Whether you’re currently working or not, if you’re making the decision to go to college, you must have specific career goals in mind. Those goals are going to help you determine what credential you need to obtain (and therefore how long you’ll be in school), whether you will need occupational experience as a part of your education, and if you’ll need to continue your education after graduating. From there, you can determine what type of institution is best suited to your needs.


How do I know what credential I need?

If you’re working while studying, is this the same job that you’re hoping to keep after graduating? Do you need certain qualifications to move up the career ladder, or are you looking for a change in employment?

If you’re planning on changing careers, research the field you are thinking of entering. What type of credentials do most people in the same field have? Will a certificate suffice, or do you need to complete a bachelor’s degree to be competitive? Determining what degree you (may) need is the quickest way to save time and money. There’s no need for you to spend four years getting a bachelor’s degree when you only need a two-year degree to get a job. If you’re planning on returning to school to focus on a certain trade or vocation, consider reading more about vocational education and community college.

Some jobs, like nursing, require that you receive on-the-job training while you are in school before you can be hired for a permanent position. Other fields, such as engineering, surveying, and nutrition, require that you have a license to practice or complete your job. Understanding what is required of you during and immediately after finishing your education is important. If you fail to gain the proper credentials at the right time, you may not be able to find a position.

What is a licensed professional?

Some professions, such as nursing, counseling, massage therapy, or teaching, require that you have a license before you can work. When you research the education needed for your chosen field, be sure to factor in the time that it will take you to initially receive your license. It is also important to consider that to maintain and renew your license or certificate, you may have to complete continuing education programs throughout your career.

Regulated professions and the associated licensing and certification requirements vary between states. Where one state may require classes, another may require supervised work hours. The point of renewing a license or certificate is so that an employee can stay on top of any changes to his or her field and be aware of new research or techniques.

Licenses or certificates may not be mandatory for an entry-level position in your field of interest, but are almost always required as your responsibility increases and you move up the career ladder. If you’re employed in one of these fields, your employer will require you to complete licensing and certifications and give you the time to do so.

What is occupational experience?

If you are interested in a job such as teaching, nursing, or one of many vocations, you may have to get occupational experience during school or before beginning a new position with an employer. Occupational experience typically consists of supervised on-the-job or observation hours. For example, if you are training to become an elementary school teacher, you will first have to observe a set number of hours in the classroom. Then, you will be asked to take the role of teacher while someone else observes you for a set number of hours. Working, then, is a part of your curriculum and is essential to help you earn your degree. Staying on good terms with the locations at which you perform occupational experience tasks may lead to an internship, apprenticeship, or job in the future.

Even if your program does not require you to gain occupational experience to earn college credit or pass your classes, you may still want to get experience in your chosen field while you are finishing your program. Check your department’s website to see if there are any internships or job postings. If that fails, talk with the department head or your professors to see if they know of any opportunities for part-time or summer jobs. If there isn’t anything available through your school connections, you can always check local job listings for fields of interest or email local businesses or organizations to offer yourself as an intern, apprentice, or employee. If you do find a part-time position, be sure not to schedule so many hours that they interfere with your schoolwork. Research indicates that students who work between 10 and 15 hours weekly are more likely to finish their degrees.

What type of college should I attend?

Regardless of whether you’ve been to college before or if higher education is new to you, you have choices to make. Depending on what type of credential you are hoping to earn, you could be happiest at a vocational school, a community college, a large university, or an online-only school.

If you don’t have the motivation to learn on your own time at home and also want to forge a relationship with your professors, choose a school that requires you to attend classes on campus. If you need a flexible schedule, check out part-time enrollment options or online classes. If you only need a certificate, a vocational school or community college is more likely to offer the right options. If you’re just hoping to take supplementary classes, you’ll find a wide range of options at a large university, but community colleges and online options would be worth looking into as well, since they may be cheaper. Explore all options before you commit to a particular type of school.

How should I pick a college?

When you are spending so much time and money on your education, it is crucial that your degree carry weight after graduation. The school you choose must be accredited. Simply put, a degree from a nonaccredited school is hardly ever accepted in the workplace or by graduate schools. Save yourself the hassle now by choosing an accredited school. You can find out more about accreditation and how to check to see if a school is accredited here.

Also important is whether your school is a nonprofit or for-profit institution. While degrees from both types of colleges are valid, you may find that one type of school is more affordable and more respected than another. For more information about the differences between nonprofit and for-profit schools, click here.

Would it be easiest to finish my degree online?

Taking time away from work and family to attend a brick-and-mortar school isn’t necessary if you don’t want to do it. A variety of schools offer online degree-completion programs that can help you reach your goals from the comfort of your own home and on your own schedule. Depending on your degree track, this may or may not be an option for you. Some programs only allow students to major in liberal studies: a degree which gives the student a background in humanities, natural science, and social sciences, but not one specific discipline. Online degree-completion programs are offered by both brick-and-mortar schools and online-only ones. Check with each school you are considering to determine your degree options.

Online degree-completion programs typically have liberal transfer policies. Provided the institution that you previously attended was accredited, you may be able to transfer your prior-earned credits and avoid retaking any courses. Programs may also offer academic credits for military training, certificates, or credit by exam (in which you take a test, like a CLEP Test, to prove your knowledge of a certain subject). This can significantly reduce the amount of time you spend completing your degree and the amount of money that it will cost you.

For more information on the benefits and downsides of online programs, click here.

Page last updated: 07/2017