Taking an online degree to advance your career is a smart move if you play your cards right. You can gain professionally respected qualifications that can take you to the next level or open up entirely new career paths, without bringing your professional life to a complete halt for three years.
And it works: a Harvard Business Review study of 52,000 people who completed courses on the online platform Coursera found that 72% of them had received promotions or got new jobs as a result of what they learned.
More than that, there’s also evidence that learning online can be simply a better way to develop new skills than the traditional classroom. A 2009 study by the US Department of Education found that putting students in control of their own learning had a positive effect in encouraging self-reflection.
Because you have to take more responsibility for your learning, preparation is essential. You’ll want to plan for two goals: first, how can you make sure that you get a high-quality qualification that’s relevant to your field? Second, how can you make sure that your qualification leads to career advancement?
It all starts with being clear about your goals from the start and planning out your path to achieving them.
Be Clear About Your Goals
All your decisions – from what to study and which online provider to use, to deciding when to start the course – will be clearer if you have a plan about what you want to achieve.
Even though an online degree is often a more convenient and cost-effective way of developing your skills, it’s still a major investment of time and money. If you’re putting in hours of study after a full day’s work at your job, you’ll want to be sure that there’ll be a payoff at the end.
So whether you’re looking to accelerate your progress on your career path or start a new route altogether, do your research. Seek out people who are excelling in your field at the level you want to be, and see if you can buy them a coffee to pick their brains.
They’ll help you break down your long-term goals into a step-by-step plan. And you can make sure that your first step will be onto the right course to develop your skills. If you hit it off, you might even find they become a mentor.
Get the Timing Right
Time is the one thing that will be in pretty short supply if you’re juggling work and study. The first question to ask is whether you have the time to commit to your learning. If your workload is really heavy it might be worth postponing study until you’ve got more capacity: being patient and realistic is key to success.
Many courses will allow you to progress at your own pace, however, racing ahead when you’ve got time or putting things on hold when other responsibilities take over. Choose a course structure that fits in best with your other career and family commitments.
It’s also worth making sure that your career is at the right stage to take advantage of the degree you’re studying for. Career progression is a mix of knowledge and experience, and you’ll need the right blend of both to make it to the next level. If you don’t have the opportunities to develop your experience, you may not be able to make the most of your qualification.
The good news is that your course will take some time that will give you the chance to develop your experience. And you may find that the networking opportunities with your tutors and other students open doors that you never expected.
Make Sure You’re Well-Equipped
Technology is what makes online education possible. The best providers invest heavily in their platforms to create an easy, attractive way to engage with your tutors and other students on the course.
But all of that depends on your having the right equipment at home to take advantage of these features. You don’t want to find yourself held up by a slow broadband connection that won’t let you watch streaming lectures, for instance.
For interactive discussions and webinars, you may find that you need a webcam if there isn’t one built into your computer. They’re a good investment: it’s much easier to make connections with your fellow students when you can see them as if you were face to face.
Spending a little time finding research tools that work for you is a great way to ensure that you have a better experience in your online studies. Take citations, for instance: crediting your sources is at the heart of all academic study, but it can be complicated and frustrating to memorise the different styles of citation. You don’t want your research to keep grinding to a half while you look up how to quote a text correctly.
Luckily, several developers have created online tools that help you make citations quickly and easily. Find out which one suits you best, and you’ll save many hours of frustration.
Choose the Right Online uUniversity
We’ve seen that the flexibility and control of online courses can even help people learn more effectively. But not all online universities are created equal. What should you look out for to make sure you get a great experience and a credible qualification?
Start with checking their accreditation with the Government body in your country and any relevant professional organizations. That means you know the qualification will open the right doors in your career and that the quality of the programme has been checked out.
Next, take a look at the instructors. One of the advantages of online learning is that you can connect with experts who aren’t available in your hometown, without uprooting your whole life for your studies. You’ll get the most out of your course if you know exactly where the tutors’ experience lies and are sure it connects with what you want to learn.
Online universities that invest in their technology have a major advantage. The online platform is your digital campus: it’s where you’ll spend all your time. So you’ll want to work on one that’s attractive, fast and easy to use. Many online universities allow you to sign up and try some materials for free – think of it like an online open day.
Build on Your Past Professional Experiences
Whether you’re aiming for the next rung on the professional ladder or switching tracks to another career, your past experience counts. Start with an audit of your current skills and experience, and compare them to the ones you’d need to meet your long-term goals. You can use this to help you choose the right course that will fill in your skills gaps.
Think laterally too: it’s likely that your previous job has given you relevant transferable skills, even if it seems like you’re planning to radically change your career path with your new qualifications. Some of the skills most valued by employers are ‘soft skills’, things like communication skills, working as a team and problem solving.
If you can demonstrate those skills in your past professional career as well as having the right qualifications through online learning, you’ve got an advantage over unseasoned graduates with no job experience.
Leverage Your Network
The people in your network are your best allies in turning your new qualifications into career success. Involve trusted colleagues in your planning from the start: they may have advice on which course to choose and how to handle the programme, especially if they’ve been on it themselves.
As you progress through the course, keep in touch with your network and update them on your progress. They’re sure to be full of good advice and they can help you hit the ground running with new job opportunities once you’ve graduated. If they know when you’re due to finish the course, they can start making introductions to people who can help you make the next step.
Good online universities will also offer ways to build your network during your studies by connecting with your fellow students. Remember, you’re likely to be on a course with dozens of other people with varied backgrounds and connections.
Keep in touch to offer each other mutual support while you progress through the course and afterwards, as you seek out new job opportunities together. You never know what connections and leads you might be able to send each other’s way.