Is It Time to Go Back to School?

If the timing is right, earning a graduate degree may help advance your career.

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[See How to Convince Your Employer to Pay for School.]

Will my family support me emotionally? Returning to the student lifestyle isn't always easy, and you're likely to make a smoother transition if people around you support the move. If you have a spouse or children, your decision will affect them, too; it could mean less time together, a tighter grip on your finances, or even a move to a new city.

For Mark Dixon, a first-year MBA student at The George Washington University, going back to school meant big changes for both him and his wife, including moving to Washington, D.C., from Montgomery, Ala. After working in the Alabama governor's office for five years, Dixon saw an opportunity to earn his business degree when his boss hit his term limit and left office. He wanted to build a career in education reform and saw a need in that industry for business and management skills. "Giving up two paychecks to make this move was certainly a difficult decision," says Dixon, 28. "You have to make sure people around you are going to support you."

Is now better than later? While it's good to have some work experience before going back to school, some advocates of continuing education say if you're going to make the jump, it's best to do it while you're young, because you have fewer responsibilities and more flexibility. "Some people put it off," says Scott Smith, author of Find Your Perfect Job, who has both a law degree and an MBA. "They have a dream but they put it off because they're comfortable where they are ... and then they never go."

Dixon, the MBA student, agrees. "We both felt very strongly," he says, speaking about himself and his wife, "that if I was ever going to do this, that now was the time ... I want to have time to get out of school and get a job I enjoy before we start a family."

Can I afford it? Consider the cost of tuition, but don't forget to factor in opportunity costs, mainly the income you won't be making while you're in school, says Smith. Calculating that can be "kind of eye-opening for a lot of people," he says.

[See Can I Afford to Go Back to School?]

Do I have enough work experience? Not only might you get more out of certain graduate-degree programs if you have life experience under your belt, but some programs actually require several years in the workplace. MBA candidates, for example, usually need at least three or four years of work experience to be accepted into a program.

Would I have to leave my job? Don't make the mistake of assuming you'll have to leave your job to continue your education; whether you'll need a hiatus from the workforce often depends on your goals. If you're looking to change careers, becoming a full-time student might be the way to go. But if an advanced degree could help you contribute to or move up within your company, your employer might support—or even pay for—part-time enrollment, particularly if you show how it will benefit the company . "If someone comes to me and wants to finish an education they started or further their education ... I'm going to support it in any way I can," says Eileen Habelow, who oversees leadership development at staffing services firm Randstad. "I'm going to get a better, smarter, more loyal employee in the end."

Also consider online options; an increasing number of universities are offering virtual education.

[Find an online degree program that's right for you.]

Am I bored at work? While not feeling challenged could mean it's time for a new job, that sentiment also could be the launching point for more education. "You know when you're bored," says Khadijah Britton, who left her job in media relations at age 29 to earn dual degrees in law and public health. She now runs a nonprofit news agency covering the biotech industry. "When you find yourself checking Facebook too much. You don't want to come back from lunch at all ... [You're] bending over backwards to stay [mentally] present."

In the end, make a decision knowing you can't anticipate everything. "Sometimes your interests change," says Smith, who earned his law degree in his twenties and went back to school in his thirties for his MBA. "You need to make the best decisions you can at each juncture."