Myths Transitioning Veterans Believe, Part 8: You Definitely Need More Schooling to Advance Your Career
In America, we believe that education is the key to getting ahead. Everyone is encouraged to finish high school and many are urged to complete a college degree or technical certification. On the whole, it is true that education is a good and worthy goal. But all degrees and certifications are not worth pursuing with equal vigor and many are not appropriate for the individual student. Given the “free” and generous nature of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, many veterans poorly understand the real and opportunity costs of spending years pursuing degrees or certifications that neither match their best personal career paths or the marketplace needs for talent. Before consuming education during or after a transition from military service, one must understand exactly what he or she seeks from the investment and verify if there is indeed demand in the workplace for that credential.
There are four foundational reasons for consuming education as an adult. Each individually and all collectively are valid reasons to return to school but the veteran must consider each carefully and together. By maintaining a clear and dispassionate understanding of these justifications before the investment of time and money, the veteran student is likely to avoid the feeling of betrayal, frustration and exploitation that attend some freshly-degreed job seekers who fail to realize a return on their investment.
Credential for Professional Access
In certain professions, one simply must have the appropriate degree to work. Medical doctors, dentists, accountants, registered nurses, home inspectors, lawyers and even cosmetologists in some states must have certifications and/or licenses to practice. So there can be no debate that one who wants to work in one of these professions must attend and complete the appropriate school.
But, especially in fields that require a lot of education, it is critical that the would-be student do extensive research before starting a school as to whether she wishes to actually work in that field and is a good temperamental fit. For example, it is common to find an undergraduate struggling through an accounting degree program fueled by the general notion that “accountants will always have good jobs.” Well, a more accurate version of that adage should be that “good accountants will generally find good jobs.” An individual who is neither skilled at math nor well organized will make a poor accountant and should not set out on that degree path. Too few consider the professional track that follows a degree progression before they complete or drop out of the course.
Furthermore, many professions like sales, entrepreneurship and general business operations do not require any meaningful certifications or degrees. Programs may exist but their completion is not a prerequisite for access or success. Be sure you research to know the difference.
The institution that grants a degree or certification bestows its name on the student who graduates from its halls. All schools are not equal. Since most know that only the best high school students apply to Harvard College and of those only 5% are admitted, it is generally assumed that a Harvard graduate must be, until proven otherwise, very smart and intellectually gifted. This is the power of a premier brand. Unfortunately, most colleges and trade schools lack such cache. Other types of colleges and schools offer different brands. Graduates of military service academies, for example, are presumed to be disciplined and well-rounded.
The vast majority of colleges are not nearly as selective or elite as Ivy League universities or service academies but they do communicate something, rightly or wrongly, about their students. Before investing in a degree or certification, ask yourself and others what will possessing this degree say about me to others?
It should be noted that branding can come from the type of educational experience as well as the institution itself. Earning an executive MBA from a reputable program while holding a job and raising a family for example communicates time management and discipline on behalf of the candidate even if the institution is not particularly exclusive. But it does not communicate intellectual gifts if the program is not selective nor does it necessarily impress employers. Understand your potential return on investment by really getting a sense of the brand value of your program.
It is amazing how many students start an educational program without fully considering what they will actually learn. Military instruction, ironically, is very disciplined about laying out end-state learning objectives: “at the conclusion of this lesson the student will be able to . . .” It is critical that you really understand the volume and quantity of knowledge to be transferred. What is the pedagogical philosophy of the school? Does it teach the way you learn best? What will you really be able to do that you cannot today? Get beyond simplistic benefits like “I will be able to think more clearly” and define direct benefits such as “I will be able to perform financial analysis well enough to become a bank examiner or money manager.”
Good education provides an experience in excess of the actual knowledge, brand and credential. It may be the ability to interact with faculty and peers in a memorable or meaningful way. Perhaps it is the chance to meet future employers at school functions or partaking in extracurricular activities. All these are completely valid reasons to pursue and education program but one must be mindful of what he seeks from each.
So when deciding whether to purchase an educational degree or certification, ask these critical questions:
Is this certification or degree required for professional access to the career I seek? Am I well suited for this career? Have I tested the claims of school recruiters by talking to four or five hiring managers in the field regarding demand for graduates?
What will the school brand offer me? Will it communicate something essential about me to the marketplace?
What will I really learn that I could not learn elsewhere on my own?
What about this school’s student experience is unique, special or particularly attractive?
If someone buys a car that is poorly reviewed in the automotive press they have only themselves to blame when they do not enjoy driving it. Adult consumers of education are likewise responsible for making their own good decisions.
Truth be told, some veterans seek degrees and certifications because they, consciously or unconsciously, want to avoid having to make the serious and mature decision of what they really want to do with their careers. A significant portion of those who pursue degrees or certifications do so to procrastinate while "doing something" that will favorably impress their friends and family. The time to figure out what you want to do with your life and career is before and not after you begin your course of study.
The right education for each person can make lives and careers better. Poor decisions and sloppy decisions waste years and resources that could be put to better use.
It is not a school’s fault if you fail to do your homework.