Going Back to School as an Adult


Anyone who’s thought about changing careers has heard the following:

“Why don’t you just go back to school?”

The suggestion isn’t a bad one, and whoever asks it means no harm. Nonetheless, hearing that you should just “go back to school” when you have a job, mortgage and family could get you understandably riled up. “Yeah, no problem, I’ll go back and get another degree and just ask all my expenses and obligations to wait until I’m done.”

Those who pretend it’s easy to become a student again 10, 20 or even 30 years after the first round of graduate studies are living on another planet. This is an invariably massive decision, one which requires intense forethought and planning. It’s also something you should absolutely do if the timing is right.

The worst reason to skip going back to school is the notion that it will be too challenging. Remember when you were in high school, looking at colleges for the first time and thinking about which would put you on the best track for a future career? You weren’t running from the hard choices then. Chances are, you had your eyes on the path of most resistance; you applied to the best schools with the best professors and programs.

Granted, it’s easier to have a one-track mind when you’re 19 and haven’t paid rent, utilities or insurance premiums before. Still, you let your dreams do the driving – things shouldn’t be different just because you’re on the other side of 40.

If you need a change and think a master’s degree could be the difference, make that your objective. You’ll find a thousand reasons why it’s not the easy choice and every motivation to stick to the status quo. No matter how many hurdles you encounter, you need to use the end goal as your main motivator.

In order to convince yourself to turn back the clock and return to school, the first step is to address the realities of your situation so you can see figure out how to make it all work.

Respect Your Time Constraints

After a decade or more away from academia, one of the biggest mental hurdles is understanding you don’t have to live on campus and make college your entire life. In fact, you’ll probably find you do much better with your schooling when classes make up a small portion of your daily routine.

No matter where you live or what you do, you have the resources to build a scholastic schedule that fits your lifestyle. Whether it’s through a local two-year college, a prestigious university or an online degree program, it only takes a little bit of effort to find a suitable option. The majority of people toiling with the idea of applying to schools have no idea how flexible the scheduling can be.

You also don’t have to knock it out in one sitting. If you want an associate’s degree, a certificate or a graduate’s diploma, those often don’t take only a few semesters, while a master’s program might require a dedicated two- or three-year commitment. However, there’s no reason a two-year degree can’t be earned in three or four years. Extending the time it takes to complete a program shouldn’t deter you from starting in the first place.

One of the things I hear most often is that four years is too much time. If you’re 35 and just starting a program, that means you won’t graduate until you’re nearly 40. On its face, I understand that concern. However, I want to hear what the alternative is. If you don’t go back to school because you don’t want to wait four years to start a new career, does that mean you’ll find happiness in your current job in that four-year stretch?

If you have an alternative to a master’s or doctorate that will fulfill you professionally, by all means, take that route. But if your backup plan is to do nothing, I don’t think you’re making the correct choice. I think, unlike your teenage self who took on the challenge, you’re taking the easier, less satisfying road. The stakes might be higher now as you balance the responsibilities of adulthood, but you also have a better understanding of what you want than you did at 18 or 19 years old.

Time is the number one problem with committing to a return to academia, so you have to get over the idea that school runs your schedule. It might have when you were a full-time student, but as a parent and employee trying to earn a higher degree, you get to set the terms. It might mean an extra year before the certificate of completion arrives, but that year will pass before you know it and you’ll be very proud of how you used the time.

Get Excited

You know what’s changed since the last time you were enrolled in undergraduate studies? Everything!

I’m not just talking about how the campuses and computers and fashion styles have evolved, but how degrees, courses and careers have changed in the last decade or two. With a morphing workforce and emerging industries, the career prep you get at school is vastly different and something you should get excited about.

A couple examples of legitimate industries with lots of jobs:

● Sustainable energy

● Video game development

● Technology philosophy

● Internet marketing

Many mainstream jobs didn’t exist when you first applied to colleges, and now you can take a quick graduate course and start working in a field that seems new and innovative. You can also find interesting niches within marketing, web development and urban planning that might cater to your existing work history.

If you look at more education as a hard reset on your life and career, you’ll become understandably overwhelmed. No one wants to start from scratch, especially when they have mouths to feed and a life to keep living. While a new career might take your life in a whole new direction, it doesn’t mean you have to abandon everything you’ve worked for.

What part of your current job do you enjoy or at least find intriguing? Do you like engaging with customers, even if you don’t like the product you have to sell? Maybe you want to get certified in consumer relations or customer affairs. Have you taken a liking to grant or proposal writing at a job that doesn’t pay you quite enough? It only takes a few months to earn a technical writing certificate online.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about a return to scholastics is pinpointing where you want to go professionally. In our late teens, college has as much to do with social status and name recognition as anything else. We might not want to admit it, but a lot of emphasis gets placed on how impressed people will be when they hear the name of the university you attended.

