Is Now the Right Time to Go Back to School?

Adult Education SeriesBy Elizabeth Harrin (London)

Have you dreamed of going back to school? Hours in the library, long conversations with intelligent professors and nothing to worry about except the deadline for that next assignment. Studying as an adult isn’t much like that, unfortunately. However, if you are unemployed with time on your hands, or want some extra skills to boost your resume, this could be the ideal time to dust off your books and get back in the classroom.

What’s your existing skill set?

“Everyone who wants to excel in business needs to understand finance and accounting,” says Dr. Linda D. Henman, President of the Henman Performance Group. “If you’ve studied HR but don’t seem to be getting anywhere, now would be a good time to pick up those classes. If you’re a finance professional, advanced training and a masters can only help.”

There has never been a better time to study finance and economics, as Jennifer Small, a graduate of Stetson University in Central Florida, found out when she studied for her executive MBA. “The classroom curriculum was naturally adjusted to reflect the challenges of this period, in addressing the tactical, economic, and ethical aspects of the economic meltdown,” she says. “I feel these valuable discussions and explorations have given me the tools to anticipate future economic calamities. I feel I’ve been provided with the means of identifying challenges and problematic trends before they transpire through the thorough examination of examples of past mistakes that led up to this recession. I strongly believe this has made me more forward-thinking in comprehending the importance and relevance of developing contingency plans to survive the economy’s many ebbs and flows.”

Small feels that studying in the context of the recession has given her new skills and a broader focus. “One of my very first classes was Economics, where recent headlines were not only explained, but heavily delved into with the professor leading lengthy discussions carried out by classmates from all areas of U.S. industry. The concept of ‘too big to fail’ was examined and scrutinised, in regards to government bailouts of certain banks and institutions. These tough economic times have shown the spotlight on business areas such as executive compensation, financial risk factors, and conflicts of interest.”

Learning new skills also has the benefit of making you more valuable to employers. “As a professor of a number of MBA schools, further education makes many professionals more viable,” says Dr. Ted Sun, Professor of Organisational Leadership at SMC University, Switzerland. “When there’s a layoff, the least valued employees are let go. If you’re in school and bringing new knowledge and skills, you’re the last to get let go. Even in this recession, I’ve had students who get promotions based on what they’re capable of doing, well before the finished the degree. Especially for females, the glass ceiling is still present. Further education is a must to compete.”

Can you support yourself?

Two (or more) years of tuition fees and lost earnings is a daunting prospect for many women. Even if you study part-time, there’s a chance that your job might not be there for you when you want to return to full-time work. Knowing you have some degree of financial security to cope with a period of education and the resulting job search will ensure you only worry about exam results and not how to pay your mortgage.

“Do you have the ability to support yourself for two years while in school and pay off the debts of student loans?” asks Blythe McGarvie, CEO of consultancy firm LIF Group, and an MBA from Kellogg. “If not, then be realistic about your education. There are scholarships available or even some companies that pay for schooling. First get into the best school, then ask the development office about financial support.”

However, on the subject of money, education can be a sound investment. “Especially during uncertain economic times, investing in an advanced professional degree program, such as an MBA, is the one positive move you can make to take control of your future,” says Beth Walker, Associate Dean for the MBA programme at the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. “Though the economic downturn makes the decision to return to school seem more difficult, earning an MBA right now will provide a launching pad for new career opportunities when the economy rebounds. Women who earn an MBA degree with a focus in finance will be especially sought after in the marketplace. Look for a reputable program, such as the W. P. Carey MBA and others ranked highly by U.S. News & World Report.”

What will you get out of education?

An education is no guarantee of a job according to research by online outplacement service MyWorkSearch. With 47 per cent of jobseekers qualified to graduate or post-graduate level, getting a degree might not open all the doors you had hoped.

“Getting a sociology degree will not help you in the job market,” says McGarvie, who was previously CFO for a Fortune 500 company. “Why do you want to go back to school? If it is to learn new ways of thinking or skills to be more valuable in the job market, have a rough idea what you want to do after graduating. Getting a MBA or analytic training could help. Lifelong learning is the secret to success in any chosen career. However, in today’s difficult job market, many people who have skills that can not be outsourced are getting jobs.”

An executive MBA can be a very useful thing if you want to join the hordes leaving their countries to take up expat roles elsewhere. A good school can offer you a door to an international network of business colleagues – an bonus that could be worth more to you than the letters after your name, if you want the opportunity to work abroad or in a globally influential role.

Going back to school has to be an individual decision, but if you can afford it and are clear about your overall goals, it could be an excellent move. Now, where’s my library card?