Keeping abreast Featured

7:00pm EDT November 24, 2006

Interest in professional development programs continues to grow. As technologies, new ideas and new laws advance, companies are looking for ways to keep abreast. Individuals also are seeking ways to advance their careers. With more than 4,000 colleges and universities around the U.S., it is important to choose the right program for your needs.

“This is a huge industry and, while most schools do a good job at what they do, some do not,” says Tom Green, Ph.D., associate provost at National University in La Jolla. “The first areas potential students must identify are their own needs and expectations from a professional development program. Then they can determine which schools might fulfill those needs.”

Smart Business talked with Green about how companies and individuals can best choose the right program for their needs.

What options should be considered when looking at professional development programs?

The first area to consider is the importance of a degree. If a degree is important, then you need to find the programs that lead to the degree you wish to attain and then determine which of those programs is best for you. If a degree is not as important as the skills or knowledge desired, then you look for the program that provides you the most information in your area of need for the time and funds expended.

While some people are just looking for extra initials after their name (in that case almost anything will do), most people are returning to school to broaden their knowledge or to gain additional skill sets.

What criteria should be used to find the right program?

If you are looking for a degree, you need to find out if the college or university is regionally accredited. If the degree is a precursor to licensing, then you need to look for specific accreditation. It is then important to look at the specific program for the degree and the individual courses offered. How does it all fit with what you want to do next? How open is faculty for discussion of your needs and how their offerings fit those needs? Are graduates available to provide additional insight? Talk to others in your organization about their experiences.

If a nondegree program will fit your needs, it is important to have a sharp focus on just what those needs are. Is the purpose to refresh skills or gather new knowledge? Will the course make a difference in your organization? Will you be more effective in what you are doing or will this course open new doors?

How do you know if the program is right for you?

Review the courses. Does the delivery method match your particular learning style? Visual learners have different needs than verbal or participative learners.

Do the instructors have real-world experience? The teachers should be academically qualified and can be most helpful if they have experience in the field as well. A good combination of practicality and theory is especially important for adult learners. Some programs are now adding the component of application, which also comes from real-world experience.

Another area to consider is who else is taking this program. The educational content may not differ much among several programs, but the other participants might vary widely. Networking can be a very important component of learning and advancing.

If you are looking for specific knowledge, is the supplier willing to customize a program to fit your needs? Some universities have set their ways and cover broad interests. Some smaller schools may have the ability to tailor their program to fit your specific needs.

Look at the oversight. What are their standards? What are the important elements and how are they met?

Are there any other considerations?

It is so important to be a smart consumer. You have many choices, so you need to be a savvy shopper. It is up to you to analyze and match your needs with what is offered. The more you can learn about the programs that are available, who is teaching them, and how others view them, the better your ability to make the right decisions to move ahead in the competitive environment in which we live and work.

TOM GREEN, Ph.D., is associate provost at National University. Reach him at tgreen@nu.edu or (858) 642-8493.