Career change at 41

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    I’ve been a 3D graphics artist for over 20 years and considering retraining as a Landscape Architect, having been accepted into a two-year MLA conversion program in the UK.  But before I do so, I am wondering, is it too late to change career at my age – do most practices look for younger graduates?  What are the employment prospects in the UK, and do LAs make much money at Senior level?  Typically, how long does it take to acquire senior status?  

    Do you enjoy the work?

    Opinions are most welcome.

    Thank you.

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    If I were in your position I would bypass the MLA degree and the “normal” LA career path by working as an independent self employed subcontractor specializing in graphic rendering for LA offices.

    It is generally a slow moving career path. My assumption is that you are attracted to it because it is a good way to apply your graphic abilities.


    Hello Gia;

    20 yrs. of 3D graphic design experience is very substantial, in deed….and should open many doors of opportunity for you….even at age 41.

    I’m not sure that an MLA would be the way I would go.  I would think there are many TOP LA firms who would be very interested in considering bringing you and your 3D graphic talents on board.  IMO, many LAs are competent “designers”, but, can’t do 3D graphics.  

    Also, it’s my understanding, that most MLA programs are mostly “research” oriented….and are maybe taken “after” a person earns their undergraduate degree in Landscape Architecture.  Plus, you have to consider the “costs” to earn that MLA and the (2) yrs. to earn it.  Andrew is correct, a typical LA career path is…..slow.

    In the U.S… understanding of LA salaries now are…..entry level to 7 yrs. ($40,000.00 to $55,000.00). When LAs get in the 30 year experience level….they’re looking at $100,000.00 and up.

    But, you have a unique talent…..that many LAs don’t have. I think, I would try “shopping” my talents to LA firms.  I haven’t seen your Portfolio, but, 20 yrs. of 3D graphics is a LOT.  I just don’t believe you will have any problems marketing your talents now.

    In my case….I was 41 yrs. old when I went out on my own, as an LA.  Though, I had approx. 13 years of experience practicing Landscape Architecture.  But, no way can I do perspectives or 3D graphics like you.  

    My best guess would be….that an annual salary (for you & your skills/talent) at a TOP LA firm could get you somewhere between $80,000.00 & $100,000.00 today.  You really wouldn’t need to be an LA or have an LA degree…as long as you had a strong Portfolio in 3D graphics….that should seriously open many doors for you.

    And, as Andrew has suggested….you “could” also  provide 3D Graphic Design services to several LA firms… a freelance professional.


    J. Robert (Bob) Wainner

    Mark Di Lucido

    Perspective from the other side of the pond . . . I’m guessing you’re mid-40s which is certainly not too late to retrain. Mid-50s might be pushing it. I can’t speak to how it’s done in the UK, but in the U.S. there’s a tendency to hire younger workers, in part because they learn applications faster (a little bit of irony here because you already have skills using many graphic art apps). LA’s just starting in an office usually produce construction drawings using Autocad or similar apps. Most of us that have gone through this would agree it’s pretty tedious and mind-numbing, and I’d bet it’d be especially so for you because you’ve been on the sharp end of the pencil for many years (read: you’re already a designer except in another field). With your proven graphic skills you’d have to be assertive and tell potential employers you want to do LA design; otherwise you may get pigeon-holed into doing what you’re ostensibly trying to get away from. Remember, employers think about how a potential employee benefits them, and many will see your skills as providing their firm with the ability to produce renderings of their LA designs much cheaper than they can outsource.

    Andrew’s suggestion about being a subcontractor is good but also consider talking to small LA firms about possible partnership tracks.

    Most LAs enjoy the work if they’re designing. If in production, not so much.

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    My comments are pretty much based on some of the same reasoning Mark has. Like in any other business, an employer in the LA field hires in order to fill needs. Usually that is in production rather than in creative design. One lead designer can do an awful lot of projects through production staff making the need to hire or train “designers” rather low.

    My belief is that you are likely to be pigeon holed into the same position whether you are hired today with your current skill set or after the time, effort, and expense of gaining an MLA.

    If you want to eventually be a licensed landscape architect and self employed I would recommend an BLA because you will learn the parts of landscape architecture that your design experience has not taught you. You will learn to think like an LA from the many hours of studio work that you will not get in a MLA program in my opinion.  If you already have a undergraduate degree, you should be able to get through it in 3 years.

