What You Need to Know About Going Back to School to Change Careers

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Time for a new career? - Woman sitting at desk with laptop

Is it time for a career change? We all question our careers from time to time, but if you often find yourself wondering whether you can see yourself doing for a job for the rest of your life or questioning whether you’re making a real impact in the world, it could be time for a change.

If you’re not getting what’s important to you out of your current work, you need to figure out whether it’s a new job you need or an altogether different career, as the latter can require a serious commitment of time, energy and money — making it essential you have a well-thought-out plan.

Is It the Job or the Career that Needs to Change?

To answer this, you need to take a step back and really evaluate what it is that’s leaving you unfulfilled, without allowing your emotions to cloud your judgment.

To help you make a more informed decision about your future, many career experts recommend keeping a daily journal of your work experiences — good and bad. While there are no rules about what you should include in your journal, it’s helpful to consider the following questions:

  • What did I do at work today that brought me joy or fulfillment?
  • What did I do at work that I didn’t enjoy?
  • Did I make a positive contribution today?
  • What would have made my day better?
  • Was I able to utilize my skills and talents?
  • Did my work challenge me today?
  • What do I wish I could do more of at work?

How long you keep this journal is up to you; the point is that by reviewing it later, you can gain insights into what you don’t like about your current job, work preferences, and interests. For example, if you seem to have more bad days than good ones at work but find satisfaction in the actual work you do, then it’s likely you need to give your current role another chance with a new employer. However, if your natural skills and talents seem like a poor fit for the career itself or the profession leaves you feeling unfulfilled, uninspired, or just plain uninterested, it’s probably time for a career change.

How to Change Careers

Resolving to get out of a career that’s leaving you lacking is a great first step toward a happier, more fulfilled you … even if you’re not quite sure what it is you want to do just yet. Later, we’ll discuss careers worth considering, but for now, it’s helpful to consider the basic steps to a new career.

1. Figure out what you’re looking for in a job.

Remember that journal you kept? It should have got you thinking about your skillset, interests, and motivators. As you look into various careers, consider how you might harness those skills or what would send you home from work feeling happy about your contribution to society. For example, if a common theme in your journaling was that you felt like you weren’t making a difference, you might look at careers in healthcare or work for a charitable organization.

Of course, some careers just find you, making it worthwhile to take stock of the various professions you interact with. That’s what happened to Kelly, who found her calling while working as an elementary school teacher, where she noticed many of her students would get treatment in occupational therapy.

2. Research careers of interest.

Once you have an idea of what you’re looking for in a career or are leaning toward a particular profession, it’s a good idea to research demand and earning potential. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook is a great place to start, offering in-depth information on more than 800 professions.

It can also be helpful to talk to people in the field. You might even ask about job shadowing to see what it’s like. (Don’t know anyone in a certain profession? Try reaching out to local professionals via LinkedIn.)

3. Chart a path to your new profession and make it a reality!

Every career is different, making detailed career-specific research necessary. For some career changes, it could just take finding someone willing to give you a chance or selling an employer on your willingness to learn new skills. Others may require a certification, a specific degree (or degrees), professional licensure, or some combination thereof.

Once you have a good idea of the basic path to your new career, it’s time to research educational programs to help you get there (if required). Keep in mind that many universities offer programs designed specifically for career changers by allowing them to use their existing college credits to graduate sooner.

As a word of caution, before choosing any school, be sure it is accredited at the state, national, and (if applicable) degree level — otherwise, you could be in for a very unwelcome surprise when it comes time to apply for jobs or to take any required licensure exams.

Putting Your Life on Hold While Going Back to School to Change Careers

If going back to school is part of your plan to change careers, you’re likely going to find yourself making some adjustments in your personal and professional life. And while it would be great to be able to devote all of your time to study, the reality is that many career changers want or need to continue working while in school, even with student loans.

Fortunately, it is possible to juggle work and college (and whatever else you have going on) with careful planning. Here are nine tips for going back to school with a job:

1. Keep an up-to-date calendar (and check it regularly).

Juggling work and school without letting anything slip through the cracks is possible; it starts by keeping a detailed, up-to-date calendar of assignment due dates, work shifts, appointments, family events, labs, and anything else you have going on.

