What It’s Like To Go Back To School After 10 Years Off

College in the U.K. (or as they call it, “uni,” which is just adorable) is different from in the United States, but it’s still subject to a lot of the same pressures and interruptions.

Aaron Weber spoke with someone in Scotland who took almost a decade off after his second year. Find out what it was like.


So, what’s the background for your story?

I started university when I was 17 years old, intending to study computer science and history. My maths weren’t all that strong, but I was good with computers.

I got married when I was 19, and my wife wasn’t working, so I had to do something to bring in money. Of course, it was still 2000, and the dot-com bubble hadn’t burst yet, so I found a job at an e-commerce consultancy that was acquired a few months after I joined. I spent 2 years there drinking too much coffee and holding meetings in the smoking room before the purchaser shut it down and laid everybody off.

In spring of 2002, I signed on with a startup in the U.S., working remotely and flying over every few months for meetings. That one went pretty well, and we got bought out by a bigger company, and I didn’t get laid off again until 2007.

What made you decide to return to school?

At that point, I sort of pondered going back to university to do a computer science degree. On the other hand, I had 7 whole years of working, so I thought maybe I didn’t need it. I knew I didn’t want to attend full time, but a part-time bachelor’s degree takes 8 years in Scotland at traditional colleges.

I decided to pursue a degree from the Open University. You can take as many classes as you have time for, and I set out on a pace to be done in just 5 years with almost no breaks.

By the time my classes began, I’d found another job, this time developing software at an investment bank. I initially intended to study maths and economics to go with my banking job, but I still didn’t like the maths part that much, and switched to politics, philosophy, and economics, which I enjoyed more.

What were your classmates like?

The OU has a very different age profile from brick universities; I tended to be one of if not the youngest people, and most of my classmates were people in their mid-50s and upward. As the recession progressed, though, more and more people my age or younger began to join us.

How’d you pay for it?

I didn’t qualify for need-based financial aid, so I paid the full tuition price out of my own pocket.

Fees have gone up dramatically in the U.K., but the OU is still about half the cost of a traditional brick-and-mortar residential university. And of course, education here is still loads cheaper than in the U.S.

A year’s tuition costs about as much as a month’s rent in Glasgow: just over a thousand pounds, or about $1,500. Books were extra, of course, but it wasn’t a real strain on my budget at all.

How’s it feel to be done?

Right now I’m still waiting for the result of the my final exam, but I’m pretty sure I’m getting my official diploma this summer. The weird thing about being done with school is that I have free time. I felt bored the other day. I haven’t felt properly bored since 2008.

How has going back to school affected your career?

It’s definitely been useful at work, more even than I thought it would. A lot of the statistical analysis you study in economics is useful in machine learning. And I’m currently working for a recruitment firm, so my knowledge of labor markets has also come in handy. But the most useful thing, really, has been having another prism through which to view things.

Any final thoughts for people considering returning to school?

Even without the content of the courses, there are two huge things I learned that made just going to school worthwhile: I had to get much better at managing my time, and I learned that sometimes good enough really is good enough.

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