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Going Back to College to Advance Your Career

Continuing education programs are re-tooling. Here's how to find a helpful one.


Hardly a day goes by where we don’t hear of a line of work that’s on the verge of being automated. As Peter Coy, economics editor at Bloomberg Businessweek recently wrote, “automation is on the rise in fields from radiology to volleyball coaching.” That’s the bad news for American workers.

The good news is that the country’s employers are seeking to fill more than six million job openings, a record number. The challenge many workers face today is not a lack of job opportunity but, rather, the skills to advance their career or make a career move out of a field where jobs are disappearing.

Continuous Learning Has Become Essential

For instance, while there’s a growing and seemingly insatiable need for workers with experience in data science, how do you get the requisite experience to get one of these positions if you already have a full-time job? As Next Avenue’s Richard Eisenberg noted, continuous learning has become essential. It’s our ability to continually learn new skills throughout our careers that keeps us in demand among employers.

That’s why universities across the country — from Georgia Tech in the southeast to the University of Washington in the northwest, where I serve as vice provost of Continuum College — have begun to rev things up. What we’re beginning to see is a re-tooling of university “continuing education” programs for people in the middle of their careers.

In the past, continuing education programs focused primarily on “enrichment,” like cooking and art classes. Now, there’s a shift toward certificates designed to fill very specific job openings such as those in data science, project management, computational finance and accounting.

A High-Value, Non-Credit College Certificate

In many cases, certificate programs provide high-value, non-credit learning experiences to help people find their dream jobs. For others, a certificate will help to improve job security. For example, last year we had a Ph.D. oceanographer in one of our programs who chose to pursue a certificate that let him add quantitative skills to his job as an oceanography researcher.

For people who are far along in their careers, a certificate can round out a resumé so they can compete successfully against younger workers. The key is to make sure you’re pursuing the right certificate program that will help you get that leg up.

3 Questions to Answer About a College Certificate

Here are three questions you’ll want to answer if you are thinking about a getting professional certificate:

1. Are you ready to make the commitment? One advantage certificate programs have over graduate degrees is that they require less time. Generally, master’s programs take one to two years while certificate programs typically wrap up in less than a year. Many certificate programs are offered at night or online to make them accessible to working adults. However, certificate programs still require a level of commitment.

The best ones will offer a “coach” who, in addition to providing strategic near and long-term career planning assistance, can help you determine if a certificate program is realistic considering your other obligations.

Alternatively, you can ask yourself how many hours a week you can devote to the program (including transportation time to and from the school if you would prefer to take in-person classes). Beyond the issue of time, you will also need to put in energy. Be honest with yourself when determining whether you’re ready to jump in.

2. Which type of program could help you advance or switch careers? This is a question that we’re frequently asked. Our coaches spend a lot of time helping prospective students pinpoint their career goals, determine what they want to accomplish and decide whether a certificate program is right for them.

In some cases, you may learn that a job you’re seeking requires a formal degree. But, for other fields such as paralegal, e-learning instructional design, human resource management and editing, a certificate will help you get your foot in the door.

3. Which type of program is best for the type of job you’re seeking? If you’re interested in pursuing a certificate in project management, for instance, make sure the program will give you all the experience you’ll need to get a good project management job. At the University of Washington, we have advisory boards with leaders from top Seattle companies who oversee our programs. They help ensure the certificate programs map to the jobs that employers are trying to fill today.

You’ll also want to see which career resources will be available to you after you get your certificate. For instance, to what extent will the school help you network with others within your chosen field?

Once you get these questions answered, you’ll know whether and where to get a certificate to help advance your career.

By Rovy Branon
Rovy Branon is vice provost for the century-old Continuum College at the University of Washington.

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