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5 ways to invest your tax refund in your career

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY  Are you expecting a tax refund this year? According to the IRS, the average refund in 2010 was just over $3,000, which amounts to a nice little mid-year bonus. (Discounting, of course, that it's your own money that you lent to the government, interest-free.) Before you spend your refund on a new flat-screen TV or a trip to Disney World, though, consider reinvesting your new-found money in enhancing or improving your career.

There are a number of ways you can use the money that will pay dividends at work for the rest of your working life:

Get that degree. If you're still in the early stages of your career, getting (or finishing) your degree can make you significantly more competitive, even if you don't feel like you need the academic expertise. This is especially true in academia, where promotions (even in administrative disciplines) are contingent upon advanced degrees. Of course, if you've been in the workforce for some time, it's entirely possible that you'd never recoup the cost of getting an advanced degree. Do the math to see if there's an economic advantage to going back to school.

Get certified. Even if getting (or finishing) a degree isn't the right thing to do, getting a certificate might have the right price/performance ratio to kickstart your career. Depending upon your discipline, there might be any number of certificates that will enhance your skills and make you look far more marketable on a resume. Certificates can also be your gateway to a lateral move. If you're a program manager who would like to get into technical writing, for example, you don't need a complete degree in your new target discipline. Get a tech writing certificate from the local tech school or community college.

Hire a career coach. Do you have access to a career mentor at work? I'm not talking about a peer mentor who can show you how to use the TPS reporting tool or even your boss, who sometimes gives you career advice. If not, then taking your tax refund and investing it in a real career coach might be money well spent. There are many professional career consultants available online -- many of these organizations offer one-on-one personal counseling to help you identify skills you need to improve and find jobs that fit into your overall career aspirations. What you might not know is that many HR departments can recommend career coaching companies as well, so ping your designated HR rep to see if they have any suggestions.

Hire a resume writer. Seriously. I've suggested this to friends and colleagues in the past, and most look at me like I'm crazy. I think this stems from the belief that since we can all speak English, we must therefore be able to write as well. But just because you know how to write, that doesn't mean you can write well. And since few documents are as important to your career as a resume, hiring a professional with some of that tax refund is a smart thing to do. Professional resume writers don't just know how to take the details of your professional life and turn them into a compelling story, but they are also experts at the minutiae of resume writing: format, readability, keyword optimization, and other things that, if you don't know them, can hurt you.

Get your own domain. If you're in a field where your personal reputation matters, spend some money (it doesn't take a lot) to set up a website with a personal domain. That gives you a great home base from which to blog, and you can link to this from LinkedIn, Facebook, and other social media avenues.

Photo courtesy Flickr user 401K