Going Back to School and Still Working

Julie writes in:

I have decided to apply to a library science master’s program. I can afford it without taking out a loan, it will take two years, and I will be able to take all my classes in the evenings after work and on weekends.

The problem? I don’t work in a library. I’m a little nervous about how my bosses will react to learning that I will probably be leaving my job in a few years, and I don’t want to jeopardize it in the meantime (though I really don’t think that will happen, I want to cover all my bases…).

Right now, I occasionally work late or attend (optional) evening events. When I’m unable to do these things once class starts, should I tell the truth? Will people find out anyway? (I’m also on Facebook and would love to be able to talk about school there, but some of my friends are also friends with people I work with.)

Is this something I should be concerned about, and how should I deal with it? What do you think?

First of all, I seriously applaud you for taking the initiative to follow something you’ve dreamed about. You’re switching careers to do something you want and done it in a financially sensible way – that’s something to truly be applauded.

Your question isn’t as straightforward as it seems. In a nutshell, you’re asking if you have an obligation to tell your employer that you’re embarking on a life path that will eventually lead you away from the company. I think each side of the equation deserves a fair examination.

The case for telling the employer is straightforward: it’s the honest thing to do. It does not require any duplicity and it’s much more likely to allow you to leave the company without burning any bridges if you eventually find out that library science isn’t for you. The risk is obvious, too: it does make you more expendable in the eyes of the company, and in a down economy, that could mean that your employment could go away sooner than you’d like.

On the other hand, you have the option of not telling your employer about your choice. This is much more likely to maintain the short term security of your job, but it puts you in a position where you may have to be dishonest about your choices.

My approach would be to be honest and open about what you’re doing but not focus on the potential job you’re seeking when you acquire the degree. Instead, tell the truth: you’re taking classes in library science because you’re passionate about library science and you’re stepping up to the plate about that passion. This way, you can openly share the things you’re learning and the progress you’re making with your friends and coworkers, but the focus is not on the idea that you’re potentially changing careers.

The reason for doing things this way is pretty simple. Once you have that degree, you might not, in the end, wind up actually working with that degree. You may find that you’re happier at your current job, but now you have that library science degree as a fallback plan (and perhaps as a resume builder in your current career). Simply acquiring this degree is not a guarantee that you will be switching careers.

Of course, when you’re in a situation where you’re actively hunting for library science jobs, you’ll be in something of a different position. My personal feeling is that, as long as you give your employer the appropriate amount of notice if you decide to leave, you shouldn’t feel obligated to tell your employer that you’re searching for a different job (unless, of course, you’re directly asked about it).

At this point, you’re following a passion, not seeking another job. Keep that in mind and you’ll be fine.

I’m quite sure that commenters will have a lot of different takes on this, though.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.