Articles > For whom the school bell tolls

For whom the school bell tolls
Globe & Mail, August 25, 2006

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

Many accomplished midlife professionals are discovering a rude reality. Bored and wanting to apply their skills in new ways -- to teach at night, say, or move to a not-for-profit organization -- they find doors aren't as open as they had thought. Despite the depth of their abilities, they can't even get an interview. The reason? A master's degree is a minimum requirement.

Should they go back to school? At this time of year, many restless people are asking themselves this question.

The answer, of course, isn't a straight yes or no. It depends on a lot of factors, ranging from their current age to the field they're working in to whether that field is suffering from skills shortages. It goes beyond that, as well, to whether further education is just about a job or about other motivations, and what it will cost you, not just in money, to achieve it.

An upgraded education is not a magic bullet to success. Higher credentials matter more to the employability and advancement of younger workers than older ones. For younger workers, a post-graduate degree or diploma says to an employer: "In lieu of accomplishments and experiences, my credentials point to having strong and up-to-date technical skills and being able to think and solve problems."

When you've hit 40, however, you have more experience and demonstrated accomplishments to sell.

A degree can add substance but, by that point, you either have proved you have what it takes, or not. In other words, you are no longer selling a promise of potential.

I have seen many hopefuls return to school at midlife, only to discover that their new credentials did not help them get ahead. They were seen as being too old, expensive, and "set in their ways" relative to fresh grads.

It's true that age discrimination in our society has at last begun to weaken. Lifelong learning is increasingly becoming the norm, and now that organizations are concerned about impending skills shortages precipitated by boomer retirements, they are developing a different attitude toward hiring and promoting seasoned workers.

But attitudes change slowly, and if you are a mid-lifer looking for a higher degree to boost your career, you may well end up disappointed.

Still, not everyone returns to school because of a desire to get ahead. I recently conducted an on-line survey with 110 employed managers and professionals, ranging in age from late 20s to early 60s, who had returned to school or contemplated it. Not surprisingly, the younger workers were more likely to cite desires for career advancement and to reap the greatest financial rewards from such a move than were older workers.

But the No. 1 motivation and benefit cited was psychological. As one marketing director in a media conglomerate who went back to do her MBA at 37 said: "I'd be at the table with the management team. And even though I was running the most profitable business unit, every time I made a suggestion I always felt dismissed with a 'What does she know? She doesn't have an MBA.' I had the business savvy, but I did it [the MBA] for the confidence, not for the technical content."

Is going back to school a worthwhile investment? Will the money you spend on tuition and the salary you lose while studying pay off in the end? That depends on how you define the potential rewards.

As one financial consultant wrote: "I look at those charts showing the opportunity costs of taking time off work to study. Often, they show you never recoup the money you've lost through being out of the work. What these charts don't show is that -- especially for women -- you get back into a far more challenging level of job. So that impacts your satisfaction -- how much is that worth to you?"

Almost everyone in the survey said their investment had paid off for them in one way or another, including the former nurse who became a credentialed career coach at 62, and the executive who became a published author after completing a writing diploma at 58. Even when there was no economic gain, they cited more responsibility and career choices.

What about those who had contemplated but decided not to? This man's comment was typical: "When I was younger, I had a chance to do it, but didn't want to trade off my income, as the degree I was interested in could not be done completely part-time. Now, at 60, I feel like I still have one more piece of unfinished business. It is my most significant regret, and one which I plan to redress."

Going back to school at midlife -- whether it pays off in strictly financial terms or not -- has an enormous impact on how people feel about themselves. Indeed, my greatest surprise was that most said that going back to school was their greatest source of pride, particularly if they did it for themselves and not for career reasons, or if they had studied something completely foreign to their previous line of work or studies.

Globe columnist Lynn Everatt, for example, who describes herself as a recovering MBA, went back to school to complete a degree in English while continuing to work in middle management. "I never felt so alive as I did in my creative writing class," she says. "The language was so articulate, so alive, compared to the language I was accustomed to." She quit her job at age 39, after paying off her mortgage, to write full time, and now has her first novel out, E-Mails from the Edge.

Almost all the midlifers who went back to school described their experience as initially daunting -- studying to do admission tests, worrying about how to write an essay or take an exam after so many years out of academia. Many had planned it out carefully -- waiting until kids were grown up for financial and time reasons, or selling their house to liberate cash.

And it is this -- making sacrifices, overcoming fears -- that made the accomplishment so deliciously satisfying.

Making the decision

Be realistic: If you are making a career change, it is unlikely your experience will be recognized when you enter a new field. Be prepared to be treated like a recent graduate who does not have extensive work accomplishments. If you are not making a career change and this is a logical progression in your career path, your enhanced credentials can open new doors. However, some people, especially long-term employees, find that they need to move to a new company to have their experience and credentials seen in a fresh light.

Have a clear vision of your goals: Know what you want to accomplish, whether that is greater confidence, enhanced career opportunities, personal satisfaction or intellectual stimulation. Consider your age in relation to your goals and skills. A master's degree acquired at the age of 40 will open more doors than it will for one acquired at 55. On the other hand, if you are a 55-year-old lawyer who wants to move into self-employment as a coach for lawyers, say, a coaching diploma can be a useful lever.

Think broadly about opportunity costs: When considering what this will cost you, look beyond lost wages. On the one hand: What will you be giving up in terms of family time? On the other: How will you feel 10 years from now if you didn't go back to school?

Evaluate alternative vehicles: Are there college diplomas or condensed programs that carry the same or almost the same weight as a degree in an employers' eyes? Can you move into a new area with your employer to get the skills you need?

Seek learner-friendly programs: Some universities have garnered reputations for catering to the needs of busy adults who want to continue working full time, and may need to brush up on study and paper-writing skills. These programs are also sensitive to the anxieties many have about being able to keep up and meet academic standards by providing social supports.

Ensure the school's reputation will open doors: If you are motivated by a desire for career advancement, remember that some graduate degree providers are better respected than others. Talk to recent alumni to learn how their credentials helped them.

Pitch your employer on contributing to tuition: Even organizations that don't have tuition- reimbursement policies will often respond positively to a strong business case. Show how, as result of your credentials, you will be able to do your job better or be of greater longer-term value.

Test yourself

Should you go back? If you're an older worker whose main motivation is career advancement, you will be a strong candidate if you can answer "yes" to most of these questions:

1. Have others told you that you are being held back by a lack of education?

2. Are you working in a knowledge sector industry, such as education, pharmaceuticals, professional services, or media?

3. Do people who do similar kinds of work as you or work that you aspire to have better credentials?

4. Can you meet academic expectations while fulfilling personal and professional responsibilities in a manner acceptable to you and others who will be affected?

5. Have you ensured that your credentials will enable you to achieve your career goals? (Some people misattribute not advancing to a lack of credentials when the problem is really their personality.)

6. Will you have a sense of accomplishment and enhanced confidence?

7. Are you ambitious -- do you have a strong desire to enhance your professional skills and be the "best"?

8. Have you examined the opportunity costs from all perspectives -- including loss of wages and family time if you do go back, and loss of opportunity for personal satisfaction and increased employability if you don't.

9. Are you in a line of work in which credentials are as important as experience and accomplishments?
10. Are you of an age at which your additional credentials can help you?