The Importance of Self-Propelled Education

USGIF Vice President of Professional Development Dr. Darryl Murdock shares ideas for how to take ownership of your continuing education


Dr. Darryl Murdock

Dr. Darryl Murdock is USGIF’s vice president of professional development and pens this monthly column dedicated to GEOINT training, education, certification, and more. Murdock is leading the establishment of USGIF’s Universal GEOINT Certification Program.

How someone becomes educated is a fascinating topic. We are all familiar with our respective educational systems around the world. Some good, some better, some woefully inadequate. There is currently a hot debate in the U.S. about the value of public education at both the K-12 and collegiate levels. But one thread is unmistakable—ownership of one’s educational outcome is the key to success.

Consider the 16th U.S. President, Abraham Lincoln. He was, except for a few short stints in primary school, self-educated. Lincoln became a lawyer and was a self-described life-long learner. His is a great study in self-motivated ownership of one’s own education as he continued to read, learn, and discuss throughout his life. Lincoln was a surveyor then respected lawyer before entering politics, where he was quickly recognized as the go-to person to draft legislation because of his knowledge of state and federal law as well as his ability to write.

So, how does a life-long learner measure his or her self during a lifetime of learning?  There are a number of assessment options. Testing is one we all know. High-stakes testing is de rigor for most professional certifications. “High-stakes” refers to jobs and/or promotions dependent on an individual passing a respective test. Well-known examples of careers that involve high-stakes testing include the medical profession (nursing certifications, specialty boards), lawyers (bar exams), and surveyors.

During my undergraduate studies, a student could “test out” of a specific course, meaning they would be given credit for having taken the course if they demonstrated via testing they already possessed the knowledge. The student would be allowed, therefore, to take a higher-level course of the same topic.

I’m probably not the poster child for this concept because I tested out of standard math into advanced calculus—coming from a rural high school without AP programs and having never taken introductory calculus. Yet I found myself in advanced calculus, primarily because I was a good test-taker. After struggling mightily for two months I returned to the standard math course. As a result of what I experienced, I know testing alone is not the long-term answer.

So, other than testing, what else can be done to ensure we learn what is necessary? Mentoring programs, both formal and informal, are a great way to level-set one’s experience and knowledge base. A good mentor helps you take stock of your current capabilities and design a plan to achieve your goals. And a mentor can speak truth to your internal power by pointing out your weaknesses. If you don’t have a current mentor, you would be well served to seek one. Make a list of three to five people you respect and possibly know either well or semi-well. Rank this short list. Then call or meet with (don’t email) the first one and make a polite yet direct ask. Most good folks will be flattered by the opportunity to share their experience and knowledge with an interested party. And most folks have never been asked to be a mentor. They might mentor informally, but dimes to donuts, they have never been asked.

But, just having someone agree to be a mentor is not enough. You actually need to “interview” your possible mentor. Do your homework and come prepared with some form of agreement with the mentor about roles and responsibilities.

The following are some other potential ways to seek self-education:

  • Regularly attend conferences and seminars. You should attend one every other month, or about six per year. Attending formal educational foundation, academic, or trade association symposia or conferences is essential not only to hear technical, policy, and programmatic advances and ongoing work and research, but also to meet and socialize with peers.
  • Enroll in short-classes (one day/evening per week for several weeks or one to three days in a row) on topics of interest. You will learn and retain more if you take classes on topics for which you have an interest.
  • Enroll in collegiate certificate programs. If you already have a college degree, consider studying a topic of interest for which you can earn a collegiate certificate. For example, many universities, such as some of those accredited by USGIF, allow you to earn an academic certificate in geospatial intelligence without being required to enroll in a degree program.
  • Seek to learn about, gain skills for, and earn another non-high-stakes professional designations (such as PMP, software, or similar technical certifications). If you desire to hold a certain type of position, such as project manager, these types of credentials may be needed just to get your foot in the door.
  • Create and host book clubs concentrating on topics of interest to the group.  Yep, this still works.
  • Join Toastmasters. It is amazing what types of relationships you can build while learning how to speak in front of an audience.
  • Join educational foundations and trade associations. These types of organizations hold lunch-and-learn sessions as well as other periodic presentations and discussions.

The bottom line is that you—and no one else—are responsible for your career path and level of achievement. What motivates and propels you is unique. And your path will also be unique. If you don’t like what you are doing, try something else. If you constantly seek to improve, you will do just fine.

My undergraduate class motto sums it up best: “For Excellence We Strive.” It isn’t “For Excellence We Achieve” because we should make a willful act of trying to improve.

Years ago, my son’s youth football coach had a great team sendoff after every practice. What the players repeat follows in parentheses: “I will (I WILL) get better (GET BETTER) each day (EACH DAY).” It was a great motto from a great coach and mentor. What one act will you take today to make yourself better?

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of the Interior


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