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Thread: Going back to school mid-career?

  1. #1
    Cyburbian
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    Going back to school mid-career?

    After my last little discussion with my boss, I've been thinking more seriously about my dream to go back to school for a doctorate. The program I'd be interested in is the Conflict Analysis and Resolution program at George Mason. Not specifically planning-related, but there is certainly a good deal of overlap.

    If I was local to the area, I'd probably have already applied. As it stands, it would involve a move to a high-cost area, selling my house, quitting my job, etc. It's a little overwhelming to think about all the logistics. But I've also realized that planning may not be the ideal job for me to build my entire on. I'm good at aspects of my job, but I'm definitely more of a big picture person, and my job puts a lot more emphasis on details which can be a little frustrating. I could live out my career here and be fine, but I also don't feel like I'm using my talents and skills in the most effective way.

    There are some planning programs that have concentration options in public participation or conflict management, but I don't know that I really want to stay in a strictly planning profession.

    Anyway, I guess I'm just kind of looking to hear experiences of anyone that went back to school mid-career. I did see that there would be some housing options not too far from the area for about $1,000 a month which is about as reasonable as it would get, especially considering that I'd be bringing two dogs and two cats with me. But how was the transition emotionally/financially? Did you feel it was worth the career break? Was it hard to get back into student mode? (I actually think I'd be a much better student at this point than I was when I was right out of high school.)

    There's also the possibility of getting a job in the area should I be accepted and going to school part-time. But I'm not going to count on that should I pursue the program.

    I wouldn't be able to apply for another year - the deadline just passed. So I have plenty of time to consider it. Just looking for feedback.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian Plus dvdneal's avatar
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    It might not be planning, but conflict resolution seems to be the same kind of mind set so you should have no problem there. I don't want to discourage you, but there will always be details in a job. Even as a big picture person there are details that need to be accounted for. Don't take this the wrong way, but don't run from a job just because some of the details are annoying. Is there another field of planning that would be more enjoyable? Would you be happier in a management position? Smaller town? Working for the state or MPO? More or less citizen involvement? I'm just saying explore your options. I've jumped at to many things in my life and although it turned out okay and I have no regrets, but there is always that thought that I could be doing better if I had taken that left in Albuquerque. Either way, explore all the options and go. You have to do what makes you happy.
    I don't pretend to understand Brannigan's Law. I merely enforce it.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by dvdneal View post
    It might not be planning, but conflict resolution seems to be the same kind of mind set so you should have no problem there. I don't want to discourage you, but there will always be details in a job. Even as a big picture person there are details that need to be accounted for. Don't take this the wrong way, but don't run from a job just because some of the details are annoying. Is there another field of planning that would be more enjoyable? Would you be happier in a management position? Smaller town? Working for the state or MPO? More or less citizen involvement? I'm just saying explore your options. I've jumped at to many things in my life and although it turned out okay and I have no regrets, but there is always that thought that I could be doing better if I had taken that left in Albuquerque. Either way, explore all the options and go. You have to do what makes you happy.
    Citizen involvement is the only part of my job that I genuinely enjoy, not just tolerate. Unfortunately, there's not really a big emphasis on that here. We do the bare minimum, but there's not really any effort to do more than that, and whenever I bring it up, I get shot down before it can go anywhere.

    It used to be that I was pretty much guaranteed that I would get my boss's job eventually if I just stayed here. But I don't know that I would really enjoy that, either. If anything, it would be less public involvement, although I would potentially have the opportunity to have more influence into developing new opportunities/programs/protocols.

