So you have decided to go back to university (going back to the classroom), get a proper Bachelor, a Masters or enroll in a PhD on the side? Congratulations, you obviously have good intentions. Building on it will require a conjoined effort, from you, from close ones sharing your day-to-day life, from professors and from the workplace, depending on their position on your return to academia. You might think you have been through it once and can do it again, you might not give the new environment much thought. Maybe settling on a schedule with your family and coming up with the finances were the sole challenges you thought about – those are important points to settle first and foremost. But afterwards, there are several other points, one might think minor, that can easily pile up and become problems of weird proportions.
Readjusting to the education system and routine:
You go from working and having your output assessed according to a company’s individual policy, dealing with issues and projects and workloads to attending classes, taking notes and preparing assignments and homework. You might think working in the private industry or administration is tough, but it is its own kind of tough. Answering to the academic system and playing according to its rules might sound easy, however, is it still the same educational system you left many years ago or is it another sort of challenge?
You are no longer the freshman with only studies and perhaps a side hustle to fill your time, you are no longer the eager one to be done with the exams to score, to get out of the classroom without much in your memory and get out there to work, you no longer play Monopoly like it’s real life. Now, you have perspective and maybe even strong opinions about the educational system, the grading, the understanding of such and such professor and what is taught. Maybe you are a Monopoly fan, maybe you are not. Maybe you will enjoy, at least for a while, sitting back and playing, and maybe you won’t. The point is that the educational system requires its own discipline and plays by its own rules. While as a student you thought you had to do it or didn’t realize it, coming back with an experienced eye and a more critical mind can make the transition difficult. You may question homework questions and their use, or the pace of the courses, the kind of material taught within it or the scoring. You working life may prompt you to ask many many questions of your new environment.
This is overwhelming on its own and will take some time to readjust to – as will the new expectations thrust onto you! It is therefore important to be able to speak with professors and have windows of communication with them outside of the classroom, so they can address your queries or explain their vision for the course. Many of them didn’t get to go into industry and are passing theory to the next generations, but there are often those who have been part of the industry, have had adult learners before or maintain contacts and relations in the firms’ pool. These people can be very helpful as they will understand your situation and should hopefully be able to offer some useful guidance along the way. Going back to the classroom after many years away might come as something of a culture shock when you see how things have changed.
Studying with youngsters:
Also, you will most likely take classes with young students and while it is not a bad thing it can strike a nerve with some but going back to the classroom should be an enjoyable experience. As long as you can handle the classroom atmosphere or ask for notes without feeling weird about it, you will be fine. It might become a bit of a challenge if group work is required although other adult learners on your course can make it easier to team up and work together. But what if there are no adult learners on your course, what happens if you struggle to relate to the young adults in your class? You can always speak to the instructor and try to convince them that you are passed the point where you need to learn to work in a team and you can just get along fine on your own. However, you will be surprised to realize that many group projects require an actual group because of the numbers of tasks involved. So there is no getting away from group projects!
You may need to be delicate when dealing with teenagers in your working group, especially if they bicker with one another or don’t yet have a sense of team work and how it works. Besides, group meetings will most likely happen when you can’t be there and you can’t expect teenagers to have the same consideration as a professor, or an understanding of the constraints from your circumstances. On the other hand, you face the dilemma of being the adult and may be expected to take charge or spell things out for them even when they are supposed to have acquired those skills already. The other end of the spectrum is possible too, as many will want to prove their worth and may not act in a productive fashion for the group as a whole. Where do you start with this challenge? Going back to the classroom after many years away will give you work and life experience many of the other students crave, perhaps you can help each other?
