By Douglas Fehlen
Before You Enroll in School
Completing a certificate or degree program requires a substantial amount of time, money and effort. Because advancing your education is a big commitment, you don't want to enroll in a program without having confidence it will help you in a future career. Skill and interest inventories can help indicate whether a field is right for you. For many people, the discipline they choose will build on experience they've gained in their original career field. Others, though, look to make a clean break from the kind of work they did in the past.
If you're confident in the career direction you'd like to pursue, get specific information about what credentials or experience you'll need to be considered a viable candidate for job openings. Talk with people in the field who have expertise that you can rely on. For instance, you might request an informational interview with a hiring manager in your new targeted discipline. Other places to go for information include professional organizations and industry conferences. Don't overlook job-posting websites, which typically feature qualifications in position listings and sometimes provide tips for entering a specific field.
Choosing a Program
When you have all of the information you need, you can go about the process of selecting the education program that's right for you. With so many options available, you shouldn't have any problem finding an opportunity that's a fit. In making a decision, remember the insight you've gleaned from experts in the workforce. If you've heard, for example, that while a certificate can qualify you for a job employers more realistically look to those with a degree, opting for a 2- or 4-year program (whichever is expected) is likely best.
Regardless of which type of academic program you target, you should have flexibility when it comes to where, when and how you'll complete coursework. Institutions typically offer both daytime and night classes, and students can choose to attend courses on campus or enroll in online programs. Your life circumstances should help determine your decision. For instance, if you need to keep your current job to provide for a family, choosing night classes or an online education program is probably best. Costs can vary significantly between institutions, so you'll want to comparison shop. Don't forget to factor in the amount of financial aid you can expect attending a school. The institution should be able to provide a fairly accurate net-cost analysis of per-year costs for a program. Also ask about scholarships that are geared toward individuals with your experience.
In making cost analyses, don't forget that program quality can also differ substantially between schools. Earning a certificate or degree at a relative low cost may seem a good option, but if the school offering it isn't respected in your targeted field, any credential you earn may matter little in a job hunt. For this reason, it's wise to attend a school that is partnered with industry. Admissions staff should be able to speak to this, but also seek out the perspectives of other students and institution alumni. Find out if graduates are satisfied with a program and, most importantly, whether it has enabled them to get jobs.
Making the Most of Your Time in School
While in school, put forth a strong effort to learn and earn good grades. College GPA may not be an important hiring factor in many industries, but applying yourself in school is the best way to get the most out of your tuition dollars. Don't be satisfied with simply earning a certificate or degree. The job market is highly competitive, and you should make the most of your college years by engaging with your discipline in meaningful ways. For example, getting a part-time job or internship can give you experience in your new career field - and help get your resume to the top of the pile after graduation.
If other commitments don't allow you to take on a part-time job or complete an internship, you might volunteer within your career field. Volunteer opportunities can give you on-the-job work experience without the vigorous commitment. Additionally, donating your time to an organization can get your foot in the door there. Attending professional conferences and seminars represents another way to hone your skills and network with people in your new field. Ask for informational interviews with potential employers while you're still in school. You may make an impression that gets you a post-graduation job offer. Another way to get ahead: seek out a mentor - either on a school's faculty or in the workforce - who can help you navigate the transition to a new career. Don't forget to take advantage of career counseling and job-placement services available at your school.
Need more guidance on changing careers? Reference this career-changer checklist.