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For All Ages: Should I Go Back to School?

Snapshot: This article reviews some important questions that you should ask yourself before you go back to school; by asking these questions you’re more likely to determine whether or not returning to school is the right decision for you.

  • What are your goals? When you spend your valuable time and your hard-earned money going back to school, you want to be sure you know what your goals are, and what you’re aiming to get out of school. If you’re going back to school, you’re probably looking to advance your career (or if you’ve never been a nurse, to start a new career). What does this mean for you? Look into, and be realistic about, the income you’re likely to earn, and the full cost of the degree you’re getting, in terms of both tuition and the income you’ll forgo while in school. You should also ask yourself this question: do you need to go back to school in order to meet your goals? There are lots of ways to advance your career, and returning to school is only one of them. Is there a certification you could get that would bring you to a similar place? Is there a way for you to get skills or experience via on the job training? This isn’t to say you shouldn’t go back to school – on the contrary, that may be exactly the right decision for you at this stage in your life. It does mean, however, that you should think through your answers to these and similar questions before you earn a degree.
  • How much can you spend? Before you take the plunge to head back to school, figure out what your budget is. When you do the math, add in the direct cost of tuition, plus a true accounting of all of your living expenses (rent or mortgage, food, recurring expenses, etc). Sometimes going back to school can raise your expenses in ways you haven’t anticipated. For example, don’t forget to account for things like changes in the cost of (or benefits offered by) your health insurance if you won’t be covered by your old employer, or by your spouse; some universities offer insurance comparable to employer-based coverage, and others don’t (talk to your school’s student health services, or other similar department, for more information). Other ‘hidden’ expenses may include paid childcare, depending on your academic and clinical schedule, school fees, testing fees, and the like. It’s better to somewhat over-estimate your expenses than to make unrealistic assumptions and be surprised by the bill.
  • What’s your return on investment? When you go back to school, you’re presumably looking to increase your income, knowledge, or position in some way. While optimism is generally helpful, when you take the time and expense to go back to school, you want to take a hard look at your ‘return on investment’ – that is, to examine not only where you’re likely to end up after you earn your degree, but also whether it’s worth the time and expense of earning that degree. For example, if you’re currently an RN and aspire to be a Nurse Practitioner (NP), figure out not only what your salary and career opportunities are likely to be if you earn this degree, but also, how many years it will take you to ‘earn back’ the money you spent on your education. While you may be earning, say, 10 – 20% more income, you must also take into account your foregone income while in school, and perhaps new loans. If you’ll be practicing in your new role for years (or even decades) to come, and if the degree fits your personal and professional goals, then go for it. The important thing is to think this through before you go back to school, not after.
  • Are you going for the right reasons? Going back to school, even if you’re doing so part-time, is usually a pretty big deal in terms of your time, money, and at least occasionally, your sanity too. So, if and when you do go back to school, you want to be sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. If you want to earn a degree mainly because you believe it is prestigious, or because you feel ‘stuck’ or are just bored with your current job, beware. Instead, consider what you’ll actually be doing, day in and day out, in whatever new position or positions your degree opens up. Consider how whatever new work you’ll be doing once you finish your degree aligns with your personal values, skills, and interests. Will the positions you could obtain with your degree help you to grow, explore, and challenge yourself? Or are you looking to go to school mostly because you think doing so will ‘get’ you something on the other end – more money, more status, more security, or whatever? If you suspect the latter are primary motivations, be careful, because these external motivators are often tenuous and illusory.
  • Can your employer pitch in? Some organizations, especially larger ones affiliated with academic medical centers, may offer financial assistance to help you advance your education. While employer contributions often come with a ‘price’ (for instance, tuition assistance in exchange for a work commitment), this is a resource well worth tapping into, or seeking out in a future employer. After all, this is basically ‘free money,’ and if you’ve identified solid reasons to go back to school, it’s an attractive proposition. Why do employers offer these benefits? The wonderful thing about further education is that getting it tends to benefit not only yourself, but those around you too, and employers recognize that. A well-educated workforce is one that makes you more competitive, and your employer more competitive too. If you can, then, let your employer help you to pursue your goals and your dreams.
  • What’s your timing and support? Going back to school, whether full-time or part-time, is a serious commitment. Nursing education is rigorous, and you want to be sure you can devote the time and attention you need to be successful in whatever degree you’re pursuing. If you’re going back to school, working part time, planning a wedding, and about to buy your first home, perhaps you should think again about your timing. Another consideration for many students are family and childcare commitments; if you’ve got a spouse with flexible hours and good benefits, it may be much easier to juggle the demands of your degree and other obligations. While it would be nice to do everything at once, the truth is life usually necessitates a series of trade-offs, and you’re usually better off acknowledging those trade-offs than ignoring them. Even if you do manage to keep all of your commitments, consider your quality of life along the way. If going back to school is going to be a real squeeze, you’re inevitably going to have less time, energy and ability to focus on what you’re doing, and are less likely to be successful at it. While there may never be a ‘perfect’ time to go back to school, there are better and worse times to do it. A little bit of planning before you take the plunge can go a long way.