    I know there are places that do put a lot more emphasis on citizen engagement, and that could be an option. Right now I'm just kind of exploring possibilities. This program specifically is something that I've been thinking about off and on for somewhere around 10 years. So it's not really a reactionary consideration. I just never really felt like the stars aligned to make it seem like a viable option, but if I don't look into it, I'll never know if that's the case or not.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian Plus dvdneal's avatar
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    Have you looked at IAP2 training?

    http://www.iap2.org/

    There might be a private firm that does this kind of work in your area. They could tell you more about it. My city used a couple of these guys to work out some issues with the angry unincorporated group. They also handled some big projects like land fills. Not the design, but the negotiation and compromise parts.
    I don't pretend to understand Brannigan's Law. I merely enforce it.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by dvdneal View post
    Have you looked at IAP2 training?

    http://www.iap2.org/

    There might be a private firm that does this kind of work in your area. They could tell you more about it. My city used a couple of these guys to work out some issues with the angry unincorporated group. They also handled some big projects like land fills. Not the design, but the negotiation and compromise parts.
    That might be a tough sell given that our training budget is very limited and it would involve significant travel, but it's a possibility. Thanks for the tip. And my area's pretty small. The closest I know of would be in Charlottesville affiliated with UVA. They worked with us on a highway corridor project. I may follow up with one of the contacts for some more info.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian Bubba's avatar
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    Interesting...if you get serious about this, I would suggest looking at the job openings with some of the larger consulting firms in the DC/NoVa area that work primarily with the federal government - that type of degree would play well with some of the work those folks do.
    I found you a new motto from a sign hanging on their wall…"Drink coffee: do stupid things faster and with more energy"

  7. #7
    Cyburbian Plus Veloise's avatar
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    Cost-benefit analysis

    Throughout my career (which has overlapped planning, graphic design, publishing, self-employment, and entertainment presentations), I've dabbled with grad school.

    Initially I wanted an upgrade to my pre-technology studies, so I took a class in GIS. (First time ever teaching anything for the adjunct, the college's computer lab was not available to us for about half the class sessions, and it turns out that an astute learner could take basic help screens and learn independently.) After bringing several of these concerns to the board of regents, I was issued a refund on that class tuition.

    Getting hired as a temp exposed me to several computer systems and programs. I perfected my skills on PageMakertm doing various graphics gigs. (One time the interview included a software test. Hovering over my shoulder, my putative supervisor said, "I'm learning new things just by watching you!") Meanwhile I was dropping by my old Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning building to check the job listings on the bulletin boards in the hallway...the next display featured mock-ups of DDA brochures that the current students had paid tuition money to learn how to create. In other words, I was learning program techniques while getting paid.

    Project management: pretty much the same scheme. Recent recruiters have suggested that I go take a class in whatever software has been developed for this function. Um, no.

    If I were considering an advanced program, I'd delineate the tuition price, cost of living, the uprooting from present career track, and all associated costs. Contrast and compare with the likely salary increase afterwards. Seems like the highest and best use of a doctorate degree would be to obtain a tenured university position, and a better way to get expertise in Conflict Analysis and Resolution might be workshops, training sessions, and...dusting off your resume.

    Just my 2˘

  8. #8
    Cyburbian
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    Seems like you'd be on track to become a strategy consultant that does work for government, like McKinsey or Deloitte.

  9. #9
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by akshali2000 View post
    Seems like you'd be on track to become a strategy consultant that does work for government, like McKinsey or Deloitte.
    I could live with that.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian
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    The PhD program is a long road, and your career would be steered towards a faculty position (no control over where you work, lots of politics, very flexible schedule) or possibly consulting. Think about what you want to do with the PhD before you jump into it, talk to some people in those careers and see if you think you'd like it. Talk to the professors of the department you want to apply for and see if any of them show a strong (and I mean strong, not cursory, polite or friendly) interest in you and your research ideas. Ask them where their students have ended up working post-PhD.

    I had a co-worker who was a city planner. She told me about a masters degree in Conflict Management/Resolution that she had taken entirely online with one of the California state universities for $10k. In her free time, she volunteered as a court mediator which is where she found the greatest fulfillment. The courts and judges loved her because she resolved a lot of cases and kept them out of court. She kept her city planner job and eventually moved somewhere else to lead a planning department.

