imageContributing blogger John Long is a professional career coach and consultant in Atlanta who founded Two Roads Resources. He blogs at Atlanta Career Coach.

Q: Should I consider going back to school to better compete in the job market?

A: It’s never too late to pursue more education, so school is always an option. But don’t return to school because it seems like a good idea. Instead, have a solid plan and goal in mind before you start. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that an advanced degree alone will blast open the doors of opportunity.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Hey, lawyers make a lot of money, so I guess I’ll go to law school.” Your earning power should be thought of as a reward, not a goal. The prime question to answer is, “Where is the motivation coming from?” Will a return to school put you on a path to pursue that dream career? Are you being passed up for promotions because you lack an advanced degree that has become a preferred qualification in your field? What are the careers that will remain in demand for many years?

You may find that you don’t need a formal degree program. Maybe you should consider a graduate certificate, often 12 to 18 credit hours, or a professional certification endorsed by a leading industry association. Professional certifications, including human resources (PHR), management accountant (CMA) and management professional (PMP), are now preferred qualifications.

Certifications are a great way to gain new skills or validate existing ones and set yourself apart from the competition. Why not start out slow and complete one course? If the motivation is there, you will likely do quite well and be ready to sign up for additional courses or a full blown program.

If you haven’t finished a bachelor’s degree, now might be a good time to wrap that up. A bachelor’s degree is now a minimum qualification in many fields. There’s an array of quality “degree completion” programs designed with the adult learner in mind.

If earning an advanced degree makes sense for your career growth, then do your homework, so to speak, and choose the right degree to reach your goals. Research the career options associated with specific degrees as there are dozens of degrees available for choosing. Learn the difference between MS, MBA and DBA.

Gather information on preferred degree paths from professional associations. Identify people who are successful in your chosen career and learn about choices they made to advance their credentials. And speak to program leaders at the schools you are considering for solid data on a program’s ability to help propel a student’s career.

When selecting a school make sure it fits your needs and is fully accredited by one of the six regional accrediting bodies in the U.S., rather than any national body. Many programs can also achieve accreditation from a professional association, such as the American Nurses Association, as a mark of added quality.

You have a variety of program formats to choose from: full time, part-time, traditional classroom, evening/weekend, distance/online, blended learning, hybrid, among others. Online learning has become a new standard and many respected, traditional universities now offer online degree programs. Some additional research will show if a school and its programs enjoy a solid reputation among employers.

Don’t forget to check funding sources including loans and scholarships. Also speak with a tax professional about potential tax credits for some of the costs associated with a formal degree program.

Put in the extra effort up front to assess your motivation surrounding a return to school. Then do your research to find the right degree, program and school to meet your needs. A targeted approach sets yourself up for success.

A few resources to review:

Peterson’s Graduate Planner
50 Fastest Growing Occupations
Accredited Online Degree Ranking

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