    Craig Richmond, RLA

    I pretty much agree with what everyone has said so far. I’ve been a big cheerleader for those interested in entering Landscape Architecture. It wouldn’t be impossible to be successful, but it will be very hard at 41. I don’t know how rigorous LA programs are in the UK, but I think most US programs are still pretty intense. I couldn’t imagine pulling all-nighters for design studio, studying and taking the licensing exam as a mature person. It nearly killed me when I was in my twenties. But, I believe if you have the ability to create and are committed, you’ll breeze through the education phase. I believe that being older has some advantages in the academic environment.

    If you are really serious about LA and you’re getting into it late in life, I would work towards getting the degree, getting experience, license, a couple more years of experience, then go out on your own and start a design/build company. The biggest catch is that if you don’t know how to sell, you’d better learn while you’re in school and working for someone else. Being entrepreneurial is probably the best way for you to fast track your career. 

    Andrew is absolutely correct about the need for studio time. Going through a good grinding design studio can make the difference between an LA being able to be a designer or a production/administrative type. No offense, but I never get excited about drawing construction details, writing proposals or some long drawn-out report.

    Joey Donovan

    Hi Gia Sadhwani

    Just thought I’d chime in as a fellow UK resident. I studied in Greenwich, London, on both BA and postgraduate courses. I considered myself a mature student when I started (I was 28), but there were a number of students older than, some in their early forties. They produced some of the best work, and yes, they did pull the all-nighters and put in crazy hours previous posters have mentioned.

    I moved to Vietnam once I completed my post grad so have little to say about the current state of the UK market now. However, I can say that of the students in your age group, many found full time employment in landscape architecture, whilst others have struggled. The difference tended to be connected to their backgrounds- those with backgrounds in horticulture, architecture or another design discipline (people like yourself) were snapped up, but those from unrelated disciplines seem to have found it more difficult. Those who have found employment straight away have also tended to progress much more rapidly than young(er) graduates.

    My advice would be to track down former mature students, either through your prospective university or through facebook/linkedin and get a bit of insider knowledge.

    Good luck!


    That was extremely helpful actually!  Many thanks for your reply.  

    Joey Donovan

    You’re welcome! I actually just checked up on a former colleague who recently attained a senior landscape architecture position, six years after attaining their masters degree. I will ask around and see if any of my former classmates are prepared to chime in with their advice!


    That would be incredibly helpful, thank you.  Especially if you hear from mature students at all!


    Great advise here, Joey.

    Since you have an MLA…’re in a better situation to discuss that issue for “Gia”.  My thinking is that….if a person does not have an undergraduate degree in “Landscape Architecture”…sometimes, that MLA degree will not provide the student with the necessary basic skills (design, grading, construction details, planting, autoCAD, sketchup, etc.).  That, many MLA programs are more “research” oriented…to enhance the undergraduate LA degree.

    My suggestion to anyone going for an MLA (who does NOT have an undergraduate degree in Landscape Architecture)….ensure that MLA program is either 2 or 3 yrs. long…and will have the necessary courses (as I mentioned above…than you tend to get in the undergraduate courses).  

    I agree with your thinking…that MLA candidates with “design backgrounds” will catch on to Landscape Architecture…..and have a much better chance of being a successful LA.  With Gia having 20 yrs. experience in 3D graphic arts….when she goes for her first LA job, I just don’t think she would be considered as an “entry level” candidate or be paid as one.

    I’m glad to see an LA in the UK jumped in her to help Gia… are in a better position than most of the rest of us to give her the best advise.


    J. Robert (Bob) Wainner


    Hi Craig;

    Though, I know you and I don’t agree “politically”, which is fine….I think we can agree to disagree on that issue.

    However, as (2) LAs, I believe you and I are on the SAME page here.

    Landscape Architecture has a “very steep learning curve”.  But, I don’t think it’s totally impossible to get an MLA and get into the LA profession….but, probably extremely difficult for those who don’t have an art or design background of some kind.  I think that MLA program (for someone with a degree in a different degree program) needs to be one that would have all of the necessary courses in “design, autoCAD, Sketch-upi, site grading, plant courses, etc…many of the courses you find in all of the Undergraduate 4 and 5 yr. degree programs.  But, I’m thinking too many MLA degree programs are geared more towards “research”….and sort of enhances a person’s Undergraduate LA degree.

    I chatted with a guy from Canada not long ago, who is a member of LAND8.  His undergraduate degree was not Landscape Architecture.  He earned a 2 yr. MLA degree, thinking it would teach him everything he would need to know to go out into the real world and land a good entry level LA job…but, he said, no way did that MLA degree program prepare him.  Now, he’s having to take additional courses (on the side)….design, autoCAD, plant materials, etc….to get up to speed.

