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From public relations to historian and historic preservation specialist.

Richard Brandi
Richard Brandi
Richard Brandi has returned to school to pursue a master’s degree in historic preservation. Starting his rebooting journey from a base in public relations, he discovered that this field embodied many of his long-time personal interests and provided the perfect avenue for reinvention. Here’s Richard’s story:

My happy life as an independent public relations consultant abruptly ended with the dotcom meltdown in early 2001. I couldn’t afford to retire and I didn’t want to.  I had 20-plus years of experience in corporate communications but wasn’t too keen to do that again.

I began to think about what I wanted do. In the meantime, I joined a mutual fund company and then a large software company doing corporate communications work while I was exploring my interests. 

I had a friend who was training to become a psychologist after a career as a dancer. I asked him why he was making such a big change. Among other reasons, he said he wanted a job he could do when he was no longer able to dance, and had always been interested in psychology. He said going back to school was a sacrifice — not having a new car and not seeing your friends very much — but that it was the only way he could change careers.

I had always been interested in architecture, building remodeling, history, World War II, city planning, and photography but never pursued them. So I took classes and volunteered at several architectural organizations and historical societies to learn what they were about.

As a result, I produced a neighborhood walking tour, become a San Francisco tour guide and a docent on the USS Hornet (a famous Navy aircraft carrier that is now a museum and national historical landmark in Alameda, CA), took photographs of historic or threatened buildings, and wrote several articles and a book about San Francisco’s history and architecture.

While this was happening I discovered the field of historic preservation and it seemed to embody all the things I liked to do: work with public controversies and city planning issues, get out of an office from time to time and see things being built and designed, and be able to research and study history.

Also, I found I liked piecing together bits of evidence and discovering how things got built, who built them, and why. Historic preservation is also a large field with many different kinds of jobs. I also found I like “public history,” which is sharing history with the public.

I also decided I wanted a degree in historic preservation. Although I found it was possible to enter the field without a degree, I personally like to learn the principles and theory of something as well as the practice.

Without a background in either architecture or history, I felt I needed the education. Most of the colleges offering historic preservation degrees are in the midwest or east coast. But the thought of renting or selling my house, giving up a well paying job, and moving 3,000 miles to live in a dorm didn’t appeal to me.  

Fortunately, I found a well-regarded limited residency masters degree program at Goucher College in Baltimore, MD, that would take 4-5 years to complete. By then, I would be old enough to draw on a small pension and would have paid down the mortgage so I’d have the financial flexibility to enter a (much) lower-paying field.  

But I was laid off from the corporate job after only a year into the masters program. Then it occurred to me, could I get a job now in some aspect of historic preservation to see what it’s like? 

I landed a job in one of the best known historic architecture firms in San Francisco, largely on the strength of my volunteer experience and the Goucher program. I already knew how to do the work and could immediately produce results. I found I loved it and decided to make it my next career --- four years ahead of schedule!  So now I’m consulting in both public history and historic preservation.

Benefits of rebooting: Doing work that is more personally interesting than the corporate work and making more of a contribution.  

Biggest obstacle: The uncertainty of how to pick what you want to do and the fear whether it will be all that you hoped for.  

Best advice I received: Friends told me to take the historic preservation job offer even though the money was very low. It turned out to be a great learning experience on several levels.  

Advice I would give: Explore your interests while keeping an open mind and your day job. More school is not always the answer but it may help. There’s no rush to find something. Ask knowledgeable people in your field of interest for advice and information. There is no risk trying new things, especially when you volunteer. If one path doesn’t click, try another. If this sounds overwhelming, it’s not if you are exploring the things you like or are curious about.

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