Choosing the Right Degree

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You’ve decided it’s time to purse an advanced degree. Luckily, there are several ways and resources to investigate potential programs. Use this methodical process to narrow your search.

Step 1 Create a personal profile.
“Skills, talents and abilities, as well as passion for a certain career path, help students create a path that will eventually lead to employment,” says Deborah Sakelaris, a certified professional coach and owner of Rodas Coaching, LLC.

Graduate students should determine not only what they’re good at, but also what they enjoy. Joanne Canyon-Heller, assistant vice president for Graduate and Global Recruitment at Roosevelt University, suggests students write out a list of their interests or goals and take a career interest survey as a springboard for finding the best path for their particular temperament and skills.

If you already have a school or program in mind, inquire as to whether you can sample classes. For example, Roosevelt, DeVry University and Northern Illinois University (NIU) all offer “class and job shadow” programs, where students sit in on a live class and acquire real-world knowledge. Often it’s as easy as reading course titles to see what sparks your interest, suggests Patricia McCanna, secretary/treasurer of the Association for Continuing Higher Education for the Great Lakes Region.

“I remind individuals that their major doesn’t always determine their entire career,” adds Ms. Sakelaris. “They’ll have numerous opportunities to add to their training as new opportunities present themselves.” Ms. Canyon-Heller states it’s also valuable for students to develop an awareness of their learning style. Once they know this, an admissions counselor can help a student find schools that cater to those needs. “Think in terms of, ‘My experience, my life, my strengths,’” advises Meryl Sussman, director of Undergraduate Programs for Adults at NIU. “Don’t work against your own best abilities.”

Step 2 Research careers.
While course listings and learning styles are important, be sure to evaluate the full picture. That is, what are employers currently looking for in terms of expertise? “When evaluating a degree, one must take under consideration current and future market trends, technology advances as well as employers’ preferred qualifications,” says Piotr Lechowski, president of DeVry University Chicago Loop Campus. Helpful tools for career exploration and job analysis can be found at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*Net OnLine and the Center for Governmental Studies.

Visits to the school, informational events, open houses and conversations with counselors are invaluable sources. At NIU, Cathy Cradduck, the outreach student contact manager, suggests returning students consider “trying out” a degree at a community college before setting sights on that top-rated private institution. The benefits? Less money and less time.

Step 3 Ask the right questions.
A non-traditional student has to be prepared with the right questions to ask an advisor. For example: How will my previous work fit in with this new degree?  What length are the classes, when and how often do they meet? Are student support services available in areas of advising and academics? Are tutoring programs offered? Is there a general education program offered? What are the costs associated with the program? Which degrees most easily lend themselves to employment? Is this degree available in a fast-track program tailored to adult learners? Are online classes available within this program?

Step 4 Make a connection.
Forming relationships with academic advisors, professors, mentors and friends helps graduate students succeed in a program within a shorter timeline. “Talk to other people in order to learn their experience,” says Ms. McCanna.

Relating to advisors and professionals can help keep a student positive. Mandy Wescott, an outreach student success specialist at NIU, tries to help students through an empowerment process.

“Some students come to me and say, ‘But I’ve only been a stay-at-home mom,’” says Ms. Wescott. “To which I respond, ‘Oh, so you’re a good manager.’”
By networking, opportunities arise, giving adults a confidence boost and inspiration when choosing a degree.  “Skills are very important in finding that certain career,” says Ms. Sakelaris. “However, personal attributes such as confidence, self-esteem and a little humility go a long way in assisting individuals to find their place of employment.”

By Chiara Milioulis

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