    Guess what I'm saying is that, perhaps you could find what you love most about your job outside of it. But if you feel ready for a career switch, do your homework beyond immediate logistics (though that's important too)... before you go for it.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian
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    Since June I've been working at a slow (but steady) pace on the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. It is a globally recognized, proven, approach towards project management. Over 800,000 professionals in over 200 countries (doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects, etc.) have the credentials. In some ways it parallels a Six Sigma approach towards business, although the later is more oriented towards business systems and statistics. I am doing it as an alternative to a graduate degree and will likely sit for the final exam sometime between March and May. There are probably less than a hundred or so planners who hold the AICP and PMP credentials, but I see value in the credentials.

    The PMP is largely my ticket out of the urban planning profession, if and when I decide it's ready. It would open up far more doors to me than a graduate degree and I don't loose the steadily increasing income working full time as a manager now. Nonetheless, it is a very difficult process to attain. In order to sit for the PMP exam, one needs 4,500 hours of project management experience (about 2 1/2 years) plus 35 hours of education. 35 hours equates to over a years worth of graduate classes full time which equates to a couple of hundred of hours of study FOR those classes ON TOP OF working full time. There are multiple ways of earning the 35 hours including multi-day training, webinars, etc. I am doing independent study which is the cheapest option (under $1,000) but the most time intensive. I have just passed the halfway mark in the self-study, but my learning curve is far steeper than the average PMP test taker because I did not have previous formal coursework in management at a brick and mortar classroom. When I took AICP almost a decade ago, I knew a good 30-40% of the material before I studied. I've had to learn 100% of the material from scratch for the PMP and am by and large a terrible test taker.

    Despite the disorganized approach by PMP and the lack of buy-in from my fellow urban planners, I see the long term added value of the PMP. It will give me an arsenal of invaluable transferable skills than can transcend many more industries than AICP, LEED-AP or other industry-specific credentials ever will. The coursework includes training on the following types of management:

    Integration Management
    Scope Management
    Time Management
    Cost Management
    Quality Management
    HR Management
    Communications Management
    Risk Management
    Procurement Management
    Stakeholder Management

    The overall monetary cost of the credential is under $2,000.00 if you include application fees, dues, and the (average) cost of a PMP registered educational provider for the 35 hour educational requirement. This is the fraction of the cost of even a year in graduate school and I can design it around my own schedule. BUT the trade off is a far bigger time investment. The PMP has a bad reputation for being an extremely difficult exam, and the wrong educational provider could put you at a disadvantage if you have not properly conditioned for the exam. Most people can complete the study within 2-3 months provided you are eating, living, and breathing PMP day in day out. However, there is a healthy 20% of test takers who require more than 6 months of study (myself included) largely due to outside obligations (job, family, etc.).

    Hope this helps!
    "This is great, honey. What's the crunchy stuff?"
    "M&Ms. I ran out of paprika."

    Family Guy

  12. #12
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by Reefe View post
    The PhD program is a long road, and your career would be steered towards a faculty position (no control over where you work, lots of politics, very flexible schedule) or possibly consulting. Think about what you want to do with the PhD before you jump into it, talk to some people in those careers and see if you think you'd like it. Talk to the professors of the department you want to apply for and see if any of them show a strong (and I mean strong, not cursory, polite or friendly) interest in you and your research ideas. Ask them where their students have ended up working post-PhD.

    I had a co-worker who was a city planner. She told me about a masters degree in Conflict Management/Resolution that she had taken entirely online with one of the California state universities for $10k. In her free time, she volunteered as a court mediator which is where she found the greatest fulfillment. The courts and judges loved her because she resolved a lot of cases and kept them out of court. She kept her city planner job and eventually moved somewhere else to lead a planning department.

    Guess what I'm saying is that, perhaps you could find what you love most about your job outside of it. But if you feel ready for a career switch, do your homework beyond immediate logistics (though that's important too)... before you go for it.
    These are all good suggestions. I actually did go through a certification program to be a mediator almost 10 years ago. But the court-mediation thing was difficult because the best exposure would be going during court hours, which obviously conflict with working hours. That's not to say there aren't other ways to get experience, but I think my goals would be a little different than that.

