Is it a good time to go back to school?

BlogHer Original Post

In an economy marked by rampant layoffs and the slow death of entire industries, many adults are wondering if now is the time to go back to school for further technical training, to finish a bachelor's degree, or to pursue a graduate or professional degree. The answer? It depends.

It depends on your reason for going back to school.

To update your skills?

If you're looking to update your skills, you need to ask yourself whether the skills you're learning are worth the investment of time and money. For example, my husband is a graphic artist in the (dying) newspaper industry, and he can build web pages in HTML.

It's not worth it to him to go back to school to learn how to do more with HTML, since today anyone can download oodles of free or inexpensive HTML, WordPress, Drupal, or other platforms' templates. And the newspaper industry is going under, so there isn't much call for graphic artists with his particular skill set. He could go back to school to learn computer languages that would allow him to build interactive web pages, but he's not invested in such a career. After beginning his career 25 years ago as a paste-up artist and advancing to where he is now, my husband just isn't as interested in his line of work as he used to be. He's happy where he is for now, and is making tentative emergency plans in case the newspapers he works for fold, but school isn't part of those plans.

In other fields, however, returning to school to update computer or other technical skills may be worth your while. Maybe you want to take another look at the career you imagined you'd have way back when you were 18 or 22. Say you imagined yourself leading a nonprofit organization, but with your English major you ended up in grant writing instead. In this case, getting a certificate in nonprofit management or organizational development might be a good idea.

To learn a new trade or tweak your career?

My own career is what Marci Alboher has termed a "slash" career, in that I'm a teaching consultant/writer/adjunct professor/museum scholar. Increasingly, I want to consolidate those slashes in the direction of museums, so it might be worth my while to add an M.B.A. in museum studies (as far as I know, the only MBA in museum studies is now available at John F. Kennedy University) to my Ph.D. in cultural studies. Alas, I already teach in that program, so it might be awkward to enroll alongside my students, and the cost is prohibitive while I'm still paying down my student loans. That said, I could enroll in classes offered through organizations other than universities, such as the National Preservation Institute's seminars in historic preservation or the Northern States Conservation Center.

Be creative. A degree looks nice on your résumé, and it's de rigueur in many fields, but that doesn't mean going back to school for an entirely new (and probably expensive) degree is your only option. Check out conferences, certificate series, seminars, or more offered by your professional or trade associations or by your local university extension.

Remember: Earning a degree can mean an opportunity cost in the short term. If you work full- or part-time while earning your degree, you'll have less time to spend with your family and friends, your income may drop if you need to work less than full-time, and you'll be paying for tuition, books, and fees, as well as likely taking out student loans. Over at Inside Higher Ed, Wick Sloane wonders if the Bachelor's degree is obsolete. (Be sure to download the PDF pamphlet Sloane offers near the end of his article--it's an interesting read.)

To pursue a graduate degree in your field?

Proceed with caution if you're going back to graduate school. Some degrees, like those related to computer science or most engineering fields, repay their recipients handsomely in the long term. Others, like a Ph.D. in the interdisciplinary humanities (hi!) may actually have higher opportunity costs in terms of future income than you anticipated.

I'm not alone in urging caution about graduate school, and people are apparently beginning to listen to the chorus of academics lamenting the numbers of underemployed Master's and Ph.D. students who graduate from our universities each year. The number of people taking the Graduate Record Exam, the entrance exam for graduate school in a number of fields, has fallen this year. Dean Dad explains why this is fabulous news, and Tenured Radical considers whether academics should encourage others to invest in what some have called an " academic Ponzi scheme."

To pursue a professional degree?

I've noted a trend wherein even those with Ph.D.s return to school for an MBA or JD or a K-12 teaching credential. As in many industries, the academic job market is terrible right now, and opportunities for tenure-track jobs are decreasing. Accordingly, many people who either don't get tenure or who tire of the academic grind are starting new careers. New Kid on the Hallway, for example, started law school this past fall, and is documenting her journey on her blog.

Anyone, however, with a Bachelor's degree can apply to professional degree programs. These tend to come with a high price tag, however, so again, proceed with caution--and don't stay in a program if you're discovering the career track isn't the right one for you. It's not worth it to pay off $100,000 or more in professional school loans if you decide not to pursue, say, law or dentistry.

What about you and yours? Are you going back to school? Why or why not?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox.


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