When is It Worth Going Back to School in Midlife?

So you're considering going back to school to get a better job?

You've heard the statistics: on average, people change jobs 11 times over their lifetime (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). You've heard the encouraging voices of family, friends, bloggers, and so on, telling you it's never too late to change. You know that many other Americans have gone back to school in midlife, and have succeeded in a lucrative new career because of it. You know it's possible.

And yet, you're a grown-up now, you have no illusions, and you know that a college degree in no way guarantees landing a new job. It's a big investment of time, money, and energy that might not pay dividends after all. Hm, tough call.

So how do you know if going back to school is the right decision for you? And, furthermore, how can you maximize the benefits of a degree if you do go?

Do Your Research and Find the Right Field for You
Not all college programs are created equal, and, more importantly, not all college programs are tailored to help you reach your specific career goals. Knowing which degree or certificate to pursue is crucial. Your choice of major may be the difference between a satisfying new career with a fat paycheck, or unemployment. For example, graduates in architecture are currently having a much harder time finding work (12.8% unemployment rate) than graduates in education (5.0% unemployment rate), according to Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. Knowing the differences in these rates will help you make a more informed choice regarding your educational investment.

You'll want to start by doing some research. Which industries are in demand right now? Which industries have the lowest unemployment rates? And in which fields are college graduates more likely to find work? Statistics and data related to these questions are available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Unfortunately, it's not as simple as finding the lowest unemployment rate figure and going with that field. Some fields tend to favor youth more than others (such as high tech and entertainment), and some fields are more welcoming to people over the age of 40 (like health care, accounting, and education). Additionally, some fields--even those who value age--are difficult to land a job in without relevant work experience.

You probably already have some inkling of which field you'd like to switch to. If so, talk to some professionals already working in that field. Learn about the state of the industry, about what employers tend to value in applicants, and what your odds of success are. Also, find out if there are any certifications or licenses that are particularly in demand in that field. By learning these things, you'll put yourself at a real advantage and maximize the benefits of further education.

What Are Your Options?
When you think about going back to school, the tendency is to focus on associate's and bachelor's degrees from accredited universities. However, these are by no means the only viable paths towards a successful career switch. Vocational training programs and specialized certification programs, for example, are great alternatives to those pricey university options. They typically take less time and cost less money, and in many cases the financial return is just as significant.

Look up your community college's website and find out which certificate programs they offer. Also, find out which vocational or technical schools are in your area, or if there are any industry-specific organizations which offer in-demand certificate programs.

You'll also want to check out Plus 50 initiative website. This is a national program which offers courses and guidance counseling to people over 50 who want to go back to school. Find out whether your community college participates in the Plus 50 initiative; it really is an invaluable resource.

A wealth of helpful information can also be found at Petersons.com.

Relevant Work Experience
One of the most frustrating conundrums faced by college graduates (of any age) is the ol' Relevant Work Experience Dilemma. It's a classic catch-22: you can't get a job without relevant work experience, but you can't get relevant work experience without a job. With some foresight, however, you can tackle this challenge before you even graduate.

Many programs offer internships, cooperative work experiences, or volunteer opportunities. These are priceless resources which will help you leap that work experience hurdle after you graduate. Participate in as many of these internships, etc., as you can, and you'll have some great relevant work experience to place on your resumé and show prospective employers. In fact, your internship organization might even become your new employer!

A Graduate in the Real World
So you've taken the plunge and gone to school. What now? How can you find that new job you've been working towards?

The best thing you can possibly do while you're still in school: network. Go to conferences, meet industry professionals, join your industry's trade association, and establish an online presence with LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. By doing these things, you'll make valuable connections with members of your new field, and those connections may end up being the key to landing a great new position. You don't need to wait until you graduate to start this; begin immediately!

Another thing you can do: take advantage of your school's resources. Your school is a goldmine of professional resources and networking opportunities. Take advantage of them while you can. A great place to start is your school's alumni career services office. The lovely people in this office get paid to help graduates find jobs, so let them do their job. Alumni career services offices offer private counseling sessions, career fairs, and webinars, any of which might lead you to your new job.

In addition to the alumni career services office, make sure you establish a positive rapport with your professor or instructor. In all likelihood, your teacher is still actively involved in your new field, and has a wealth of professional connections. These connections may help you break into the field after graduation.

Your fellow students are priceless resources as well. After all, they'll likely be your future colleagues, and will be acquiring their own set of connections and leads. Stay in touch with your classmates; they may be the source of some important opportunities. And, if you find yourself one day succeeding in your new field, you may be able to pay the favor forward to someone else.

It's Never Too Late
No one said it would be easy. It's a big change you're considering, one that will require a lot of effort and determination. But on the other side of the challenges lies the potential of a new future, a new career, and a better life. Do your research; the more informed you are, the better your chances are at arriving at that better place. Best of luck to you!

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