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Should you go back to school?
There we were, a bunch of us sitting on a green, rolling hill at Ryerson University campus, going around our big circle and sharing stories like we were in some kind of group therapy. Actually, we sort of were in group therapy — all of us trying to explain to each other (and ourselves) that we’d made the right decision to go back to school and sharing the sacrifices we had to make in order to get here. We listed former jobs, teaching English overseas, former degrees, former addresses and even marriages that ended before we met on that hill in the first week of journalism grad school (or what we called J-school).
There’s no doubt that going back to school (or going to school, period) may flip your life completely upside down. It’s a risk that’s not only financial but also emotional and the decision carries many consequences — you hope that all of those are good consequences that will lead to a better job and a better life in general, but there’s actually no guarantee.
When I went back to school, I left behind a part-time job in my field as well as a part-time job that paid well (and that wasn’t in my field at all and was sure to make me die of boredom), an apartment, a relationship and some hope of financial security (I actually started paying off my student loans and it was going well). I started from scratch in a new city, in a new apartment, having to make new friends and professional contacts all over again. I had to take out student loans all over again, too. My only hopes were that (a) the school I was going to had a good reputation, (b) I was motivated and excited, and (c) I had faith the risk would pay off — I’d get a job that wouldn’t bore me to death. Now, 10 years later and looking back I see it all as worthwhile ... still would I do something like this again? I’m not sure (I only just paid off my student loans, for example). But if you’re still wondering, below are some things to consider before you take that big step.
Is this what you really want to/can do?
In this article by Susan Adams, Should You Go Back To School?, New York career coach Roy Cohen says, “It's one thing to fantasize about an advanced degree. It's another to go out and get a job using that degree.” Cohen talks about his client who went back to school to get a business degree and in the end found herself unable to get an internship and ended up with zero job prospects. She got a sense of accomplishment by finishing her business degree but otherwise it was a fruitless endeavor. Think about what you really (really) are passionate about doing before going back to school. “The first step is always about evaluation,” says Cohen in the article.
Why are you doing it?
In the same article, Adams mentions that some people may think that going back to school will let them “hide out” during economical upheaval and this may not be a good idea at all. Going back to school should not be a temporary solution to a problem (like the current economic situation), a proverbial band aid on a grave wound. In The Best and Worst Reasons to Go Back to School article, going back to school because you don’t have any other ideas about what to do with yourself is listed as one of the worst reasons.
Meredith Haberfeld, a New York-based career and executive coach, mentioned in the same article, talks about the number of lawyers she’s worked with who hate what they do but who went to law school simply because they didn’t know what else to do. Haberfeld says, "They never really wanted to be a lawyer. Their thought process was 'What's something that will forward my future?'"
If you’re not sure why you want to do it but you’re still kind of interested in pursuing a particular degree, Haberfeld says a good idea is to talk to people who are already doing a job related to the degree — find out what their daily grind is like, what the industry is like, etc. I would add, ask them about how their view of what they wanted to do has changed since they graduated from school. Among my former J-school peers a few have gone back to speak to current and prospective students about their own careers — if your potential school doesn’t offer such meetings, it’s a good idea to get in touch with former graduates on your own and ask them what they thought. (You can find alumni groups via LinkedIn, for example.)
What’s the right program for you?
The kind of a program you end up choosing has to fit in with the rest of your life. You might want to figure out first if the program you’re interested in studying is actually worth the sacrifices you’re about to make. Sure, you might’ve always dreamt of becoming a children’s book author or an art historian but it may be awhile before you find a job in “risky” fields such as these.
If you have the time and the financial means to go to school full-time, then that’s great, but for many people going back to school in later years means juggling all kinds of factors — their family, a job that they might have already, where they live, and so on. In Lifehacker’s Should I Go Back To School? article, the advice columnist (referred here as “Lifehacker”) suggests keeping the job you already have. She/he writes, “The reality for most people is that you won't be able to just drop your job and go back to school full-time unless you have somewhere to live for free or live in a household that can survive without your income. It's likely that even if you do go back to school, you'll probably need to keep your job — or some job — to make ends meet and pay for your expenses as a student.” Which is why a part-time program or even virtual university may make more sense to a mature student with family obligations.
Some people have come up with an alternative way to combine their family lives with getting their degree. The Canadian Living magazine article mentions the Canadian Virtual University, a partnership of universities that offers more than 2,000 courses, “covering a variety of fields, including arts, science, business and administrative studies, commerce and more. You can take a Bachelor of Arts in Women’s Studies through Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., a Master of Counselling through Athabasca University, or a Human Resource Management Certificate through the University of Manitoba. Some courses are entirely web-based, while others may mail study packages or feature teleconferencing, computer conferencing, audiotapes and other technologies.”
What are the sacrifices?
There is no doubt that going back to school involves an enormous financial sacrifice. Consider this Government of Alberta breakdown sheet of school costs. On top of tuition, supplies and living expenses, there are additional costs such as child care, travel, medical and dental expenses, and so on. According to the sheet, a single student can pay anywhere from roughly $17,000 to $27,000 a school year (eight months).
The good news is that if you have been laid off, are working fewer than 20 hours or are unemployed, and are willing to retrain you might be eligible for the Second Career program that helps laid-off workers get back to work through going back to school. The Second Career program offers up to $28,000 to pay for tuition and expenses. Also, keep in mind that many schools offer continuing education programs that may not result in a degree but that may teach you a skill that will improve your chances of edging out the competition while looking for work. For more on how to improve your skills through education, check out our Frugal Guide to Education and our Upgrade to a New Career articles.
Paula, a woman interviewed for Canadian Living's Should You Go back to School article, points out another challenge: time. She says that not being able to be around her family was especially difficult when she made a decision to get a two-year degree in interior design. She says, "I remember sitting at my drafting table and my daughter was sitting at our kitchen island and we had our backs to each other, both doing homework. She said to me, 'Could you be a mom for a minute and make me some supper?'”
Final words of wisdom from the Lifehacker Should You Go Back To School? article, “If you really hate your current job to the point where you just don't want to do it anymore, there's likely no convincing you to stay in your current position, but don't jump ship without a plan only to land in a pool of student debt, textbook costs, and other assorted fees.”