Returning to school: upgrading your credentials

By Sonny Wong

The world of work is competitive and further education may give particular candidates the competitive edge and legitimacy needed in their professions. But does it always? It is vital that you clearly visualize or articulate your goals before investing your resources in further education. Retaining a trained professional career counsellor can facilitate your educational and career planning and reveal your career path. To elaborate, what is it that you want out of your career? How do you measure your career success? How much time and financial resources do you have to invest in your education?  Most important, what type of education will assist you in meeting your career success?

     Many of us are accustomed to taking courses that interest us, which is much easier than pursuing higher education to compete in the labour market. Therefore, once you identify your career interests and goals you need to research the current labour market requirements for that career. By reviewing print and electronic resources, it will become clearer what educational qualifications employers demand of employees in that field. In addition to educational requirements, you will want to find out how important years of experience, technical skills, personal qualities and added value skills are. Research the demands and employment rate of your career to ensure that upon finishing your training there is a place for you in the labour market.

Whether your path requires pursuing a master’s degree, an undergraduate degree, a college diploma, or vocational training, the particular route is dependent on your resources and suitability for the career. Use your career counsellor to assist you in this decision-making because you will be examining a mountain of information. Each educational path will require you to evaluate and prepare for a series of stages.

   Before jumping into a program, you and your career counsellor need to discuss admissions requirements, tuition, curriculum, university choice and the application process.

      The application process is lengthy and depending on how many schools you apply to, it can be costly. As a consumer you need to read all course descriptions, familiarize yourself with the faculty and curriculum to ensure the program meets your professional and personal goals. If your program requires you to complete internships or placements, and you are working full time, what do you do? Your career counsellor can help you explore your options and find a solution. The decision you make needs to factor in your lifestyle, learning preference, finances, timelines and other personal commitments.

   In general, masters’ degrees are offered with a thesis component or coursework and can be completed in 18 to 24 months. Masters’ programs allow you to further develop the specialization you have cultivated in your undergraduate studies or professional and community involvement. Hence, the query is: “What is the specialization you want to cultivate and for what reasons?” The admission committee expects this query to be addressed in a personal statement. A master’s program can engage you in deeper learning, refine your research skills, help you to explore particular topics in depth. You may be studying with working professionals where knowledge is shared in the classroom. This type of interaction is added value. Therefore, work with your career counsellor to discuss the benefits of online learning vs. traditional learning. Upgrading your undergraduate degree to a graduate degree strengthens your area of expertise. For some this type of educational upgrade may not guarantee an upgrade in salary or rank in the workforce.

   Many positions require an undergraduate degree and these programs are usually completed in four to five years. This type of education teaches you to understand issues through theoretical frameworks. It fosters critical thinking, teaches concepts and language, and refines communication and writing abilities. These are key employability skills employers are looking for along with technical skills. Some individuals, are able to transition into the world of work to positions which coincide with their academic and personal interests. This successful transition is often due to the time they took to earn their degree and gather relevant experience.

 If you expect that your degree warrants a good job, or you believe you can do a job well but do not have any proof, you may need to start proving yourself through volunteer work to build experience/references. Just because you earned a driver’s license, your efforts may not be rewarded with a new car – unless you are very lucky.

   Diploma or post diploma programs generally take two years to complete and most programs require placement hours. The aim is to develop your practical application in particular areas of expertise. What you learn in the classroom will have a direct link in the field. Some college programs have partnered with university programs where you will be eligible to earn a university degree. Vocational training is offered by vocational schools. This type of training is designed to narrow skill gaps quickly. If you are a computer programmer and do not have a particular software skill or a bookkeeper who does not have computerized accounting skills, you will learn what is required to bridge the gap..

   It is vital that you work with a professional career counsellor to determine your academic fit to ensure it is congruent with your professional goals. All too often, individuals have the perception that education alone is the key to meaningful work. But there is more to it than education. The formula for career success is a combination of the right educational qualifications, a developed career identity and relevant professional and personal experiences along the way.

Sonny Wong, M.Ed., holds a Masters Degree in Adult Education/Counselling Psychology with a focus on Work and Career. Presently, Wong is a professional Career Counsellor at Ryerson University, his experience span over 10 years as a counsellor, facilitator, trainer, and social researcher. He can be reached at sonny_wong_Tor@yahoo.ca.

Toronto, Canada