace for students who are juggling a family and a full-time job. Staying motivated and organized can be a challenge for online learners, but it can be done. “I did a blend of [online and traditional coursework], and it worked out well for me,” Gerhart says.
Before you can take advantage of these different learning environments, you need to understand how you learn best. “Are you someone that can learn at a distance, or do you need ‘butt-in-chair’ instruction?” asks Gerhart. Be honest with yourself about how much structure, social interaction and in-person communication with instructors you need in order to feel supported in your learning. Knowing your learning style will help you make a smart decision about how to make college fit into your life.
Should I Go Back to School?
So, I found an eight-week intensive class at a local broadcasting school that would teach me the basics before I went out to practice in a work setting. I had done my research, and I knew if I could just make the right connections and prove my talent, my degree wouldn’t matter.
Don’t just assume you have to go back to school to do the job you want to do. Do your research. And if you’re still not sure what’s required, don’t look to a job posting or a well-meaning neighbor to tell you what you need. Talk to professionals who are already working in that field or the ones making hiring decisions.
Because in case you haven’t noticed, HR culture is changing. More and more companies are dropping any form of degree requirement from their job postings. 2 That should give you hope!
Now, there are still some dream jobs out there that do require going back to school. Let’s take a quick detour to talk about the few careers that do require an advanced education.