Updated on 09.19.14

Charting a Course to Go Back to School

Trent Hamm

Amanda writes:

After taking a serious re-evaluation of my life over the last year, I finally realized what I should be doing with it. I want to be a nurse. I attended college several years ago, but I majored in English Lit and didn’t finish my degree. How can I plan for this financially?

Graduation Cake Guy by CarbonNYC on Flickr!Going back to school is a pretty common goal that people have. In fact, my mother-in-law went back to nursing school when she was in her forties because, after many years working in a research lab, she realized she had a calling and a gift to interact with and help people.

Along those same lines, I have actually considered going back to school to work on a degree in political science, as I’m moving more and more towards being involved in local and state politics. I’m mostly interested in such a degree to help me build upon the connections I’m already making in the local community and get a firm grounding in how politics work.

If you’ve come around to the idea of going back to school in order to reboot your career (or extend it), here are the steps I’d take along the way.

Steps to Going Back to College for a New Career

1. Figure out if this new career you want is really right for you

Talk to people that are already in the career that interests you and simply tell them your story. Ask what their actual workdays are like. Ask about the education that was required for them to get their job.

If you’re heading towards a completely new career track (as I would be if I followed up on the political idea), it’s a good idea to contact multiple people at various points along the career track to get some input. For example, for a political person, you might want to talk to campaign staff, state legislators (and their staff), members of local boards, and so on.

If you can, dabble in this track in your spare time. Do volunteer work, or get involved in organizations where you can meet people who are involved in this career track.

You may find out from this alone that the career path isn’t for you. I know, for example, that I’ve mentored at least one writer who decided that the day-in day-out research and creative efforts were too much for him.

Don’t do this lightly. The decision to leave your current career and find a new one is a serious leap and likely a very expensive one. Don’t simply jump from one career that doesn’t excite you into another one. Find out as much as you can from the outside first, until you’re highly confident that this new career is the right one for you.

2. Critically evaluate the educational needs of that career track

What sort of schooling or degree do you actually need to get your foot in the door. For example, with nursing, a degree is essentially required in order to practice professionally, but with politics, a degree is far from required to get involved – it’s merely a way of building a strong base of understanding.

The way to do this is through research and also through asking your contacts what education is required. Look at job listings and find out the minimum requirements for the types of jobs you would apply to at the start of the career path. What do you need that you don’t already have?

Once you’re sure you want to follow this new path and you know what you need to do, then start worrying about the costs of education.

3. Start evaluating institutions and get a realistic cost estimate

4. Depending on the amounts, start saving cash in a 529 plan

Set this plan up to match the target date that you expect to start attending school. If the date is close, the cash will be invested largely in very safe investments (cash, bonds, etc.), but if you know that school is a long time off, the money will go into more risky investments with a larger upside (stocks, real estate, etc.).

There is one thing that’s more important than anything else along the way, though.

You have to get started. Now.

If you have a dream burning inside of you, don’t just let it sit there and idle. At the very least, take that first step. Find out more about what it actually entails. Find out what that career would actually be like. Then, take that information, do some serious soul searching, and figure out for yourself if it’s right for you.

If you let your dreams just sit idling on the runway of life, eventually those dreams will run out of gas and never take flight. Take that first step right now. Do some research about that dream career and find someone to talk to about it. Even if you realize it’s not for you, you’ll never regret having taken that first step.

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  1. Christine says:

    Good advice Trent! I did this last year… quit my cushy well-paying job to go back to school. I want to be a doctor. Have for most of my life, but ended up an accountant, so now I’m doing the undergrad work necessary to get into med school. It’s expensive and rough but I LOVE it.

    The things I did to get ready included making sure I was completely debt free and having multiple avenues of financing available (working during full time school is not an option for me). I also made sure to “disaster proof” my world. What the heck do I mean?
    – full insurance on my house & vehicle so that I pay for normal, routine, MINOR maintenance only. And I do that maintenance religiously.
    – my appliances were all within 5 years of the end of their useful life so I bought new/newer ones… scratch & dent sales are great places to find new energy efficent but cheaper appliances.
    – the roof, the furnace and the hotwater tank were all at or beyond their normal useful lives so over 2 years I replaced them all.
    Now I’m at a point where if anything goes disastrously wrong, it’s an insurance claim and I have a minimum of my deductible in an emergency fund.