    Knowing that Gia has 20 yrs. of experience in 3D graphic arts & 3D animation…my thinking here is that 95% of the LA firms she were to interview with (with or without an MLA)….those firms would want her for her expertise in 3D graphic rendering…..Doubt an LA firm would hire her to produce the traditional Landscape Architecture work, such as Design, Grading Plans, Planting Plans, Construction Design, Details, autoCAD, etc.  As, I believe that not all that many LAs are very good at producing “perspectives or 3D graphics”.   LA firms can find LAs with “traditional” design exp., who have an Undergraduate degree…in their late 20’s and their 30’s.  

    After all these yrs., I definitely am not good at  “perspectives or 3D graphics”…I have relied heavily on “2D color plan graphics” for presentations to my clients.

    And, this is definitely not a bad thing….but a plus.  I would think with 20 ys. of Graphic Arts exp., you wouldn’t join an LA firm at the “entry level” or at entry level pay.

    Craig….your advise here is very well stated!




    Let me blunt – getting started in LA is a young person’s game. I completed my MLA and started in LA in my early 30s and I found it impalatable. MLAs programs take what an undergrad BLA does and multiples it by 2. In essence, you complete over 100 graduate units in 3 years. Having done other graduate work, I can tell you that it doesn’t even compare to the intensity of a MLA. 

    And don’t blame the MLA as a subpar process – it’s not at all. You are by far more prepared to enter the workforce than a BLA. The problem is the student, not the process. As a graduate student, you’re more experienced, have higher expectations, and won’t accept any type of work just ‘because’. A 23 year old BLA graduate won’t think twice on being a CAD monkey, working for just over minimum wage, and putting in 12 hours a workday. A MLA grad would (should?) think twice about those working conditions.

    Each MLA program also has different expectations on what outcomes the student should have accomplished prior to graduation. The west coast LA academics tend to emphasis skillsets while the east coast LA academics tend to emphasis design/concept skillsets. Hard vs. soft design skills. The former will get you a job, but the later will make you successful as a LA (if you can get a job). And btw, almost all new LA graduates have fantastic 3d rendering skills – it’s a basic requirement for employment nowadays.

    I digress, none this may relate to UK LA academics. But if it’s at least a marginal correlation, I’d save yourself the heartache and pass on the MLA program. Do as everyone else suggests: advance your skillset as a LA rendering specialist.



    I do AGREE with what you stated in your last paragraph.  I really believe that, 95% of the LA firms Gia were to interview with would want potentially hire her to ONLY focus on 3D renderings…she has too much talent and expertise to be producing “other” LA drawings.

    As far as comparing an Undergraduate LA degree and an MLA….well, yes, I do agree that a (3) year, not (2) year MLA degree program would have a lot of upside to it.  In Gia’s case, I think she would be lookinat a (3) yr. MLA degree program.  But, I just don’t believe that an MLA grad. would necessarily be offered a higher “starting salary” than an undergraduate candidate.  I think it would really depend on the “quality” of that person’s “design portfolio”.  Everyone has to start at the bottom…..I just don’t believe any entry level LA position will allow you to by-bass a certain amount of “cad monkey” work, at least in the beginning.  It takes time, a lot of time, working for an LA firm to really understand the real world of Landscape Architecture.

    I think, most LA firms are going to want to pay as little as possible for “entry level” positions, regardless of your education.  But, very possibly, an MLA grad. will have the upper hand on most undergraduate LA’s….who are interviewing for the same position.  Just my opinion.



    (this is a first!) 100% agree. Doesn’t matter if you’re a BLA or a MLA, you will only be valued as an entry level draftsman (draftsperson), and you should expect to be making entry-level wages.

    For me, having had a fairly lucrative career prior to entering the LA industry, being paid poorly for hard work (that a 23 year old should be doing), wasn’t high on my list of things I wanted for my life. That’s why, I wouldn’t suggest a MLA for anyone over their early 20’s – the trajectory is just too slow, especially in today’s economy. Since most MLAs are a 3 year program, consider how old you’ll be when you get out – 44/45 is a tough age to be getting paid like you’re 20 all over again.

    Now let me throw another idea out at you: consider doing a MCP or a MUP instead. Much faster, much easier, no licensing requirements, planning has as good of a payscale if not better than LA, and your 3d work would be invaluable when doing large scale master planning (for private consultants). Also, most planners have very poor renderings skills which could make you a valuable addition. Just a thought… LA isn’t everything.

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