Dear New Shrink,

Like many others, the current job climate in California has put a damper on my own career prospects. My organization has implemented several cost cutting measures including downsizing salaried staff and reducing our take-home pay by forcing mandatory closures. I have been considering going back to school as a result of the current lack of job advancement and growth opportunities. Are there any cons of going back to school now? Please advise me.

Thank you,

Unsure Applicant

Dear Unsure,

Many people consider attaining new or higher education opportunities during a down economy. While gaining a new skill set and setting yourself apart from the competition may seem like a good idea on the surface, it is important that you consider the deeper implications of this decision.

First, it is important to consider the type of degree you might attain and its value in your industry. I see three main reasons why individuals might choose to enter a graduate program: to enhance one’s current career, to shift industries, or to explore options. Some may enter to enhance their current career; perhaps an advanced degree is required to attain an executive level program or the degree will help one to remain competitive in a growing market. Others might enroll in a program to shift careers in which the advanced degree will help them to develop the skills and training necessary to facilitate this shift. Finally, graduate or professional school may help others to explore opportunities and thereby clarify a new direction. While an advanced degree can certainly help open your mind to new opportunities and directions, it’s probably a costly way to get there.

Determine whether an advanced degree will really separate you from the competition and if it is necessary for advancement within your industry of interest. If you plan to stay in your current industry look at the management within your own company and your competitors. Many firms will list the biographies for their top executives on the “About Us” section of their website. If you are looking to change industries, it is important to find a program that will give you the advanced training and qualifications needed to validate your shift. Again, explore what working professionals in your ideal companies have done and what specialized training they have completed in order to achieve their status.

If you think that graduate school might help you to explore new opportunities, consider some lower cost opportunities that might provide the same opportunities. For instance, many colleges and universities offer extension or community education programs to provide non-degree seeking students with opportunities to gain further training or advanced education. These programs might provide you with the perfect opportunity to test out your new interests without taking on major financial obligations.

With the rising costs of education, attaining an advanced degree can be a costly endeavor. Consider whether this cost will be offset by your future earning potential. Also consider methods to reduce your out-of-pocket expenses. The method through which you attain your new degree can have several implications for your own career. Maintaining your full-time position while working towards degree completion will allow you to maintain an income to offset the costs of tuition and related expenses. Explore whether your current employer will provide educational support for your graduate studies. Explore fellowship opportunities and other programs that will help off-set your educational expenses and help you meet your longer-term career goals.

In addition, consider your future career prospects and new opportunities that will come as a result of an advanced degree. Are there ways to make these contacts and connects outside of a formal classroom? Are you relying on a degree to give you an advantage that networking, job connections, or a professional association might provide?

A graduate degree is not the only way to open up new career possibilities. While the job market often goes through ups and downs, there is no guarantee that the job market will be any stronger when you complete your degree. You must be cautious not to take on unnecessary debt to offset the current economic situation. Ultimately, only you can decide whether this is the right opportunity for you and whether this is the right time for you to make the change. I would ask you to carefully consider your options, your true reasons for entering a graduate program, and your longer term career goals.

KATRINA DAVY is a Santa Monica based professional career counselor who holds degrees from Cornell and Columbia universities. Send your questions to newshrink@gmail.com. All questions are kept anonymous; let us help you with your life matters! Visit us online at www.newshrink.com.