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What Career Changers Should Know About Going Back to School

Career changers and back to school
Credit: Pixelbliss/Shutterstock

It's never too late to change career paths. If you're not happy, you deserve the chance to take a different road – no matter what that entails. For some career changers, this means returning to school.

No matter what type of program you want to enroll in, getting back into formal education after you've been out of school and in the workforce for a while may present a few challenges. You likely have a much different routine and set of responsibilities than when you were in school the first time around, and it can be difficult to find the time to juggle your class schedule with current work, family, and financial obligations. 

If you're serious about returning to school for a new career path, you'll want to take all factors into consideration before making a commitment. Here's what career changers should know about finding the right program and how to balance it with their lives. [Read related article: Destination Dream Job: Creating a Career Roadmap]

Before you make any decisions about your education, ask yourself why you want to change careers in the first place. If you dislike your work environment or are having issues with your colleagues, you might just need a new job in the same field. But if you've lost interest in what you're doing now, or if there's simply no room for you to grow in your current career, a change might be just what you need. 

Daren Upham, vice president, academic operations of Western Governors University's College of Health Professions, noted that several of his students have returned to school to pursue a new career path that allows them to leverage their current expertise in a different way.

"We often see scientists and engineers who, after successful careers, want to become math and science teachers," said Upham. "This also happens with successful business people. These people want to give back by sharing their knowledge and experience with students."

For those wanting a complete career overhaul, select a field that not only has great growth potential but that you truly have a passion for too.

"What are you interested in?" said Angel Diaz, senior recruiter at Cubic Corporation. "Choose something that you are going to stick to through the end."

"Identifying what it is that you love to do is so critical before you make a move," added Heather Monahan, founder of career mentoring group #BossinHeels and author of new book "Confidence Creator" (Boss in Heels, 2018). "Journaling can be a fantastic tool to help you see what it is you like to do with your free time. If you are someone who loves to paint but are stuck at a computer running numbers all day, it isn't shocking you are considering making a move. Discover what your superpower is and lean into it."

Monahan said that there may never be a perfect time to go back to school, but you have to trust your instinct.

"If you have a strong [urging] that you need to return to school, listening to yourself is always the best advice," she said. "There will always be challenges in our lives, but if you really want to do something, you will find a solution."

Unless you have money saved up or have a partner or family member who can support you, you will probably have to continue working your current job while you attend school to keep a steady source of income. Based on your responsibilities in your personal and professional life, you need to be sure that you can spare the necessary time and money to complete your educational program.

"For adult students looking at a career change, finding the time and money to go back to school is the biggest challenge," Upham said. "At WGU, we tell our students to expect to devote between 15 and 20 hours a week to their studies, and for many working adults, finding that much time during the week is a challenge."

Diaz noted that the length of time and cost of the educational program, as well as your availability to attend classes with your work schedule, should factor into the type of course (online versus in-person) and program (degree versus certificate) you pursue.

Mary Beth Chappelow, a current WGU student enrolled in the post-baccalaureate teacher preparation program, has faced some challenges. While she found that her family is very supportive of her switch from a Montana state parks interpretive ranger to a school teacher, she still works very hard to balance the different aspects of her life.

"Just between my job and my college courses, I am putting in an average of 70 working hours a week," Chappelow said. "It is sometimes hard to explain to family that while I have the advantage of flexibility through my college program, I still have a large amount of work that must be done in a timely manner."

"No matter if you have a high-profile job, are a student, or are a stay-at-home parent, balance will always be challenging," added Monahan. "Staying focused on putting your needs first while staying in the moment are two sure fire ways to keep balance in the picture."

You may have worked your way up the ranks in your current career, but holding a management position won't let you skip the entry-level positions when you're back at the starting line again.

"You may have to take a step back to take two steps forward," Diaz said. "You will most likely have to start at a lower salary for a few years, and you may lose [the] status you once had. [For example], you may not be a manager or supervisor again until you have proven yourself."

Your education doesn't just include the lessons you learn but also the people you meet. Build professional relationships with your classmates and professors, even if you're studying online.

"As you begin to start your transition and [take] classes, it is key to realize that the people you are meeting are all possible additions for your business network," said Monahan. "To grow and build your network, take a proactive approach and a friendly one."

You never know if someone you meet will be your next employer or employee.

As with any career choice, you should know what you're getting yourself into before enrolling in an educational program to switch careers.

"The best way for students to ensure that they'll find the job opportunities they want after graduation is to do their homework before they enroll," Upham said. "Find a degree that will help you get the job you want. Research online to make sure that you are choosing a respected, accredited university. Completing a degree [or other educational program] is an investment that can provide returns for the rest of your working life, so take the time to choose the one that is right for you."

If you ultimately decide that going back to school is the right choice for you, pursue it with an open mind and commit to it fully to realize your dreams.

"Do it if it is truly for the right reasons," Chappelow said. "The career that was once a great fit for you in your 20s or 30s might not be the career best suited for you as you get older. Your priorities might change, and that's okay. Life is too short to not pursue your dreams and goals."

Additional reporting by Sammi Caramela. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Nicole Fallon

Nicole received her Bachelor's degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University. She began freelancing for Business News Daily in 2010 and joined the team as a staff writer three years later. Nicole served as the site's managing editor until January 2018, and briefly ran Business.com's copy and production team. Follow her on Twitter.