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Will returning to study set you back?

When you visualise your goals, it’s often tempting to imagine a road directly from point A to point B. It’s easy to forget that life rarely offers us the direct route, and more often than not, your career journey will be twisted, dotted with unexpected challenges, and might involve what you think is a backwards step.

Returning to university can be one of these perceived steps backwards. When you’re in a stable career and feeling fairly successful, making the decision hit the books can seem both daunting and impractical.

Three Deakin students who’ve taken that step all come from different backgrounds, with different reasons for returning to study. But, they all agree that it isn’t a step backwards. It’s a leap towards their future.

Realigning yourself when your goals change

Environmental engineering student Vaughan Mitchell previously worked in logistics, but decided he needed to return to study when his goals suddenly changed.

‘A health issue led me to surgery, and a hospital stay provided time to consider the things in life that were important to me; the sort of world I’m leaving behind for my kids, but also society in general,’ he says.

Vaughan had studied engineering in the past, however hadn’t completed his degree. When the opportunity presented itself for his wife to return to full-time work, he was keen to pursue a new path studying a Bachelor of Environmental Engineering at Deakin.

‘Financially it has been a backwards step, however we have made the necessary adjustment in our budget,’ he says. ‘You can get by with less.

‘Intellectually, it has been a real tonic for me. Challenging your thinking and current knowledge base, and being challenged by the course of study and assignments has been stimulating beyond my expectations.

‘For my family it’s been an opportunity to reconnect with my teenage kids. I have had more time at home with them, and they’re also studying at school – misery loves company!’

While he could feel he’s missing out by not working full-time, Vaughan is sure study is taking him in the right direction. Being surrounded by like-minded peers and developing his knowledge has left him with ‘confidence that a new career beckons’, he says.

‘For the first time in years, I feel excited by the opportunities that await after my course of study is finished. I’m not exactly sure where the destination is, but I’m looking forward to finding out.’

Setting yourself up for new success

Joe Cashmore has always been interested in the environment, which made him well-suited to working as an underwater videographer. But when he decided to switch careers and pursue his passion in wildlife and conservation biology, he was hesitant about going back to do an undergraduate degree from the beginning.

‘I had done a degree before, and going back to do an undergrad was a decision I made because I wanted to be as informed as possible to progress forward,’ Joe explains. He enrolled in Deakin’s Bachelor of Environmental Science (Wildlife and Conservation Biology).

‘Not having a science background before this, I wanted to make sure my fundamental skills were up to scratch and current,’ he says.

Going back to university at a later age, Joe threw himself into learning. ‘I can’t say I did that the first time around. I found the opportunity to learn a whole new area – one that I was very passionate about – to be so exciting that I couldn’t see it as a backwards step.’

'Challenging your thinking and current knowledge base, and being challenged by the course of study and assignments has been stimulating beyond my expectations.'

Vaughan Mitchell,
Student, Deakin University

It’s already paying off – before his degree has even finished. ‘I have a job with Wildlife Victoria now. I’ve looked into becoming a vet. These are things I never thought I could do,’ he says.

Joe says seeing himself exceed what he’d always thought was his potential has made the experience of returning to study as an older student all the more rewarding and worthwhile.

‘I think [going back to study] is really scary. But taking that leap of faith and trusting that your interest is dynamic and able to be built upon, really makes it worth it,’ Joe reflects.

‘The best piece of advice I got and can offer is: the best place to start is at the beginning,’ Joe says. ‘You should never underestimate the amount of knowledge you can receive in a first and second year undergraduate degree.

‘Let your goals be flexible too. Because, as you go through your degree different opportunities will arise that you never knew existed, and these can change your perspective on where you thought this degree was going to take you.’

Enhancing your current skillset and experience

Julia Zhang climbed the ranks in international education, from administrative assistant to board member. She was the youngest person on her organisation’s board, but despite her success, she still thought, ‘If I don’t study, I’ll always feel like something is missing,’ she explains.

‘I also wouldn’t have a solid foundation to go forward with my career. I had a lot of experience in both China and Australia. But I thought, if I could study law, I could make much better use of my experience,’ Julia says. So she signed up to study the Deakin Juris Doctor.

While studying has allowed Julia to consolidate and enhance her knowledge and experience, it has also meant she’s had to put many of her professional activities on hold.

‘I’m still working in the same position, but I have had to decline a lot of work. I’ve had to quit my volunteer work and business council work, which I really enjoy doing,’ she says. ‘But I had to decide not to do that now in order to study and be more effective in the future.’

So far her study is returning rewards even bigger than Julia was hoping for.

‘I always knew that if I studied law I would be able to work at a new level, but I never knew how much I could have learnt. It’s made all my knowledge and experience more relevant. I actually didn’t know the full extent of the effect study could have on my career.’

She acknowledges returning to study has its challenges, such as juggling work and family. She says if you’re contemplating undertaking a new course, ‘It’s important you have an intrinsic interest and need to study.’ Ensure your passion to enhance your skills will drive you, even through the difficult times.

Thinking about study as ‘a way to continually improve’ is also important, Julia says.

‘When you study at a mature age, when you already have knowledge and experience, the study will make your experience all the more relevant,’ Julia says.

‘If you’re studying to advance your career, you’ll never look back. It’s an investment for the future.’

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