Charting a Course to Go Back to College

Amanda writes:

After taking a serious re-evaluation of my life over the last year, I finally realized what I should be doing with it. I want to be a nurse. I attended college several years ago, but I majored in English Lit and didn’t finish my degree. How can I plan for this financially?

Graduation Cake Guy by CarbonNYC on Flickr!Going back to school is a pretty common goal that people have. In fact, my mother-in-law went back to nursing school when she was in her forties because, after many years working in a research lab, she realized she had a calling and a gift to interact with and help people.

Along those same lines, I have actually considered going back to school to work on a degree in political science, as I’m moving more and more towards being involved in local and state politics. I’m mostly interested in such a degree to help me build upon the connections I’m already making in the local community and get a firm grounding in how politics work.

If you’ve come around to the idea of going back to school in order to reboot your career (or extend it), here are the steps I’d take along the way.

First, do the personal investigation to find out if this new career you want is really right for you. Talk to people that are already in the career that interests you and simply tell them your story. Ask what their actual workdays are like. Ask about the education that was required for them to get their job.

If you’re heading towards a completely new career track (as I would be if I followed up on the political idea), it’s a good idea to contact multiple people at various points along the career track to get some input. For example, for a political person, you might want to talk to campaign staff, state legislators (and their staff), members of local boards, and so on.

If you can, dabble in this track in your spare time. Do volunteer work, or get involved in organizations where you can meet people who are involved in this career track.

You may find out from this alone that the career path isn’t for you. I know, for example, that I’ve mentored at least one writer who decided that the day-in day-out research and creative efforts were too much for him.

Don’t do this lightly. The decision to leave your current career and find a new one is a serious leap and likely a very expensive one. Don’t simply jump from one career that doesn’t excite you into another one. Find out as much as you can from the outside first, until you’re highly confident that this new career is the right one for you.

Next, critically evaluate the educational needs of that career track. What sort of schooling or degree do you actually need to get your foot in the door. For example, with nursing, a degree is essentially required in order to practice professionally, but with politics, a degree is far from required to get involved - it’s merely a way of building a strong base of understanding.

The way to do this is through research and also through asking your contacts what education is required. Look at job listings and find out the minimum requirements for the types of jobs you would apply to at the start of the career path. What do you need that you don’t already have?

Once you’re sure you want to follow this new path and you know what you need to do, then start worrying about the costs of education. Start evaluating institutions that are available to you and get a realistic cost estimate.

Depending on the amounts, you should start saving cash in a 529 plan set up to match the target date that you expect to start attending school. If the date is close, the cash will be invested largely in very safe investments (cash, bonds, etc.), but if you know that school is a long time off, the money will go into more risky investments with a larger upside (stocks, real estate, etc.).

There is one thing that’s more important than anything else along the way, though.

You have to get started. Now.

If you have a dream burning inside of you, don’t just let it sit there and idle. At the very least, take that first step. Find out more about what it actually entails. Find out what that career would actually be like. Then, take that information, do some serious soul searching, and figure out for yourself if it’s right for you.

If you let your dreams just sit idling on the runway of life, eventually those dreams will run out of gas and never take flight. Take that first step right now. Do some research about that dream career and find someone to talk to about it. Even if you realize it’s not for you, you’ll never regret having taken that first step.


The Simple Dollar chronicles a man's road to recovery from "total financial meltdown." As author Trent Hamm puts it, "The Simple Dollar is a blog for those of us who need both cents and sense: people fighting debt and bad spending habits while building a financially secure future and still affording a latte or two." We'll post a couple of entries a week, but you can check out his writing daily at www.thesimpledollar.com
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