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It’s back to school for many young professionals

Riddhi Dastidar, 27, quit her job and is funding her master’s degree using her own savings. Ramesh Pathania/Mint (Riddhi Dastidar, 27, quit her job and is funding her master’s degree using her own savings. Ramesh Pathania/Mint)Premium
Riddhi Dastidar, 27, quit her job and is funding her master’s degree using her own savings. Ramesh Pathania/Mint (Riddhi Dastidar, 27, quit her job and is funding her master’s degree using her own savings. Ramesh Pathania/Mint)

If you want to go back to study mid-career, have a funding plan in place, whether through your own savings, a supporting family member or a side job

Riddhi G. Dastidar had finished her degree in molecular genetics at University of Waterloo in Ontario and was working towards a PhD in neuroscience when she decided it just wasn’t for her. She returned to India and joined a fellowship at a non-profit to teach at a low-income school in Delhi for two years, followed by a stint as partnerships manager with Pratham Books, a not-for-profit children’s publishing house.

Barely a year into the second job, she decided to quit and go back to get a master’s degree. “My role at Pratham Books was in outreach, which wasn’t a great fit for me, and I felt like I wanted to learn more," the 27-year old said. Dastidar is now pursuing a master’s degree in gender studies at Ambedkar University, Delhi. 

For most of us, education is one long stint spanning about two decades, after which we tend to choose a profession and settle down. But increasingly, young professionals, especially millennials, are moving away from this traditional model and embracing the idea of continuing their education through the course of their careers. 

For Dastidar, it has been a quest to find her true calling. For others, the motivation might be the next pay jump or promotion. But this is a project that requires the investment of not only time and effort, but also a good deal of money to pay for tuition as well as other expenses during the sabbatical. Planning ahead is, therefore, just as crucial as writing the essays and getting the recommendations for the applications. “From the time that you make the decision, you need a 2-3 year period to plan out your finances," said Mrin Agarwal, founder-director, Finsafe India Pvt. Ltd.

If you’re considering quitting your job and going back to college to study more, here are some real-life stories that might help you figure out how to put your funding plan in place before taking the plunge.

Solid support system

In 2009, Vivek Dahiya was 28 and working as an IT specialist and project manager at Ikea’s sourcing office in Gurgaon. But Dahiya thought his career was stagnating and needed a push. So when he was accepted into Hult International Business School at its Shanghai Centre, he jumped at the opportunity. According to experts, the strategy of getting some work experience before going back to college can be very effective. “Only in India will you find people going to do their MBA immediately after graduation, which is not a great idea. Seeing a real life version of what you’re studying is a much better way to do it," said Abhijit Bhaduri, a talent management expert.

But Dahiya was not the only stakeholder in the decision. His partner, Swati Grover, who also worked at Ikea at the time, had to weigh in before he made the final call. 

Grover decided to follow Dahiya to Shanghai, where he pursued his degree for the next year. The one-year intense MBA programme with a finance specialisation did not come cheap at $70,000. Dahiya had some savings which he used to finance his studies, but he also had his partner for support. He relocated to Boston after finishing his degree, and while he struggled with teething troubles like Visa issues and not finding a job immediately, he had her unquestioning emotional as well as financial support to fall back on. “Money was running out and we had some debt, but she supported me financially while I got to my feet," he said. Grover and Dahiya, now 37, have since settled in Älmhult, Sweden, where she works for Ikea and he runs a food start-up and is in the process of lunching another one.

While Dahiya was able to take care of whatever little debt he had accumulated, it’s best to be debt-free when you decide to quit your job to study further. “When you decide that you want to take a sabbatical from work and go study, the first thing you should do is check what kind of financial situation you are in. It’s crucial to be debt free, since you will not be earning a salary for some time so it’ll be very difficult to service debt," said Agarwal.

For Dastidar too, a solid support system paid off. While funding her studies has been a challenge, she has had her friend and flatmate to rely on for grocery bills and utilities, while she pays for rent and tuitions from her savings and by taking on any freelance writing assignments she can get. 

Savings or sacrifices

For Siddhartha Khetawat and Akanxa Jain, both data analytics professionals based in Delhi, the decision to go back to studies earlier this year was as much professional as personal. Both wanted to travel the world and stay close to each other while they pursued their degrees. So when they applied and got the chance to further their knowledge of analytics at the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois respectively, the couple, both 29, didn’t think twice. But the expenses were daunting. “We were in a tough spot because we hadn’t really thought about savings too much in advance. And the fees at our universities were astronomical. Together, we were looking at roughly Rs. 1 crore in tuition and living expenses. Knowing that we would need to get an education loan to cover most of the tuition fees, we decided to reign in our expenses to be able to pay for our living expenses by ourselves. Weekly movies and dinner dates became a thing of the past, as did vacations and new smartphones," said Khetawat. 

Planning and saving well in advance is the best bet if you want to avoid making sacrifices. If you have a long horizon, equity investments might pay off, but be careful about choosing the right instruments. “I wouldn’t suggest a mid- or small-cap fund because of the long tenure. I would typically recommend a large-cap or a balanced advantage category where they will be able to withdraw the money faster. In this case the investment lump sum would have to be a little more because there’s a targeted amount that they need at a certain point," said Nisreen Mamaji, certified financial planner and founder, MoneyWorks Financial Advisors.

For short-term decisions, it's best to not take too much risk and stick with liquid debt funds for accumulating a kitty. Consult an advisor for the right fund choice and strategy.

The middle path

While it can pay off, quitting and taking the plunge with no back-ups is not for everyone. If you’re debating getting an additional degree, but want to play it relatively safe, Sagar Gupta’s story might serve as inspiration. 

After graduating from college, Gupta joined American Express in Delhi and worked for four years. The 25-year-old took an interest in analytics, but soon realised that it needed a little more than hands-on experience. “I realised I needed to add some value to my CV which would make me stand out. I already knew these things but when you apply for jobs even if you have the skills, what they look for is a degree. You need something to validate your knowledge. I started learning business analytics tools, but I also needed a master’s degree," Gupta said. He quit American Express and joined Metlife in Noida as a senior business analyst in February 2018. He also took up a distance one-year executive MBA course in business analytics from IMT Ghaziabad. Gupta is now halfway through his course, and intends to add to his resume by taking more courses in the future. Having a full-time job helps him take care of his rent and other bills as well as pay for his course which costs around 40,000. But he thinks of it as an investment that’ll pay off in the future. “In India the median for people going back to do their MBA is three years into their career, by which point they have also been able to save up some money to fund it," said Bhaduri.

The "back to school" trend is gaining traction. “Many professionals understand the need to keep themselves updated to help them grow in their careers. Studying further adds value and typically pays off within few years," said Neeti Sharma, senior vice-president, TeamLease Services, a recruitment and online job portal.

But flexibility is also important. “It’s not an exact science, since there are too many variables involved. Sometimes the client changes their plan and takes up a part-time job during the sabbatical or decides to study in India instead of going abroad, depending on the funds available," said Mamaji. 

If you’ve been debating whether to go back for that degree, go for it, but make sure there are no financial hurdles.

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