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Follow the supermodel off the catwalk to find the path to success

Christy Turlington was only 14, and still wearing braces on her teeth, when she was spotted by a California photographer. The rest is legend: surrendering her dream of becoming an architect, she signed up with an agency at 17, and was immediately launched into the modelling stratosphere alongside Naomi Campbell with whom she shared an apartment.

She graced catwalks in the world's most exotic clothes, but found modelling too public so, like Liz Hurley, she moved into advertising - ultimately becoming the 'face of Calvin Klein'.

So, with a fortune of £14 million, a Greenwich Village town house, and rewards far outstripping anything that she could have hoped for as an architect, why did the face of the Eternity and Contradiction perfumes sign up at New York University for a Liberal Arts degree course? And how can she find greater pleasure in the simple cap and gown that she wore recently to mark her graduation than she did wearing fashion's finest garments? What do classrooms have over catwalks?

Well, for Turlington it was to do with self esteem and a feeling of denial: 'I don't have a sense of pride and completion after a modelling shoot - whereas I do when I've written an essay. I get very impatient with the thought of everything I could have learned.'

And what of David Lister, BAA's operational planning manager at Heathrow who already has a business-studies degree; or Robert Thompson, a principal quantity surveyor and co-ordinating consultant with Birmingham Design Services; or Stephen Bradley who qualified as an architect in 1981, and then returned to education in the early 90s to do a business-studies course before joining DEGW?

Why do they each find the desire and energy to return to education mid- career, joining the likes of Alan Brown, partner in a 17-strong office specialising in schools; or Sue Carmichael, of the Liverpool practice Brock Carmichael Associates, senior lecturer at John Moores University.

Joining them and course directors John Worthington and Paul Nicholson for a session of their MA course in 'Design Brief Management', I found three essential answers: first, a shared desire for continuing self-improvement; second (but applicable only to some 'students') the ambition to broaden cvs in terms of job and career development; but most importantly, the universal desire to inform their respective places of work, and through that to improve the contribution of their organisations to the service of their 'clients' in both the narrow and widest sense of that term.

We debated the value of formalised, focused, continuing education. Paul Nicholson gave a great talk on 'team roles' and Worthington was . . . well, he was vintage Worthington - provocative, inspiring, generous, persuasive and sharp as razors. These contributions were complemented by an extraordinarily varied range of accounts, or case studies, that the students were able to give based on their own experiences.

I outlined the tremendous value to me, and my practice, of my own mid- career sojourn at the Bartlett where I did an MPhil - three years of day release. Hard work but fantastic!

And we all agreed that it was the time away from our offices, the time for reflection, the richness of debate, and the discipline of structured and focused study, that was to each of us, in different ways, so rewarding.

The Worthington/Nicholson course runs under the postgraduate programme at Sheffield University School of Architecture where Jeremy Till has just taken over as head. It's a two year modular programme, but you can join at any stage.

If you haven't done such a course, think about it! The benefits are tremendous. (riba president-elect Marco Goldschmied did a masters in project management and found it invaluable.)

Christy Turlington plans to further distance herself from modelling with a masters. If you run an office, think about the added value to your organisation if you persuaded - even financed - one of your mid-career staff to do one. Or perhaps give it a try yourself. You'll not regret it!

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