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Back to school? Tough questions to ask before you write that check

Career changers often begin their transition with a return to school. These days, you have more choices than ever: online, teleclasses, on-site seminars, and traditional classes.

If you're pursuing a traditional degree, such as an MBA, you'll see ads and brochures from schools you've never heard of.

If you're embarking on a new-to-the-world career, such as coaching, the choices seem even more bewildering.

Cathy Goodwin, Ph.D., who spent many years in the classroom as both professor and student, suggests some tough questions to ask before you write your check.

1. Do you really need formal training?

After ten years of management experience with a well-regarded Fortune 50 corporation, Alice developed a training program to help managers retain their best and brightest employees. Should she return to school for a coaching certification?

Alice needs to learn what her clients will value when they hire her. Some firms will prefer an MBA to a coaching certification. Others will be more interested in dollar savings she can document than in any letters after her name. Before investing in more education, she needs to dip a toe into the water through networking and speaking to business groups.

2. Where have all the graduates gone?

Harold's forty-year management career culminated in a vice presidency of a company that is a household name. Bursting with energy, Harold decided he wanted to share his hard-won business wisdom with the next generation. He would get a Ph.D. degree and teach at a university.

Soon Harold noticed ads for BusyPeople University, promising flexible classes that were offered weekends, evenings, and online. Forget the horror stories of fussy dissertation committees and delayed diplomas: BusyPeople would see Harold out the door in three well-ordered years -- two if he really hustled.

The tuition was high but Harold had the money. More important, he valued the flexibility and believed "you get what you pay for."

Will this degree help you reach your goal?

Three years later, Harold was turned down for one teaching job after another. Unaccustomed to rejection, he finally found someone willing to speak frankly.

"We don't take BusyPeople degrees seriously," said a senior professor at Traditional U, on condition of anonymity.

"We think BPU is a diploma mill. Okay," he cut off Harold's protest, "you say you had to do real work. But you have no idea what students learn in more tranditional programs. You'll have to try a junior college or maybe a small religious college.

"Frankly, you would have been better off to skip graduate school altogether. Many business schools would have been thrilled to invite you to serve as an Executive in Residence. This degree actually lowered your value."

Before you sign up for any program, talk to half a dozen graduates. The alumni office may be willing to share names attached to success stories, but don't stop there. Ask your contacts for names of less successful classmates.

And probe deeply. Zelda interviewed Vincent, a recent doctoral graduate of BusyPeople University. She was impressed with his new affiliation -- a very prestigious university. Vincent's placement seemed to demonstrate that BusyPeople graduates really could succeed in a competitive job market.

When Zelda called Vincent, she learned he was telling the truth. He was working for that prestigious university -- as a lab technician while hunting for a full-time teaching job.

3. Do you fit the profile of the successful graduate?

Clarissa enjoyed her job as a systems analyst but she dreamed of completing an MBA at a top-tier program. At age thirty-two, she was accepted to Harvard, Stanford, Wharton and more.

When she graduated at thirty-four, she discovered that many of the most desirable jobs were closed to her. The greatest salary and career gains were registered by those who entered the MBA program at twenty-three, following two years of experience. Graduating at twenty-five -- twenty-six, tops -- these young rising stars were in demand.

Clarissa 's post-MBA salary and title did not compensate for the high MBA tuition and lost income for two years. She realized she would have done better to enter an Executive MBA program, where she could make contacts with her true peers.

When school is not enough

Fresh from a four-year stint in the US Army, George signed up for an expensive two-year coach training program. As a drill sergeant he had coached hundreds of young men and women into leadership positions and he knew coaching involved a lot more than shouting orders.

George did well in the program but found he had difficulty attracting clients. He had no business network and people transitioning from military life couldn't afford coaching, even if they recognized the concept. After three years of struggle, George saw his savings vanish.

George realized he would benefit from taking a civilian job and building his network of contacts. He also realized that a college degree would have given him more options.

4. Where did the faculty come from?

Top universities will not hire their own graduates as professors. There are exceptions: you may be hired to teach in a different department or you might be invited to return in triumph following a successful career at an equally prestigious institution.

Quality training requires a faculty that is diverse in experience and education as well as race, sex and age. If many faculty were trained by the university where they're teaching, you have to ask tough questions about innovation, growth and change.

If you are applying for a training program, such as writing or coaching, learn who designed the curriculum.

If one or two instructors design the program, write the textbook, and conduct the classes, you are entering an apprenticeship program. This school may be the perfect route to your dreams but it will be a single-lane highway with limited turnoffs.

For maximum growth and flexibility, look for programs that offer textbooks authored by professionals outside the program. Look for faculty who come from diverse backgrounds who can generate controversy and debate. Tolerance of disagreement will allow you to stretch your mind in new and exciting directions.

Bottom Line: Choose your career goal and network for information. You may be surprised to discover that you can fill your dream without setting foot in another classroom. You may learn that some programs actually exclude you from the career path of your dreams.

We have been taught that school is a steppingstone to careers and even to riches. That lesson holds -- if you are the right student and you choose the right program to meet your goal.

Cathy Goodwin, Ph.D. is an author, career coach, and speaker. She works with mid-career professionals who want to make a fast move to career freedom. Visit her site http://www.movinglady.com or call 505-534-4294.


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When school is part of your freedom plan