At least once a week, I hear from a professional woman who is in a job or career she dislikes intensely (or is failing at), and wonders if going back to school for a new career is the right step. Today, many mid- to high-level professionals feel ill-suited to their work, and others have launched small businesses that are struggling to stay afloat. When they reach out for help, they share some version of this question:
“Kathy, I’m in a career (or I recently launched a small business) I just can’t stand anymore. My husband says I’m not cut out for this, and should go back to school. What do you think?”
Having coached thousands of women through every career decision you can imagine, I’ve observed 6 common reasons behind people’s contemplation of going back to school. These reasons may be legitimate for some, but for many (perhaps most), the path to another degree is not the right choice. How do you know if it’s right for you?
The top 6 reasons mid-career professionals give for contemplating going back to school are:
– The job I’m in feels like a complete dead end. I think I have to start over.
– I’m just not cutting it in this field. More education will give me more credibility, clout and authority.
– I really don’t know what else to do. I hate my work.
– I’m not earning enough in my current profession/business. I’ll make more money and be more secure if I have more education.
– My colleague went back to school and it made a great difference for him. I want to do what he’s doing.
– I’m failing in my new business, and I think getting a new degree is the only way out.
To know if going back to school is the right move for you, you need to become very clear on what you want in your life and work. You also have to understand yourself intimately (what you’re passionate about, and what motivates you to succeed, for instance) and evaluate your life and situation with eyes wide open. This is not the time to be in denial or to pretend you’re someone else. This is the time to figure yourself out with honesty, awareness and insight. (Take my 6-day Amazing Career Challenge to learn more about what you really want.)
Once you become clearer on what’s important to you and your most burning life goals, ask yourself these five questions:
1. What do you believe another degree will give you?
Often, we project all sorts of misguided notions about what a shiny, new degree will give us, but we don’t really know anything about it. Do exhaustive research about the educational path you’re considering. Interview department heads and faculty at the institutions you’re considering. Shadow professionals who’ve earned this degree and are applying it in ways that interest you. Learn more about the careers this degree can lead to, and how people land exciting work after their degree. Examine the curriculum and course of study – do you find it compelling, something you feel really jazzed to learn? What are the common trajectories of people who’ve earned this degree, and do these career paths seem to be a good fit for what you really want? Finally, ask, “Is it realistic for me to take this path at this time in my life?”
2. What will it cost you – emotionally, financially, and professionally and personally?
Higher education today is expensive, to say the least, but there are other significant costs as well. You’ll need to commit a great deal of time, money, energy, resources, and focus to succeeding on this educational path. Do you have access to the necessary resources, and can you tap into them in a way that won’t turn your life upside down? Can your current employer help pay for your degree? When I earned my Master’s degree in marriage and family therapy over a three-year period, it exacted a much higher price than I ever imagined. I’m so grateful I did it, but don’t do what I did and pursue a degree without understanding concretely what it will demand of you. And evaluate what the return on investment must be, specifically and measurably, in order for you to feel it is worthwhile.
In the end, if you’re considering going back to school, understand what it will give, and demand, of you. Do the necessary legwork to explore it thoroughly, and don’t jump until you can say with 100% surety that this is the right move at the right time. Be clear about where the road will take you, and if this path will give you, in reality, what you’re truly longing for.
(To move toward building a happier, more rewarding career, take my 6-day Amazing Career Challenge).