Should You Go Back To School?

The clients who engage me for career counseling often tell me that in order to advance their careers they should gain more knowledge – that they should acquire deeper subject matter expertise through additional training and/or education. In fact, the initial question for many who reach out to me for career counseling and guidance is: “Should I go back to school?” 

I’m all in favor of additional education and deepening expertise. But for most people looking to advance their careers, another full degree probably isn’t the smartest investment to make, given the time and money involved. (There are many other options to an additional degree for acquiring new skills and knowledge: certifications, trainings, courses – e.g. MOOCs, short for Massive Open Online Courses like Coursera, seminars).

Of course there are circumstances that require a full additional degree. If you’re in an academic or heavily intellectually-oriented field/organization (e.g. a university, a think tank) or looking to advance on a path that requires a lot of specialized knowledge (e.g. scientific research, computer engineering) an advanced degree/PhD may be an absolute requirement. And in many highly bureaucratic organizations (notably in the government and such government sponsored institutions like the World Bank) possessing a degree can take on inordinate importance, along with seniority (which, after all, isn’t a great predictor of competence).

Before investing a couple of years and many tens of thousands of dollars, step back and carefully consider the factors contributing to career success. In my experience they fall into three primary buckets:


  • your subject matter expertise, your detailed knowledge, your depth of understanding


  • your network, your mentors, your role models


  • your accomplishments, the improvements you’ve facilitated, the impact you’ve made, 

It’s easy (and relatively commonplace) to overweight the importance of what you know. That’s been the traditional measure of competence (grades, SAT scores, and yes, degrees). Measures that are easily quantifiable.

But who you know and what you’ve done? A lot harder to measure. The number of your LinkedIn connections or Facebook friends or Instagram followers doesn’t really indicate the strength of your network. And the impact that many people have had in the course of their careers is also hard to quantify in most roles*. 

The fact that the majority of people landing new jobs do so through their networks (generally through second-degree connections, I.e. connections of connections) speaks to the importance of who you know.  Developing relationships with the right people can open doors to opportunities that are hidden to the general public because you are alerted in advance to them before they are publicized.  And of course moving ahead in almost any organization is dramatically facilitated when you are well regarded by senior executives or managers (and dramatically hindered when you are. Not well regarded, justifiably or not).

As for what you’ve done, it is in some senses the ultimate transferable “skill.” Employers want to hire people who are going to be successful in their roles, and there is no better predictor of that than the past successes you can demonstrate. 

  • Resume “experts” always advise that contributions be quantified (e.g. “increased Likes by 36%;” “reduced labor costs by 29%;” “doubled on-time delivery performance.” But in most roles it’s hard to claim ownership of specific results (primarily because results are due to team, not individual, efforts), and doing so can come across as disingenuous at best or dishonest at worst.