Steer your own course of study

Stimulate yourself with art classes, stretch yourself with yoga, or upskill with an MBA on your career break, says Joe Bindloss
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

Has work become a dull routine? Do you find yourself repeating the same tasks day after day? Have you forgotten the last time you learned something new at work? If so, you might be a prime candidate for a study-based career break. Growing numbers of people are taking time off work to study for personal development and to achieve career goals. It may not sound as romantic as travelling round the world, but there's no reason it should be any less exciting.

Has work become a dull routine? Do you find yourself repeating the same tasks day after day? Have you forgotten the last time you learned something new at work? If so, you might be a prime candidate for a study-based career break. Growing numbers of people are taking time off work to study for personal development and to achieve career goals. It may not sound as romantic as travelling round the world, but there's no reason it should be any less exciting.

The options for career break study are incredibly diverse. If you want to gain a competitive edge at work, there are MBAs and vocational qualifications. For people who want to work while they travel, there are courses in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) and instructor qualifications in skiing, snowboarding, sailing and scuba diving.

If the aim of your break is to escape from work, there are thousands of courses that exist to help you get more out of life, from residential art classes to yoga courses and hands-on courses in wilderness survival.

These days, international education is big business. Student visas are easy to obtain and you can study almost anywhere in the world, providing you have enough money to cover your living expenses and the steep fees charged for international students. In fact, money is probably the single greatest obstacle to career break study. Loans are available for first undergraduate degrees and some MBAs and vocational courses in the UK, but if you want to study overseas, you'll almost certainly have to pay your own way.

Of course, there's no obligation to travel when you study. Thousands of educational establishments in the UK accept mature students and studying in Britain can be just as life-changing.

While going back to school can create new opportunities, Bill Jones from the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) warns: "Being a student has changed a lot over the last 20 years. Higher education is much more about focused objectives these days. Mature students are motivated and often perform extremely well, but they can feel isolated, so it's important to choose a university or college that is mature student-friendly."

One of the most famous career break courses is the Masters in Business Administration (MBA). Although no longer quite the guarantee of corporate success that it once was, an MBA from a leading British or American business school can still add serious weight to your CV. However, gaining a competitive edge doesn't come cheap. A two-year MBA course can cost anything from £20,000 to £50,000. If you intend to work for the same company at the end of your break, they may be willing to fund your study as an investment in your future.

Of course, not everyone intends to return to the same job. Plenty of people study as a springboard to launch a new career. Adventure sports such as scuba diving, skiing, sailing and wind-surfing are famous second careers and with time and money, it's easy to train up from novice to professional instructor. "The majority of our career breakers are looking for a change of career," says Amanda Ribbins of Flying Fish, a leading provider of watersports instructor training. "What tends to happen is that people take a sabbatical and end up never going back."

Another popular study option for career breakers is a course in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (Tefl). This easy to obtain qualification can open the door to paid teaching jobs in places as far flung as Aden and Addis Ababa.

The two main Tefl qualifications are the Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA), run by the University of Cambridge, and Trinity College London's Trinity CertTESOL.

Tefl courses generally last four weeks but costs vary depending on where you study. A Tefl course in the UK will cost around £1,000, while the same course in Prague can cost as little as £750.

The largest providers of Tefl courses are international language schools and some offer a guaranteed job on graduation. Wages are modest but schools often pay travel costs and living expenses. Current hotspots for Tefl teaching include China, Japan and Eastern Europe.

"The world is open to anyone with a Tefl qualification," says Suzanne Furstner of Cactus Language, a company which acts as a central admissions service for Tefl courses around the world. "Even if you don't intend to work as a teacher when you come home, a year of Tefl will definitely add something to your CV."

Of course, studying doesn't always have to be about careers. As well as Tefl training, Cactus Language also offers residential language courses around the world, from Spanish courses in Barcelona to Russian courses in St Petersburg. You can study for a few weeks to brush up your pronunciation for travelling or devote a whole year to improving your employability overseas.

