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When Does It Pay To Go Back to School In Midlife?

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SPECIAL FROM Next Avenue

By Nancy Collamer

Getting a degree or certificate won’t guarantee a job. Here's what you need to know to increase your chances of finding new work.

I suspect many Americans in their 50s and 60s are considering going back to school to improve their career prospects.

After all, getting additional education in midlife – whether it’s a bachelors degree, a masters or a certificate – can be an excellent way to move into a new career, earn a promotion or make more money.

But college isn’t cheap and there’s no guarantee that further schooling will lead to a new job or fatten your paycheck.

So when does it pay to go back to school after age 50 or so?

(MORE: Why I Went Back to College)

A Midlife Degree Is No Job Guarantee

I got to thinking about this issue after my editor forwarded me an email from a distraught 59-year-old Next Avenue reader. She couldn't find a job after picking up a bachelor's degree in social work because employers said she lacked the necessary experience.

That’s an all too common chicken-and-egg predicament faced by many new, older graduates: You need relevant experience to get a new job, but you need a job to gain relevant experience.

If going back to school, either for a degree or a certificate, is something you’re thinking about, here are three considerations for choosing a program wisely, plus two tips to help you find a job after completing your studies:

How to Select a Back-to-School Program

Research employment rates for new graduates. There was a time when pretty much any college degree was a ticket to a new job. But those days are long gone.

According to "Hard Times, College Majors, Unemployment and Earnings 2013," a study just released by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the choice of a college major determines your likelihood of unemployment.

The study found that the unemployment rate was roughly 5 percent for recent nursing and education majors, but more than 10 percent for grads with degrees in architecture and information systems, concentrated in clerical functions.

(MORE: Update Your Skills at a Community College)

So you’ll want to research official employment statistics by industry before enrolling anywhere. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is a good source for this type of information.

Keep in mind that some fields, like entertainment and high tech, are known for favoring younger workers. Others, like accounting and health care, tend to be more welcoming to people over 40. But as the Next Avenue reader’s struggle illustrates, even in fields like social work, where age is often valued, getting hired without job-related experience can still be difficult.

If you’d like to return to college to switch fields, it’s important to talk with industry insiders who can evaluate your odds of success. Ask about in-demand specialties or certifications that would maximize your educational investment.

Investigate alternatives to four-year and two-year degrees. If the high cost of a degree and the possibility of taking on debt to pay the tuition has you worried (especially now that the student loan rate just shot up to 6 percent), consider less costly options, like a certificate program.

Short-term specialized certificate and vocational training programs can often be quick and fairly inexpensive ways to snag good-paying jobs.

The websites of community colleges, technical schools and industry associations are excellent places to search for quality certificate programs in high-demand fields.

Some community colleges also participate in the Plus 50 initiative, a national program comprising courses and life transition counseling services for people over 50. To find one near you, check out the Plus 50 website.

Another excellent site for researching continuing education programs is Petersons.com.

Find educational programs that offer real-world work experience. The more jobs, internships or volunteer positions you’ve racked up in your new, intended field before graduation, the easier it will be get hired when school is over. So look for a college degree or certificate that offers these types of opportunities as part of its curriculum.

Who knows? One of the places you work while in school could wind up becoming your employer when you complete your education.

(MORE: New College Program to Launch Your Second Career)

2 Tips for Finding a Job After Graduation

Get involved in your new field while you’re in school. As I’ve written before, networking is the best way to find a job these days. So don’t wait until you finish your coursework to become actively engaged in your new industry.

Soon after you enroll, join its trade association, start going to conferences and participate in related social networking groups on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

Those types of efforts did the trick for Joan Baird, 55, of Fort Wayne, Ind., who graduated from Northwestern University with an M.S. in medical informatics in 2010. She volunteered for industry groups, rubbed elbows at conferences and eventually landed a job as a business systems analyst for a hospital.

Tap into your new network of professors and classmates plus the school’s alumni office. They can offer great connections. Many professors continue to work in their field and know people in it who may be able to help you get a foot in the door.

Your classmates can be an excellent source of job leads and referrals, too. So be sure to stay in touch with them regularly, online and in person, once you finish your degree or certificate program.

Your college may also have an alumni career services office that can assist in your job search when graduation nears. These departments sometimes offer webinars, career fairs and one-on-one counseling sessions.

Finally, as your college classes are winding down, don’t forget to revamp your resumé, LinkedIn profile and other job-search materials to highlight your recent education and internship experiences.

An excellent book to help you do so is Expert Resumés for Career Changers by Wendy Enelow and Louise Kursmark.

Why These Steps Are Worthwhile

I know this all sounds like a heck of a lot of work. It is.

But if you’re willing to invest the energy, the payoff for going back to school can be well worth the effort.

As Joan Baird, who leveraged her new degree into a job, told me: “It wasn’t easy. But I worked darn hard and it finally paid off.”

Read more on Next Avenue:

The Surprising Benefits of Working Backward
The Secrets of 'How to Retire Happy'
Women: Get Real About Retirement Health Costs

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

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