2. Manage your time wisely.

“Time management is the most important thing,” says Alex, a St. Kate’s Online OTA graduate who worked for a nonprofit for young adults with developmental disabilities while in the program.

Effective time management is essential when balancing work, school, family, and everything else. Luckily, simple measures such as planning out your day (or week) in advance, prioritizing those activities that are most important to achieving your goals, and being proactive can make a big difference. Some students even recommend blocking out times when they’re going to study, take breaks, exercise, and so on, because it helps them to develop a routine.

Also important to effective time management? Taking frequent breaks can be instrumental in avoiding burnout.

3. Get organized.

Beyond keeping a calendar or planner and managing your time efficiently, you have to get organized. This could mean any number of things, including:

  • Setting aside a room or area of your home that is free of distractions so you have a place to study
  • Developing a system for organizing your notes so they are easy to reference
  • Sorting school-related emails into folders by course or topic

4. Practice self-care.

We touched on the importance of taking breaks to keep your mind fresh; however, self-care means more than taking the occasional break. Never underestimate the power of exercising, eating healthy, drinking enough water, and getting a full night’s sleep. Not only do these contribute to improved memory, studies have also shown that students who practice self-care experience less stress and better health than those who do not.

5. Choose a program that offers online coursework.

The rise of online coursework has made juggling work and college much more manageable because it provides the flexibility to complete your coursework at any time of day, and from almost anywhere with a good internet connection. And while you may still need to attend in-person labs, fieldwork experiences, internships, or clinicals, it’s certainly easier to fit in working when you don’t have to spend every day on campus.

student sitting at desk studying with laptop and textbook

“It was flexible, which is nice because I was coming straight out of undergrad school and I didn’t want to have to not work,” says Tiffany, of her experience with St. Kate’s Online OTA program graduate, which she graduated from in August 2018. “By going to St. Catherine’s, I was able to still work.”

Still, you’ll want to consider whether it is in your best interest to work a full-time job while going back to school — not that it isn’t possible; it just takes some serious time management, especially with a condensed curriculum.

6. Be clear with your employer.

This one can be a little touchy for some people, as not everyone feels comfortable telling their employer they’re going back to school because it might imply a career change. However, being clear and upfront about your availability, including when you will be attending on-campus sessions, have large assignments or tests you’ll need extra time to prepare for, etc., can help mitigate potential issues or scheduling conflicts.

Depending on the degree you’re going back to school for and whether you like your current employer, you might even inquire about how you might transition into a different role with your current employer after graduating.

7. Set expectations with friends and family.

If friends and family are a big part of your life, you’re going to have to be clear with them that you might have to pass on get-togethers and other events, and that it’s nothing personal. It’s also essential that your spouse or significant other understands that you are going to be devoting a lot of time to studying and that you will likely need to lean on them a little more. This is doubly true if you have children, in which case you might want to talk to family about how they too might be able to provide extra help while you’re back in school.

8. Lean on your cohort.

No one knows what you’re going through better than your classmates. “If I’m having a tough week, I know all of them will listen to me,” says Kelly of the close-knit relationship between her and the other students in her cohort.

two OTA students studying together with books and laptops

You’re in this together, so get to know each other right away. You might even consider getting together with classmates to study, talk over assignments, etc., whether in person or via remote technologies, such as Google Hangouts. As with many online learners, students of St. Catherine University’s Online OTA program also have the ability to chat with each other through the online learning management system through which they complete assignments and other coursework.

9. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

A lot of students feel hesitant about reaching out to their instructors; however, there’s no reason to be nervous asking for help. Your instructors do what they do for a living because they want to help people learn. That being said, your instructor is going to reach out to you if you’re falling behind. Most college-level instructors are more than willing to put in the extra hours to help you succeed, but they expect you to take initiative.

Hopefully, you find these tips helpful as you juggle work and school, but what if you’re still not sure what you want to do? We may have a career for you.

What Careers Are Worth Going Back to School For?