When the sole objective is to improve your employment prospects, you get to ignore all the extraneous stuff and just make the best choice. Find a program that meets your needs, financially or geographically, and make an inquiry. Once you target a good school that can propel you forward, it becomes easier to see how and when you’ll benefit from resuming your education.

If you still feel like your plate is too full to go back to school, I urge you to do a little research. There’s a good chance you’re making assumptions about how much effort goes into the process, and educating yourself a little will make you excited about the prospects of a renewed education.

Find Your Support

As I said before, going back to school takes time and effort. You’ll need a sticktoitiveness that not a lot of people possess as you trudge through long days and (gasp!) homework. Most of all, you’ll need help from your friends and family.

When you decide to further your education, it’s a self-centered choice. Your intentions may be to better your life and provide more for your family, but the schooling part is all about you. As such, husbands, wives, friends and relatives will have to pick up some of the slack when you become less available. And you know what? They should be happy to do so.

You deserve to pursue big goals and dreams. As long your team has your back, people will step up to make sure you have childcare, schedule flexibility and a shoulder to cry on the night before a final exam. It’s been my experience that people like to help when they’re able, and yet so many of us get shy about asking for assistance. If you’re going to spend a couple years taking classes and earning a degree, you’ll need people to prop you up.

If possible, see if you can find someone else who’s headed back to school. Another adult student might need similar assistance, and you can help one another with carpooling, grocery shopping and studying. Even if you don’t share that many responsibilities, you’ll feel better when you can look to a comrade in arms going through the same trials as you.

Of course, odds are you don’t have another friend or family member heading back to school at the same time as you. If that’s the case, you’ll still have plenty of other students who might become part of your support team. Lots of universities offer networking opportunities for parents who need help with childcare and such. Since we already tend to sniff out people with similar interests to our own, it shouldn’t take long for you to find other students dealing with comparable scheduling issues. As long as you’re looking, it won’t be hard to find your tribe.

Earning a degree will push you to your limits; there’s no reason to push yourself any harder than necessary. Talk to friends and loved ones to see who can help and in what capacity. If I were a betting man, I’d wager you’ll find that almost everyone is excited for you and willing to lend a big hand.

Leave No Stone Unturned

Maybe, just maybe, it doesn’t make sense for you to go back to school and you have to find another path. While it’s possible that’s the case, I’m not ready to accept it yet.

The traditional four-year schooling could be too much to ask, or tuition at a private school is too high; those are just two of so many options for how you might earn your degree. If you only consider the obvious choices, you ignore so many possibilities for how you can make this work. For people who truly want to broaden horizons and open new doors, going back to school is a quintessential “where there’s a will, there’s a way” scenario.

Aside from online courses and smaller accredited institutions that cater to people already living busy lives, most universities make an effort to court every type of students. You can look for programs geared toward part-time students, or look for degrees that require the fewest number of units. If you want a prestigious logo on your diploma, it might be as simple as finding the right course of study.

You should also look for grants and all forms of financial aid available for people in your situation. Some grants exist exclusively for enrollees over 40 or 50 years old; if you fit the bill, you should make every effort to get your slice of the pie. Don’t take on substantial student loans on your second round of schooling – no one wants to start a second career with tons of debt holding them back – but do see what scholarships might be available.

If you want to improve skills relevant to the industry in which you’re already working, see what your employer might agree to pay for. With a little strategizing, your education can lead to growth within your current company. The right degree can take you in a new direction while still building off the foundation you already have in place, giving you a sense of security while still setting you up to achieve your bigger aspirations. It might be that your company is looking for ways to stay competitive, and your desire to go back to school will fight right in line with that objective.

And maybe, just maybe, going back to school will provide the monumental change you’re actually in need of. This opportunity could take you to a new city or state or country, giving you a hard reset on a life that had lost direction and left you wanting more. Immersing yourself in education can deliver new perspectives, inspirations and motivations. If your situation allows for it, you might just want to go all in on this back-to-school notion.

Even if you don’t know how to make room in your life for a new round of academics, I want you to at least believe it’s possible. It might be the hardest undertaking you attempt in your adult life, but I have 100% confidence you can achieve your goals and be better for the effort.

The hardest part is breaking out of the comforts you’ve become so accustomed to and trusting that you can successfully make the necessary changes. As soon as you believe you can make it happen, it’s just a matter of deciding on a program and getting to work.

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