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Midcareer Professionals: It's Time to Go Back to School

A graduate degree could mean a big career boost or an exciting new direction.

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As the owner of an independent bookstore, Patrick McDermott made a living by sharing his love of fiction with others. Until the Internet sounded the death knell for his store, that is.

"Meeting the mortgage and raising a daughter—by 2008, I knew I had to make a leap," he says. So at age 53, he went back to school, seeking a master's in education at the University of Puget Sound.

The number of people age 40 and older heading off to grad school has doubled since 1987; by 2007 (the latest tally), that group accounted for nearly a quarter of people seeking a master's or Ph.D., according to the Council of Graduate Schools.

In an era when middle-aged Americans can expect to work another 20 or 30 years, many see the investment as a way to turbocharge their career advancement or shift gears entirely. But does it pay for a midcareer professional coping with a mortgage, the kids' college tuition, and a diminished retirement fund to put precious resources into a second chance in this sluggish economy?

[Understand the value of a graduate degree.]

That depends. The average annual tuition and fees for grad school hit $8,763 at public universities and $20,368 at private schools in 2010, according to the Department of Education. But the big picture reveals that (on average), over the course of a lifetime, people with master's degrees earn 18 percent more than those with baccalaureate degrees, says Debra Stewart, president of the Council.

The decision is apt to be a win-win for 20-somethings, who have decades both to reap the rewards and pay off the average cumulative grad school debt of $40,297. Keep in mind that the extent to which a grad degree pays off depends on the field: The median salary for someone with a master's in engineering is currently $107,600, more than double the $51,499 median for those with a master's in English, according to a recent report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

"In many of the fastest-growing professions, a grad degree is essential," says Stewart. "It allows you to come in at a much more senior level. It's also associated with advancing in an organization."

The possibility of a big payoff obviously fades the older one gets. "If you're 45 and you have 20 years left in the workforce to repay that debt, will the increase in compensation be worth it? You have to look at your return on investment," cautions Eric Dickerson, managing director at the executive search firm Kaye/Bassman. "If you're not getting a return back within five years, ... what's the impact of the value of that degree post-five years?"

[Get tips for paying for graduate school.]

And the real costs go well beyond the sticker price, says Mark Kantrowitz, who runs the financial aid website FinAid.org. "A lot of families face lifestyle issues when a parent goes back to school. It's not just the tuition; it's also the opportunity costs to maintain their lifestyle."

Say goodbye to your free time, warns Jill Oviatt, 48, director of communications for a global health research institute in Seattle. She's taking one class per quarter toward a master's of communication in digital media at the University of Washington while managing a 50-to-60-hour workweek and a private life.

With so much at risk, career counselors and recruiters suggest midlifers have a clear and specific goal in mind before taking the plunge, especially in this tight job market. "Don't go to grad school just because you think it's going to make you more marketable," advises Jennie Dede, head of recruitment at staffing firm Adecco. "You're going to need an endgame."

That could mean a promotion and salary increase within your organization—or a bid to stay relevant in a dynamic field. Oviatt's background as a journalist for CBC television in Montreal for nearly a decade prepared her well to shape her nonprofit's message, but not for the way the digital media revolution was rapidly transforming her medium.

"There are only so many things you can learn on the job," she says. Now in her fifth of nine quarters, she says her coursework has already been a boon to her in the workplace.