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Why Going Back to School is a Bad Idea

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Should you go back to school?

You’ve been looking for a job for half a year now, but still no luck.

People more experienced than you are getting laid off and your prospects are not looking good in this economy.

You promised yourself (and probably your parents) that if you couldn’t find a job within six months, you would go back to school.

I’m here to tell you that you’re about to make a big mistake.

Before you invest your precious time and money to research and prepare for the GREs, GMATs, LSATs or any other standardized exams, take a moment to challenge all the assumptions that are going into that decision.

Years ago, when you couldn’t get a job or simply didn’t know what you wanted to do, going back to school was a good option.

These days it’s still a popular (though not necessarily smart) alternative for two main reasons:

  • It’s the default option that society accepts; not many people will tell you going back to school is a bad idea.
  • You get an education while waiting out the bad economy, so by the time you graduate, getting a job with your advanced degree will be much easier (in theory, at least).

But if you’re going back to school for any of these reasons, you may be doing more damage than good.

Let me explain.

There was a time when an advanced degree was special and having one set you apart from other candidates. Now, not only do more people have advanced degrees, but the cost of higher education is rising much faster than the salary boost it can bring. Plus, an advanced degree no longer guarantees you employment.

Don’t get me wrong, there are times when going back for more education is appropriate, and we’ll talk about that in a minute. But if you’re returning to student status because you can’t find a job, you will probably regret your decision. Why? Because you’ll have more debt and you’ll feel compelled to do work you might not be interested in.

Imagine yourself as an employer in this economy – any company or industry works.

Picture yourself with two candidates:

  1. John, who has an advanced degree but little practical experience or
  2. Peter, who has demonstrated ability and experience to get the specific job done

Who would you hire?

For those of you who chose John, let me know how it goes.

For those who chose Peter, read on.

What does this all mean? How does this apply to YOU?

The lesson is simple: be like Peter. Be the guy who has the experience, rather than the guy who has the education.

I know what you’re thinking: It’s like the chicken and the egg. I need experience to get the job, and I need the job to get experience. Which one comes first?

Your frustration is understandable; lots of people feel that way. In my Know What You Want Workshop, I teach a three-step method that greatly increases your chances for getting the job you want.

Step 1: Figure out what you want to do

When you know what you want to do in life, you will have enthusiasm and confidence, which will set you apart during interview time. To know what you want, you have to find the intersection between your values, personality, interests, strengths and favorite skills.

Your Homework: Read What Color is Your Parachute and Do More Great Work and focus on the self-reflection exercises. If you’re too lazy to read, take a workshop similar to the Know What You Want Workshop and focus on looking within.

Step 2: Research how to do it

Once you have an idea what you want to do, you’ll need to research the following:

  1. What positions and industries fit you and the functions you enjoy?
  2. How do I get into those jobs and industries?

Your Homework: Reach out to your network (friends, family, alumni, strangers, etc.) and brainstorm possible job titles that match the information you gathered about yourself. Since you’re communicating with your network already, ask if they know anyone with these possible job titles. If so, set up informational interviews.

Step 3: Experiment

Once you’ve narrowed down your desired job titles, use both your network and the internet to find job openings and submit your revamped resume. While you’re waiting to hear back, volunteer, intern or simply do the job tasks of the position you want.

For example, if you want to be an accountant, do accounting for your family. If you want to be a life coach, take some life coaching classes and coach your friends.

You don’t need permission. Just start doing it.

Your Homework: Narrow down three to five possible job titles and write a resume for each job. If you think you can have a “general” resume, contact me and I’ll tell you why that’s even worse than going back to school when you don’t know what you want to do.

To be fair, here are some instances when going back to school makes sense:

  • You want a job where you need an advanced knowledge base such as in academia, sciences, medicine, law, etc.
  • You know what you want to do in life and going back to school is a step along the way.
  • Your alternative is to stay at home doing unproductive activities.

So what do you think? Would you now reconsider that assumption that going back to school is the best move?

