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.
[Consider getting an M.B.A. to switch careers.]
Another endgame could be building on skills you've developed in one profession to transition to another path. When that's the goal, "I would strongly suggest looking for a role where [the person's] skill set can easily be transferable," advises Mia Dennis, U.S. recruitment manager with PA Consulting Group.
Take Serge Wandji. By the time he reached 40, he had built a successful insurance brokerage in Atlanta. It wasn't until he began volunteering with his church at a local hospital, talking to patients who often shared their insurance woes, that he realized he had another calling.
Wandji put his business on hold and enrolled full time in Seton Hall University's College of Nursing. His plan: to get a master's degree and become a clinical nurse leader, a new role that serves as a liaison between patients and the rest of the healthcare team, including hospital administrators and insurance companies, with the aim of improving patient outcomes.
He plans to draw heavily on his experience in the business world after he graduates this year. "I'll be able to use my leadership and financial skills," he predicts. "If you have that knowledge, you can educate patients and make their lives easier."
Regardless of the field you're considering, check the job outlook before choosing a program. "Ask about initial job placement and longer-term career trajectory. It would be a mistake not to be aware of what the opportunities are for people who get degrees in particular fields," says Stewart from the Council of Graduate Schools.
Deciding to pursue a grad degree in midlife is much easier if your employer foots part or all of the bill, or if you can cover the costs through a teaching or research assistantship. Most students, however, have to rely on loans. McDermott, the former bookstore owner, borrowed $57,000 so he could go to school full time. He now pays $438 a month in student loans, and says it's "good debt."
Lincoln High School, where he now teaches English and social studies, is "an amazing place, and I love working with these kids," McDermott says. "I never leave this school without knowing I've made a difference." And, just as he was when selling literature, he's still helping expand minds.
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