    Oh, I think it also bears mentioning that I thought about this change for 2 years before beginning to prepare for it… and spent a further 3 years doing what I listed above. This isn’t something I jumped into lightly and no one should.

    That said… Amanda, DO IT! You’ll be happier for it. Money isn’t everything – happiness is.

  2. You can also consider going to school in Canada! :) In Canada you can get a private college education at a community college price.

  3. Michelle says:

    Trent, I have a degree in Political Science, and if you’re interested in being involved in community affairs DO NOT STUDY POLITICAL SCIENCE.

  4. Angie says:

    I’m in politics, even with a degree in American Lit. Working campaigns opens up a lot of doors to working in politics, especially if your candidate ends up winning. I don’t really think you need a poli sci degree, it’s more having good instincts.

  5. Michelle says:

    Trent, as someone who has a degree in Political Science, don’t do if you’re interested in local and state politics. It’s much more about how the structure of government affects people. It’s very academic. You’ll spend a lot of time learning how to make computer models of rational choice theory. If you’re interested in really doing something in government, try a Master’s of Public Administration. That’s where you’ll get into how government policy (different from the structure) affects people. And as an elected official, it will help you work with bureaucracy much more effectively. Seriously, if you want to talk about what a Poli Sci degree is all about, e-mail me. Don’t get me wrong, my Poli Sci stuff was fascinating, and I really enjoyed it, but as a background for public service, it’s not going to help you much. FYI.

  6. Faculties says:

    Unless you need a professional credential, like a nursing degree, medical degree, or law degree, I’d be wary of going back to school. A lot of people do this because they feel the need for a structure to their learning, and because they feel insecure and want to get more credentials before trying for a job in their new desired field. Because of the economy, even more people are going back to school to try to get a credential and get a better job. But except for the professional degrees, this just expensively delays the inevitable — that you’ll need to start at a lower-level job in the field and learn the practicalities on the job. It’s a very expensive way of getting a not very useful degree. I teach at a university, and I see people returning to school and racking up debt every day doing this. I think it’s more sensible to start at a lower-level job in the field and have THEM pay YOU while you learn.

  7. SBT says:

    Another couple of things to consider if you decide to go back to school: First, don’t rule any school out until you have filed the FAFSA for federal financial aid. The FAFSA determines how much the government thinks your family contribution should be, and quite often, an expensive private school will come up with aid to make it no more (or hardly more) expensive than a public school. So find out what your aid package will be, then decide which school to attend. I see a lot of folks who rule out certain schools out of hand, and don’t apply, assuming it’s unaffordable.

    Second, if you know you want out of your current field, and you don’t know what you do want, your local community college probably has free interest surveys and job information, along with friendly advisors to explain them to you. Check it out.

    Life is too short to do something you hate.

    P.S. To Faculties: That’s great if you can do it, but you would not believe how many employers today require specific training in the field before they will consider you for any job. Then, of course, they tell you to forget everything you learned in school and do it their way, but it’s hard to get people to look at you with an unrelated degree and experience today.

  8. Anne says:

    Trent, you might want to look into a degree or classes in public administration. I was amazed at how often this degree came up when I was looking at job requirements for public sector positions. I was actually weighing the pros and cons of dropping out of grad school before I got into any debt in a degree I realized would have no professional benefit (as I had learned that teaching at the university level did not interest me).

  9. Brigid says:

    I went back to school at age 30. I had a masters’ degree in fine art but I wanted to go to grad school and study physics. The first thing I realized was that I did not have to get another bachelors’ degree; I went to school part-time and took all the physics and math courses a physics major would take. That was enough to get into a pretty good grad school.

