How to know when (and if) it is time to go back to school

The nature of careers has shifted radically over the past few decades. While it was once expected that most professionals would follow a single path involving a relatively small number of employers, now it’s normal for many of us to shift our jobs and responsibilities significantly several times, and work for many different employers. This change reflects both an alteration in the relationship between employers and their employees and a recognition that rapid technology and business model shifts require people to be more nimble in the pursuit of a career.

Although people recognize the dynamic nature of careers, assumptions about additional education needed to pursue those careers have not changed as rapidly. A bachelor’s degree is still seen as a key credential for many jobs. People looking to go into business may pursue an MBA. There are also specialized degree programs for certain professions (like law school or medical school), and required continuing education to keep up licenses for others (such as accounting, pharmacy, and clinical psychology).

But these days, there are several options for going back to school that may help you advance your career. Here are a few you may not have considered:

Degree Programs

An advanced degree might make sense for you. A master’s degree is the most common (though doctorates may be the price of entry into fields like clinical psychology or education administration).

A degree program makes the most sense when there are substantial new skills to be developed that require in-depth engagement. Some of these degree programs are run in-residence (meaning that you’ll need to be a full-time student), but there are many options that allow you to work while going to school. Some of these are held in-person, while others have a distance-learning option.

A typical master’s degree involves 30 credits, and each credit-hour comes with roughly 15 hours of time in class and an equivalent amount of time spent on assignments. So, you’re making a pretty heavy investment of your time in a degree program. On top of that, degree programs are expensive.

That means you need to think through the return on that investment of time and money. You should focus on the recommended credentials for the jobs you aspire to. If the people in those roles typically have a degree, then that is a good direction for you.

In addition, you should consider whether the skills needed for that next round of jobs require a significant shift in mindset. A good degree program not only teaches you core skills for a career path, but it also gives you a set of methods for solving problems that help you structure the kinds of thorny problems that high-level executives often solve.

If you are considering a degree program, think about looking beyond the usual suspects. At the University of Texas where I teach, we have traditional programs like an MBA, but we also have more specialized programs that are aimed at technology entrepreneurs, or leaders who have to focus on human-centered issues.

Certificate Programs and Badges

Often, a degree program is not the right first step in continuing education. Instead, there are many noncredit offerings from universities, as well as online program management companies like edX and Coursera.

Noncredit offerings typically teach specific skills that can help you in your current job or help qualify you for a new role. Often, several offerings can be bundled together into a “microcredential” —like a certificate or digital badge that you can put on your resume or display on a LinkedIn profile.

You should get into the habit of engaging in these noncredit programs on an annual basis. If your company offers an education credit, make sure you use it. If not, you can likely find noncredit programs that will fit your budget.

There are a lot of programs that are offered online (and many of those can be done at your convenience). These programs are great for picking up a specific skill. If possible, consider taking a few classes that are held in-person, though. One of the great joys of these courses (in addition to getting to spend time on a college campus, which is always fun) is that you get to meet other people interested in developing the same set of skills. This informal networking provides a benefit that goes above-and-beyond the knowledge you pick up from the class itself.

Also, these certificate programs are a great way to dip your toe into an area in which you are considering an advanced degree. Rather than diving into a significant commitment, you can invest a few days to get to know the material, as well as the kinds of instructors you might encounter in a degree program.

Boot Camps

In between a full-on degree program and certificate / badge programs are boot camps. These programs are often a few months long and are aimed at people trying to switch careers and need to pick up key technical skills to do that. Boot camps are most common for learning skills like computer programming, data analytics, machine learning, and cybersecurity.

The time investment in boot camps is lower than that of a degree program, though many of them do carry a significant price tag. Boot camps also offer some assistance with job placement that many certificate and badging programs do not.

Before diving into a boot camp, though, do a little research on what employers in the field are looking for in applicants of the jobs you’re excited about. In some areas, employers are shying away from boot camp graduates in favor of people getting degrees, because of concerns that people in boot camps learn specific techniques but do not have the broad problem-solving skills that are needed to take on novel problems that arise frequently as technology and business models change. In other areas, though, there are more jobs than qualified applicants, and so boot camp graduates have an advantage — and a variety of positions to choose from.

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