Woman sitting on a floor and reading a book against a pink background, symbolising going back to school during your career.
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What professionals should consider before going back to school

14 Apr 2021

Considering going back to school as a professional? James Wallace, executive vice-president of All Campus, shares the questions you should ask yourself first.

Plenty of people have decided to upskill or reskill during the pandemic, and sometimes that requires making a call about going back to school. If that’s something you’re considering but you don’t know where to start, someone with lots of experience in the industry – James Wallace – has some advice.

Wallace is executive vice-president and head of operations at All Campus, an online higher education programme management provider in the US.

‘It’s always the right time to go back to school and it’s always the worst time to go back to school’

Have you seen an uptick in professionals returning to school from where you sit at All Campus?

Yes, we have seen an uptick in professionals returning to school – both with our university partners, as well as some of our own team members. At the master’s degree level, we are seeing increased interest and demand in the more traditional programmes in business and engineering, like MBAs and master of engineering programmes, as well as some more specific, industry-driven areas like cybersecurity, risk and sustainability, education, healthcare and social work.

Additionally, during these more uncertain times with the pandemic, we are also seeing increases in adults returning to school to upskill or reskill by opting for faster, more affordable certificate programmes in areas like paralegal and legal studies, business and management, as well as engineering and technology.

What factors should professionals consider before furthering their education?

The first set of questions should be inwardly focused: why am I looking to go back to school? What is motivating me or making me feel an urgency about this pursuit? Answering these reflective questions first will help guide professionals toward programmes that can best meet their needs.

I’ve always counselled folks to think about where they want to be and then develop a plan to get there, making sure to resist the temptation to solely dwell on what they don’t like about their current situation. By staying focused on the end goal, professionals’ questions will be more precise, honed and forward-focused.

From there, the next question should focus on: what is needed to get to where I want to be? Beyond the degree or area of upskilling or reskilling, do I need a programme or university with networking opportunities and career assistance? Do the faculty’s areas of interest align with mine? Higher education is a big commitment in time and money, especially for mid-career professionals, so being a bit selfish about the ‘what’s in it for me’ type of questions in this pursuit is more than acceptable – in fact, I encourage them!

Is there a way of deciding when it’s time to invest in further education?

From my years of experience in higher education, it’s always the right time to go back to school and it’s always the worst time to go back to school. I’m not being flippant; there will always be reasons why now is the best time, and there will always be roadblocks or life circumstances that will need to be managed or mitigated.

So how can you really know if now is the right time? By asking another set of reflection questions: do I have the support structures in my life, family and friends, and will they help me stay motivated when I want to throw in the towel?

Do I have enough time and flexibility to balance educational pursuits within my current set of responsibilities? Is my company or supervisor supportive? How are my finances, and what can I afford to contribute out of pocket?

Is the job market emerging or growing in my field? Do I have what it takes to make this pivot right now?

Through tough and introspective questions to ask yourself, the answers will ensure you make the right decision.

How can people decide where to study?

Specific to a master’s programme, the answer may somewhat depend on what is motivating the professional to go back to school. For some, getting a master’s is about enhancing business or management skills to propel upward career trajectory based on a fairly solid and established professional background. Here, affordability and flexibility may be some of the top criteria to consider.

For those looking to pivot or who need a bit more of an upshot, a more elite programme may be a better fit. Education truly is an investment, and you want to think about the value the school and programme offers and whether those things align with your needs.

Ask yourself: are there areas of focus in the programme that align best with my interests and goals? What student support services are provided to help with CV building and networking? Is the programme situated in a geographical area of interest to me and in a job market with promise?

Again, for some, the programme could be a set of courses and skills to fill in your gaps to better propel you in your career, so it may also be worth considering if the master’s offers specialisations in subject areas that align with your goals or interests, such as finance, accounting, project management, marketing, HR and so on. For others, it may be a larger investment with the expectations of a greater return.

Is higher education beneficial to those already in leadership?

In today’s world more than ever, leaders and executives are confronted with new challenges and the need to solve the problems of tomorrow even faster. There is a greater focus on empowering teams and professionals toward innovation and continuous improvement. As a result, executives at the C-suite level may also find themselves best suited for confronting the future and developing their teams by directing that same spirit inwardly.

A short course or certificate programme can be a good place to start for executives and leaders, focusing on honing technical skills to better drive efficiencies or develop skills toward more effectively leading virtual teams.

For executives that have reached the mountaintop but now feel the ground shaking beneath, a master’s may firm up shaky ground with the skills, lessons and confidence developed in a business programme and classmates in similar situations who can collectively problem solve and network together for the greater good.

As an executive myself, pursuing my master’s and later on a doctoral programme certainly helped me go from being a new and nervous manager to a confident contributor in the boardroom, while also contributing to my greater body of knowledge.

Any form of higher education – whether a graduate degree or certificate programme – can quench executives’ thirst for lifelong learning, transforming their mental models of leadership and self-development so that others may benefit from a further informed perspective.

In today’s ever-competitive environment, getting to the top ranks is perhaps an early marker of accomplishment, but staying there and driving results through the development and investment in the organisation’s talent and resources is the real work. Taking time and investing in your own development as a leader can have greater benefits beyond the classroom.

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

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