    Secondly, I was fortunate enough to get a job as a typist at the school I wanted to attend, so my classes were free. My bosses were flexible and let me work my hours around my classes (which technically wasn’t allowed, but I was a good worker and a good student). Because I already had a degree, it would have been impossible for me to get financial aid, so the free tuition was a godsend.

    Finally, you might look into attending a school with a co-op program. Ideally, you would have a semester of classes followed by a semester of paid work in your intended field. This helps you pay for your schooling and also gives a taste of what the real world will be like once you graduate.

  10. Anna says:

    Folowing up on Faculties (#6):

    Trent, you are your own best example of how you can get into a desired field without going for an appropriate degree (unless it’s required, as for medicine or law or nursing).

    An amazing number of people want to be writers and think the only way to go is to enroll in an MFA writing program, which takes two or three years and usually costs thousands. Then — ta-da — they will be certified writers.

    But you have become a real writer without first jumping the expensive hurdle of the MFA. You just went ahead and did it. And here you are. It didn’t take an advanced degree to get you here.

  11. Karen M says:

    I, too, have a degree in Political Science. While it was interesting, I would not advise going back to school to get a degree in it. If you are interested in political theory, get some of the major thinkers (Locke, Rousseau, etc.) from the library. I learned more about how politics works in actual practice by volunteering.

  12. Scribbles says:

    I agree with the “Do it now!” – after two years out of university, working in marketing and PR, I realised that the job was slowly sucking the life out of me and making me into a person I didn’t want to be. I decided to leap ship and become an English and Drama teacher (high school level). It can be difficult, I lost a less than supportive boyfriend along the way, but as a wise friend told me “There’s always going to be a million reasons not to do it and always one great reason to do it… this is your life, you don’t get to live it twice”. I spent some time at my old high school and knew it was the right career for me.I’ve done well in my english lit papers this year and have just received my acceptance into the teacher’s college! I feel so much more happier and alive following my dreams as opposed to running the corporate rat race :)

  13. Gayle RN says:

    Amanda, as a working RN I would advise you first of all to get a job as a nurse’s aide for a while. This will give you a taste of the worst of nursing. If you still want to do it after that and after talking with a lot of “real nurses” then I would advise you to get a job,any job, at a hospital. They are desperate for nurses and will pay your tuition most likely. Meanwhile work on getting your prerequisites out of the way. Nursing school is extremely competitive now, mediocre grades will not cut it. You may have to wait for some time to actually be admitted. There are lots of people who think they want to be nurses without having the least idea of what actually happens during a 12 hour (yes, 12) work shift. This is not meant to discourage you but to keep you from becoming another nursing dropout. RN’s know all the ins and outs and will save you a lot of wasted time and money.

  14. Nancy says:

    I recently graduated from nursing school in May at the age of 34. I decided to go back to school when my Journalism degree didn’t lead me down the path I wanted. The best advice I have for anyone interested in nursing is to talk to local hospitals about their nursing needs. Here in Colorado, we don’t have the same nursing shortage as other states and I am finding it more difficult to get a job as a new grad nurse. Many area hospitals have scholarship programs that will help you pay for nursing school and gaurantee you a job when you graduate! If only I had known that BEFORE I graduated.

  15. rhymeswithlibrarian says:

    Hi Amanda. I graduated from nursing school in Canada a year ago. If you’re interested in #2’s suggestion of studying in Canada, you can ask me more about it. My best friend in nursing school was an American who came here because of the cheap tuition – even though he had to pay much higher tuition than me as an international student.

    If you want to work the US, though, you should be aware that Canadian nursing school will not be a good preparation for the NCLEX. The NCLEX (and the American nursing schools are much more focused on factual stuff – physiology, pathology, pharmacology, microbiology etc. – than Canadian schools or our licencing exam. For some reason, the Canadian programs prefer to focus on airy-fairy “theory” bullshit. I didn’t enjoy nursing school one bit, nor do I feel that it even remotely prepared me to work as a nurse, but getting that degree allowed me to become an RN and to improve my personal situation greatly, so it was worth it overall.

