By Donna Cardillo, RN, MA, CSP, FAAN
Furthering your formal education is always a smart move, especially in today’s competitive job market. But there’s so much to think about when choosing a school, a major, method of finance and so on. So whether you’ve already decided to return to school or are at least giving it serious thought, here are some practical tips for getting started.
I’m often asked, “Which degree will guarantee me the best job prospects or salary?” No one degree will be your ticket to fame and fortune. The secret to being successful while in school, and afterwards, is to find a course of study that interests you and then find a way to make it work.
While some nurses have a clear idea of what courses of study they want to pursue, many aren’t sure which majors to choose. A degree in nursing is a natural choice for many especially if you plan to stay in the direct patient care area or to teach nursing. But for those who don’t care to take that route or have more non-traditional aspirations, other majors to consider include business, education, communication, psychology, and healthcare management. Some nurses have even pursued degrees in areas like kinesiology (the study of how the body moves), urban studies, and journalism and combined them with their nursing backgrounds to broaden their career horizons.
If you can’t decide which major to pursue, start at the public library. Ask the research librarian to help you locate special information about colleges and majors. Scan the available majors, and find a few that intrigue you. Call or e-mail those schools and request catalogs and check out their websites. Look at the coursework, the admission requirements, and the costs. See how many credits you’ll need to graduate. Do they offer all or some courses online? Weekend and evening classes? If necessary, make an appointment to speak with an admissions counselor to get all of your questions answered. Don’t hesitate to ask to speak to a few recent graduates of that program. They can fill you in on the pros and cons of attending that school.
The next step is figuring out the finances. Looking at college costs can make you break into a cold sweat. But where there’s a will, there’s always a way. Finances, or the lack thereof, should never be an obstacle to your returning to school. Many students have financed all or part of their education through scholarships, grants, and work-study programs. Start by calling the college’s financial aid office to find out what support is available. Check out your professional associations or the professional associations affiliated with your major (such as the American College of Healthcare Executives), and see what scholarships, grants, and paid internships are available. You’ll find a whole shelf of books on scholarship and financial aid information in the reference section of your public library. Read the article Master the Scholarship Game.
Start making phone calls, writing letters, and filling out scholarship applications. If you don’t quite meet the criteria, apply anyway. I once applied for a scholarship that was for full-time students only. I was only taking one course per semester because that was all I could squeeze into my schedule. I explained in my application I wished I could go to school full-time but I had to work, take care of my family, and so on and still needed the money. This organization awarded me a special scholarship that year because of my letter. I’m told considerable scholarship money sits unused each year because no one applies for it.
Once you’ve decided on a major, enrolled in school, and gotten your finances straightened out, some changes will have to be made in your personal life. Don’t expect to do everything you did before, plus go to school. In addition to classroom or online hours, you’ll also need time to spend in the library, read and write papers, and meet with professors and classmates.
Think about what you do that you can eliminate. For example, volunteer activities may have to take a backseat for a while, and your vegetable garden may not happen this year. Look for creative solutions to your home life. Is there anything you can pay a neighborhood child to do or delegate to your kids, such as mowing the lawn, cleaning up the kitchen after dinner, or folding the laundry? There also are people who charge a nominal fee to run errands, clean your house, and do odd jobs. If you try to do everything yourself, you’ll set yourself up for failure. Although your family may balk at first, they’ll soon fall into a new routine. Remember, you’re setting a good example for your family and friends by bettering yourself and furthering your education. Don’t forget to save a little time for yourself.
Once in school there will be times when you’ll wonder, “Why am I doing this to myself? I could drop out tomorrow and free up a lot of my time.” Actually, dropping out doesn’t solve any problems. It just leaves something incomplete. It’s normal to be fearful and apprehensive about returning to school, especially if you’ve been out for a while.
So if you’re thinking about getting back to school, take the steps you need to get started, and just do it. Every journey starts with a single step. Keep putting one foot in front of the other, and before you know it, you’ll have reached your destination.
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