If you've been thinking about getting some additional formal education for a while and wondering if it's right for you, consider the following four questions before making your final decision. Remember, this is a big deal. Going back to school can impact every aspect of your life. Don't make the leap until you're certain it's right for you.
1. Why bother? What has triggered you to even consider this? Do you feel your skills are truly out of date? Is a new degree or certification required to advance in your profession? Do you need this education to break into a new career? Or is it more of a personal goal?
It's important that you understand what you really want to get out of this. Of course, any reason you come up with is just fine, but how you answer this question will likely determine how you go about approaching this project.
2. Do you have the time? Many people underestimate the amount of time required. If you're hoping to obtain a degree or certification, you're probably looking at a commitment of years. If you're going to school part-time while working full-time (which is typically the more financially appealing option for most people), add on even more time.
Aside from the overall time commitment, you also have the day-to-day commitment. School isn't just about attending classes. Sure, online courses make it easier as they reduce the need to commute to and from school. But there are a variety of activities that take place outside the classroom—like homework, group projects, research, and study time. All these things pull you away from family, friends, and other personal obligations.
Consider getting the right kind of support in place before jumping in. Set up carpools for the kids, organize weeknight dinner plans, coordinate schedules with other family members. The more realistic you are from the beginning, the easier it will be to manage.
3. Do you have the money? Education is also a financial investment. We've all heard the stories about people graduating with student loans of $50,000, even $100,000. And there's no guarantee that your salary will increase proportionally. It's a gamble. Do your research and make sure you're comfortable with the total financial investment and potential payoff before you jump in.
There are, however, a wide variety of assistance programs available through the federal government—from loans to work study programs to scholarships and grants. You also might take advantage of tax benefits (though your accountant will need to address that one). While it can take a little time and effort to figure how all of this works, it can save you thousands of dollars in the long run.
4. What are the alternatives? School might sound like the right answer, but depending on your desired outcome (see No. 1), there may be more efficient, affordable ways of getting what you need.
If the degree itself (or certificate or title) doesn't matter as much as the actual knowledge, there may be some informal educational opportunities available. Perhaps you can take targeted classes, seminars, or workshops. Maybe you can take on projects in your current role that will allow you to develop the new skills you're seeking. Maybe a comprehensive book will give you what you need. If nothing else, you may want to start here just to make sure this is something you really want to explore more in-depth.
School is a commitment on a variety of levels. Take your time with the decision and, should you choose to jump back in, enjoy it. The process is tedious but ultimately, very personally rewarding—and hopefully professionally rewarding as well.
Chrissy Scivicque, the founder of EatYourCareer.com, believes work can be a nourishing life experience. As a career coach, corporate trainer, and public speaker, she helps professionals of all levels unlock their true potential and discover long-lasting career fulfillment.