How to Advance Your Education and Career – Part I

Practical Advice for Helping You Achieve Your Degree – While Continuing on the Job

Advancing your knowledge translates to personal satisfaction; career achievements; setting an example for others; and, many times, higher earnings potential. When you make the decision to study toward a degree or certificate, you’ve already taken the first step toward betterment.

Now you need to answer more specific questions about your education plans:

What are your goals for higher education? Are you seeking advancement in your present job? Are you moving toward specialization in a particular area of your career? How much time can you devote to your studies? How much money will you need to fund your coursework and learning materials? Which colleges or universities best fit your goals? What are your present abilities, skills and interests? If higher education is going to help you qualify for a new position, job or career, is that position, job or career one which fits with your personal profile? Are there existing jobs in the field or level in which you’ll be educating yourself? Are those jobs in a geographic area where you want to live? What are the trends for the future in that job or career?

What Kind of Higher Education?

A bachelor’s degree is just about akin to a high school diploma these days, especially for professional careers. It focuses on general education, then specialization in a particular field, but critical thinking skills, writing skills and the ability to “learn how to learn” are the hallmarks of a successful bachelor’s degree graduate.

A master’s degree is the next level. It will be much more specific than the studies for a bachelor’s degree because it will be within a field of specialization. Generally, the master’s degree curriculum requires about two years to complete. A thesis is usually required, in which you’ll do an in-depth study or research project.

A Ph.D. degree is the pinnacle of college degrees. It lets you lead others in your specialization as you learn how to conduct intensive research and create new methods, processes and transformations. About two years in the making, the doctoral level degree usually requires a specific project which is worthy of publication in professional journals. A committee of professors decides on the noteworthiness of the resulting dissertation and its significance to the field of study. Without that committee’s approval, the Ph.D. is not granted.

For those not pursuing a degree, but seeking other higher education, there are credential and certificate programs offered by many colleges and universities. These programs focus on professional development through coursework and/or projects which zero in on a particular set of skills or research in a field.

How Do I Fund Higher Education?

Affording education is a major part of your decision making. In essence, you are investing in yourself when you decide to pursue higher education. Higher education can be costly – even at a public college or university. There are financial helps available, most of which depend on your income, the college you choose and the type of coursework you’re pursuing. Personal eligibility for public colleges generally depends on your legal residency within the state or jurisdiction served by the college. Loans, grants and scholarships can help you manage some of the financial side of your education. Such financial help might cover some, or all, of your tuition, lab fees, books, etc. Some programs defer interest on the loan until later, when you’ve attained, or returned to, a job. For many students working toward a degree beyond that of a bachelor’s level, coursework is done part-time while still working an existing job. If you cannot afford to go to school full-time, you have to learn to juggle your work obligations with your studies.

As political trends come and go, politicians may be promoting increases in student grants, but such grants are often costly in government budgets and may actually prove inefficient for the student receiving the grant. The route more likely in government funds will be an increase in student loans which must be repaid according to income.

So, when you start researching colleges and the programs they offer which match your goals and interest, be sure to also look at the “student financial aid” pages of the catalog or Web site to learn what kinds of financial assistance are available to you and the terms regarding how much the money will cover, repayment and any income tax concessions.

Merit-based aid – mostly scholarships – may be available, based on the criteria of the scholarship. These criteria usually require an excellent grade point average, outstanding work experience, special talent or leadership abilities, and other positive factors. Competition for scholarships is stiff, but worth the effort if you qualify. Also, be sure to research local merit scholarships. They’re often available from your community through service clubs, businesses/ corporations, religious organizations, and local education groups such as retired teachers associations. There is usually no “rule” against applying for as many scholarships for which you’re qualified. (Be wary of any “scholarship” which asks you to pay an application fee or any other fee. It may be a scam.)

Need-based aid might be a grant which is awarded because of financial need, or a loan (program or private) which will have to be repaid at a low interest rate.

Regardless of the source of your financial aid, whatever comes your way requires your discipline to borrow only what you need and to economize on your personal/family budget to keep your personal expenses as low as possible.

Will I Be Admitted to a Program?