With the increasing incidence of stress in the workplace, many people use a career break to learn relaxation. Once considered a hippy fad, Tai Chi and yoga are now mainstream forms of exercise and there are residential study centres around the world where you can learn to take charge of workplace stress.

* The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education ( www.niace.org.uk) and Higher Education and Research Opportunities ( www.hero.ac.uk) provide information on adult education in the UK.

* London Business School (020-7706 6859; www.london.edu) is the UK's most prestigious MBA college; the two-year MBA course costs £41,970.

* Flying Fish (0871 250 2500; www.flyingfishonline.com) offers instructor courses in sailing, diving, surfing, kite-surfing, windsurfing, skiing and snowboarding, in the UK and worldwide. See the website for course details and prices.

* Cactus TEFL (0845 130 4775; www.cactustefl.com) acts as an admissions service for TEFL courses worldwide. For information on residential language courses overseas, contact Cactus Language (0845 130 4775; www.cactuslanguage.com).

* You can find listings of other approved Tefl course providers on the websites of the University of Cambridge ( www.cambridge-efl.org) and Trinity College London ( www.trinitycollege.co.uk).

Be prepared for your life-changing decision

It takes years to build a life and a career. Yet you could be pleasantly surprised how easily it can be put into suspended animation until you need it again.

The whole process can take anything from eight down to three months, depending on whether you own a property and what you want to do with it. If you're selling up and using a portion of the capital to fund your break, start planning eight months in advance and keep your fingers crossed - selling a property can be tricky at the best of times. Most career breakers, though, decide to let their house or flat rather than sell, for three good reasons: you don't get off the property ladder; the rent should cover your mortgage repayments; and you are not homeless when you return.

Sally Daw, 39, who volunteered with VSO for two years says: "I let my house through an agency. The rent covered the agency fee and the mortgage. I preferred to pay a company to look after everything because I didn't want to have any worries about my house or the tenants while I was away. I appointed a friend to liaise with the letting agency on my behalf and this worked well." You can, of course, do it all yourself, as Chris Bugden, 31, did when he went around the world with his wife for 10 months. "We rented to friends who had just got back from travelling - it was good timing for us and them," he says. However, he adds: "It isn't always the best idea to do business with friends and we kept everything as professional as possible with proper contracts and inventories."

If you think the rent might not cover your mortgage repayments, then consider switching to a more flexible mortgage where you make over-payments now and take a complete mortgage holiday later.

Whether you're letting your house furnished or unfurnished, you'll need to dispose of your personal possessions. "We put everything in my mother-in-law's garage," says Bugden. Another option is to sell your goods, such as on eBay, or put them in storage. This is a competitive area so it is worth shopping around. In general, costs are lower if you don't need access and become cheaper the longer your stuff gets stored.

Your household pets aren't so easy to farm out and, initially, they can put you off the idea of a career break altogether. Of course, under the Pet Travel Scheme (PETS) your dog or cat can travel with you to a long list of approved countries (for details see the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs website). More common is asking a friend to look after your animals. "My two cats stayed in the flat and my friend who moved in looked after them," said Virginia Kelly, 31, who took a one-year career break.

Less close to your heart (possibly) but also important is your vehicle. "I sold my car to pay off my credit debts before I went. There's no point in keeping it in a garage for two years," says Daw.

Taking a career break has substantial financial implications and you should talk these through with a financial adviser as soon as possible. Your biggest concern is probably your pension. Depending on the scheme, you could reduce your contributions or freeze it completely. "My pension was put on hold - I didn't pay into it for a year and neither did my employer," says Budgen.

You will also need advice on investments, loans and tax issues: Daw got a tax rebate for the year she left because she had only worked for six months.

While you're away most bills, such as your credit card payments, can be settled by direct debit. However, you need to make provision for paying one-off bills or sorting out unexpected financial situations. Most career breakers do this by opening a joint account with a trusted friend or family member back home. You can keep an eye on the account using online banking.

