Should You Go Back to College?

by Meg Embry

Updated September 16, 2022 • 4 min read

An adult internship could be your ticket to a new career.

In May of 2020, US unemployment due to COVID-19 had already blown past Great Recession unemployment records. By some measures, unemployment was as high as 16% at the height of the pandemic.

Many who lost jobs, left jobs, or faced pay cuts decided to go back to school, as people often do in times of economic recession.

That can be a smart move, as data shows that upskilling is often a high-return strategy. In particular, folks with graduate degrees are faring much better in the post-apocalyptic job market.

The Post-Pandemic Grad School Enrollment Bump

According to a 2020 Strada Survey, workers who are interested in changing fields are most likely to transition into business, IT, or finance. Many students opted for online programs.

The following graduate degrees saw the greatest increases in enrollment in 2021:

But even with a shiny new degree, a lack of experience can hold you back on the job market. That's because 65% of employers prefer candidates to have relevant work experience. For adult learners who are transitioning to new careers, landing that first role in a new industry can be a challenge.

If that's you, it might be time to consider a mid-career internship.


Did you just groan at the prospect of working for little-to-no-pay after a decade in the workforce? Or having a 25-year-old mentor?

That's understandable. Many experienced adults who accept internships report feeling awkward and suffering from imposter syndrome.

"There is an element of feeling like you're running late to life; like you're behind the curve," said 37-year-old Jay McGinley, who took an unpaid internship at a startup halfway through his MA in communications management and marketing at the University of Denver.

The number of available internships on the market is down by 39% percent since 2019.

And while internships are a good way to overcome an experience gap, not everyone can swing a period of unpaid or low-paid employment.

Working adults with adult responsibilities now make up nearly 40% of the higher education market. It's not always possible to work for free when you've got kids to feed.

Indeed, many internships are specifically targeted toward undergraduates or recent grads. "A lot of postings referred to undergraduate students," said McGinley. "I just applied anyway."

And right now, competition for internships is fierce. Despite growing job-seeker interest, the number of available internships on the market is down by 39% percent since 2019.


The good news is you won't be the only elder millennial intern you know. Mid-career internships are becoming increasingly normal for adults.

A report from the World Economic Forum predicts that by 2025, 40% of workers will need upskilling. And most Americans will change jobs roughly 11 times during their lives, often starting over in a new industry altogether.

That is where the return on investment becomes clear: Graduates entering new industries who have an internship under their belts are more than twice as likely to land a good job when compared with graduates who don't have that internship experience.

Luckily, the rise in remote internships may provide busy adults with new ways to juggle an internship alongside their other responsibilities.

According to a report by Indeed, the share of remote internships is now 7x higher than it was in 2019.

McGinley used his internship to explore a new role and build a portfolio that ultimately helped him jump from acting to content marketing.

"I would absolutely recommend it," he said. "Now I'm getting paid to write full time. I still can't believe it."

Is an Internship Worth It?

Mary Faulkner is a talent strategist, business leader, writer, and co-chair of the Denver chapter of DisruptHR. She says a mid-career internship can be a smart move.

Women in particular are jumping into new careers. According to one survey, over 60% of women are planning a major career change after the pandemic.

"If a person can afford to take an internship as they work toward a career transition, it is a good way to gain experience and see if the new career is really what they want," she said. "I never advocate an unpaid internship for anyone –– pay your interns, people! –– so hold out for some money if you can. Picking the right organization is key."

It's also important to be strategic, Faulkner says. Decide ahead of time what skills and accomplishments you want to get out of your internship, ask for relevant projects, and build an online portfolio to showcase your new skills.

Finally, be patient: "Acknowledge that you will take a pay cut for a bit," Faulkner said. "You're starting over. It can take time to rebuild the network capital you once had."

Portrait of Meg Embry

Meg Embry

Meg Embry is a Colorado-based writer for covering higher education. She is an award-winning journalist who has lived and worked in Canada, the Netherlands, and the United States.

Header Image Credit: Justin Lewis, Myles Gelbach, Jean-Pierre Chretien / EyeEm | Getty Images

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