What to be when (and if) you grow up

Determining whether advanced education will help you achieve your career goals

When I was approaching high school graduation (in the late 1900s as my teenaged son likes to say), I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. This existential question was daunting. I envisioned myself in a city, wearing suits and making money. Noble goals, right? I meandered through college having fun, playing in the marching band and earning a liberal arts degree in psychology. I joked that these qualifications would make me a good bartender. Ironically, my parents owned a bar in Wisconsin. I knew at some point I would need an advanced degree in order to escape the family business and achieve my true career goals.

Eventually I went back to school for a master's degree in industrial-organizational psychology and have since worked in many cities, worn countless suits and made a good living helping numerous businesses create better workplaces. I've had four very distinct careers since college. I similarly have met dozens of people who started their career in one field and ended up in another: A successful salesperson who became a social worker, an MBA who became an elementary school teacher, a lawyer who became a coach and even an IT director who bought a bar. Deciding what we want to be is a question with a fluid answer. According to career resources site Zippia.com, the average person works in four different fields during their lifetime. We always have options to return to school or pursue other learning opportunities that will help us achieve our goals.

Whether you should pursue an advanced degree or other professional certification to further your career depends on several factors, including your career goals, industry, personal circumstances and financial situation. Here are some things to consider when making this decision:

Career goals: Does the additional learning align with your long-term career goals? Some professions and industries may require or highly value advanced degrees, while others may prioritize experience and skills over formal education. I once worked for a large retail chain as a training manager. A peer with the same job title and compensation had never gone to college. Instead, he worked his way up through the operational ranks, learning the business before moving into the training department. I had the degree, he had the experience – two paths to the same destination.

Industry requirements: Research the job market by looking at postings and talking to professionals in the industry to determine if an advanced degree is necessary. Will it provide you with skills and knowledge that will give you a competitive advantage? In many fields such as interior design, cosmetology, civil engineering and the medical profession, one can have the required degree but will eventually need to pursue state licensure in order to practice professionally.

Return on investment: Assess whether the potential increase in salary and future career opportunities justifies the investment of time and money for your advanced degree. In my case, spending two years to earn a master's degree from a low-cost state school allowed me to work while going to school part-time and doubled my salary upon graduation. But this investment came at a short-term cost of less time for personal interests, hobbies and friends and increased expenses for tuition and books.

Passion and interest: Make sure you are passionate about the subject matter. It is more rewarding and motivating to study something that truly excites you. Can you envision yourself working in this field 2,000 hours per year for the next 10-plus years?

Networking opportunities: Training programs often provide valuable networking experiences with professionals in your field. You'll build relationships with classmates and instructors while gaining access to internship opportunities. Networking develops valuable connections that open doors to future employment.

Employer support: If you're currently employed, check your benefits package for support or incentives for pursuing advanced degrees, such as tuition reimbursement or flexible scheduling. If so, take advantage, but be aware of any approval process or tenure requirements that the company expects in return.

Dream your big dreams about what you want to be when (and if) you ever decide to grow up, but know that there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Take time to reflect on your aspirations, research your options and seek advice from individuals working in your desired field before your make the decision to invest in your continued education.

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