A Publication of WTVP

Whether you’re looking for a career change or to increase your earning potential, furthering your education can be a great move for a working professional. If you like to learn, it’s easy to get excited about the prospect of going back to school. What’s not as easy: sorting through the different options.

There is a multitude of online programs, as well as brick-and-mortar classroom programs at universities, and the length and types of programs are also varied and plentiful. Then there’s the big question of how you’re going to pay for it. To help you sort through the possibilities, we’ve put together a list of things to consider.

  1. Where are you at in your career and personal life? Take a moment to consider the current state of your personal and professional life and ask: Is now the right time to take on a new commitment? If you just had a baby or are trying to sell your house, think through how school would fit into the bigger picture and your other daily obligations. Do the same for your working life… Do you have capacity for a new challenge or change to your routine? It may be that you’re in a rut, feeling dissatisfied and need to trigger a change—or you may have plenty on your plate and should hold off on school. Before you make any decisions, it’s a good idea to check in with yourself and your family first.
  2. What are you trying to achieve? Your career is one of your best assets, and you want to make the most of it. Think about what you’d like to be doing in the future. Do you want to be in a different industry, role or at a certain company? Maybe you have a burning desire to explore a specific subject or become an expert in your field. Most of us would like to earn more money, and something like grad school can be a good way to increase your income potential. But remember, that is just one piece of the puzzle and overall strategy for professional growth. A master’s degree helps you make moves that further your career—but it’s not a silver bullet to higher pay. And with the high price of many programs, it’s important to make sure you’re going back to school for the right reasons.
  3. What credentials do you need? Once you’ve identified where you want to go in your career, the next step is to research how to get there and what additional skills or credentials you may need. If you have a specific job or company in mind, you might look at job postings to see what is required of your intended role. That can give you a sense of what degrees or certifications to pursue, as well as skills and work experience. Consider sitting down with someone in that role to hear what steps they took. This step is especially crucial if you’re interested in switching careers or industries; you may need a bachelor’s degree in that field or work experience before you can expect to enter the workforce in a new industry. With a list of requirements in hand, you can better understand if pursuing an advanced degree is a good move for you, and then look for programs that provide the training and experience you need.
  4. What’s the best learning environment for you? To ensure you’ll get the most out of school, you want to be sure you enter a program that fits your learning style. Maybe it’s been a while since you were last in school, but you may recall what aspects made it easier or harder for you to learn. Every person learns differently, and only you know how much structure, guidance and accountability you may need. Depending on the answers, you may decide that an online program would give you the autonomy you desire, or that discussion in a classroom helps you develop your ideas. Going into your search with a sense of your learning style can help you filter through online versus in-class options.
  5. How much time can you commit? In some ways, going back to school is like taking on another job. How would such a time commitment fit into your current schedule? Depending on where you are in your career, you may or may not be able to take a few years off to go to school full-time. If you’re planning to be a part-time student and full-time professional, think through how you’ll fit both into your schedule. Do you have flexible hours or a manager that would be okay with you leaving early to go to class? Even if you’re looking at online programs, it’s important to anticipate the amount of time you’ll need to commit to coursework. Knowing what time commitment you’re willing—and able—to take on will help as you evaluate which program is right for you.
  6. What can you afford? Finally, your financial situation is a crucial aspect to consider when thinking through your decision to return to school. If you can’t pay for it outright, explore other funding options. Check to see if your employer offers tuition reimbursement and, if so, what the terms are. You can then close the gap between what you can pay and what you owe by taking out a student loan or home equity loan. What you can afford will affect what programs you pursue, as well as how many classes you take at a given time. If a full-time program is out of your budget, consider taking one or two classes to start, or even looking up free online courses. You may also look into less expensive courses offered through a community college, and see if you can leverage those credits toward graduate or certification programs.

Whether you dream of being an executive vice president or learning all you can within a certain area of expertise, it’s important to evaluate your intentions, goals and needs before making a decision about going back to school. Whatever you choose needs to make sense for your unique situation, both professionally and personally. The decision is a big one and may feel overwhelming, but with some soul searching, research and thinking through the numbers, you can rest assured that you’ll come to the right decision. iBi

William J. Phillips is a senior vice president and retail executive for the Illinois Market for Commerce Bank.