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Invest in Yourself

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Why Education is the #1 Path to Creating Stability in Uncertain Times

Yesterday we got a call from a Portland woman in her early 30s, let’s call her Marisa, who had lost her project manager job in a mass layoff due to COVID-19.

The thing is - she wasn’t that upset about losing the job. It wasn’t what she ultimately wanted anyway, she has been hungry for some time for a position that offers more mentally challenging work. Her primary focus was using this time to finally make that leap - to move over to a career where she saw a real future for herself.

Marisa wasn’t interested in going back to college, with its long term commitment and the very real possibility of six-figure debt. Already a professional, she knows what she wants to achieve and is eager to do what it takes to reach that goal.

It’s time for more of us to think like Marisa.


Investing in education is one of the most effective ways to make a big transformation in our careers.

Tumultuous times can open our eyes to new opportunities. During good times, we are often less open to change and exploring other career options. But throw in uncertainty, maybe even hardship, and we are inclined to dig deeper and ask bigger questions about what else we could be doing for work.

It’s essential to get clear on your motivations, commit to a timeline that works for you, and seek an outcome aligned with your goals. Give your educational plan the time and attention it deserves, because investing in education is investing in yourself!

What’s Your Motivation?

The first step is to be clear about the level of change you are looking for. If you like the work you do, but hate your company, you may just need a change of scenery. Don’t mistake a bad situation for a bad career! If you like your line of work and desire a higher level position directly tied to an educational achievement, then what you need to achieve should be well defined.

But most people looking at an educational investment are looking for the big transformational opportunity that comes with changing your line of work.

In my experience, the motivation to make this type of move falls in line with one or more of the following reasons:

  • Challenging work. You’ve realized that doing the same routine or repetitive work can be unfulfilling. You want to be stimulated and grow as a human being, and that involves taking on challenges that cause you to stretch and grow, and using your creativity to solve unique problems.
  • Meaningful impact. Being a cog in the machine or feeling unseen and unheard demotivates you. You want the work you do to be visible and feel that it makes a difference to your customers, colleagues, community, and the world at large.
  • Economic stability/mobility. You're tired of struggling to make ends meet and your current career ladder has few realistic opportunities or openings for you to make the type of money you want. You want the salary and benefits to live well and provide for yourself (and your family).

As the choices for this type of change are much broader, spend time exploring what the work is like. Take the time to speak with people working in the industry to understand what the day-to-day work entails. Find opportunities to experience what it feels like to work in the field.

Do You Really Need a Degree?

It’s easy to fall back into the thinking that education is a four-year college degree, but oftentimes a vocational change can be done in much less time. You don’t need a well-rounded general experience or time to figure out “what you want to do”. You need the specific skills required to land a job in a new field. This is especially true if you already have a college degree.

Unless specifically required, focus less on credentials and more on education that will help you to demonstrably build the skills and land the job you want. There are typically multiple options available both in-person to online.

Don’t overbuy or start an education without a clear destination in mind!

How Can You Optimize Your Time Investment?

One of the biggest costs of education is not the price paid, but the opportunity cost of not earning income while we are being educated. Planning the time for your education can be one of the most challenging parts. For many folks, part time education is seen as a practical compromise to advance while still maintaining a job. Full-time education offers an all-in immersive experience with a clear start and end date, but leaves no time for outside work.

In either case, be aware of the following pitfalls:

  • No timeline means no commitment. Beware education that is “work at your own pace” unless you are extremely self-disciplined. You can always push things back “one more quarter”, pause because life (or work) got too hectic, or any number of excuses. Make sure you have a clear schedule with a start and end date, otherwise you may be forever “educating” and never educated.
  • Even part-time is time and a half. Be realistic about your energy level and available time. Building your future career on burned-out time is a recipe for mediocrity. Be realistic about what you are capable of and make sure you are a match for your educational schedule.

Whichever path you choose, you need to figure out the financial resources and the time to make it happen. Make sure you have your support system in place and have set realistic expectations with family members and friends. Large transformational efforts can be intense and require us to go above and beyond what we have done in the past. You will need to lean on others to make it happen.

Don't Forget About Career Services

Unless you are already well-connected in your new industry, you will need career services to take you from education to the finish line of a new career. Ideally, career services includes:

  • Help preparing things like resumes and online profiles in a way that is tailored to landing jobs in your new professional career
  • Advice, practice opportunities, and feedback in navigating networking, interviewing, and salary negotiations
  • An existing alumni and employer network you can use to connect with people and opportunities

Programs options can vary widely from no job help at all, general canned material, in-depth help and individualized support, and even direct job placement. Make sure you ask what is included in your education.

What's the Real Math?

Without a framework to evaluate the investment in education, many people fall into the trap of focusing solely on program cost. It may seem attractive to save $10,000 on your education by choosing a cheaper option, but if you end up earning $20,000 per year less and it takes you twice as long to land a job, it just doesn’t add up.

Your educational program should be able to provide you with clear information about outcomes including median and average starting salaries of graduates. Be skeptical if no outcomes are provided, or only provided in vague ranges or anecdotally.

As an investment, it’s critical to calculate your ROI, or Return on Investment. Your total cost is both the cost of the education and your opportunity cost, how much you won’t make working at your old job while you are receiving your education. Opportunity cost tends to be larger than the education cost.

Your return is the amount you will make over the long-haul of your new career. Project your new earnings over the next 10-15 years, compared to what you would have made staying put in your current job. This can be significant, typically in the millions of dollars.

Notice how the relative cost of the educational program is fairly insignificant compared to the type of outcome it affords. Be a smart shopper and do the math on your educational ROI.

Your Time Is Now - Here’s What to Do Next

To recap:

  • Understand your motivation and goals. You are an amazing human and deserve a job that makes you happy.
  • Take advantage of experiential opportunities. Research career changes by talking with those actually working in the industry.
  • Prefer a direct educational route. Don’t spend multiple years in full time education unless it’s truly necessary.
  • Evaluate the return on your investment. Focus on the long term value you will attain and list the benefits available in an education program that will get you across the finish line.
  • Time and money are still big commitments. Do the math, make a realistic plan, discover all the tools available to you, and establish your personal support network.

Yes, investing in education can be a lot to figure out. But investing in education is investing in yourself. And you’re definitely worth it.

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