By Alexis Grant

If the timing is right, earning a graduate degree may help advance your career

You've got a college degree. And a good job. But wheels are turning in your head about the possibility of going back to school.

Is it time to earn an advanced degree?

Deciding whether to go back to school isn't easy, particularly if you have a reliable paycheck, which is more than many Americans can say in this struggling economy. But consider how education has shielded the more educated members of the workforce from the recession. In February, when the nation's unemployment rate was at 8.9 percent, workers with a bachelor's degree or more faced a jobless rate of less than half that, 4.3 percent.

"There is no question that, on average, people who have more education earn more and are unemployed less frequently," says Michael Greenstone, director of The Hamilton Project at The Brookings Institution, a non-partisan think tank. "Education is the classic way for people to invest in themselves."

But therein lies the catch: It's an investment. Advanced degrees can be pricey and time-consuming, and earning one often means stepping away from the life you've created.

So when's the right time to leave your job to pursue a degree?

Or to start taking evening or online classes in addition to your day job?

If you already have an undergraduate degree, is more schooling really necessary?

Regardless of the type of degree you're considering, here's what you should ask yourself when weighing the option to go back to school:

What do I want to do?

Going back to school can be an effective way to advance within your field or jump-start a career change. In either case, go into the decision knowing your goals. Do you have a specific job you aspire to? A company you want to work for? A salary you'd like to make? Figuring out what you want can be the toughest part, but it's crucial to your success; if you know what you want, you can more easily figure out how to get there.

Above all else, make sure you're not going back to school because you're not sure what else to do, says Alexandra Levit , author of New Job, New You: A Guide to Reinventing Yourself in a Bright New Career and member of DeVry University 's newly launched Career Advisory Board. "A lot of young professionals ... go back to school because it's comfortable," Levit says. "You want to make sure you're really doing some soul-searching before making that move."

Even those who end up at an unexpected destination usually benefit from having an initial goal in mind. Sabrina Balmick, 29, worked as an executive assistant for a recruiting company for two years after college before deciding to get her master's in publishing, the industry she hoped to work in. But after three years of studying full time, she completed the degree during the recession and couldn't find a publishing job that paid enough to live in New York City. So she returned to her former company in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., as a marketing manager. "It was kind of a roundabout way of basically getting promoted in the same company," says Balmick, who's happy with how her situation turned out. "I'm definitely glad that I went back [to school]."

Is a graduate degree really the best way to get there?

Knowing the answer to this question requires understanding the field you want to work in and having some real-world experience, whether it's a paying job, an internship, or volunteering. For some professions, a graduate degree increases your marketability but isn't a necessity. For others, like certain positions in healthcare or education, an advanced degree is required.

"Take a step back and make sure this is really what you need," says Emily Westerman, associate director of the career services office at New York University's School of Continuing and Professional Studies . "Very often, people [enroll in an advanced-degree program] prematurely and then they find out it's not the right direction for them." One way to avoid finding yourself in that predicament is reaching out to people who have the job you want and asking how they got there, she says.

Will my family support me emotionally?

Returning to the student lifestyle isn't always easy, and you're likely to make a smoother transition if people around you support the move. If you have a spouse or children, your decision will affect them, too; it could mean less time together, a tighter grip on your finances, or even a move to a new city.

For Mark Dixon, a first-year MBA student at The George Washington University, going back to school meant big changes for both him and his wife, including moving to Washington, D.C., from Montgomery, Ala. After working in the Alabama governor's office for five years, Dixon saw an opportunity to earn his business degree when his boss hit his term limit and left office. He wanted to build a career in education reform and saw a need in that industry for business and management skills. "Giving up two paychecks to make this move was certainly a difficult decision," says Dixon, 28. "You have to make sure people around you are going to support you."

Is now better than later?

While it's good to have some work experience before going back to school, some advocates of continuing education say if you're going to make the jump, it's best to do it while you're young, because you have fewer responsibilities and more flexibility. "Some people put it off," says Scott Smith , author of Find Your Perfect Job, who has both a law degree and an MBA. "They have a dream but they put it off because they're comfortable where they are ... and then they never go."

Dixon, the MBA student, agrees. "We both felt very strongly," he says, speaking about himself and his wife, "that if I was ever going to do this, that now was the time ... I want to have time to get out of school and get a job I enjoy before we start a family."

Can I afford it?

Consider the cost of tuition, but don't forget to factor in opportunity costs, mainly the income you won't be making while you're in school, says Smith. Calculating that can be "kind of eye-opening for a lot of people," he says.

Do I have enough work experience?

Not only might you get more out of certain graduate-degree programs if you have life experience under your belt, but some programs actually require several years in the workplace. MBA candidates, for example, usually need at least three or four years of work experience to be accepted into a program.

Would I have to leave my job?

Don't make the mistake of assuming you'll have to leave your job to continue your education; whether you'll need a hiatus from the workforce often depends on your goals. If you're looking to change careers, becoming a full-time student might be the way to go. But if an advanced degree could help you contribute to or move up within your company, your employer might support -- or even pay for -- part-time enrollment, particularly if you show how it will benefit the company . "If someone comes to me and wants to finish an education they started or further their education ... I'm going to support it in any way I can," says Eileen Habelow, who oversees leadership development at staffing services firm Randstad . "I'm going to get a better, smarter, more loyal employee in the end."

Also consider online options; an increasing number of universities are offering virtual education.

Am I bored at work?

While not feeling challenged could mean it's time for a new job, that sentiment also could be the launching point for more education. "You know when you're bored," says Khadijah Britton, who left her job in media relations at age 29 to earn dual degrees in law and public health. She now runs a nonprofit news agency covering the biotech industry. "When you find yourself checking Facebook too much. You don't want to come back from lunch at all ... [You're] bending over backwards to stay [mentally] present."

In the end, make a decision knowing you can't anticipate everything.

"Sometimes your interests change," says Smith, who earned his law degree in his twenties and went back to school in his thirties for his MBA. "You need to make the best decisions you can at each juncture.


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