Registered nurse Colleen Cunningham was at a crossroads. Though the 46-year-old had been a nurse for two decades, liked her colleagues and had a good reputation, she felt that she’d exhausted the role. “I really just wanted to expand my scope,” she said. The answer? Another degree.
But the Albany, NY, resident didn’t quit her job. She enrolled in a full-time programme to become a nurse practitioner, which would qualify her to prescribe medication and manage patient care in more advanced ways. When she wasn’t in class, she was working 12-hour shifts in the Emergency Room three or four days a week. To make it all possible, her husband left a job requiring full-time travel to take a local position.
For two years, Cunningham met the demands of both a full-time job and a full class load. Often she left her house and three school-aged children before dawn to make 0900 classes at a university that was two-and-a-half hours away.
“When I think back on it, I think, ‘How did I do that?’” she said. “It was hard. And there were costs. There were piano recitals and track meets that I missed because I was doing homework or traveling or working. But I was on a mission.”
Today, at 59, she’s doing work that she loves. “I’m happy with my decision,” she said. “And I think it’s getting better and better.”
Studying in mid-life has a specific set of challenges, from juggling classes and a full-time job to managing kids and household responsibilities. But that doesn’t stop people from doing it, despite the added expense and pressure.
If you’re considering going back to study as a mature student, there are a few things you should know:
What it will take: You’ll need money, time and determination. “Thanks to families, marriages, and other commitments, you may not have as much time as you need,” said Julia Chung, a financial and estate planner with JYC Financial in Langley, British Columbia in Canada. “If you’ve been out of school for some time, it may also take longer to adjust to studying and to learning. Allocate more time than you need and then be realistic about how that will affect the balance of your life.”
How long you need to prepare: It may be quick to enroll in a class at a local college or university, but joining an advanced programme is a bigger commitment, so you’ll probably need six to 12 months to wade through the process. For an advanced degree, you may first need to pass a test such as the GMAT or GRE for graduate school in the US or Canada, or the LNAT for law school in the UK. Even for basic classes, it will take time to research programmes and admission dates, apply, seek financial aid or scholarships and wait for your classes to start.
Do it now: Understand why you’re doing it. Really think about the end game. Are you getting an additional degree to score a promotion? To get a raise? For personal satisfaction? “With career changes, understand the exact education and experience requirements for that career before enrolling and paying tuition fees,” Chung said.
Run the numbers. How much is it going to cost, and will study boost your income? Is it worth it? “The evidence is mixed on the financial returns to part-time study,” said Claire Callender, a professor of higher education at the Birkbeck and UCL Institute of Education in London. Don’t forget about all the incidentals, such as commuting costs and textbooks, which can be pricey. Some higher degrees such as Executive MBAs have an international component that requires you to travel abroad, so be sure to factor in this time and expense.
Consider the alternatives. Can you gain the required skill with a targeted class or course rather than a full degree? Certain kinds of experience, such as internships or part-time weekend work, might be just as beneficial. “Could you get the same, or a better, impact on your CV by getting the right kind of work experience?” asked John Lees, UK author of How to Get a Job You Love.
Ask your boss for help. “A lot of larger companies will assist you financially if the field of study is relevant to your job and employer,” said Brett Evans, executive director of Atlas Wealth Management in Southport, Australia. “However, they may place caveats on their contribution. This may include you agreeing to continue working at the same company for a certain period after your study is finished.”
Discuss it with your family. Adding 10 to 20 hours (or more) of classes and homework to your weekly schedule will affect more than just you. “Your family is going to receive less of you during this time,” Chung said. Prepare them for the possibility of a cut in disposable income while you pay for your course. And, if you expect to boost your income or your overall happiness with the change, explain it will be worth it in the end, but there will be a slog in the meantime.
Do it later: Keep track of your expenses. In many cases you may be able to deduct tuition, books, and other expenses — as well as interest on student loans — from your taxes. Consult a professional if you aren’t sure how to execute this at tax time.
Don’t skimp at work. Your full-time gig should still be your priority. “Don’t study during work time and let it affect your performance,” Evans said. “And don’t expect to be able to cram in a study session before an assignment or exam is due like you did in college. You have less time now that you’re working, so plan ahead.”
Do it smarter: Take care of yourself. No matter how crazy your schedule, you still need shut-eye and exercise. “It seems obvious, but these things are really tough for most people,” Chung said. “Your brain can’t function without sleep, exercise, nutrients and hydration. Ignoring this is setting yourself up for failure.”
Plan ahead. Start socking money away now. The more you have in savings, the less you’ll have to struggle financially while you complete your course. And why not plan a treat for you and your family when you graduate? You’ll all deserve it.
This article originally appeared in a interview with BBC Capital.