Back to School, Rodney Dangerfield's 1986 movie of a successful businessman returning to college to work on his bachelor's degree, illustrated many of the nontraditional reasons for continuing a formal education. Dangerfield's character, Thornton Melon, didn't need the usual benefits of learning. Already he was a self-made millionaire. Initially Melon did it to convince his son to continue on with college, but quickly he discovered reasons of his own to be there.
Increasing numbers of professional adults are taking more graduate, professional, and continuing education courses than ever. Their reasons are even more varied than Melon's. It may be for career advancement, changing careers, or simply personal fulfillment. Most people become part-time students, usually taking evening classes. But a few might quit a job, or take a leave of absence, in order to once again become a full-time student.
When I was a college professor, one of my graduate students, a 55-year-old working computer professional, was the valedictorian for the school of graduate studies. This demonstrates that no age barrier exists to formal learning. Many adults continue some type of formal education throughout their lives.
If you're contemplating continuing your education as an adult, there are some things that you should consider. First, if you already have your bachelor's degree, don't waste time pursuing yet another undergraduate degree, even if it's in a field that you're not too familiar with. A second bachelor's degree, even if it's from the same school as where you received your first BS, almost always requires taking additional classes that have nothing to do with your desired course of study. A graduate degree might require taking a few undergraduate courses in preparation. The course work will be more focused and the number of courses will be fewer, though, than if you embarked on another undergraduate degree.
Don't be held back by any insecurities about your ability to undertake graduate education. Many adults believe graduate work is significantly more difficult than undergraduate work when in fact that's rarely the case. Graduate education is typically more focused than undergraduate work, and it places a greater emphasis on analysis and synthesis. Most bachelor's degree holders are capable of doing good graduate work.
After deciding to pursue a graduate degree, your next step is selecting a field of study. The fields to choose from at the graduate level tend to be somewhat more limited than at the undergraduate level. For example, rather than selecting a graduate degree in electrical engineering, you may have to enroll in a degree program in systems engineering.
Students often specialize through the use of research or thesis courses toward the conclusion of their coursework. So, look for a degree program that can be customized with individual courses to meet your own learning goals.
Instead of a graduate engineering degree, you might want to pursue a degree in preparation for a later career shift. The MBA is possibly the most common, as many engineers move into engineering management after a few years. Usually the MBA doesn't require an undergraduate degree in management. Still, it often will require taking several undergraduate courses to lay a business foundation.
Yet, an MBA doesn't have to be the pursuit either. A surprising number of engineers pursue graduate degrees in education. They hope in mid-career to leverage their technical backgrounds into a highly sought-after mathematics or science teaching profession. While the pay won't be as good, a two-income family with growing children may appreciate the more predictable schedule of a teacher.
Simply taking courses with no regard to a degree is fine, but you shouldn't automatically assume that you won't ever want the degree. In many cases it's a good idea to take one or two courses informally, if the school will allow it, to see if you can get back into the formal-education mindset. That saves you a modest application fee and the trouble of withdrawing if you change your mind after taking a course.
Most graduate schools won't allow you to take more than two courses without applying for a degree program. Others might let you take more, but stipulate that those can never be used for a degree. I personally saw several adult learners first take ten or twelve graduate courses without applying and then attempt to graduate. The problem with this approach is that the courses were taken at whim, with no guidance in weaving a coherent body of knowledge.
Possibly the most important initial decision that one has to make today is whether to pursue a degree through traditional means, or through one of the rapidly growing number of online or limited-residency programs. Available across the country, many nontraditional degree programs are unlike the mail-order diploma mills of the past. Not just accredited, they're also as comprehensive as programs found in some of the better universities. Many of these degree programs are actually offered by the better universities.
In general, these degree programs and on-campus degrees share the same application processes. The school evaluates your previous coursework and experience and recommends a course of study for you. Individual courses may consist of individual work with e-mail access to the instructor, group projects performed using e-mail or videoconferencing, or even entire multicasted classroom sessions.
Those distance-learning programs offered by established universities are almost always fully accredited. Plus, they carry the same weight as an on-campus degree from that school. Rarely, if ever, is a distinction made between the diplomas. The most often-cited advantage of a traditional degree program is contact with other students. Most distance programs, though, provide limited residencies (often two or three weeks in the summer months), and ample opportunities for interaction through e-mail and videoconferencing.
There exist nonaccredited universities that offer distance degree programs too. Some of these schools are similar in quality to established accredited universities but aren't accredited due to the slow pace of accreditation agencies. While degrees from such schools are professionally enhancing, they are in many cases accorded second-class status by other schools when students try to continue their education further. Additionally, students of these programs usually aren't eligible for either government or company financial assistance.
Pursuing a distance-learning degree requires different skills than pursuing a traditional degree program. If you're deadline-driven in your job, doing your best work when working against the clock, then you may do well with a distance-learning de-gree. Regularly sched-uled "classroom" sessions are infrequent, but the course work has to be completed by the end of the term.
On the other hand, if you tend to be more regimented at work, keeping a regular schedule and accomplishing about the same amount of work every day, then you might be more successful in a traditional classroom. Classes typically meet on the same days and times, and often coursework is parceled out throughout the term. There's a better opportunity to pace yourself when you're going to class every week.
What does it take to return to school, especially if you're already a working engineer and you plan to remain employed while enrolled? It doesn't require exceptional intelligence, but it does require dedication and a willingness to forego many leisure activities while taking classes. On weekends, when friends are taking day trips, having cookouts, or watching football games, you will be hitting the books.
If you have a family, the burden is even greater. Your spouse and children have to buy into your education plan and accept the fact that you may not be available for many family activities. This is one reason why most engineers attempt graduate work at a young age, when they tend to have fewer family responsibilities. In addition to having more energy, it's frequently easier to focus that energy on a specific task over a period of time.
Just because you're older doesn't mean that you can't go back to school. But if you are thinking about it in your twenties, your timing couldn't be better. If it's possible, try to integrate your schoolwork into the things that the rest of your family does on a regular basis. For example, if your children are school-aged, it would be worthwhile to reinforce their own study habits with yours, making schoolwork a family project.
If you remain employed while working on a degree, you also must get your employer to buy into your plans. Most employers say they readily support off-duty education programs, and have tuition-reimbursement programs. But in practice, many managers have little sympathy with education needs that conflict with real or perceived work requirements. Although most companies would like to employ engineers with advanced degrees, at least some offer little or no day-to-day support with the process.
Depending on your employer and your individual managers, this could end up being a constant tug-of-war that you have to face in order to achieve your learning objectives. Gauge your employer's and manager's attitudes toward a flexible work schedule, and talk with co-workers who have already juggled work and school.
Before embarking on the process of continuing your education, you should be honest with yourself on the reasons why you're doing so. Additional credentials offer a boost to even the most conservative ego, and you almost certainly will command a higher salary.
But neither of those benefits will see you through two or more years of study and discipline. It's only when you can enjoy learning new things and broadening your horizons for your own sake that you can make the commitment to be successful by going back to school.