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Should I go back to school university or college at 25 35 45?

When I connect with people looking for career direction who have already graduated from university, a common question is should I go back to school? A very good question indeed. At the root of the discussion, I like to uncover why? what do they hope to accomplish in going back to school?

There are a bunch of articles out there (see end for a few references) and we wanted to add our 2 cents. By sharing insights from countless conversations with people asking the same question we hope to inform and provide all available options. Maybe you’re looking at a career that does require years of education and $40,000 in tuition, maybe not.

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Top Reasons why People want to mistakenly go Back to School

As I tabulate the various reasons people provide for wanting to go back to school, the most common are:

  1. don’t know what else they want to do
  2. feel they are missing skills
  3. feel they are missing experience
  4. believe they have to (by parents or other)
  5. believe they are “pigeon-holed” and want to do something else

All the reasons are valid, although most focus on symptoms versus the root of the problem. One large challenge with going to school is that many go to school and don’t get an education. Going to school is attending class, doing assignments, and taking tests. Getting an education is learning and applying the knowledge to confirm that you really understand what you are doing. Many fall into one of the reasons above because the first time they went to school, and did not get an education.

Now that does not mean if you’re saying one of these reasons that you shouldn’t go back to school. What I am saying is that you want to understand your purpose and develop your drive and commitment to get an education before you set foot back into a school,

Steps to determine if you should go back to school

If you still feel that school is important for you, then focus on:

  1. your goals during school
  2. your goals after school

Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action is a good starting point. Or if you don’t read the book at least ask yourself Why?

In a recent coaching discussion, a graduated engineer took a gap year and took a survival job was considering to go back to nursing school. Answering the question “Why?” the answer was that he wanted to help others and make a difference. Very noble and admirable. I probed asked if he had ever done healthcare, to which he responded that the volunteered at a hospital. I continued and asked did he like the experience. He had a pause and a bit of hesitation, and said it was alright, but it was good as he felt he was helping. I asked another question  “could you help others and make a difference in another way?” to which he gave numerous responses, none of which required him to go back to school.

In another conversation, another engineer, but this time they wanted to go back to school to do an MBA. Answering the question “Why?” the answer was that he always liked numbers and before he took engineering was seriously considering business, and a flurry of reasons and rationale that almost seemed like curiosity, interest and a genuine passion for it was coming out. Answering the question, have you ever done any of it before “Yes, I have a small investment account that I’ve been playing with that’s been doing relatively well, and I stay up to date on the latest financial blogs, and I like spend time outside of my engineer studies to discuss on this investment forum, and, and and…”

Follow the title of the book: start with why.

Consider the opportunity cost

Studies do show that a university degree will increase your lifetime earnings. I have yet to see studies that say 2 degrees would lead to the same increase. Another consideration is the opportunity cost. Not only are you down $40+K or more in tuition costs, you are also out the $28K/year of study that you could have earned had you simply worked a minimum wage job. You’ll want to also consider the amount of learning and experience that you could have acquired in a job during the same period of time.

Taste it

The two anecdotes I shared also have a common point to “Taste it”. Before committing to 3-4 or more years, make sure you have a taste of what you’re getting into. In the nursing example, go volunteer doing healthcare work. If you’re loving every moment, there might be something to it. If you’re hating every moment, then going back to school isn’t likely the right decision. If you’re somewhere in between, what aspects of what you like could you do more of? Taste more. is there a job specifically for that? does it require additional education?

You might be able to get that experience in your current job by taking on extra work to help out another department. Or volunteer. Or just by starting something yourself. At the very least, find people doing what you want to do and live vicariously through them. If they recount their experiences and you are hanging on their every word, that might be a compelling reason. If they share their good days and bad and none of it is appealing to you, then that’s another data point. Make sure you add more data-points so that it’s not just one person’s overly negative or overly positive opinion.

The alternative is to not experience, spend years on the new education, only to be in the same place as you are now. Education might be the answer, but it doesn’t have to been, and a good way to find the answer is to taste it yourself.

Careers that do and do not require advanced education

Some career paths necessitate you to go back to school. Those are regulated fields such as accounting, engineering, law, being a doctor, etc. Generally speaking, if you were pursuing one of these career paths, you will need to have an education.

