Thinking About Going Back to School?

Back to School - by OakleyOriginals via Flickr
Back to School - by OakleyOriginals via Flickr

A subscriber to the Project Management Career Newsletter emailed me that he would be going back to school in a few weeks, and asked me for any suggestions or advice.

My Story

I had attended 1 year of vo-tech school right after high school, but dropped out when I moved to Albuquerque, NM for a job. My studies were in electronics technology, and I found that although I was good with electronics, software was much more interesting than electronics hardware to me. I was a computer geek (still am) and was a self-taught programmer. I moved into training and management roles, and got caught in a lot of layoffs too.

Even though I had work experience, it was a struggle to find new jobs. I discovered the formal discipline of project management and found out I had been doing it all wrong, and figured I needed a degree anyway to be competitive. I went back to school for a BS degree in Project Management, I think it was in 2005.


I appreciated the education much more than before. When I was 18, I took out loans and didn’t really feel like I was paying for it. I skipped classes sometimes, etc. This time around, it was a degree I was particularly interested in, and I applied myself to the material as much as I could.

First, I understood the value of the money I was paying (gladly paying) to get this education, and second I understood that the value would come from what I retained and applied, NOT from the piece of paper I’d get at the end or even the grades I received.

Write, Think, and Apply

Starting my blog at was great for me, because I would write about what I was learning in school and how I could apply it in my day job. I also started frequenting many online forums and reading other blogs on the topic.

I had been a manager and managed some projects in an informal, adhoc manner. Just before going back to school I had taken a job as a developer at the time to get into a company where the environment was good for me to apply project management in a formal way. I was trying to work my way into PM roles wherever I could.

With my management experience I could have gone for a higher paying management position, but I took a deliberate step back so that I could be part of a project team and learn from the inside. 100% of my job was defining and implementing projects to improve processes, introduce automation, and integrate proprietary systems from mergers and acquisitions.

Contribute and Go Above and Beyond

Contribute in class as much as possible, and see it as an opportunity to learn and better yourself. I tried to do extra research on topics of particular interest whenever I could (much of what I researched was on PM methodologies and various aspects of management/leadership) It’s all about what you get out of it, not about the piece of paper.

Another way to go above and beyond is to volunteer. You could start a study group, a PM student club, or volunteer for other organizations. I attempted to start a PM student club at my college, but by the time political pressures would have allowed me to do so, I was graduating and wouldn’t be able to keep it alive. Had I started earlier it may have happened.

I also joined the Students of PM SIG (Specific Interest Group) with the PMI and volunteered there. There are lots of SIGs in the PMI that focus on specific topics you can look into. Look into other PM organizations as well, my only experience is with PMI but there are others out there.

Save Some Money on Books

Book swapping, discounted buying, used sellers….there are many ways to get your hands on great books for personal development or classes without paying the full cover price.

I kept track of my savings over the university book store price when I was working through my degree in Project Management.  I saved about 60% overall compared to what it would have cost me had I purchased my books at the college.  That amounted to thousands of dollars in savings over the years.

Some I was unable to find used, because they had just come out.  They were the exception however, and even if something had been out for just a semester, I was usually able to find a good used copy somewhere.

Check out these sites for book swapping and used books. Four pieces of advice for you:

  • Order books early –  It can take 2-3 weeks to get it, and you don’t want to be without your textbook on the first day of class.  If you order a month in advance, it should give you enough time.
  • Get the correct edition – I learned this the hard way.  One time I didn’t pay attention to the edition number and got an old edition.  I was still able to use it for that particular class, but you may not be so lucky.
  • Country-specific versions – If you do end up getting the “international version” of a textbook, most of the time it will be the exact same book….sometimes there will be slight differences.  I once had a book that was about 15 pages off from the new version, so when the professor asked us to check out page 45, I just knew to turn to page 60 in my own copy.
  • Check the detailed description – Sometimes sellers will have a picture of the new edition, when the detailed description lets you know it’s a different edition.  They will use the best picture they can find online, and if they can’t find an exact picture they substitute something close.



BigWords (This was my primary search tool)


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