    I actually really enjoy research - I was a researcher before I became a planner. I have looked a little at what areas the faculty works in, and I need to spend some focused time going through the positions that recent grads are currently in. It is kind of an emerging field, at least as a stand alone area of study, so academic positions may be limited, although I understand that there are grads that are working at other schools to start new programs, which would be kind of exciting. But I do want to make sure that I'd have a viable career tract when I graduated.

    Thanks for the input!

  13. #13
    Cyburbian
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    I would echo other people's thoughts here: be cautious about leaving employment, phd leads to faculty positions, credentials have more value, etc.. I would also add that private sector consulting does a lot more public outreach than public sector planning - it's something you should consider before leaving the planning industry completely. It's funny, I'm the exact opposite of you: I hate doing public outreach but love the detailed work of planning. In the past when I worked at a NPO we did extensive outreach to communities. It was painful. I guess what I'm saying is that you might not need as much of a career shift as you think to enjoy what you do - try long range planning.

  14. #14
    Cyburbian
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    I went back to school mid-career and it was one of the best decisions I've ever made. I had been in a field for over a decade that I wasn't particularly happy with and the thought of spending the rest of my life in that field was beyond depressing. Going back to school at my age, though, was daunting. I told myself I was too old to go back to school, that I'd be too old to change careers when I graduated, etc. I spent a good deal of time trying to talk myself out of it. Finally, though, I made the commitment and jumped. Fortunately, I was able to attend a local university, I had an employer who was flexible regarding my classes, a very supportive spouse, and the means to pay the tuition without going into debt. Basically, the stars were aligned. Still, it was incredibly hard to work full-time, attend school full-time, and still find time to spend with my family.

    Regarding changing careers, one thing I hadn't really prepared myself for is being back at the bottom of the totem pole. I had spent years in management in my previous field, but once I graduated and changed careers I had to start over again in an entry-level position. It was an adjustment. Not only was I no longer in a position of authority, but I had to adjust to half of my previous salary. It was worth it, though, because I was happier in my job than I'd been in years. I worked my way back up to management and have since encouraged others to go back to school if they have a desire to go, regardless of age.

    I've often shared a quote that spurred me to make the leap years ago: "If you go back to school for the next three to five years, how old will you be when you graduate? And if you don't go back to school, how old will you be in three to five years?"

  15. #15
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by flbeachgirl View post
    Regarding changing careers, one thing I hadn't really prepared myself for is being back at the bottom of the totem pole. I had spent years in management in my previous field, but once I graduated and changed careers I had to start over again in an entry-level position. It was an adjustment. Not only was I no longer in a position of authority, but I had to adjust to half of my previous salary. It was worth it, though, because I was happier in my job than I'd been in years. I worked my way back up to management and have since encouraged others to go back to school if they have a desire to go, regardless of age.
    ^ To me, that's the biggest issue. And I'll go one step further and give you an anecdote about an older person that I went to MLA school with. In her mid 50s she left a successful federal career to attend MLA school (I think it was in health care policy). Even though she wasn't working, she struggled to stay up with all the late hours / long nights which ultimately meant she never quite achieved enough critical mass to be competitive as a LA. Which also meant, even though she got her MLA, she couldn't do anything with it - it was too difficult to acquire the entry level jobs she needed to begin the career track which lead back to level of which she started and her new educational achievement was too divergent from her old career to leverage any experience. That left her in this weird holding pattern. Ultimately, and out of necessity, she had to abandon her hopes of being a LA. Granted any design field is incredibly competitive (even at the age of 30 I felt too old to be a draftsman), but I think the lessons are the same. I guess what I'm saying is: the odds are not in your favor to start completely over and have it work out. Sure, it works for some but that's the exception, not the rule.

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