Think too about how you want to keep in touch. Many career breakers change their mobile phones to pay-as-you-go and use local SIM cards to make cheap calls home. A much cheaper option is to follow the locals to the nearest cut-price telephone office.

Finally, Bugden's one top tip is to leave enough time to say goodbye. "Everyone wants to see you before you go. Trying to fit everyone in was the most stressful part of organising our career break. Apart from that, everything else was easier to arrange than I thought."

Charlotte Hindle

eBay ( www.ebay.co.uk); PETS Helpline (0870 241 1710); Defra ( www.defra.gov.uk/animalh/quarantine/index.htm); Inland Revenue ( www.inlandrevenue.gov.uk)

FOUR-YEAR ADVENTURE

Name: Chris Charlton

Age: 34

Occupation: I'm managing director of Namaste, a management consultancy specialising in project management services and corporate leadership training.

Why take a career break? I did this trip partly because I wanted to develop the adventure and production sides of my company. At the same time, it was also the fulfilment of a lifetime ambition. I'd always wanted to something on this kind of scale.

What did you do? I'm one year into a four-year adventure that will take me through 110 countries in seven continents. My mission is to drive around the world, climbing to the summits of the tallest peak in each continent and sharing the experience by inviting people to join me for parts of the trip.

I've completed the first section in North, Central and South America and I'll be continuing through Africa and the Middle East and back through Europe before I head on to Asia. Half the fun has been allowing people to share the experience - around 30 people tagged along just for the section in the USA.

What did you learn? Probably the most important thing I've learned is patience! One of the greatest challenges I have faced is dealing with customs and border officials in all the countries I have been passing through.

Are you working now? I've been writing a series of management guides and travel and adventure books while I've been on the road this past 12 months. I'm also using the trip to gain experience and develop new sides to my business, including film-making and organising adventure travel expeditions.

Top tip: I call it JDI - Just Do It. If you want to do something extraordinary, stop worrying about it and make it happen.

'THE TRIP CHANGED MY LIFE'

Name: Fiona Doody

Age: 32

Occupation: Before volunteering, I worked for five years as a French and Spanish teacher in British high schools.

What did you do?

I volunteered for two years with VSO training English language teachers in Mongolia. My main role was helping local teachers improve their working environment and professional skills. The town where I worked was 200 miles from the capital, Ulaan Bataar and I was the only foreigner in town! It was sometimes lonely and always a challenge but I developed some really good friendships and I'm really proud of what I did. I'd love to go back in 10 years and see if I made a difference!

Are you working now?

When I came back to the UK, I found a job as a project co-ordinator for the Salford Business Education Partnership, a charity that helps young people make informed decisions about their future beyond school.

Name: Gillie Davies

Age: 45

Occupation: I was the director of an information technology company and I'd been working for myself since I was 21.

What did you do? I reached a point in my career where I needed a change. I didn't want to keep doing the same things so I trained as a sailing instructor with Flying Fish in Cowes, Australia and New Zealand. I'd been sailing myself for years and I decided I'd like to help all those women who sail with their husbands but never get a chance to actually steer. I never expected it to be a life-changing experience but we were living, eating and breathing sailing. It taught me a lot about myself.

Are you working now? I run my own gardening business, but I'm also a commercially endorsed sailing instructor. The future is wide open.

Name: Peter Shepherdson

Age: 56

Occupation: I worked in local government as a road safety officer for 23 years.

What did you do? I volunteered on a coral reef conservation project on the island of Roatan off Honduras with the Coral Cay Conservation charity. I didn't stay long compared to some volunteers but it was totally unlike anything I had done before. We were there for real science and real work, doing two survey dives a day and working with local people to create a stable economy based on conservation. I'm thinking of returning when I retire.

Are you working now? I returned to the same job but the trip changed my life. It gave me the confidence to travel in a totally different way; I've since been travelling to Thailand, Borneo and Machu Picchu.

Comments