Should I Go Back to School

by William S. Frank, President/CEO of CareerLab®

Editor’s note: this article was first written for physicians, but it applies to any professional or business leader.

Don’t get me wrong. I like school, enjoy studying, and could easily be one of those perpetual students we read about. But I live in the practical world of job placement, and I find that for mid-career professionals, too much learning can be detrimental.

Just as it’s possible to over-improve a house by putting in a fancy kitchen or swimming pool—it’s possible to over-improve your career.

If you put too much into your home—if you over-improve it for your neighborhood, you may never get your money back out. The house will be too expensive to sell.

You can do the same thing with your career.

You can over improve it to the point that employers can’t afford you. You price yourself out of the market.

Employers already look at physicians as “expensive.” They think you make a lot of money. When they see an MBA or JD behind your MD, they think you will be even more expensive—possibly prohibitively so.

Physicians are good learners, good students. You enjoy learning. You’re bright and do well in classroom settings. It’s tempting to think more education is better—because more education, in some cases, is the path of least resistance.

More education doesn’t necessarily make you more marketable, unless you’re learning something employers can’t get anywhere else.

The best strategy for mid-career professionals is to sell what you already have—your background, training and experience—not what you don’t have. Look for employers who will hire you NOW, for what you know and what you can contribute NOW. Chances are, if you position yourself correctly, the right employer will be thrilled to find the skills you already have. You already have a lot to offer. Look at your lifetime accomplishments and work achievements.

Never get an advanced degree unless you must.

This is especially true if you’re nearing age 40, and even more true if you’re 45-65. Very few companies actively seek 45-year-old MBAs. The 20-somethings fit much better.

Career consultants hate to hear the phrase, “I’m working on an MPH, but I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it.” Or even worse, I’ve just completed an MBA (or JD, etc) and I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it.” [ . . . and now I need to figure out what I’m going to do with it.”] We dislike these phrases because they mean the student isn’t focused, doesn’t understand who they are and what they’re doing. Such unfocused people are extremely hard to market.

Follow Stephen Covey’s advice in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: “Begin with the end in mind.” Before you start an advanced degree, be sure there is a demand for YOU [at your age in your geographic area] with the specific skills you plan to acquire. Talk to employers and ask them, “Would you hire ME, if I had the XYZ degree, and if so, what would you likely pay?”

There’s nothing worse than completing an advanced degree and entering a declining or non-existent job market. Not only do you have the debt of the education [or the lost opportunity cost], you have no means of repaying it. It’s terribly demoralizing.

Before you register for a specific program, find out if the institution provides job placement, and if so what percentage of their grads are hired in what time frame? Can they prove it?

Then take the most important step. Ask to speak with three of their recent grads. Talk with the past-students about the job market. How easy was it for them to find work with their newly-minted credentials? How much help did the school’s placement office provide? How many job offers did they receive, and what salary range were they in? How happy are they in their new career?

This inquiry will give you a reality check and help you decide whether or not to go forward. Not taking another degree may be the best decision you ever make.

Suppose you do want to go forward. Then the degree must fit you, your natural abilities, and your long-term goals. You may want to become a physician executive because you think you’d like to run things. Your Birkman assessment will show you whether or not that is a good idea.

What kind of master’s degree should you get? This quote from the American College of Physician Executives is right on target:

We recommend that you get the degree that is most convenient for your schedule and your pocketbook. Since you already have a prestigious terminal degree (the MD or DO), we have not found it is necessary for physician executives to go to one of the top ten schools or get a particular set of letters. Employers just want to see that you have received management education. Any of the letters (MPH, MHA, MMM, MBA, etc.) seem acceptable.

How do I get my first part-time or full-time management job?
Stories abound about the power of networking. Everyone knows someone who got a job because they knew someone who led to it. Most can even tell you how it happened to them once or twice. It may have happened as far back as high school. With all the past evidence of the process working, we still often attribute the job-hunting success to luck and hate trying to make it happen again by talking to people about what we want. But it must be done. Go to meetings, tell people what you are doing and what you want to do without an air of desperation–that scares people off. Talk to your neighbor over the back fence, priest, rabbi, etc. Talk to medical school classmates who live where you would like to live.

Everything we’ve said about advanced degrees also applies to further medical training, such as residencies or fellowships in new specialties. An Ob/Gyn tired of his practice after 20 years and pursued a residency in clinical pathology. Mid-way through the residency he became depressed, resigned from surgical pathology, but continued with clinical pathology. He said he wanted “a life of the mind,” such as one finds in teaching, but his wife didn’t like the prospect of a college professor’s pay. I can’t help thinking this crisis could have been avoided if he had researched the job market before beginning his residency.
An ophthalmologist ended his private practice because of back surgeries. During his recovery, he attended law school and received a J.D. Being a people-person, he found practicing law too isolating and had to transition into a third career. You can avoid these kinds of side trips by avoiding any education that does not significantly add to your happiness and your marketability.

Remember, even if you complete an advanced degree with straight As, you will still be faced with a daunting question. Namely, how can I find a job? Rather than returning to school, it might make more sense to tackle the job market now, while you’re younger and less financially burdened.

We tend to think more is better. But too many degrees behind your name can make you look unfocused, like you aren’t really sure what you’re trying to do. Multiple degrees can give you the appearance of riding your horse in all directions.

Academia values more degrees, but business values more real-world experience. Asking a school if you need their diploma is like asking the barber if you need a haircut.

Another degree can actually diminish your marketability.

Then there’s the lost opportunity cost. Let’s assume you decline the schooling option and take a $150,000 job instead. In two years you will have earned $300,000.

Now let’s assume you begin a full-time two year master’s program that costs $25,000. Your total investment in the degree will be $325,000 [the $300,000 lost wages, plus the price of the degree]. How long will it take to earn that back in your new job? Five to ten years, or more?

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