When I’m asked about the biggest difference between school and work, my answer is always the same… Money and politics!
Early in your career, you’ll discover that money and politics influence every aspect of a project. This can be a bit surprising at first, since you likely won’t learn much about either in school.
Every project has a budget. When a client requests work, we (and other competing firms) tell them how much it’ll cost, and how long it’ll take. Generally, this overall fee is broken down by specific tasks and phases (such as these), with hours assigned to each task. For example, you may have 10 hours assigned to “background research.” If you have 20 documents to review (i.e. policies, plans and guidelines, previous studies, etc.) you’ll only have time to skim each (don’t worry, you’ll learn quickly where the important bits are hidden).
This approach carries for every task, including preparing plans, writing reports, etc. They all have a fee attached, and when a (good) Project Manager asks you to do them, they’ll tell you how long to spend. This is quite different than a typical school project, where you can devote as much or as little time as you like (depending on your social life, and/or keener-status).
So how does this translate to the work you’ll be doing? Does it mean you have to do a crappy job on projects with a small budget? Nope! It just means you do the best job within the budget available – which can be a surprisingly fun challenge. Instead of beautiful original renderings (which cost a fortune), you may have to look for a series of beautiful precedent photos that inspire and tell your story.
Most importantly, limited budgets mean you have to plan your approach carefully before starting a task to ensure you’re not spinning your wheels, or heading in the wrong direction.
But what if you go over budget?
Sometimes tasks (and subsequently entire projects) go over budget. It’s impossible to avoid. Planning projects are volatile, and almost always veer from the original plan. Maybe more meetings are needed than originally thought, or additional design scenarios required. In these cases, the key is to be proactive and open with your client. Let them know when tasks are outside of the agreed upon scope. Often, additional money can be provided, or future tasks removed to cover the difference. In many cases, realizing a request is outside of the original scope, clients will simply say nevermind.
But wait, you said money and politics…
That’s right. Remember when I said Planning projects are volatile? That’s often due to politics. Depending on the sensitivity of the project, this can range from a minor inconvenience (i.e. additional meetings) to a major catastrophe (i.e. project deadline being shortened by months to precede an election, or to meet new funding deadlines). In extreme cases (i.e. new Mayor), entire projects may be unexpectedly cancelled.
There you have it. This is my thoughts on the biggest difference between school and work. And while it sounds a bit daunting, and will be a bit of an adjustment, money and politics provide a great reality check, and encourage you to continually explore and refine your approach to projects.