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January 14, 2009

The Backup Plan

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college student walking to school with books

Photo Credit: Rafal Zdeb/iStock Images

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"I dumped a great job to get my MFA"
CAROLYN KELLOGG, 41, LOS ANGELES

I used to be a Web producer for a huge foundation. I dressed like a banker — had my nails done and my tame hair color touched up each month — because we never knew who'd walk in. (I once saw Michael Eisner in the hallway!) I loved my boss and that we were helping the community. But I was sick of looking at the gray carpeting. Each day I'd pick up the same Starbucks and take the same elevator and stare at that hideous carpet. So I decided to go back to school for a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing.

I broke up with my boyfriend, packed up my stuff, and drove to the University of Pittsburgh. I planned to pay for school with loans and a teaching fellowship, and I even cashed out my 401(k) — there's no penalty if you use it for education. It would all but wipe me out, but I figured I'd come out standing up.

It was crazy liberating being with people who hadn't been indoctrinated into the 9-to-5 culture. And the work was fabulous — all that reading and sitting around talking about books. I remember being in a workshop at my program director's house and realizing I was learning from the guy who taught Michael Chabon, and the professor's wife was Raymond Carver's ex-mistress, and people were grabbing beers from the fridge and talking about my work. I loved it.

I'm back in L.A. now, freelancing for the L.A. Times and polishing up my novel. I feel some pressure to look for something safe and salaried, but I'm trying to stick it out. I'm making much less than I was before, but it's worth it just to be able to write for a living — and to dye my hair a ridiculous shade of red and not worry about offending anyone but the guy who works at the coffee shop down the street. —as told to Lauren Iannotti

SHOULD YOU GO BACK TO SCHOOL? It's not as costly or time-consuming as you think.

An advanced degree doesn't come cheap, but it's worth it in the long run, says Lisa Heidman of executive search firm Bedford Consulting Group. The numbers back her up:

PAY NOW, PAYOUT LATER
Average college grad earns: $42K
Average master's grad earns: $52K
Average Ph.D. grad earns: $71K
Average professional (e.g., doctor or lawyer) earns: $82K

LET THE BOSS PICK UP THE TAB
Roughly half of all U.S. workers were eligible for tuition benefits from their employers last year.

KEEP YOUR DAY JOB
Only 36 percent of all master's students and 61 percent of doctoral students go full-time.

MINIMIZE THE STICKER SHOCK
Check out petersons.com/finaid to get your hands on some of the $1 billion in graduate-school scholarships. —Jihan Thompson

"I took a three-month sabbatical to recharge my batteries"
MEGAN LANGER, 29, PORTLAND, OR

I'm a media-relations manager at Intel. The company is unique in that every seven years, you're entitled to take an eight-week paid sabbatical. I had another three weeks of vacation owed me, so it amounted to a hefty chunk of time. It turned out to be perfect timing — my husband was about to start a new business, so he could take a few months off and join me. We figured this would be our last hurrah before having kids.

But I admit I had some reservations. For starters, you feel like you have to cram a year's worth of work into nine months, which can be stressful. Every year we have a big annual review that highlights our achievements. I worried that I'd miss out on three months of opportunities, specifically because Intel was preparing to make some announcements that I'd normally oversee. I had to tell myself, "It's okay, Megan. There will be other projects to manage."

I handed over my responsibilities to someone else, and my e-mail account became inactive. I was completely separated from the office, which was weird at first. But I made a conscious decision not to check in, otherwise I'd have thought about work nonstop.

My husband and I spent the first six weeks living in a camper. We went fly-fishing in Colorado and hiking in Utah's Zion National Park. Then we hopped on a plane to Hawaii, where we toured volcanoes and rain forests. The market crashed while we were gone. It was pretty scary, not knowing whether your job would be there when you got back. My husband and I spent a lot of time talking about it and realized we can't control the economy, so there's no point in dwelling on it. Being away gave me perspective. This too shall pass. And if it doesn't, well, I can always go back to living in a camper — it's actually kind of fun. —as told to Lea Goldman

IS IT CAREER SUICIDE? Hardly — an extended leave may save your job.

Though only 6 percent of blue chips (like Nike and AmEx) offer paid sabbaticals, unpaid leaves are becoming popular as firms look to cut costs while retaining top talent. Here's how it works: You forgo your paycheck during the sabbatical, which can run upwards of six months. In exchange, you get benefits and a written commitment to return to your gig once the sabbatical is over. "Hiring a replacement costs as much as three times the average worker's salary," explains Elizabeth Pagano, founder of yoursabbatical.com. "It makes more financial sense for a company to bring a loyal employee back than to find a new one."