Careers that do not necessarily require you to go back to school are:

  1. Marketing – most of the training is learned on the job
  2. Consulting – having worked in the industry and seen numerous individuals from different degrees and experiences. Consulting is an art and science that is honed in the trenches. Not to mention consulting firms prefer to offer their own training.
  3. Investment banking, asset management investopedia mentions 10 ways to work in fiance without a degree
  4. Interior design – most of the skills required in the job are customer service and technical skill set with applications. The main determinant to getting a role is portfolio. Interested individuals are often able to develop their own portfolios outside of academic institutions.
  5. Programming – most people learn this in 14 weeks through code boot camps or even self-taught projects. It does however require significant discipline.
  6. Web Design – similarly to programming web design is a craft that can be honed without formal education
  7. Project Management – life is teeming with project management opportunities from how to run your next vacation to coaching and managing a beer league. In fact people often receive extensive amounts of project management experience before getting certified or formal education.

Now some of these highly encourage you to get certifications (such as the CFA), and you do not necessarily need to go back to university/college to get them. So before you go back to school, make sure you know what you want to do.

Alternatives to going back to school to build a career

Going back to school will likely cost you tens-of-thousands of dollars. An MBA would cost you $30K to upwards of $100K. A college advanced certification may cost you $10K to upwards $30K. And worst of all, it may cost you 1-3 years of your life. So what could you do for $30K over 12 months? here are some suggestions

  • Starting up your own business
    • Take the money that you would have spent on tuition and use that as investments towards your business idea. Think of it as your own seed fund and that you are your own angel
    • Estimated cost: Take the cost of your tuition and apply it to the start-up costs of your business
  • Working for free / pay in the role of your choosing
    • Find a company, a start-up, a success entrepreneur, mentor or someone to work for
      • Leverage their expertise, and knowledge to get a real-world education
    • Estimated cost: free assuming you can live for less than the cost of your tuition; plus if you can get paid, even better!
  • Hiring a career coach to guide you (shameless plug: find out more about our CAS – catalyst and accountability services here)
    • Could be combined with either of the two options above to
    • Estimated cost: $1-5k per year

These are just a few ideas that would not just save you from the debt of going to school, but might also make you money

Timing counts, your priorities may be different in each season

Should I go back to school at 25

Here is what to consider for going back to school:


  • You’re young: you still have a lot of time to do something else later on
  • Probably not settled down (i.e. kids / mortgage): much more flexibility for you to do what you need to do
  • You probably don’t have that much experience that makes you a shoe-in for most jobs


  • You’re young: yes I have this in both Pros and Cons; which also means you could probably take riskier opportunities (and recover if they didn’t work out)
  • Experience vs education: you could be getting experience instead of education; the catch is that some jobs won’t allow you to get that experience without the education, but there are always creative ways to get in through the back or side doors…
  • It might be a requirement: school might be a requirement for certain regulated industries so if you really want to pursue that path, you might have no choice

Should I go back to school at 35


  • You’re young: yes, even at 35 you’re still young. If you were to retire at 65, you’ve only gone 1/4 of the way through our career


  • You’re young: yes I have this in both Pros and Cons; which also means you could probably take riskier opportunities (and recover if they didn’t work out)
  • Commitments: you might have more commitments at this age whether it be marriage, kids, mortgage or car payments; Those constraints have to be considered
  • It might be a requirement: same as above

Should I go back to school at 45


  • You’re young(ish): at 45, you’re closer to half way through your career. Would you rather spend the rest of it in the status quo, or potentially heading towards a direction to do something you love?


  • Transferring your skills: you’ve probably accumulated a solid set of experiences and sizeable network that could help you with future opportunities without the need for a new degree
  • Commitments: you’re bound to have more obligations by this time, so make sure you account for them as well
  • It might be a requirement: same as above

Don’t go back to school unless you have these

  1. A strong reason to do so with a clear desired outcome
  2. Support from the dependants and loved ones around you
  3. Finances
  4. A strong opportunity cost calculation of what you could be doing instead

How Focus Inspired can Help

Need help with your decision? We can help you with being a sounding-board for your decision process and provide guidance towards your various considerations. Or you may want to seek other trusted professionals for advice. Especially before you commit several tens-of-thousands of dollars and a year or more of your life!

Should you go back to school? Click here to find out more

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