The instructors are a new form of a weird authority:
Unless you go to the professors and have a proper talk with them, chances are you are another face in the classroom, maybe older but still just a student enrolled in the class. Don’t expect professors to treat you like a colleague or like an experienced worker with insight or be understanding of your circumstances either – going back to the classroom in later life does not give you a higher status in the classroom, you are just one more student. Therefore, it is important to have an open discussion with professors from the start. Most of them just need to be aware that you are an adult learner, have responsibilities and you are not someone who will be playing on their phone during class or here to pass the class then forget about its content. Many things can be sorted out this way: when your significant other and your child are ill and you have to bail on a homework or an exam, talking to the professor or dropping them an email should be an option, and they can be very accommodating if you let them know. Everyone acknowledges the effort it takes to go back to classes and, at the end of the day, maybe you can give a useful insightful into matters of industry – professors often appreciate such insight.
Going back to the classroom mid-career has its perks though:
On the other hand, pursuing higher studies after spending some time in the industry is extremely beneficial – going back to the classroom need not be a constant challenge, it might even be a welcome break from work. By that time, priorities and goals are more aligned with the actual benefits of the courses and the use of knowledge. Rather than grading, passing the exam, cramming and having a distaste to courses because their benefits are not clear, your student’s mentality is aligned with being proactive, securing the concepts and using them. You will also be looking at assimilating the basics and investigating further, acquiring an independence from the professor that ensures you can learn further about the topic on your own as well as engaging the instructors with inquiries in helpful discussions.
Choosing courses will no longer be a matter of scoring or getting a professor of a certain type. Plus, understanding what aspects within a course you must focus most on is very helpful as is having the professional experience to back up your choices. Finally, while you want to get your moneys worth from the course, you don’t expect to be spoon-fed knowledge and your capacity to adapt, to improve and to acquire new skills is demonstrated on a practical scale.
On going back to university rather than doing it all at one shot:
There are some who choose to enroll in higher studies as soon as they are done with their bachelor, thinking it best to work the metal while it‘s still hot and ensuring their chances of getting a better salary from the start. Building up their theoretical knowledge before they move into the work place works for some people, avoiding the thought of going back to the classroom at a later date, but there are downsides to this approach. The stark difference between these candidates and those with practical experience can be spotted in several stances: the core of the hard sciences are not carved in their minds and while they might know the theory, they can’t relate it to the practice nor be able to call upon years of knowledge on the job.
Their expectations are already high relative to their experience and, as entry levels, they will act like other fresh undergrads with a need to be mentored, trained, guided to self-building and self-teaching. It doesn’t help either that they have been disconnected from the private industry and will either have a vague idea how things work, or worse, the wrong idea. An entry level engineer, eager to be part of the team that creates an airplane will be disappointed when they are assigned the task of producing the piping at the bottom of the structure – as part of the analysis team in charge of that particular area.
They will either blame their degree, a lack of suitable positions that match their ambition or the company. It wouldn’t come to their mind, or maybe they wouldn’t be willing to face the simple fact, that the industry doesn’t work in the way they were picturing it in their mind, nor does it rely on one small team to come up with the guidelines. A lack of understanding of the skills of numerous teams throughout the world that can be involved in a project, the precision required from every element of a project and the underlying importance of time and resources can be a major drawback. Very often the reality of a person’s first paycheck will result in a feeling of being cheated of a few years, and a lot of money, for a degree that offered little practical assistance in a world where expectations are often very high. For many of those joining at high degree entry levels it will take trials and reflection to get over this strange whirlpool of thoughts and experience.
Allowing yourself to try and mature first before deciding whether another degree, whether going back to the classroom is for you, is a must and sound planning for the future. Choosing to go back to education can be challenging, the process is not linear and you will experience a period of readjustment. Then you actually need to face the real time you can commit to your assignments and consequently the number of courses you can enroll in – you may fail classes or drop some.
Some will be closely related to what you worked on and it might create a confusion of its own. Other courses may open up new perspectives or spark new interests. But all in all, it is an enriching experience and a means of acquiring new knowledge and skills. If continued acquisition wasn’t a skill you already developed this will definitely set you on the path, although, the experience can be as overwhelming as it is gratifying. Hopefully, you get to live it and learn fully from it both from a practical and a theoretical angle . These are invaluable assets to improve yourself, widening both your practical and theoretical knowledge. Going back to the classroom may sound daunting but the potential benefits are huge!