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Updated Jan 03, 2024

What You Need to Know About Going Back to School for a Career Change

A degree isn't the only way to change your life. Read our guide before going into debt.

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Mona Bushnell, Business Operations Insider and Senior Writer
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If your current career doesn’t align with your long-term goals, you might consider going back to school so you can switch to a job that makes you happy. However, you’ll need to weigh many factors before you start filling out applications.

Many people who are unhappy in their jobs believe that going back to school – whether for a graduate or undergraduate degree – will guarantee them a career in their dream industry and solve their work woes forever, but that’s not always the case.

Make your decisions about higher education in an unemotional, logical way. This guide will provide the tools you need to make the best choice for you, your future career and your financial life.

If you leave your job to pursue another career, make sure you're leaving on good terms to protect your professional reputation.

1. Determine whether going back to school is necessary.

Going back to school requires a considerable investment of time and money, so you should only undertake this massive challenge if you’re moving toward a clear goal – not just away from an unsatisfying job.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself when figuring out if more school is necessary.

What does ‘better’ mean to you?

Many people toy with the idea of earning an additional undergraduate degree or a master’s degree so that they can transition into a “better” field. Some define “better” as making more money; for others, it may have more to do with their quality of life, impact on the world or interest level.

Daren Upham, vice president of academic operations at Western Governors University’s College of Health Professions, noted that several of his students returned to school to pursue a career path that allows them to leverage their current expertise differently.

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

What are you passionate about?

If you want a complete career overhaul, select a field that has excellent growth potential and that you’re genuinely passionate about.

“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 Boss in Heels and author of Confidence Creator. “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 is 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.”

What do you hope your career change will accomplish?

Understanding the particulars behind your desire to change careers is essential.

If your main goal is to strike a better work-life balance, be in a different type of work environment, or have more autonomy over what you do, consider other ways to attain these goals. For example, you can change your career path by switching roles within your field, applying for a related job at a different organization, or working as a consultant.

On the other hand, if your reasons for going back to school involve entering a particular field or industry to which there is no current path, investing in more education may be the right move.

FYIDid you know
Searching for a job in the digital age involves optimizing your resume with job-specific keywords and setting up a tracking process for timely follow-ups.

2. Investigate alternative routes to the job you want.

Higher education is a business. Unfortunately, people often believe the only way to get ahead is to take on more debt and earn more degrees, but it is possible to change careers without going back to school.

You may not be able to get the job you want without earning additional degrees. For example, law school is a must if you want to be a lawyer. However, just because you have an undergraduate degree in psychology doesn’t mean you also need a computer science degree to work in technology.

Most people don’t end up working in the field listed on their undergraduate degree, and the average worker changes careers multiple times throughout their working life. So the idea that you must get a formal degree in a new field to change careers is a modern one, and it only benefits the business of higher education.

Many in-demand skills are highly transferable and can be rounded out with online resources and previous job experience. If you are willing to put in the work, possibly take a temporary pay cut, and put yourself out there, you may find that you can move into your dream field without going back to school.

Here are some tips for getting into a new field:

  • Ask other people about their jobs. Talk to people who have the job you want. Ask them about their backgrounds and what they studied in school. If you can’t talk to them, speak to headhunters or even HR representatives in the field you’re pursuing. Another idea is to find a mentor in your chosen field who can help you reach your professional goals.
  • Research your potential new field. Seek out free online resources to help you understand a new industry and its opportunities, and look for professional development opportunities, such as workshops and webinars.
  • Find other ways to demonstrate your capabilities. Find out if there are straightforward ways to demonstrate your abilities other than a degree. For example, you can build a portfolio, find an internship opportunity, land an apprenticeship, or pursue advanced certification.
  • Start at the bottom. Look at entry-level jobs in your dream industry and see if you can swing a few years of a lower income to get closer to your goal. Taking a pay cut may seem like moving backward, but paying for college is its own type of pay cut. It may be cheaper to take a pay cut in an entry-level job for two years than to pay for tuition for the same amount of time.
Did You Know?Did you know
If you're interested in the technology field, you may be able to earn cybersecurity certifications, networking certifications, or hardware certifications in lieu of a college degree. You can even find niche programs, such as digital forensics certifications.

3. Research the alternative career before quitting your job.

Think about whether you’ll have time to work during your degree program (to help offset costs right away) as well as the earning potential of your new career (to offset student loan bills after graduation).

Here are some factors to consider:

  • Know your new career’s earning potential. Make sure your long-term goals are realistic and informed by research. For example, not all STEM jobs pay a huge amount of money.
  • Be aware of the job market in your area. The region you live in has a massive impact on the job market, and it’s not always straightforward. For example, living in a major tech hub doesn’t mean you’ll be all set with a tech-related degree. In fact, sometimes the opposite is true. Often, cities with a wealth of tech jobs (Houston, for example) also have a surplus of highly educated professionals with tech degrees, so the job market is far more competitive.
  • Do your research. Look at statistics on employment options, salary ranges and workforce demographics that are recent and specific to your region. You can find up-to-date career-specific data in the Occupational Outlook Handbook.
FYIDid you know
Starting a business without a college degree is a challenge, but you're more likely to succeed if you have hands-on experience in your chosen industry.

4. Plan your finances for going back to school as an adult.

If you decide that your career path requires additional college education, determine how much you’ll spend.

When you choose a college, its financial aid office is a good place to gather information about tuition assistance and financial aid. But remember that financial aid offices serve a broad student population; they’re focused on disseminating basic information, not offering individualized counseling.

