Thinking Through Going Back to School: What Kind of Program?

In this installment of our “Thinking Through Going Back to School” series, we begin to shift the focus to deciding what to study. Should I get a master’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, an associate’s degree? Should I start with online courses? What master’s degree should I get? Before searching for specific programs, you should first make the decision about what course of study is right for you.

The Third Step: Choosing the Type of Program to Pursue
Based on the objectives you identified in Thinking Through Going Back to School – Part 1, and the amount of time and money you decided you can allocate in Thinking Through Going Back to School – Part 2, you can now assess what kind of program best suits your needs. Below are overviews of the most common higher education options, what it takes to complete them, and the benefits each can offer.

Courses only: If you’re unsure about what you want to study, or wary of committing to a program right away, it’s wise to first take some courses that interest you. Taking classes “a la carte” so to speak can help you in a number of ways, including:

  • Getting into the habit of being a student
  • Discovering new interests and talents
  • Deciding whether to continue studying a certain subject
  • Earning credits that you can later transfer to a degree or certificate program

Certificate program: Usually consisting of three to six courses, certificate programs can be an excellent option if you’re interested in:

  • Getting a more in-depth introduction to a subject area
  • Learning new skills in a short amount of time
  • Earning new credentials (to get started pursuing a new field)
  • Boosting your current credentials (to get a raise, promotion, or better recognition in your field)

Associate’s Degree: Generally consisting of 60 credits, associate’s degrees are a popular choice for people interested in:

  • Earning the minimum credentials necessary for certain medical and technical jobs
  • Possibly transferring credits to earn a bachelor’s degree later down the road
  • Spending less money on school in order to gain a credential

Bachelor’s Degree: A bachelor’s usually requires about 120 credits to graduate. It is worth investing in if you’re interested in:

  • Meeting minimum qualifications for a vast number of professions
  • Gaining a well-rounded education beyond just your area of focus
  • Receiving the necessary education to enter into a new field
  • Making more money than people without a degree

Graduate/Professional Degree: You must already have at least a bachelor’s degree to pursue graduate school. If you already have a bachelor’s, your options are broad. Your objectives should guide what kind of program you pursue, but you should also think about how long you want to be in school. A master’s degree, on average, requires 30 credits and the completion of a thesis (though there are coursework-only programs, including several of ours). A Ph.D. program can range from 60 to 120 credits, plus comprehensive exams and the completion of a dissertation. Other professional degrees can vary in length from approximately 1 to 5 years. Graduate and professional degrees take a lot of commitment, but are worth taking on if you’re interested in:

  • Significantly boosting your credentials in your field
  • Qualifying for higher-level leadership positions
  • Earning significantly more money in some fields
  • Teaching at the college level
  • Conducting research

How have any of these courses of study benefitted you or someone you know? Do you think it’s best to always pursue a degree, or have you been able to find success by just taking courses or earning a certificate? Let us know in the comments below.

Continue reading: Thinking Through Going Back to School – Part 4 »

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