Back to school? Tough questions to ask before
you write that check
Career changers often begin their transition with a return
to school. These days, you have more choices than ever: online,
teleclasses, on-site seminars, and traditional classes.
If you're pursuing a traditional degree, such as an MBA,
you'll see ads and brochures from schools you've never heard
If you're embarking on a new-to-the-world career, such as
coaching, the choices seem even more bewildering.
Cathy Goodwin, Ph.D., who spent many years in the classroom
as both professor and student, suggests some tough questions
to ask before you write your check.
1. Do you really need formal training?
After ten years of management experience with a well-regarded
Fortune 50 corporation, Alice developed a training program
to help managers retain their best and brightest employees.
Should she return to school for a coaching certification?
Alice needs to learn what her clients will value when they
hire her. Some firms will prefer an MBA to a coaching certification.
Others will be more interested in dollar savings she can document
than in any letters after her name. Before investing in more
education, she needs to dip a toe into the water through networking
and speaking to business groups.
2. Where have all the graduates gone?
Harold's forty-year management career culminated in a vice
presidency of a company that is a household name. Bursting
with energy, Harold decided he wanted to share his hard-won
business wisdom with the next generation. He would get a Ph.D.
degree and teach at a university.
Soon Harold noticed ads for BusyPeople University, promising
flexible classes that were offered weekends, evenings, and
online. Forget the horror stories of fussy dissertation committees
and delayed diplomas: BusyPeople would see Harold out the
door in three well-ordered years -- two if he really hustled.
The tuition was high but Harold had the money. More important,
he valued the flexibility and believed "you get what
you pay for."
Will this degree help you reach your goal?
Three years later, Harold was turned down for one teaching
job after another. Unaccustomed to rejection, he finally found
someone willing to speak frankly.
"We don't take BusyPeople degrees seriously," said
a senior professor at Traditional U, on condition of anonymity.
"We think BPU is a diploma mill. Okay," he cut
off Harold's protest, "you say you had to do real work.
But you have no idea what students learn in more tranditional
programs. You'll have to try a junior college or maybe a small
"Frankly, you would have been better off to skip graduate
school altogether. Many business schools would have been thrilled
to invite you to serve as an Executive in Residence. This
degree actually lowered your value."
Before you sign up for any program, talk to half a dozen
graduates. The alumni office may be willing to share names
attached to success stories, but don't stop there. Ask your
contacts for names of less successful classmates.
And probe deeply. Zelda interviewed Vincent, a recent doctoral
graduate of BusyPeople University. She was impressed with
his new affiliation -- a very prestigious university. Vincent's
placement seemed to demonstrate that BusyPeople graduates
really could succeed in a competitive job market.
When Zelda called Vincent, she learned he was telling the
truth. He was working for that prestigious university -- as
a lab technician while hunting for a full-time teaching job.
3. Do you fit the profile of the successful graduate?
Clarissa enjoyed her job as a systems analyst but she dreamed
of completing an MBA at a top-tier program. At age thirty-two,
she was accepted to Harvard, Stanford, Wharton and more.
When she graduated at thirty-four, she discovered that many
of the most desirable jobs were closed to her. The greatest
salary and career gains were registered by those who entered
the MBA program at twenty-three, following two years of experience.
Graduating at twenty-five -- twenty-six, tops -- these young
rising stars were in demand.
Clarissa 's post-MBA salary and title did not compensate
for the high MBA tuition and lost income for two years. She
realized she would have done better to enter an Executive
MBA program, where she could make contacts with her true peers.
When school is not enough
Fresh from a four-year stint in the US Army, George signed
up for an expensive two-year coach training program. As a
drill sergeant he had coached hundreds of young men and women
into leadership positions and he knew coaching involved a
lot more than shouting orders.
George did well in the program but found he had difficulty
attracting clients. He had no business network and people
transitioning from military life couldn't afford coaching,
even if they recognized the concept. After three years of
struggle, George saw his savings vanish.
George realized he would benefit from taking a civilian job
and building his network of contacts. He also realized that
a college degree would have given him more options.
4. Where did the faculty come from?
Top universities will not hire their own graduates as professors.
There are exceptions: you may be hired to teach in a different
department or you might be invited to return in triumph following
a successful career at an equally prestigious institution.
Quality training requires a faculty that is diverse in experience
and education as well as race, sex and age. If many faculty
were trained by the university where they're teaching, you
have to ask tough questions about innovation, growth and change.
If you are applying for a training program, such as writing
or coaching, learn who designed the curriculum.
If one or two instructors design the program, write the textbook,
and conduct the classes, you are entering an apprenticeship
program. This school may be the perfect route to your dreams
but it will be a single-lane highway with limited turnoffs.
For maximum growth and flexibility, look for programs that
offer textbooks authored by professionals outside the program.
Look for faculty who come from diverse backgrounds who can
generate controversy and debate. Tolerance of disagreement
will allow you to stretch your mind in new and exciting directions.
Bottom Line: Choose your career goal and network for information.
You may be surprised to discover that you can fill your dream
without setting foot in another classroom. You may learn that
some programs actually exclude you from the career path of
We have been taught that school is a steppingstone to careers
and even to riches. That lesson holds -- if you are the right
student and you choose the right program to meet your goal.
|Cathy Goodwin, Ph.D. is an author, career coach, and
speaker. She works with mid-career professionals who want to make a fast
move to career freedom. Visit her site http://www.movinglady.com
or call 505-534-4294.