Should you go back to school to boost your career prospects?

Home WorkforceShould you go back to school to boost your career prospects?

Executive programs and ‘micro-learning’ can expand your leadership toolkit, but won’t necessarily fatten your paycheque.

By Radhika Panjwani* – August 2022

During the pandemic, Hanadi Usman checked off an item from her professional development bucket list and successfully completed an online master of business administration (MBA) degree.

Ms. Usman, a 41-year-old project manager working in the health-care industry in Toronto, had put off pursuing the MBA for over a decade because she was wary of being burdened with student loan debt. She also needed a flexible curriculum that could accommodate the demands of a full-time job.

Even though her MBA degree did not result in a significant raise or promotion, Ms. Usman has no regrets about taking the plunge.

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“My MBA degree has definitely helped me to understand business strategies, branding, sales and leadership because we had CEOs and executives from well-known companies share their experiences,” she says. “It was very interesting and I learned new ways of looking at things.”

However, while mid-career education can be valuable, it isn’t necessarily a shortcut to a more senior position, she adds.

“I have taken several professional certification courses during my stint in the financial industry because it was an expectation,” Ms. Usman says, noting that getting her MBA was a personal choice. “But [in] my experience, education doesn’t make a big difference when it comes to career advancement.”

As students across the country head back to school after Labour Day, education is likely top of mind for many in the working world. But is pursuing additional education worth it to further your career prospects?

Benefits of a ‘growth mindset’

Dr. Catherine Chandler-Crichlow, dean of University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies, says that women who aspire to career success can benefit from having a “growth mindset” and an interest in lifelong learning. And that doesn’t necessarily mean getting another degree.

For instance, micro-learning, an educational strategy that offers short-form, stand-alone units of study, can help women who want to develop capabilities but may not have the time or money to pursue a full certificate program. Over time, each mini course can lead to a certificate, she says.

“Careers are changing due to changes in the workforce, environment, the pandemic [and more],” Dr. Chandler-Crichlow says. “It’s important for women to think about how they can obtain portable skills and knowledge that can be used anywhere and anytime in their career lifecycle.”

Katherine Parks, director of business development, Queen’s Executive Education at Smith School of Business, notes that many post-secondary institutions in Canada have courses designed for mid-level professionals because being an effective leader in today’s evolving business environment requires skills that go beyond the “traditional” leadership toolkit.

Today, leaders need skills such as influence, strategic thinking and decision-making as well as emotional intelligence, cross-cultural awareness, resilience and empathy, she says. Women in particular can benefit from pursuing executive education – shorter format, non-degree courses and programs – because it can help build their confidence and connect them to professionals across a range of organizations and industries, says Ms. Parks.

“Sometimes women are reluctant to try for promotions or have been met with resistance in the past, but learning new skills, understanding a changing market or emerging trends and developing a more robust personal leadership profile can enhance their capabilities and bolster their confidence,” she says.

Does experience trump education?

That’s not to say that mid-career education is the only route to advancement. Jennifer Mackintosh, founder and executive recruiter at Glengarry Group Consulting, has more than two decades of experience helping her clients land senior roles within the sales and marketing industry. She says that when her clients land plum jobs, it’s usually because of their experience, references and ability to clearly articulate their accomplishments during the interview process.

These factors, coupled with work ethic, personality and resiliency are most important, she says.

“I’m much more interested in a candidate’s track record of historical success; what they’ve accomplished professionally in the past and how confidently they can step in and execute the job,” Ms. Mackintosh says. “In my world, once you have more than 5-7 years of relevant experience, real work or on-the-job training trumps a degree.”

Harsimran Kang, 38, works as a manager of technology adoption with a retail company in the Greater Toronto Area. She credits on-the-job learning as key when it comes to honing her skills.

“Every job taught and helped me to refine, improve and build on my skills,” Ms. Kang says. “The initial challenge was in understanding the nuances of the business, but once I was able to do that, I continually adapted and innovated.”

Ms. Kang has a bachelor’s degree in engineering (computer technology). Five years ago, she completed a Certified ScrumMaster (CSM) course that gave her an understanding of project management methodology and introduced her to a new approach to managing projects and collaborating with team members. She says she uses the fundamentals in her work daily.

The Oakville, Ont., resident considered pursuing an executive leadership degree but abandoned the idea because it would mean juggling the needs of her family and managing a full-time job. Earlier this year, her company invited her to participate in an in-house leadership program.

“It’s my personal belief any learning you do will eventually give you returns at some point or the other,” Ms. Kang says. “But if you can’t apply what you have learned, then it’s of no consequence. A master’s degree can probably get your foot into the door of a company, but after that, it all depends on your performance.”

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About the Author’s

Radhika Panjwani is an Award-winning journalist from the Greater Toronto area.

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