Back to School? Avoid shortcuts that turn into detours.

When Janine (a real person, name and details disguised) decided to get a graduate degree, she thought she was making a savvy career move. She signed up for an online program to avoid "sitting through all those classes."

Three years after beginning her program, Janice realizes she should have done more research. "My degree won't get me in the door. My classmates were already in the jobs they wanted -- they just needed a piece of paper.

"And," she continues, "my program lacks national accreditation. I will earn thirty thousand a year less than folks who are eligible for more competitive appointments."

But you finished fast, right? Wrong, says Janine!

"We didn't have rigorous research courses and our advisors are all adjuncts who are not committed to the process. It took me a year to get a topic approved and another two years to write and rewrite the thesis.

"And finally, I paid a lot of money for online courses, as well as travel to special seminars. In a traditional program, I'd have a tuition waiver and probably a stipend as well. And, when I finished, the salary differential would compensate for the lost salary."

Janine's program was perfect for some of her classmates.

John had been teaching for ten years at a small religious college when a new president insisted that all professors become doctorally qualified. John had neither time nor motivation to embark on a rigorous research-oriented program. Anyway, he had job security in a place he liked. He just needed the fastest graduate program possible -- and he already knew how to write a dissertation.

Louise had won outstanding performance ratings with Mega Corp. After fifteen years she had seniority. Her bachelors degree and CPA certificate had taken her has far as she could go and her boss recommended an MBA - from anywhere. She, too, is a candidate for non-traditional online coursework.

Bottom Line: Try before you buy. Talk to recent graduates of any program -- and pick those who resemble you. If you're a novice in the field, don