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Online master's turns mortgage broker into 'Queen of Quitting'

Tobacco treatment specialist V.J. Sleight graduated from Northcentral University with a master's degree in health psychology/behavioral medicine in 2010. She is the author of the books "Tips to Win at Quitting Smoking" and "Crush Your Butts," and she keeps up her helpful blog at "Stop Smoking, Stay Quit." V.J. used an online master's degree in health care to help shape her passion into a career.

Q: I see you're a recent 2010 graduate. Congratulations! What inspired you to head back to school?

A: I had been working as a mortgage broker for over 20 years, which gave me the time and freedom to pursue my passion of helping others quit smoking. I wanted to prepare for a second career when I retired from the mortgage business and went back to school in 2003 starting with just one class at Cal State - San Bernardino, a traditional university.

There were several times where my lack of a formal education had limited my opportunities. For example, Riverside County had wanted to hire me, except I didn't have a degree and so they couldn't, even though I had more experience and knowledge about cessation than anyone else. On another occasion, I was hired to give a talk to doctors and at the last minute had to find another speaker to share the platform because I didn't have a degree. So I didn't want the lack of a formal education to be a hindrance. When the mortgage industry imploded, I was ready.

Q: What made you choose a health psychology/behavioral medicine degree?

A: I already knew what I wanted to do for a second career, so I looked for a program that would best suit my professional interests. When I started, I knew that eventually I wanted to write books and deliver talks to both smokers and health care professionals about cessation.

Q: What made you decide to attend school online as opposed to a traditional program?

I had just finished at a brick-and-mortar school and I found it very constrictive. I was older than many of the teachers and students, yet I had to conform to the class requirements, many of which I found to be useless to me. For example, in one of the advanced classes, we had to do a group PowerPoint project -- "because it would look good on our resume" -- but at my age, I had already delivered PowerPoint presentations at national conferences. Also, I didn't want to spend countless hours on the freeway commuting, and, locally, the program options didn't fit into my career path.

Q: What were the benefits of earning a health care master's degree online?

A: I assumed that the online classes wouldn't be rigorous enough, but instead they were more challenging. Plus I was able to customize many of the writing projects to include aspects of smoking cessation, which dovetailed with my career.

Q: How did your interactions with professors and other students happen online? Any surprises?

A: I was happy to not have to do "group" projects with other students. I know that some online schools do that, and I didn't want to interact with other students like I did at Cal State for my BA.

Q: What did a typical day look like while you were going to school online?

For me there was no typical day, which is why online was perfect for me. I am very disciplined, so I would read/research/write whenever I had free time. Sometimes that was in the middle of the night -- having online library access was great. I learned to order my books ASAP. My goal was to finish reading them and have the first assignment ready to submit before the actual class started. I also highlighted sections that corresponded to the syllabus, so that a lot of the research was already done. This gave me a head start and a more rounded view of what was expected in the class. Because there was so much research to read, I always carried a couple of papers with me to read at odd times -- waiting at the doctor's office or even at a long red light, for example.

Q: Tell us about your books and blog.

A: I had always wanted to write a book about quitting smoking. For my program "Stop Smoking, Stay Quit" I created a 65-page workbook, and "Tips to Win at Quitting" is built off of that workbook. "Crush your Butts" goes further into the psychology behind the work required to go from being a smoker to being smoke-free. The book had stories of smokers I collected from my 20 years of workshops. Both books are available as e-books and I am exploring publishing options.

The book I am currently working on is for health care professionals: how to effectively motivate patients to become smoke-free. Future books will include one for family and friends of smokers: how to help them quit without nagging, shaming or blaming.

Q: How has the new master's degree been a benefit to your career?

A: Probably the biggest benefit is the confidence my degree gives me. My educational credentials are no longer questioned, and the degree rounded out my knowledge about cessation. Because of my years of clinical experience, the research was often directly applicable to my career as a tobacco treatment specialist.

Q: What advice would you give those considering an online health care degree?

A: Know your endgame. If you don't know how you will use your degree, having an online degree might not help you. For example, in California, you must attend a brick-and-mortar school to become a marriage and family therapist. If I had wanted to switch, none of my classes would have been transferable. Find an accredited school, and be honest: If you can't work independently or you need someone looking over your shoulder, online education is not for you.