What have I spent my life on?
August 31, 2009 10:15 AM   Subscribe

How do I apply to Master's programs when I don't have either real academic credentials or a particularly distinguished career reputation?

I'm interested in applying to Master's programs in three related areas: Planning, Architecture and Landscape Architecture, all at UBC in Vancouver. Here's the problem: I have a bachelor's degree in Computer Science that I completed in 1999, and almost no experience in any of the aforementioned areas except at a layman's level. Even worse, in my current "career" in software (first as a developer, now as technical support), I've had far from an illustrious career -- it's not a solid ten years of experience I have, with the concomitant excellent professional references that might subsitute for a lack of academic ones.

So... how do I get those "three letters of reference" that seem so important, and the related exposure I need? I have my own vague ideas -- mostly in the area of volunteering and making an impression there -- but I'm interested in what other people have to say. Also, is it a crazy idea to contemplate applying for next year's admission (Sept. 2010)? Given that the application deadlines are around December 1st this year, I'm thinking it might be a pipe dream.
posted by Big Fat Tycoon to Education (3 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I used to work in landscape construction. Your computer background would serve you well if you could get a job working CAD or something related for a large landscaping firm. Most of those guys were working on Master's programs while developing new landscaping layouts. I think if you had some management background, knew your way around some of the more popular design applications and were willing to work outside, overseeing the installations you could be well on your way to a new career.
Here's the gigantic corporation I worked for, fwiw: http://www.brickmangroup.com/index.php
posted by Baby_Balrog at 10:24 AM on August 31, 2009

There are plenty of people without a formal education in architecture that make it into good architecture programs, and, speaking of which, UBC has a very good one. When I was doing my architecture master's (not at UBC) I was surprised to learn that about 1/2 of them came from backgrounds that had nothing to do with architecture. some were engineers, writers, history majors, social workers, etc. Getting into a good architecture school like UBC has less to do with the type of background you have, but how your background translates into the world of architecture.

Now that I've said that much, allow me to explain. The profession of architecture is to design environments, buildings, or even IT networks. However the study of architecture, in the academic sense, is to theorize upon how people manipulate and craft the built environment to solve problems, taking into account socio-economic-political-cultural factors. I like to say that architecture is not about designing buildings, but rather the study of human anthropology and society. It's the study of how humans have used their spaces, do use their spaces, and will use their spaces. A good architect, like the ones you've heard of (FL Wright, Frank Gehry, Arthur Erickson, Le Corbusier, etc.), I would say know more about culture and society than they do about bricks, concrete, and sheet metal. Putting architecture in that perspective, it may be easier to see how your experience, not only academically, but in life, can translate into the study of architecture.

Look at UBC's Master's program, specifically take a look at some the student work from the first year. Now take a look at some of the Master's Thesis. Take the time to read some project descriptions, and understand the world that you're getting into. Understand that that is your benchmark. It's some pretty theological, high-level thinking, that has nothing/little to do with hardhats, cranes, or steel scaffolding. A lot of it is problem-solving of issues, big and small, from a theological point of view backed up by graphical content.

So how can you translate your experience into a application that an admission's officer will like? You can do it, but it won't happen this year. Starting from scratch, I'd say you can do it in two with focus and hard work. Here's how I would go about it: you have a background in computation that, like it or not, that you have been "enjoying" for the past 10 years or so. I assume you have some proficiency in computational mathematics, and the role by which computation can be used to illustrate or solve problems. Sure you do, but what does that have to do with architecture? Remember - the study of architecture is solving problems through the theory of the built environment. Using the set of skills you possess, you need to graphically illustrate how you can use computation to bring about new ways of understanding information, thus solving problems. These studies need to have a purpose, a beginning, and an end, and them put together in a portfolio of work that you will be required to submit as part of your application. You'll need to illustrate and expound upon a few studies at least, or else have one knock-out, in-depth study of a specific duration good enough to be considered publishable.

BULLSHIT!!! you say. Perhaps you can't make the leap. You can - and since you don't have the background and "far from an illustrative" career this portfolio needs to bridge that divide for you. If you still can't fathom how computation/information can be made graphical to solve problems then you should look at Edward Tufte, John Maeda, and the work of the MIT Media Lab.
posted by spoons at 12:41 PM on August 31, 2009 [3 favorites]

What kind of Masters are you looking for?

At my institution, we have several different types to suit different intentions. We have professional Masters programs where the goal is either to re-skill (which might be relevant for you) or to undertake more advanced applied work. We also have research Masters, where the goal may be to get a job at an analytical firm or to progress to academic career.

If you want to increase the chances of getting into the program of your choice, think about demonstrating your interest in the material. Help out with public projects, register as a research assistant in the school, try a few night courses. These things help illustrate to the program convenor that you are serious about the material and the field.

But really I do not think this is as big a problem as you believe. You're not alone in finding that what you wanted when you were 18 is different to what you want at 28. Most of my work is in organizational security and fraud: one of the best guys on our team is a chemical engineer. Who'd have thunk it, eh?
posted by Sutekh at 1:58 AM on September 1, 2009

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