Colleges and universities set mandatory entrance requirements. These can vary with the institution. Determine what the qualifications are for matriculation and whether you can meet them. Be honest in your assessments. If you’re rusty in your writing, math or other skills, do some brush-up work which gets you qualified for the coursework and the projects which you’ll be required to do in your higher education.

Should I Attend In-class Or Online?

In-class programs carry the benefits of working closely with professors, meeting likeminded students and establishing a network of contacts which may last years and benefiting from the college atmosphere and its tight focus on study.

Online programs give the option of earning a degree or certificate without missing work – and the income from your work. But, because you’re not on a set schedule of class meeting times as you would be on campus, your online program demands your personal discipline in setting aside time for study, following a strict schedule of courses, progressing through a program or curriculum, and overcoming the lack of interaction which in-class programs usually provide quite easily.

On the positive side, though, online programs usually have flexible enrollment to let you enter a program at times other than the traditional “September” start-up time of college. You won’t be using time in commuting to a campus, so you are adding to the time available for study. And, online programs use innovative technology to deliver the lectures, assignments, group projects, individual research, and contact with professors which are needed to make a course of study “complete” in its presentation. With such flexibility and delivery, you can make the program fit your schedule of work, family commitments, obligations to aging parents or young children, and time for relaxation. Online programs use Internet connected computer delivery of the course, usually at your convenience, and let you “pause” the lecture when you must. You may also be able to listen to lectures downloaded to your MP3, or other device, for study or review.

Does an Online Program or Degree Have Credibility?

Even though the availability and popularity of online programs are growing rapidly, there is still the tradition that in-class and on campus work has more “weight” in the eyes of some colleges or employers. It may make you wonder about the credibility of an online program.

The fact is that the growth of online study has been phenomenal over the past years. And, because the course is usually nearly identical to that done on campus, it still does its job of educating you in the text, materials and teaching experienced by those doing the course on a campus.

Should you prefer, or need, an online program because of your schedule, you do need to find a college or university online program which is accredited. Attending a program or completing a degree from a nonaccredited school will likely impact your chances of advancement in your career, and may even impact the quality of the education you receive.

College and program accreditation is actually a voluntary process and is not overseen by any government agencies. Instead, the college pledges to honor the standards set by the accrediting organization and to allow periodic reviews of its curricula, faculty, library, administration, financial status, student services, courses of study, and other aspects. The college must demonstrate its programs and accomplishments and the quality of its curricula. It must undergo in person and document examination reviews by peers and maintain its standards to continue its accreditation. In essence, a college exists to educate its students and those students, in turn, should be able to demonstrate success in their careers and performance. If they do not, the accreditation organization looks at the effectiveness of the school and where, and why, it needs improvement.

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation and the US Department of Education recognize specific accrediting associations including the following: The Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges; the New England Association of Schools and Colleges; The North Central Association of Colleges and Schools; The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities; The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools; and The Western Association of Schools and Colleges. Accreditation by these organizations can spell the difference between a quality education and one which lacks quality – whether on campus or online.

In addition to the academic side of a college’s credibility, the US Department of Education also looks at its accreditation to determine whether the school is successful enough to qualify for government sponsored student financial assistance programs. If a student needs a federal loan or grant, the student should be enrolled at a college which is accredited. The department also checks the school’s recruitment strategies, financial status and student learning outcomes.

Yet another benefit of accreditation is transferring credit. Some students must, or choose to, transfer to another college. Usually, if they have successfully completed particular courses at an accredited college, they should not have to repeat a similar course at the new college. To put it another way, most accredited colleges will not accept credits earned at a college which does not have accreditation.

It may be that a particular job or career requires a state license to perform. Accreditation also plays a part in that process. The state may require that the student has completed the required curriculum at an accredited college.

Of course, your education and continued learning will be tools for a better job, a career change or a specialization, but they go far beyond just that. They challenge you and the result of meeting their challenge develops your ability to learn more to expand your knowledge and processes.

Stephenie Slahor, Ph.D., J.D., is a writer in the fields of law enforcement and security. She can be reached at