Gina was considering a career change to become a marketing consultant. She’d worked for a number of firms as a project manager. She was just fascinated by marketing.
“An MBA will give me credibility,” she said. “And I’ll learn the jargon, terminology and culture of business in a way that I can’t anywhere else.”
Gina’s stuck in an old-school style of career change.
“Go back to school” used to be the first step to a new career. Many people still believe it’s the best – or even only – way to make meaningful career shifts.
I was a college professor for many years, teaching in business schools and MBA programs. And I believe “back to school” should be the last thing you consider in a career change, not the first.
School helps some people more than others. Some returning students will experience little or no benefit.
For a reality check, I recommend reading Philip Delves Broughton’s book, What They Teach You At Harvard Business School. Broughton entered HBS at the ancient age of thirty-two, feeling out of place from the very beginning. He found many positive benefits in the program, yet he was unable to get a summer internship or a job right out of school.
Broughton has gone on to become a successful author and speaker. A google search revealed that he now holds a senior position with Brunswick, described as a “strategic advisory firm.”
Ultimately, Broughton gained credibility, connections and business knowledge from his two-year stint. But he still had to carve his own path.
Going back to school may be your best or worst option, depending on you, the program you choose, and your unique field.
Many midlife career changers report they are confused by all the choices they have. Back when they entered college, often right out of high school, they considered only programs from recognized universities taught on live campuses. Today you can choose online programs, weekend courses, continuing education, and career-oriented programs to prepare you for coaching, copywriting, or other new careers.
If you’re considering a field like library science or pharmacy professional, you might discover you can get a quality degree from courses taught mostly online. If you’re considering an MBA, you will see brochures and flyers from universities that didn’t exist 20 years ago. You may wonder if your degree will be worthwhile.
If you’re considering a career that didn’t exist 20 years ago, such as coaching or web design, your choices will be even more challenging. Programs can run to four figures and they’re mostly unregulated. Here are 5 questions to ask before you invest time or money.
(1) Do you really need more training? Or will your previous experience and credentials place you beyond entry level?
If you plan to work for an organization, find out if they value credentials as much as experience. You will also find that specific schools and degrees will be valued more than others.
For example, public relations firms typically hired journalists, although now some will focus more on social media. Many universities hire faculty with PhA.D. degrees from a specific type of university. Some departments recognize law degrees as terminal degrees, while others do not.
(2) Can you finish the program in a specific amount of time?
Simple logistics can be a stumbling block. You may need Introduction to Statistics in order to graduate, but discover that course is offered only every two years.
(3) Will you be willing and able to write a dissertation?
If so, make sure you talk to current students who are writing dissertations. Ask the admissions office to introduce you. In a traditional program, the department head or program chair should be willing to make those introductions.
Some schools ease everyone through coursework with high grades, but don’t prepare those students for the rigors of a dissertation. Others have high standards but dissertation advisors are overloaded, so you can be delayed even when you’re doing everything right.
There are too many pitfalls to list here. You have to talk to students in the program – not faculty, not administrators – to get realistic advice. If you are discouraged from meeting with current students, recognize a red flag and consider enrolling elsewhere.
(4) Do you fit the profile of the successful graduate?
When you look at top-tier MBA programs, you will find the most successful graduates are twenty-somethings with a few years of corporate or military experience. If you consider certificate programs (such as coaching), the most successful graduates will have strong marketing skills and/or solid ties to networks of potential clients.
That was Philip Broughton’s challenge. Prospective employers looked past the MBA into his background.
You’ll maximize benefits of a full-time, top-tier MBA if you’re in your twenties with a few years of corporate or military experience. And if you embark on special certificate programs, you’ll gain a new career if you have solid ties to an existing network.
You may discover that the graduates with jobs all returned to former employers. They weren’t changing careers. They were getting their tickets punched.
Of course you can defy the odds and you may have other objectives that will be met by completing those programs. But you should have a complete understanding of the odds.
(5) Where do the faculty come from?
Top universities will have professors who hold advanced degrees from a variety of universities. Some online training programs recycle their graduates into teaching jobs. Some accredited universities hire their own graduates. You’ll gain more knowledge and enjoy a better experience from a program featuring professors and instructors from a variety of backgrounds.
More support? I’ve written an ebook on Back To School For Midlife Career Change. Click here to learn more.
And if you’d like to work with me further, I offer a career strategy intensive. Ninety super-productive minutes can be the first step to your next career…or a new awareness of possibilities where you are now.