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Career Advice

"Should I Go Back to School?"

4 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Decide

"Should I go back to school?" It's a question most of us have asked ourselves at some point…


Depending on your circumstances and what you want to go back to school for, the answers can vary greatly.

Do you want to complete your undergraduate degree, or are you considering post-graduate education? How much income would you be foregoing to pursue an education? Can you study part-time? Do you have children at home or a baby on the way? Can you afford it? (Seriously, can anyone really afford it?)

With so many questions, it's easy to get overwhelmed. Take a deep breath, and let's consider them together. There are four main questions you need to ask yourself.

1) How do you spend your time?

Take an inventory of what you currently do, and how much time you spend on each thing. Is it work? Spouse? Kids? Volunteer activities? Passions? Hobbies? Sleep?

You've only got 24 hours in a day. Once you know how you're spending it currently, ask yourself how much time is left over. If you're currently binging Netflix for 2 hours a day, that's something you can likely give up. But if you've only got 3 precious hours to spend with your kids, that might not be something you can or want to reduce.

Look at the program you're considering and figure out how many hours it would take each day. Can you find those hours in your current schedule?

What are you willing to give up or adjust?

Once you know your existing time constraints, consider the options for what you want to study. Would you be able to join a part-time program? Would it be online? Nights? Weekends? A hybrid program?

2) Do you have a strong support network?

If you have a family or partner, are they on board with you going back to school? Do you have a plan in place for the nights when you have class? Is your partner ready to swoop in and make dinner?

Whatever your situation, you'll need the support of those around you to successfully take on this new commitment.

Whether it's help with childcare, or simply someone to keep you focused on your goals, taking on a new challenge is easier when you've got people in your corner. If you don't have a strong support network, don't let this stop you! Just ask yourself what you need to do to create one. What would you have to do to get the buy-in of your current employer, partner, parents, children, etc.?

3) Can I afford this?

Let's face it, part of being a responsible adult is managing money.

How much will the program cost? Will you be paying out of pocket, getting a loan, or applying for scholarships? Will this decision put you/your family in debt? Will it affect your children's schooling?

If money is the issue then the type of degree will need to be in the equation as well. Will this degree increase my income? What is the math behind repayment and an increase in income in X years time? Does it make sense over time?

Seriously, you need to literally do this math. And part of that is factoring in not just the money you will make afterwards, but the money and years of saving you will lose by going back to school now (assuming you're going full-time).

Check out this handy Grad School ROI Calculator to figure out if going back to school makes financial sense for you!

4) What is your reason to go back to school?

To advance your career? To start a career? Build connections?

No motivation is wrong or right, but it needs to be strong enough to drive you to success.

If you are going back to school simply because you feel stuck in your career, and not because you want that degree, you might be headed down the wrong path. It doesn't mean you shouldn't go back to school, but you should be sure to explore all your options—making a career pivot, applying to new jobs, upskilling online—before you spend a lot of money on a full-time degree you're not sure you want.

At the end of the day, you need to make sure your motives for going back to school are pure: you're doing it because you want to learn that particular thing, and you're confident that school is the best way for you as an individual to learn it. (Though if you're considering business school, learning might not be the only valid motive—networking, anyone?)

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Summing it up

One of my teammates is thinking about going to law school. He's in his 30s and married, and his wife who's in the last year of her Masters is pregnant with their first child.

He's always wanted to be a lawyer and was thrilled to be accepted to law school. Should he go?

Let's look at each factor one by one.

  1. Time - He will be working full time, so law school would be a part-time option. Having a new baby in the house will certainly keep his hands full. And unfortunately there's no paternity leave for students!
  2. Network - His wife is supportive of his dream, so he has a strong network, but she'll also need his support with their new arrival.
  3. Affordability - He'd have to take out loans for the degree because he didn't receive any significant scholarship money and doesn't have the savings to pay for it. His salary after graduating would, however, be significantly higher.
  4. Motivation - He's always wanted to practice law. It's his dream job.

My teammate's answer to question 4 makes his decision clear: yes, he should go to law school.

Now the real question becomes when. Maybe going the year his first child is born isn't ideal. Maybe if he waits one year until his wife finishes her Masters and secures a job, he'll be able to retake the LSAT, get a higher score, and obtain more scholarship money. Then he won't have to take out so many loans and his wife would also be making money to support the family.

This solution might not be your solution, but it's a good example of how to think through the problem. Questions 1-3 help you answer when you should go back to school, and question 4 will help you answer if you should go back at all.

The first three questions might indicate that now isn't the right time for you to go back to school, but at the end of the day, they're just logistical hurdles that can be overcome. That is, if you really want to. And for that, you need to have a darn good answer to question 4.

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