    I agree with Gayle’s suggestion to talk to nurses about the job as much as you can before starting school. If you can’t find many, here are a couple options:

    1. The discussion boards at http://www.allnurses.com

    2. The book “Tending Lives” edited by Echo Heron. It’s a compilation of many nurses descriptions of their work, and is very interesting. Some of the stories are humourous or inspiring, but some are so horrible that they’ll destroy any romantic or sentimental notions of nursing that you might be harbouring (not that I’m saying that you personally have these notions, but lots of non-nurses do).

    Good luck, Marion RN

  16. kingking says:

    As a long-time RN, I completely agree my sister nurse posters above. Research the field completely, it’s not for everyone. In fact, when I graduated and went to work on the “floor”, I was convinced I had made the biggest mistake of my life. I was even considering going back to school to change my vocation when I was accepted into an OR training program. It changed my life and I’ve been an operating room nurse ever since.

    Definitely look into a hospital job prior to attending nursing school. Most have very generous tuition reimbursement programs. You’ll learn medical terminology, how the hierarchy operates, and you’ll learn very quickly if health care is really for you. It’s nice to think that you’ll be able to make a difference in someone’s life, and you can, but the reality of time and budget constraints seriously get in the way sometimes. Health care is still a business, and there will be no shortage of bean-counters to remind you of that if you aren’t pulling the wagon. On the flip side, it’s full of wonderful, caring people with warm hearts and hilariously wacky personalities.

    That said, it’s been a great career for me, and I would welcome you into the fold. Best of luck to you.

    rjk, rn

  17. Darla, RN says:

    Amanda, the local nursing schools here in North Carolina require you to be a nurse tech(nurse’s aide) before you can start nursing school. It weeds out a lot of people who have no idea what nursing is all about. Nursing involves dealing with a lot of unatractive aspects of bodily functions. Nursing also involves as much paperwork as it does patient contact. It is a great profession, and we need more people who truely care about people. If you think it is for you, a job at a hospital is a great place to start. There is a shortage of nurses here in North Carolina, and a lot of the bigger hospitals are offering to pay for your education to ensure a work force. Good Luck! And Good Luck to you as well, Trent.

  18. Anni says:

    Excellent article, Trent! I returned to college in my late 30s. I decided I HAD to do it then and after some juggling and rearranging, I was in school several months later. It was the best thing I could have done at the point in time.

  19. leslie says:

    If you are interested in working in politics or public service there is absolutely no point at all in getting a political science degree. As interesting as it is, it won’t help you at all in what you want to do.

  20. antiSWer says:

    Good tips. Information interviews are IMPERATIVE! And not just one or two…get as many as you can. People are usually only too pleased to meet with you to talk about their jobs and themselves.

    One other thing I would say is that sometimes you just have to make the leap. When you know it’s what you want to do, go for it. I freaked myself out before I went back trying to get everything sorted out. Paying off debts, saving some money, etc. Being prepared is one thing, but sometimes you just have to jump.

    One of the more interesting analysis for me was figuring out whether I should go full-time or part-time. I chose the full and don’t regret it.

  21. Eric C says:

    College may or may not be the answer for everyone – for example, I have a student who gave up college to go to automotive repair school, and that’s great, because he’ll never look back. One semester in college was enough to convince him that it wasn’t for him, and he’s one step closer to finding out what is right for him today. Who knows if he’ll return in five years? But for today, in the moment, he’s found a path he feels is right for him, and that’s important.

    However, if you think it might be for you, I have a few things to mention:
    1) Colleges will give you “basic skills” tests – to test your reading comprehension, writing skill, and math ability. If it has been a while, you can brush up on these things. Many people walk in, unaware that they are going to get tested, and agree to take the tests without preparing. Don’t do that! You could end up wasting a semester on remedial classes.

    2) If you have a major in mind, get in to a class in that major, but take some general education courses too. If you discover, for example, political science isn’t for you, you can always discover during that same semester that you really like writing, or computers, or sociology. Or whiskey, but that’s a different aspect of education!

