This morning, I got a fantastic set of questions in response to my previous post about a mid-life career path. It boiled down to the following:
- Setting aside the practicality of work and a degree, do you have the literal time to make back the tuition cost?
- Could you consider a more-rapidly paced certificate program, perhaps through a community college?
- Will your employer support this (financially or experientially)?
The plan was to respond directly, but the response got long enough that it felt weird to bake it into a reply, so instead, I’m dropping it here. And yes, it’s LONG.
To start, I’ll tackle question #1.
At this point, I won’t ever make money back from that sort of thing. I have 15-25 years before retirement, so I ‘could’ make my money back. However, I’m currently the head of a data management unit, more or less at the top of the pay-scale (if not longevity scale). My responsibilities cover a fairly complex topic (subsistence economies) having a state-wide reach. There is no opportunity here to move up. In theory, there could be, but it’s an avenue that doesn’t match up with my strengths or interest, and again, the pay differential isn’t really that big.
I could remain with my current set of qualifications and skills and do what I’ve been doing: Figuring it out as I go. I woldn’t have any additional financial investment and potentially hit the same finish line. From that perspective, it sounds like I should just not, right? That’s why it’s such a good question.
Practically speaking, I don’t possess the qualifications for the nature of my job even today. My group lives and dies through grants and other non-state government funding. This year, in part because of the pandemic, was an absolute blood-bath. We couldn’t conduct surveys in remote villages, therefore had to push work back and much of our staff had their hours cut, some to 0. It gets more complicated, though. I’ve observed a pretty significant headwind in obtaining this funding. I have no insight whatsoever into why, except to say that the number of funding sources are dwindling. Clearly, we are somehow not competitive enough. With this in mind, I started looking around to see what else might be out there. If we can’t fund ourselves, then I’ll be obliged to do something else. When it comes to being a lead data scientist, pretty much anywhere, the resume needs to include a master’s degree. It turns out, even with 15 years of experience doing this work, I’m not qualified in the eyes of a lot of organizations.
So, that’s a long way of saying: I think expanding my knowledge and capabilities will give me tools to help our team bolster our proposals for funding through analytics or advanced statistical topics. It also gets around to: A lot of the difficulty I had this winter, so far, could be addressed through an increase in staff and project work, and I’d rather stick with this position and the work we do. It’s important.
Question 2 follows question 1. A master’s of data science has a typical price tag of somewhere north of 35,000 for a two-year program. There are less expensive programs that are absolutely world-class, you’ve got to get in first. I could probably obtain a certificate for half of that or maybe even less. So why not that? The short response is that I work in research, and it’s something of an expectation that you’d have an MS, at least and ideally a Ph.D. This expectation also appears in the jobs I was looking at. A certificate is an excellent qualification to get a job, but it’s generally not worth much, if anything, when applied to a grant application or funding proposal. In part, these qualifications tend to focus on specific technologies. Technologies aren’t super relevant for proposals; knowledge of approaches weighs a lot more in that context.
The second part of the question has to do with community college programs – the short answer is that where I live, the university system has recently been gutted to the point that the governor has to remove ALL education requirements from state job postings. The University of Alaska Fairbanks still has a good program for what I’m interested in, but it’s not delivered remotely and isn’t practical for a working person.
The last question revolves around support from my employer. There is no program to help pay. However, the experiential portion is relevant. The programs I’m looking at connect directly to the work I do daily. Two of the programs require a 6-credit professional practice course. I’m near certain that I could pick one of the upcoming projects I’m already slated to work on and use that. I could basically knocks-out a whole semester that way. So, yes, I do get some indirect support.
So there it is: Some of my reasoning for why.