"I got laid off — and went globe-trotting"
SANA AMANAT, 26, NEW YORK CITY

I had the coolest job ever — editing comic books. I worked with some of the most creative and talented writers and artists. Then in August, without any notice, a bunch of us were laid off. This wasn't the first time that's happened to me. Not long after I graduated college, I worked at a startup magazine in New York that folded two months after I got there. I tried freelancing but could barely make ends meet. The whole period was a black hole.

When I got laid off this time around, my mind-set was completely different. I said, "I'm not sticking around here just to get depressed. I'm going to use this as an opportunity to clear my head." So I sublet my apartment and flew to Dubai, where my brother lives. From there, I flew to Thailand, and then met up with friends in Mumbai.

Now I'm back in Dubai. I'm lucky in that I'm here rent-free, paying for food and travel with the money I get from subletting my apartment. Every day I work out, then go to the pool and read. It occurred to me — I was an editor and didn't have time to read books! Now and again, I check out job listings. If an opportunity comes along that feels right, I'll grab it. Till then, though, there's nothing wrong with taking time off. I've got the rest of my life to work. —as told to Lea Goldman

ALL ABROAD! Hit the road to one of these top cities for job-hungry expats.

There are still plenty of lucrative jobs to be had overseas. We asked Gary Parker, founder of Executive Resources Ltd., a consulting firm for companies looking to hire internationally, where lady expats can find the best gigs these days:

Singapore: A research outpost for Yankee blue chips like Cisco and Eli Lilly. Average expat salary: $250K.

In need of: High-tech, pharma, PR pros

Dubai: Still awash in oil money. Average expat salary: $270K.

In need of: Hotel managers, industrial engineers, oil execs, architects

Hong Kong: Asia's financial epicenter still enjoys big business from mainland China. Average expat salary: $300K.

In need of: Lawyers, financial analysts

"I decided to run for office"
MONISHA MERCHANT, 31, LAKEWOOD, CO

Out here in Denver, we're all about the work/life balance. As a product manager for a telecom provider, I'm at the office from 7:30 to 5:30. I love my job — talking to engineers, working with clients. But I'm also passionate about community service, thanks to my parents, who grew up in India and earned government grants to come here for college. They instilled in me and my brother the idea of giving back. That's why I've always been politically active.

So when a Democratic candidate for the University of Colorado Board of Regents dropped out of the race, I decided to run for his seat. My mom was my campaign manager, and I recruited contacts I'd made as a Hillary Clinton volunteer during the primaries. My team was amazing — knocking on doors, working the phones, holding signs for me in the frigid cold on Election Day. And even my brother's friends gave me money! In all, I raised $25,000.

Campaigning was a huge time commitment. I'd be up at 3 a.m. weekdays, writing speeches, preparing "robo call" lists. Then back at it after work. My boss was supportive, probably because my commitment to my job never flagged. But I did use all of my vacation days to campaign.

When I won, I was elated. Most big state universities have a regents board, and ours is pretty influential. I help shape policy for the college system, advocating for federal research dollars, seeking state funding to make our students competitive in the green economy. I'm grateful for the chance to do such important work. And, someday, well, U.S. senator seems like the coolest job to me. Working with a small group of people to affect national issues and foreign policy? That just sounds like the most fun, intellectually fulfilling work on the planet. —as told to Lauren Iannotti

RUN LIKE A GIRL How to break into politics — from Faith Winter of the White House Project, a nonprofit that helps prepare women for office.

Start by volunteering.
Work pro bono for a city council member. "She's voting on sewer lines and dog parks. Any research help she can get is invaluable," Winter says. You can also sign up with a campaign or run for a municipal board. "My town has 17 all-volunteer boards that advise the city council," says Winter. "They're a great way to make a name for yourself."

Join the party.
Local Democrats and Republicans are always looking for new people to run for office. "We don't need a bunch of lawyers making policy; we need teachers, nurses, nonprofit workers," says Winter. "Find your party's Website. Go to a potluck. Bring some chili and ask how you can help."

Take a course.
"It's a good idea to do some training, to get the confidence to run, and to learn skills like raising money and crafting a compelling message," says Winter. To find a program in your area, visit thewhitehouseproject.org. But remember, you can't learn everything in a class. Eventually you just have to take that leap.


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