    3) Introduce yourself to a faculty member in the major. Badger them. Full time faculty have office hours during the week, and you don’t have to be one of their students to visit and ask questions. Many faculty actually hope for this – the more students in their major, the more options they have in course selection, so it is in their best interests to talk to you a bit.

    4) If you’re starting at a community college – remember, once you get the associate’s degree, no one can ever take that away from you. You’ll have a degree, and you’ll be in the upper 33% of the US already. If you go to a four year school, and you don’t finish, you don’t have any degree, but one advantage (aside from cost) is that an associate’s degree at a community college gives you a middle point. Ask about transfer agreements, remember, they are competing for your business, and they better give you a seamless way to transfer to local four year colleges and universities!

  22. Jeremy says:

    Amanda, as stated previously, working as a certified nursing assistant in a nursing home or hospital will give you the foundation you need to know if you really want to dig in and become a nurse. It’s a great opportunity to get up close and personal with strangers; for example, like getting used to touching people where you’re not comfortable touching them and such.
    In addition, get your associates degree first. Save yourself a HUGE chunk of change and go to a community college for it. Then if you truly like it, follow up with an accelerated bachelor program, or you risk curtailing your future potential greatly. The great thing about nursing is that employers aren’t concerned about where you got your degree, as long as the school is accredited.

    Stay away from LVN/LPN programs. While they often turn out quality nurses, the license is so limited now it severely restricts where you can go with your career.

  23. BTGNow.net says:

    Best of luck to Amanda!

    Great advice by the way. Especially the first bit where you counsel her to check out the career before hand: I’ve seen it happen before where someone goes back to school and the job is not at all what they were expecting!

    I’m happy Amanda decided to return to school however; earning a degree or professional certification is one of the best ways to make more money in the long term. And it’s not all about being a doctor or a lawyer anymore; many places are desperate for professionals like nurses simply because no one is considering these jobs anymore (especially in Canada!. I go into detail about this in my article “How Can I Make More Money?” which can be found here: http://www.btgnow.net/2008/07/how-can-i-make-more-money-part-2-work-smarter/

    Good luck Amanda!

  24. J says:

    Another way to go back to school is on someone else’s dime. In my case, filling out a few forms and following some well established procedures let me get a Master’s degree using tuition reimbursement money from my employer. Sure, it was “only” $5K/year, but I was able to find a decent master’s program that would keep me under that limit so I was able to do it with no debt at all, while working a full time job. It took a little longer than going full-time, but not that much because I would take summer session classes, too.

  25. Eve says:

    Trent, an undergrad political science degree will not provide you with the kind of connections you need to get into state and local politics. A Masters of Public Administration would be a little better, but is more tailored to someone who wants to be a bureaucrat.

    The best place to go to meet the people who are going to be mayors, county council members, state senators, and governors? LAW SCHOOL. The halls are crawling with politicians’ kids. If you’re not going to use the degree, then it wouldn’t be worth paying all that tuition, but find a reason to attend free events that a law school near you offers, and use the opportunity wander the halls yourself – you’ll see what I mean.

  26. Dawn says:

    Another quick note – I took a look at fastweb recently and found a number of scholarships for returning students. I am taking some courses at the community college presently, rebuilding my resume and portfolio of experience because I am planning on a major career move in a few years. When I am ready to go full time I am planning on applying for every scholarship I can get my hands on!

  27. BW says:

    One of the best ways to get involved in local politics is to volunteer with the campaigns and political action groups in your area. It’s a lot cheaper than getting another degree, and volunteer positions can sometimes turn into paid positions. And even if your aim isn’t necessarily to get paid, you’ll still meet a lot of the movers and shakers in local and state politics.

  28. Mary says:

    I graduated a year and a half ago, and after no luck in the job market (Bachelors in Geography looking for a Geographic Information Systems – GIS job), I’m now going to a Tech School for programming. I went into programming because I noticed GIS jobs are looking for more technical skills such as programming. If I don’t get a GIS job after that, I know I’ll at least be able to get an IT job, especially since I am female (male dominated field). I think if you go into something that complements what you already have, and assuming you still want to be, it works well.

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