Question: “I’m thinking of going back to school so I can get a better job.  Is this wise?”

Given that this question has come up several times in my work with clients this past month, I figured it might be appropriate to trot it out as the featured subject in this month’s issue — and volunteer my opinion on the subject to the entire newsletter community at large, especially since education seems to be a perennial issue of interest among career-minded individuals!

For starters, I would like to put the role of education in proper perspective, at least in terms of the marketability aspect of the concept and how it fits into the overall job search and career puzzle.  Simply put, education itself tends to be of little-to-zero value from a career success standpoint unless two conditions are met: 1) the knowledge acquired directly relates to a problem that some employer (ideally, multiple employers) currently needs solved; and 2) the candidate attaining the credential is able to articulate this connection clearly, persuasively, and credibly to potential hiring managers.  In other words, education is best viewed as a building-block that will help you build a convincing case that you can perform certain work tasks or address certain problems an employer needs resolved.  Outside of this direct on-the-job applicability, however, education does not offer any intrinsic financial value in its own right — and most employers, in my experience, will not reward you for it.

This being said, and with all due respect to the intrinsic value of education for its own sake, individuals thinking about investing in further schooling primarily for career advancement purposes need to first conduct a round of investigation into how much actual application the credentials in question will have in the real world.  Will that MBA provide a meaningful boost to one’s earning power?  Will that PHR certification result in employers taking you more seriously for human resource positions?  Will the thousands of dollars spent on that MCSE designation pay off in increased job prospects and the guarantee of steady, secure employment for years to come?  Obviously, if you ask any of the training providers themselves, you’re going to get an affirmative answer since they are unquestionably in the business of attracting tuition dollars and recruiting as many students as possible.  So it is important to seek out some objective feedback, as well, to evaluate the truth of these claims and explore whether there might potentially be other shortcuts you could take that would save you months/years of time spent in school — and spare you thousands of dollars in tuition and certification fees.

Here’s a short list of steps I’d recommend for anybody interested in conducting research into the value of a particular education or certification program:

— Search www.indeed.com by typing in the name of the degree/certificate (e.g. MCSE, PMP, CPA, etc.) on both a local and national level to see HOW MANY JOBS in today’s market actually require/request the particular credential in question; this will give you a strong sense of the “marketability” of the credential and the types of employment avenues that would be open to you upon graduation.

— Next, visit Indeed’s “Job Trends” section at www.indeed.com/jobtrends  and run the same certification keywords through the search box; study the historic hiring trends, which will help you determine whether the certificate/program you’re evaluating seem to be rising or falling in terms of employer demand.

— Visit the Linkedin.com “Answers” page at www.linkedin.com/answers (you’ll need to create a free profile on LinkedIn if you haven’t already) and post a question in the appropriate category inquiring about the value of the educational credentials you’re contemplating; more than likely, you’ll receive some invaluable feedback from other members of the LinkedIn community who have either gone through the same program, themselves, or can speak to the relevance of the credential from a hiring standpoint.

— Request to speak to several recent alumni of the college/school you’re considering to see what their experiences have been with regard to their new degrees or certifications.  Have they landed better jobs since graduating?  Did they command the salaries they were hoping for?  Did they think the program was a good investment?  If the college won’t provide specific names, try hanging out at alumni events at the school or surfing on-line (again, LinkedIn is a good source) to locate suitable alumni on your own.

— Ask for a tour of the college’s career center or placement office, in addition to information regarding their alumni relations and/or job development programs, if such exist.   How aggressive do they seem to be in terms of marketing their new graduates to local employers?  Do the workers seem evasive, annoyed, or stressed (signs of trouble in paradise) or genuinely friendly and enthusiastic to chat with you?

— Speak with some appropriate recruiters or staffing agencies who specialize in filling the kinds of positions you’ll eventually want to start targeting; ask them their opinion of the credentials and schools you’re contemplating and pay close attention to their feedback; since they’re on the front lines filling job leads every day, they will be in a great position to know which credentials are “hot” and add significant value to a candidate, versus those that aren’t that impressive or important

Again, the above suggestions are by no means intended to cast aspersions on the educational field as a whole or detract from the inherent value/benefits to be gained by continuous learning.  They are aimed, instead, at the numerous mid-career adults I encounter who are wrestling with the idea of going back to school in some capacity, but who can’t afford (either financially or emotionally) to make a big mistake and obtain schooling that won’t result in immediate, tangible career benefits.  And given the fact that both traditional and on-line educational institutions have come into their own as legitimate big business enterprises, the more “educated consumers” we can create out there, the better!