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Is returning to school worth it for advancing your career? Experts weigh in

McGill University's campus is seen Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz McGill University's campus is seen Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
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After several years of working in retail, Shantia Cross had enough.

One day in 2021, she decided to walk off the job and leave what she described as a toxic and thankless workplace. Her mother advised her to either find a new job or go back to school, and that got Cross thinking.

That same night, she stayed up until 3 a.m. searching for a career where she could use the hard skills that she picked up in journalism school -- like interviewing and shooting video -- and stumbled upon some testimonials about jobs in user experience, or UX, design.

Cross decided on a one-year, intensive post-graduate certificate program at Centennial College in Toronto after searching for programs with a UX design component. Brimming with excitement, she signed up.

"I'm really glad I stuck with it," said Cross, who is now a content strategist for one of the country's top banks.

Cross is just one of many Canadians who have returned to school in order to advance their careers, a move that experts say can be beneficial so long as it's an informed decision.

Jessica Moorhouse, a financial educator and host of the More Money podcast, said there are many perks to returning to school or taking certification courses to upgrade your skills and make your resume stand out.

"There can be a lot of benefits," said Moorhouse, who is currently on her way to becoming a certified financial planner in the hope of earning trust from prospective clients.

"It does set yourself apart from others that are trying to do the same thing."

Ian Christie, CEO and chief career strategist of the Vancouver-based Bold Career Project, said pursuing higher education could accelerate a person's career growth or allow them to make a complete career overhaul.

"This will give them hopefully some hard skills that they can apply to the job immediately and help them potentially leapfrog to the next level more quickly than through just the work experience, he said. It can also open new doors, he said.

For example, with a master of business administration, you could gain access to higher levels of management and executive positions, as well as a higher salary.

In Canada, the average annual salary for a person with an MBA is $80,000, according to figures compiled by Talent.com, though the figures fluctuated significantly.

However, the return on your investment of time and money for pursuing higher education depends on your field of choice, Moorhouse said. That's why she suggests doing research, especially by speaking to people in that field, to get a better idea of the salary expectations, work-life balance and overall work culture.

"If you're working for an NGO or a non-profit or (doing) social work, you're probably not going to make as much as someone who did an MBA," she said.

"Your degree probably was just as difficult and just as costly, but you're not going to reach a certain income level just because of the industry you're working in."

There are several other things people should consider before returning to school.

For one, if you just completed a bachelor's degree, Moorhouse said it can be worthwhile to take some time to gain some professional experience before going straight back to school. This can allow you to explore what really interests you, or alternatively, what doesn't.

It's also worth figuring out whether you require a master's degree or PhD to land your dream job or could make do with a certificate or a diploma, she said.

If you're looking for a cost-effective way to pursue higher education, Moorhouse recommended enrolling in either a part-time program or courses at night or on weekends alongside working.

Unless it really matters for your desired profession, you can also choose a school or program that sets you up for success in your chosen field at a lower price point than a similar school or program that's more costly but considered prestigious, Moorhouse said.

"If you are in the health field or law or something, those things do kind of matter because there's this weird hierarchy that still exists, but for lots of jobs, people will look at your resume and they will not know that much about that program or that college or whatever; it doesn't matter," she explained.

Christie said it's best to pick a program that will equip you with both skills and networking opportunities that will help you land a job in the current job market.

"Are you getting job-ready skills that the market values? And what other supports does the program have? Do they have a career centre? Do they have connections with industry, with networking events, or alumni network?" he said.

No matter where you decide to study, Christie said you should be willing to put in the time and effort to make sure that you're getting the most out of the program.

"(It's) more like, this is a vehicle and I am taking responsibility to leverage the school's resources, but it's up to me to find a way to turn this into a really, really positive outcome," he said.

Sometimes the skills required for a position may not require higher education, Christie said, in which case you can go online to places like YouTube and LinkedIn Premium to brush up your skills. LinkedIn is also a good place to check the kinds of skills and experiences others in your desired field have, so that you can follow their example, he added.

Meanwhile, Cross recommends people reassess their skills and what they're passionate about, and thoroughly explore their options before going back to school.

Quoting Aaliyah, one of her favourite artists, she added, "If at first you don't succeed, then dust yourself off and try again."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 2, 2023.

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