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Educating Yourself for Extreme Careers

By Emily Wengert
Provided by ClassesUSA.com

From firefighters to cybersecurity analysts, professionals in some of the more atypical careers explain how education helped them.

The education of a firefighter

A man overboard in the waters of Lake Tahoe in the spring only has a short time before hypothermia sets in and he'll drown. So, when a man ended up in the water on May 16th in 10-foot swells, he was lucky the fire department was experienced in jet-ski rescues.

Mike Schwartz, the fire captain in one of most versatile fire companies in the country, has been on the rescue side of this situation many times, helping those trapped on cliffs, stuck in the icy waters of Lake Tahoe and caught in sudden snowfall or landslides. Of course, as a firefighter, he fights fires, too. The dangers around the beautiful Lake Tahoe region mean his crew has to be ready for all kinds of accidents.

But as much as he loves the work, the 45-year-old's career goals extend beyond training his crew and leading responses. In order to become a battalion chief, he must have a bachelor's degree. With an associate degree in fire science and a paramedic certificate already under his belt, he has returned to school, adding the University of Maryland University College's online fire science program to his list of pursuits. The degree educates Mike on disaster planning, personnel management, and arson investigation, skills he'll need to supervise fire captains as battalion chief.

Already, the education has changed the way Mike looks at his community. When he was working on a paper about the risk of propane and natural gas alternatives, he noticed a local truck advertising its use of natural gas as it drove by his window.

"Every class I've taken has had some direct applicability to my job," he says. "That's been really exciting."

Lori Stoney, the first and only female firefighter working at her station in Homewood, Ala. has found education the key to her own career advancement as well. Now a lieutenant, she is working toward an online bachelor's in emergency management services from Empire State College in order to be competitive for the captain's position, for which she's third in.

"We're looking at a major shift in moving from the 'good ol' boy network' where if you worked here long enough you'd move up the ladder," says Lori. Emergency management is becoming more and more pertinent for her field, from knowing about the different kinds of terrorism that firefighters might have to prevent to safely dismantling meth labs. "We're the first line of defense if anything goes wrong."

Stopping Crime With Smarts

You don't have to be a first responder for your work to be a little out of the ordinary. Consider Steven DiNoto, an administrative officer for the San Jose Police Department. He leads one of the largest crime analysis units in California. (Think the TV show Numbers, though "not quite as dramatic," Steven explains.)

Though a large portion of his work takes place behind a desk, his keen use of data can be critical for breaking cases or discovering trends. In fact, information from pawn shops, absences from high school and burglary dates can often be crime-stopping information.

Steven says his bachelor's and master's degrees in criminal justice from University of Massachusetts at Lowell gave him the theoretical framework to do his job well.

"Graduate school was where I was challenged the most," says Steven. "You get the academic rigors of the curriculum, but you also have to apply critical writing, critical thought and critical speaking skills."

For Judy Carlson-Mattedi, such critical thinking about numbers is just that -- critical -- since the public's safety depends on her analysis. .As a fingerprint examiner for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, she carefully scrutinizes how many similarity points she needs to make a definitive match.

Having already completed a crime scene technician certificate online with Kaplan University, she's now working on an online associate degree in criminal justice.

"I don't want my mind to go stagnant. I went back to school after 30 years," Judy says. "I'm hoping to eventually get into the more crime scene part of (my field)." Her education is teaching her how to lift fingerprints, conduct a grid search, decipher blood splatter and find bullets. Above all, she looks for anything that seems out of place, because that can suggest someone tried to hide evidence.

Undercover Operations in Cybersecurity

Developing a keen eye for things that seem out of place in the cyber world is something that associate professor Markus Jakobsson tries to instill in his students. As the associate director at the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University, Markus says it's his competitive drive that keeps him working long hours to find vulnerabilities in computer programs and systems. As a result, he's unraveled potential identity theft opportunities.

"It's a cat and mouse game," Markus explains of his foray into cybersecurity. "It's exciting to outsmart others." Because of the nature of cyber crimes -- the number of counted vulnerabilities to computer security systems increased nearly 280 percent from 2000 to 2002, according to a 2003 report by the federal government called "National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace" -- Markus has plenty of cyber-sleuthing opportunities to keep him busy.

Among those he and his colleagues have recently outsmarted: eBay users, both buyers and sellers, 50 percent of whom gave him their eBay passwords. Of course, Markus informed the chief security officer at eBay about the flaw, explaining how it could help them avoid a real attack in the future.

Sharatkumar Kuppahally, one of Markus' master's students who assisted in the eBay project, says a master's degree is the minimum expected to deal with complex cybersecurity issues. He intends to continue on for his Ph.D.

"I didn't expect to do so many different things in one school year," Sharatkumar explains, adding that he's currently working on a project involving phishing - a scam where people are duped into believing a phony site is legitimate so they'll reveal personal information.

"You've got to have a passion for cybersecurity because it's constantly changing," advises Sharatkumar. "You have to keep learning new things. If you don't, the bad guys are still going to learn."

Serving the Public

Randy Saucedo had the unfortunate experience of learning about domestic violence first-hand. Having witnessed the murder of his own mother in a domestic dispute, Randy chose a career close to his heart, and to date has had more than 10 years experience as an advocate for victims of domestic violence. But in order to remain in his line of work for non-profit organizations, he needed a higher degree, something to train him in more administrative tasks like budgets, fundraising, policy, and organizational management.

Thanks to a master's in public affairs program in domestic violence at the University of Colorado, Denver, earned through a combination online/classroom program, he has become the advocacy director for the nonprofit Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

"It's a very unique, very needed program for people who want to remain in this field," Randy says. Courses cover diverse topics like economics, leadership, ethics, the legal system and nonprofit management. "It's very difficult, no doubt about that, but you can definitely see the payoff."

Political Prowess

Daron Jamison is a public servant of a different sort. He works as district representative to U.S. Representative Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), meaning he's "the eyes and ears" for the congressman in Kansas. He says his bachelor's degree in business management and organizational leadership from Fort Hays State University helped him get the job he has.

Daron admits to some regret that he graduated before the advent of the political management at Fort Hays, created a year ago. Programs like this and many others emerge all the time to help even the more unique and extreme careers get a jumpstart.

In fact, what's becoming all the more popular are programs specifically customized to growing facets of particular industries - master's degrees in enrollment management for educational leaders interested in propelling their admissions careers; MBAs in leadership and business ethics for those who aspire to an corporate watchdogs; or forensic nursing, programs, which allow current RNs to specialize in an exciting, growing field.

Next time you're considering a new career, just watch the evening news and you'll see why there is a growing demand in such extreme fields that make our world just a little bit safer.

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