Returning to school in your 30's, after an absence of several years, is not supposed to be easy: There are, after all, a number of obstacles in the path of those who choose to reconnect with their formal education years after they left it to pursue other goals. This does not mean, however, that the undertaking has to be terribly difficult. In fact, going back to school after an absence will likely be one of the most rewarding experiences of one's life, and both the real, quantifiable rewards one reaps, as well as the sense of accomplishment one ultimately feels, are among the most significant benefits returning students achieve.
There are, however, several keys to success, and one of the most important-in fact, some might argue, the key to the success of the whole enterprise-is knowing what to expect when you do go back to school, understanding the ways in which your life will be impacted by the decision, and having a game plan to help guide you through the process and ensure that the number of surprises you experience are kept to a minimum.
There are, in general, two kinds of students who return to school in their 30's: Those who are pursuing a graduate degree in order to further the career they have been working at since graduating from college, and those who go back to school to complete what they set out to do as a younger person enrolled at a college or university. And though the goals of these two groups may be quite different, the challenges faced by both of them are similar.
In either case, the student will likely be working at a full-time job while also attending classes. There are, of course, some cases where a company will pay for a thirty-something employee to enroll full-time in, for example, an MBA program in exchange for the increased productivity and improved earning potential the graduate will bring back to the company. But the majority of thirty-something students should expect to nearly double the amount of work they are used to doing on a daily basis and cover the cost of taking the classes. All those wonderful short work days that ended at five o'clock with a nice dinner at home with your sweetie and TiVo will, for the most part, vanish. They will be replaced with a quick meal on the go, a drive to classes, and a night spent hunched over books at the kitchen table.
The thirty-something student should also realize that the nature of the work itself will likely feel different from how it did back in college or high school. This means that as times have changed, so have methods of teaching and the expectations placed on students. This is not in itself a bad thing; it just means that the student should expect to spend the first week or two of classes rather confused, or, at the very least, somewhat bewildered.
This is not all negative, though: Change is sometimes a very good thing. You may even find yourself responding more positively to this new educational experience than you did to the one you had all those years earlier. The key to success, then, is to go in with open eyes and a willingness to give it your all.
Deep Impact: Or, It's A Family Affair
By the time most people hit their thirties, they tend to have already figured out the rhythms that are best suited to their life. Work from 9 to 5, hit the gym, order in some General Tso's Chicken and check out what's on TiVo. Or Work till 6 or 7, stop by the local happy hour, get home at midnight and repeat it all again the next day. Whatever your routine, you should expect it to be interrupted, or, just as likely, changed completely.
Your professors will not necessarily care that you also have a full-time job, a spouse, a child or two, and hobbies. They are there to teach, and the assumption is that the deal is based 100% on reciprocity, which is to say that you are expected to come to class prepared and read-up every single time. Until you complete your courses, they constitute your second full-time job.
So before you decide to go back to school and pursue your academic or intellectual dreams, it is vital to consider its impact on both your life and on the lives of those who rely on you. Although going back to school can certainly be one of the most rewarding experiences of one's life, it is not a decision to be made selfishly or in isolation. Talk it over with your loved ones and friends before you cut that first check to the bursar's office. A solid support structure is one of the keys to succeeding in this kind of endeavor.
Many people begin having kids in their thirties, and as a result, the decision to go back to school in this decade of one's life will affect more than just the prospective student. Raising children, after all, is a full-time job, and if you think it's difficult to spend enough time with your new family while working at an office, imagine how much more complicated it will be while also pursuing a degree.
However, there is a way to circumvent many of the negative aspects of pursuing a degree and raising a family at the same time: Online degrees. These allow you to do the classwork at your own pace and in a timeframe that works best for you. You don't have to worry about missing classes because of last-minute family emergencies, and if you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed with the combination of work, family, and study, you don't have to worry about that last part.
The online degree option is also perfect stay-at-home mothers. Many new mothers, after all, eventually feel some sense of claustrophobia after having spent a certain amount of time in the house all day caring for the new child. In this case, online coursework provides the perfect outlet: It can be done at the new mother's own pace, and even if only half an hour or an hour of work per day is possible, it will still provide the necessary intellectual stimulation to help her stay focused on her real full-time job: Raising her new child.
It is, however, imperative that, if you do decide to go the online route, you pursue your degree with an accredited online university. (See UCEAdirectory.org's Accreditation article.) Because you don't want to spend all that time and energy on a degree that turns out to mean nothing in the end.
The Game Plan
Whether you are enrolling in an MBA program, classes to complete you bachelor's degree, or a series of courses on a subject that has always interested you, it is imperative to have a game plan to guide you through the experience before you begin.
There are, of course, many contingencies that cannot be planned for: A particularly difficult professor, a last-minute presentation you have to give at work, a sick child or spouse: They all affect your ability to pursue your education, and none of them can be planned for. But they all can and should be expected. Budgeting your time and working efficiently even when there is not much to be done will make your life that much easier when things get unexpectedly hectic.
And despite all the pressure you may find yourself under, and no matter how much work you feel like you have, it is absolutely imperative that you give yourself a little bit of time each day to relax and spend on something not related to school or work. You are always better off choosing to remove yourself from your work than burning out and needing to.
In the end, however, going back to school in your 30's can turn out to be one of the best decisions you ever make. Just be sure you know what to expect, make an informed decision, and have a plan before you begin. Do these things and you'll have already started down the road to success.
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