Robert Chen is the founder of Embrace Possibility and his passion is to guide others to find clarity and to get what they want. If you’ve been putting off your own greatness, check out the 8 Most Practical Ways to Stop Procrastinating.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=127129577357174 The Finance Geek

    I got my current job because I had a passion personal finance and financial literacy, and a curiosity about blogging, social media and websites and how they work for businesses. (My current job is to do social media and manage the blog/website for a financial literacy program offered by the CO DHE.)

    So I can tell you from experience that going out and pursuing what you’re interested in definitely has some merit, especially if you’re other option is, as you say, going back to school “for lack of a better option.” Unless you work at a college and have a tuition deduction, don’t go back to school just ’cause. The student loan debt isn’t worth it.

    That being said, I am going back to school in the Fall, because the next step that I want to take is to become a CPA so I be an accountant for small businesses like the one my parents own, and then one I want to own some day. In order to get my CPA license, I have to take classes in accounting and business. If I go back to school as a non-degree seeking student, I can get the classes done, but it’ll cost just as much and take just as long as going back to school as part of the Masters program, so I might as well get a Masters in Accounting.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003127854405 Robert Chen

      Great comment! Once you know what you’re doing and how school fits into that picture, then you’ll end up doing much better because your motivations are clear and you know what you want to get out of it. You’ll also become a proactive learner, asking practical and specific questions in class that you really want the answer to. Steve Balmer once said that he chose his employees because of 2 things: passion and the ability to get things done on time NOT an advanced degree.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=508690935 Lauren Bourdages

    The 3 steps outlined in this article are very important.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003127854405 Robert Chen

      Thanks for the comment Lauren!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=10404242 Heather Van Werkhooven

    As someone with a fair amount of student debt, I agree that returning to school requires consideration- debt means that I cannot take ANY job that appeals to me, because I now require a minimum amount of money to pay said debts. Having just gone through a round of application to PhD programs, I can also tell you that the “back to school market” is much more competitive right now BECAUSE people are choosing this path. For my current job in social media, I just came across this article today for examples of what non-degree based alternatives are out there:

    http://www.theworkbuzz.com/find-the-job/9-well-paying-jobs-that-dont-require-a-degree/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+theworkbuzz%2Fposts+%28The+Work+Buzz%29

    As someone with an MSc and who will return to school, it definitely should not be a “fall back”!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=735776202 Alisha Gilbert

      Another option is to join the military. They will pay off your student loans up to 65,000$ depending on if you join reservist or active duty. http://www.military.com/Resources/ResourcesContent/0,13964,44245–,00.html

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=735776202 Alisha Gilbert

      Its an option a lot of people don’t know about.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=10404242 Heather Van Werkhooven

      Also, working in public service for 10 years will get your student debt paid- granted you must make 120 payments before it can be forgiven… I forgot about that until you mentioned the military!
      http://studentaid.ed.gov/PORTALSWebApp/students/english/PSF.jsp

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=123806844358148 Education Cents

      Student Loan forgiveness programs are out there, you just have to know where to look. We’ve got a list of them that we update every year: http://bit.ly/LTUeHn

      Going back to school is a decision that should be made after careful consideration. Like The Finance Geek and Robert said, you have to have clear reasons for going back to school, and not just use it as a fall back.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003127854405 Robert Chen

    Hi Heather,

    Education is important but like you said, when you have debt, you lose your freedom. That’s why I always caution people who aren’t sure what they’re doing to first find out before investing in formal education. There is so much high quality information available out there today that you can do a lot of exploring before making that decision.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1282091004 Yvette Ysasaga

    Great article…was just thinking of going back to school myself but will have all student loans paid off in about 4 years. May just work on my professional certifications.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003127854405 Robert Chen

      Any education you pay for needs to be seriously considered. This includes certifications and CE courses. They may be cheaper but if they don’t help you get to where you want to go (or if you don’t know where you want to go), I’ll recommend spending your money or time or both to find out first. Again, there are tons of free resources for learning what you want to learn. Let me know if you want some suggestions

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1637018910 Zubair Lutfullah

    I believe it is worth it if you apply for a full scholarship. However, this might suit academics. And in the line of academia, further studies are necessary..