Unless you haven’t been paying attention to the job market for the past two decades, you likely already know that healthcare represents one of the largest growth areas in the U.S. job market. Nor should it come as any surprise that demand is growing for a wide range of healthcare workers, including registered nurses, medical technologists, occupational therapists, occupational therapy assistants, physical therapists, speech pathologists, nurse practitioners, clinical technicians, and physicians, just to name a few.

One reason for this is the U.S. population is undergoing a major shift, as the Baby Boomer generation (the second-largest in history) moves into retirement, in turn requiring additional healthcare services, especially as people are living longer. At the same time, many skilled healthcare workers are retiring, leaving openings that will need to be filled.

Add to this that an increasing number of Americans of all ages suffer from chronic conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, cancer diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Likewise, researchers have witnessed a steady increase in the prevalence of developmental disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

Though this is cause for concern to healthcare administrators, public health officials, and legislators as they grapple with how to meet these challenges, it’s nonetheless a boon to those who want careers that will allow them to make a difference in people’s lives.

In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that of the 20 fastest-growing professions, more than half of them are related to healthcare — and among the top five, occupational therapy assistants (OTAs) are the highest paid, earning an average of $60,220 a year. What’s more, the BLS projects that the OTA profession will grow 33% between 2018 and 2028, far exceeding the growth anticipated for many more well-known high-demand professions, like registered nurses.

infographic of OTA employment and salaries - Occupational Therapy Assistants by the numbers

Despite this fact, occupational therapy remains relatively unknown outside of healthcare, making OTA a great career if you live to make a positive impact on the world around you.

What Is Occupational Therapy?

Comprised of six main practice areas, occupational therapy is a growing healthcare field dedicated to helping people of all ages live with and overcome mental, physical, and developmental challenges. This is achieved by setting achievable goals and identifying new ways of performing activities of daily living (ADLs), along with other interventions that will allow them to live as independently as possible.

OT helping child

This makes occupational therapy an incredibly diverse field with widespread applications. When working with a child on the autism spectrum, the aim of therapy might be to find methods of coping with anxiety so that he or she is able to attend school. For an elderly couple wishing to age in place, occupational therapy might mean making modifications to the home to make it safer for those with limited mobility. For a stroke survivor, occupational therapy might aid in learning to walk again and chew food safely, as well as in addressing other concerns.

However, these are just a few of the many ways occupational therapy is transforming lives every day — which helps explain why demand is growing for occupational therapy services nationwide.

What Is the Difference Between an OT and an OTA?

Though OTs and OTAs perform at different licensure and autonomy levels, there is nonetheless some overlap, and both require creativity, compassion, and boundless patience.

An occupational therapist assesses a client’s needs and creates an individual treatment plan, then either handles the treatment her or himself or hands it off to an OTA. The occupational therapy assistant then works with the client to put this plan into action, setting and achieving goals, while reporting back to the OT along the way. This requires OTAs to have extensive knowledge of age-appropriate rehabilitation practices and psychosocial therapy approaches, as well as a positive and inspiring attitude.

While becoming an occupational therapist requires a master’s degree in OT and can involve a long waitlist to get in, you can start your career in the field much sooner by becoming an occupational therapy assistant.

Offering three start dates a year, St. Kate’s Online OTA program makes it possible to earn an associate degree in occupational therapy, in few as 16 months through an innovative curriculum consisting of:

  • Convenient, flexible online coursework designed to accommodate a variety of learning styles
  • Once monthly on-site instruction at one of our lab sites in California, Minnesota, Texas, or Virginia
  • Level I and II Fieldwork experiences, where you’ll gain essential real-world practice

We also build extensive National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy test prep into our accredited program, so you graduate ready to sit for the NBCOT, the final step toward becoming a Certified OTA (COTA).

Want to Learn More About How You Can Make a Difference as an OTA?

Give us a call, or fill out the form, to find out more about how you can transform lives by becoming an occupational therapy assistant in as few as 16 months. When you do, you’ll be assigned a dedicated admissions counselor who will help guide you through the process every step of the way.

outside shot of st. kate campus

The Ultimate Guide to Occupational Therapy and OTA

Get answers to your questions about the field, about the OTA career path, and about St. Catherine University’s Online OTA program.

book with cover title: Occupational Therapy Assistant Explained