Here are some tips for personal financial planning and other things to consider when you’re going back to school on a budget:

  • Look at your specific financial situation. Come up with a plan for financing your education and figure out how long it will take you to repay any student loans. If you take out student loans, factor in how much you’ll end up paying in interest.
  • Weigh the educational costs against the potential starting salary. Weigh your educational financing costs against what you can expect as a starting salary. Many people go back to school for degrees that cost a lot of money and don’t see much financial return. While long-term career goals are important, so is being financially self-sufficient. If you need research assistance, the College Scorecard compares schools’ costs, graduation rates, and average salaries for graduates.
  • Consider an associate degree. If you’re set on enrolling in higher education, one of the best ways to save money is to get an associate’s degree at a two-year college first, and then transferring to a four-year school to complete your bachelor’s degree. Community colleges are far less expensive than four-year colleges on a per-credit basis. Plus, many states offer discounts for nontraditional students (GED or equivalent) and discounted in-state tuition for bachelor’s degrees if students earn above a certain GPA in community college.
  • Look into community college. If you’re concerned about how a community college might look to future employers, it may surprise you to know that when you graduate with a bachelor’s degree, your degree lists only the four-year institution you attended and not the community college. Of course, the credit you get from community college classes will count toward your final degree, but your diploma will look identical to that of a student who paid full price for a four-year program.
  • Minimize costs with an overall strategy. It is possible to minimize your student loans by attending only public institutions, targeting high-income fields so you can pay off loans quickly after graduation, working while you’re in school, or a combination of all of these. While it’s typical to take on debt when advancing your education, a strategic approach can help provide the funds you need to move to your first job location, purchase housing or start a family.
  • Go to school during interim and summer terms. You can reduce your cost per credit by taking winter interim classes and summer classes. Winter and summer classes are more intensive and shorter in duration, but they’re cheaper, even at private four-year schools.
Did You Know?Did you know
The best jobs for college graduates include civil engineer, financial planner, human resources professional, interpreter, translator and software developer.

5. Research colleges and programs.

Once you decide to go back to college and know how much you’re willing to spend on your education, research different programs carefully. Online degree programs are popular with nontraditional students because they offer remote learning options and flexible course schedules, but ensure the program you choose is accredited, whether it’s an online or brick-and-mortar school.

The best way to find out if a college is accredited is to visit the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs. If the college you consider is not in the government database of accredited institutions, do not apply, regardless of the promises you hear from college staff. At some unaccredited institutions, workers are treated like sales associates and get commissions for recruits, so research thoroughly before providing any money to a school.

You should also look up the following statistics for any college you consider attending. If you can’t find these stats about your desired program on the school’s website, contact someone to ask. You’ll learn a lot about the school by asking difficult questions:

  • What percentage of students in your program are employed in their fields within one year of graduation?
  • How many courses are taught by teaching assistants as opposed to professors?
  • How many courses are offered in the evenings and on weekends?
  • Can any classes be completed online?/
  • Does your program offer opportunities for work experience before graduation?
  • What percentage of professors in your program are adjunct versus full-time?

It’s also wise to look up the school’s deans and professors and do a little digging into their backgrounds. Find out if they’re all lifelong academics or if they have work experience in the fields they teach.

Above all, do not be shy about asking anything you want to know. Your education should suit you, and you deserve to know everything upfront before you pay a cent of tuition.

FYIDid you know
In some fields, being taught by someone who is primarily a teacher and researcher is fine. However, in other fields – especially those that change quickly, like technology, or rely on connections, like PR – it's advantageous to have access to professors with recent work experience.

6. Follow this 10-step checklist for nontraditional students.

Here’s a helpful checklist for people embracing more education as they navigate a career change. If you need additional support, College for Adults provides resources for those navigating going back to school.

  1. Define your motivations for going back to school and know your long-term goals.
  2. Consider alternatives to paying for a degree, and determine whether or not college is right for you.
  3. You will need a high school diploma or equivalent to start a college program. If you need a GED or certification, research your state’s requirements online before starting your new career journey.
  4. Explore career options at CareerOneStop, or speak with a counselor at a local college to determine your next steps.
  5. Choose schools based on recommendations from employers, colleagues and friends who are familiar with your chosen field of study. If you don’t have a go-to person, use College Navigator to locate your best choices.
  6. After narrowing down your college picks with an accredited degree in your field of study, schedule a campus tour if you plan on in-person learning, or ask the admissions office about the equipment you’ll need for online courses.
  7. Ask the school if it accommodates nontraditional students with night and weekend classes or part-time options.
  8. Search for scholarships and grants. 
  9. Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA will help you budget for education costs and is required for federal loans, scholarships and grants. Use the deadline guide for FAFSA applications to ensure your financial aid is available when you need it.
  10. Look into additional financial resources, including education tax credits, employer tuition reimbursement, low-interest home equity loans, retraining programs in your geographic location, or even community resources that can help you with day care for your children, textbooks, transportation, and tutoring.

Julie Thompson, Nicole Fallon and Sammi Caramela contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

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Mona Bushnell, Business Operations Insider and Senior Writer
Mona Bushnell advises aspiring entrepreneurs and small business owners on what it takes to operate a business on a day-to-day basis. Bushnell has firsthand experience as an IT technician, software administrator and scheduling manager, which are all critical roles in an increasingly digital business world. Based on her nearly 20 years in the trenches, she produces learning materials on a range of business topics. Bushnell, who has collaborated with a variety of independently owned boutique businesses to increase their visibility and profit, is also known for covering business trends and events, testing emerging technology (both software and hardware) and has even teamed up with CEOs on communications needs. Her guidance can be found in leading business publications like Forbes and Investopedia.
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