My husband wants to go back to grad school and switch careers. Should he?

My husband wants to go back to grad school and switch careers. Should he?

Beth takes on a tricky new money question—and offers expert advice on how to resolve it and how to talk it over in constructive ways.


The situation

My husband is a regional sales manager for a motor manufacturer. He’s been with the company for 10 years, he makes decent money, and he gets to do a little travel, but it’s not his dream job. Lately he’s been talking about going back to school. He wants to become a high school guidance counselor, of all things—maybe so that he can steer other kids into careers that suit them better than his suits him. I want him to be happy. But I’m worried that we’ll have to go into debt to pay for his education. Plus, there’s no guarantee he’ll have a job waiting for him when he gets out, right?

—Phyllis, Joplin, Miss.

The solution

Phyllis, your husband is hardly alone in wanting to branch out. Here’s a surprising stat I found: American workers change jobs, on average, around 12 times over the course of their working lives. How often people change careers is debatable, since the definition of what constitutes a career change (a promotion? a similar job at a different company?) is ambiguous. Whatever the case, it’s not unusual for people to go back to school years or even decades after getting an undergraduate degree.

But we’re talking about your husband’s career, and his happiness, so let’s shrink this discussion down to your personal situation. First, you’re asking the right questions. Going back to school could be a great move that leads him to a vocation he truly loves. Or it could dead-end in disappointment, and new debts that are hard to pay off. Here’s how to weigh the decision with your husband.

  1. How much will it really cost to go back to school? In Missouri, your husband will need to complete a counseling master’s degree program and an internship, in addition to meeting other educational and licensing requirements. Just for the master’s program, he’s looking at $15,000 to $20,000—or more—in tuition and fees if he goes to an in-state school, plus books, commuting costs, etc. (Beware of online master’s programs, which tout convenience but can cost up to twice as much as on-campus programs.) He’ll need to research the costs associated with any additional training or certification. Will he be able to complete the coursework during his off hours, or will he have to quit his current job to go to school? Probably the latter, at least for the internship portion. So he has to factor in his lost wages, as well as health insurance, contributions to his retirement fund, and so on. There are costs associated with putting your career on hold for a couple of years.
  2. How much will your husband make at his new job? When people are motivated to change careers out of personal passion rather than for financial reasons, they can forget to think about money altogether. But it’s important to research pay scales in your area, because this decision could affect your standard of living. (For tips on how to research salaries, check out my advice here.) You say your husband is making good money now. I don’t know what that means to you, but if it’s more than around $46,000, the average salary for a career counselor in the Joplin area, then your husband is looking at a pay cut. Are you two prepared to live on less? (For people seeking other career paths, depending on the field, going back to school can have a financial upside. For example, workers in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties who have a master’s degree earn, on average, 20% more than young adults with only a bachelor’s.) Maybe a reduction in income is worth it if your husband doesn’t hate his job. But the two of you should go into this with your eyes open.
  3. Can you handle going into debt? Student loans can be a useful tool if they’re handled wisely, but they can also get you into trouble. A few years ago, a major study about student debt found that people who had completed a master’s in education (like your husband wants to do) had an average of $50,879 in debt, including loans from undergrad. I have no idea what your overall financial situation is, but if your husband will need to take out loans, the two of you should draw up a realistic plan for paying them back. Using tools like the government’s Repayment Estimator and the New York Times’ Student Loan Calculator can help. Your plan should ensure that you don’t have to devote too much of your monthly income to debt. How much is too much? Financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz recommends not spending more than 10% of your take-home pay on education loans. Which leads me to my final point…
  4. What are the employment prospects for someone with no experience in your new field? Your husband has been with his current company for a decade, and he’s in management. He’s likely used to commanding respect and authority. When he comes out of school and applies for career counselor positions, what many school principals will see is someone with no experience. This is a common problem for those who switch professions mid-career. Unfortunately, it can be a special challenge for people in the school counseling profession, particularly if they have no teaching experience. So your husband should be looking for ways to pick up experience through interning and volunteering while he’s in school—and he should ask the leaders of his program about how to tackle this challenge. Your financial calculations should factor in the possibility that it will take him a while to find a job. 

Anyone who wants to go into education is someone close to my heart. My dad was a middle school principal, and my mom was a chemistry teacher when they met. The last thing I want to do is discourage your husband from pursuing his dream. I just want both of you to go into this next phase of your life aware of the tradeoffs. That way, you’ll be able to enjoy the rewards without regret.

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