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003127854405 Robert Chen

      I agree. There are some professions: Academia, Law, Medicine, Sciences, etc. that lends itself to higher education. The problem happens when you get into one of these professions and realize you don’t like it. It becomes much harder to switch because you’ve invested so much. I majored in Chemistry and Economics at a prestigious college and I’m using neither. The decision to go for my passion was not easy but it is definitely worth it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1637018910 Zubair Lutfullah

      In this modern age, realizing ones passion and pursuing them is much more easier than before.

      Advancement could be a graduate studies.
      Or it could be certifications. Or free stuff.

      I have seen academics who stopped working after a PhD simply because of the mindset that this is the final destination. They think they have reached the ‘finish’ line.

      I think I am slightly veering off but stating the same thing. However, in a more generic way.

      Do what you love. Learn how to do it passionately and properly.
      It could be via school. It could be via something else.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003127854405 Robert Chen

      well said! I’m always interested in learning about other people’s pursuits. What is your passion Zubair?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1637018910 Zubair Lutfullah

      My ‘current’ ideal vision is being able to work in a company as an Embedded Systems engineer.

      And being linked to the academia somehow to transfer the knowledge I gain to undergraduates.
      A visiting lecturer maybe. Perhaps for some lectures only. Or conducting some workshops/seminars. Anything.

      I say ‘current’ because passions evolve. And entrepreneurship seems an exciting area :).

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id= Anonymous

    Great article! Going back to school isn’t always the answer. Unless, you’re already working in a field you love, you’re working for an employer you love, and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that an advanced degree will advance you and your career options within your place of employment (or somewhere else), don’t apply to college and or university.

    If we’d overhaul our educational system in the U.S., we wouldn’t have half the problems we have now. Kids aren’t being taught how to think for themselves, kids aren’t taught to pursue their dreams and cultivate skills that will lead them to their dream jobs, and kids aren’t being taught that failure isn’t always a bad thing.

    My nephew’s friend (18-years-old) is trying to find a job, and I feel bad for him. The kid has some great skills and is willing to work, but he lives in a Midwestern state that isn’t that young and hip. Plus, it takes forever to get from point A to point B. That’s another drawback. Sometimes, you have to move out of your home state and take a risk somewhere else. It could pay off.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003127854405 Robert Chen

      Well said Amanda! The education system (at least when I was in school) taught us how to pass exams but didn’t teach us real life skills like personal finance, sales and marketing, communications, etc. There was a time when a college education or advanced degrees guaranteed a decent paying job but not anymore. The return of investment is not there.

      As for your nephew’s friend, what does he want to do? Some jobs are definitely concentrated in certain cities (tech in San Jose, finance in NY). What is stopping him from moving?

      On the other hand, I also believe that if he wants to stay and make a living in his city, he will be able to if he focuses on adding more value. I’m a firm believer in Acres of Diamonds.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002026650068 Andreana Komis

    I am Going back to school and working on my preparation to take the test to get in as a mature student so therefore I can take business in collage 2 year program. At the Present time I’m also working on something that is my life’s beginning. I just been given the gift to write, I am writing a book. I never had much of an education due to my poor life’s past, but I am so happy with much joy to say that I love life and I am going to get it!
    I have started a company with some ground work I am at http://www.maidintown.com where you can find me YouTube…
    I want to build this company to a http://www.Inc and attach a product of originality. I am not ashamed of how my life turned out in fact I am truly proud. I have been given a new chance at it. I do love God and what he’s done for me and what he’s continuing to do on my behalf is astonishing to say the least. I never ever will be ashamed to say it out so everyone can hear the true words that say I love God so much. So if people have a problem with that then they need to let it go, I have.

    I love you God and thanks for this gift.

    Your child

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