Against Self-Improvement

Is continuing education — like job certification and degrees — a career boost, or too much self-improvement?

By Mary Lou Quinlan
Mary Lou Quinlan
Photograph: Photo courtesy of Mary Lou Quinlan

While working full-time in Tampa, Florida, Thomason worked toward a BFA in fashion design, taking classes three days a week and earning a 4.0 grade-point average. "I was looking forward to finishing my degree when my mother was diagnosed with cancer," she says. Thomason quit her job, withdrew from school, and moved back home to be with her mother, who died within a month. She soon found another nursing job, but her own health issues and the losses she’d sustained made her yearn to find a better balance between nursing and art.

Thomason got that chance when she was offered an unusual weekend-only assignment at a neonatal unit. Now she uses her weekdays to follow artistic pursuits, including interior decorating, decorative painting, and home accessory design. She has been hired for a redecorating project and hopes eventually to move to a larger home and set up a decorating studio. "Nursing used to pay the bills so I could do what I really wanted," she says. "But I’ve discovered I can do both. I love my nursing career. But when I’m physically unable to continue it, I’ll still be my creative self, and I want to keep developing those skills too. All the classes I’ve taken over the years have added to my creative storehouse."

How Much Training Do You Really Need?

Jackie Burleson, of Charlotte, North Carolina, came to her career crossroads at 41, while she was a software manager for Bank of America and a self-acknowledged workaholic. "When my relationship of four years ended — due in large part to me dumping my unhappiness about work onto him — my world fell apart," Burleson says. "I sought counseling and came to realize I had the power to make the changes I wanted to make."

Thrilled with the difference therapy had made in her life, she considered becoming a therapist. But she was daunted by the idea of going back to school for a master’s in social work. Then a friend suggested Burleson would make a great life coach, and she was instantly energized — "a great clue that you’re on the right path for a new career," she says. She enrolled in a one-year coaching program whose combination of weekly teleconferences and weekend seminars was doable with her work schedule. When she received her certification, she quit her job at the bank.

But soon a sense of inadequacy set in. "Without more training, I wasn’t comfortable presenting myself as a coach," Burleson says. "I felt like I was a fake."

While deciding whether to sign on for more extensive certification, Burleson noticed an odd phenomenon."I’d be looking around the house for a stapler or for a black skirt to wear, and when I couldn’t find it, I figured I’d go buy another. But sure enough, the next day or so, I’d find that stapler or skirt. And I started to wonder, why do I keep searching outside for things? I’ve already got what I need right here, right now."

This insight gave Burleson the courage to present herself as a career transition coach. "I realized I had a lot of personal experience to offer people in soul-deadening jobs," she says. Though she’s not yet making the money she did in her bank job, she has found the satisfaction of doing work she loves.

But Can You Make a Living?

Though some careers really do require extra degrees, those credentials don’t guarantee financial success. Pamela Rybka, 52, of Toledo, Ohio, has been continuing her education for decades, following liberal arts studies with a certificate in geriatrics and then a BA in psychology and geriatrics. She soon discovered that her chosen field is not a lucrative one. "You could earn more money walking dogs," she says. So Rybka, a single parent, continued studying until she was able to switch from geriatrics to better-paying work counseling adolescents and children.

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