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Career advice for the ages

Ken Utzinger (MA ’94) calls himself a slow starter.

“In December 2019, 52 years after graduating high school, 31 years after my first bachelor’s degree and 25 years after my master’s degree from DU, I received my doctor of physical therapy,” writes the 71-year-old, who has retired three times and recently started a fourth career.

It took him years to hit his stride, and he has made mistakes along the way, but he has acquired some career wisdom that’s worth sharing. “It’s OK to make mistakes. Just don’t keep making the same mistake,” he says.

Utzinger’s career began in 1969 after he flunked out of Wyoming’s Casper College with a dismal 0.867 GPA. To avoid being sent to Vietnam, he joined the Navy, but was sent to Vietnam nonetheless as a radioman from 1971–72.

He stayed in the Navy for eight years, the last four as a recruiter. When he left active duty, he still didn’t know what he wanted to do. He found success selling computers in the early 1980s, but the work was hard, and the hours were long. As a single parent with a young daughter, Utzinger wanted a career where he didn’t rely on commissions. That’s when he decided to become a physical therapist.

“When I applied to the University of Colorado to the PT department, the first time I applied they said, ‘Ken, your GPA isn’t high enough.’ They turned me down,” Utzinger says. So, he went back to school to raise his GPA, and at the age of 40, he earned a bachelor’s in athletic training from what was then Metropolitan State College in 1988.

With his new degree in hand, he decided to get a master’s in exercise science. Admission to the CU Boulder program remained elusive, but a University of Denver professor with expertise in athletic amenorrhea convinced him to attend DU.

Utzinger was working on his master’s at DU when classes started for the PT program at CU Boulder. After a 10-mile run along Cherry Creek, he returned home to find his phone ringing. It was the secretary for Boulder’s physical therapy department.

“She said, ‘Hey Ken, it’s Cheryl. You made it,’” Utzinger recalls.

“Someone had been accepted but decided not to go. It was the first day of classes and he just didn’t show up,” he adds. “So, they went down the list, and the first person to answer the phone and say they can be there in an hour was getting into school.

“I got into [the] school by the hair of my chinny chin chin,” he says.

Utzinger earned a bachelor’s in physical therapy from the University of Colorado School of Health Sciences Center in 1990 and began a new career as a physical therapist in the U.S. Army at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. He completed his master’s in sports sciences and physical education from DU in 1994.

Utzinger likes the way the Army does physical therapy, describing it as a unique patient care setting. He left active duty in 1995 but stayed in the Army Reserves.

Utzinger moved to Odessa, Texas, to teach at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and opened a physical therapy clinic. He met his wife and settled down. Then came September 11, 2001.

“After the twin towers fell, and they were planning Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Army National Guard in Washington state wanted to take their own physical therapist. I submitted a packet and actively campaigned to get that position. The Army had never sent a physical therapist into a combat zone before,” Utzinger says.

In 2004, at the age of 54, Utzinger went to Iraq as a physical therapist at a military base with 18,000 troops from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. He was there for 367 days. “It was simultaneously the worst year of my life and the best year of my life,” he says.

“There was enough business to keep five PTs busy full time. We had one PT, one PT assistant and one part-time massage therapist to help us. And we saw 50 patients every day,” Utzinger recalls. “It was machine gun therapy. We worked 7 a.m. to 6:45 p.m. (because chow hall closed at 7:00) six days a week and eight hours on Sunday.”

His job was to keep soldiers with injuries that didn’t require hospitalization from leaving Iraq. “Most injuries in a combat zone are people loading up a truck and dropping something on their foot. Or lifting something and hurting their back.” Before, no one treated sprained ankles, and soldiers were sent back to the states for treatment, he says.

The work was taxing, and Utzinger was grateful for the support of his physical therapy assistant.

“[He] kept me from falling apart. The last two months I was physically exhausted, emotionally drained. He was the one that kept us together. It was just a hard job,” he says, noting that he would do it again if asked. He was awarded a Bronze Star for his time in Iraq.

Back in Odessa, Utzinger continued with his clinic until retiring in 2009. He came out of retirement three days later and worked for a friend for another two years before moving to Fort Worth, where he joined Alcon Laboratories as a full-time physical therapist.

That’s when he decided it was time to go back to school. Again.

“I earned the GI bill when I was in the Army, and it’s worth $80,000 of education. I couldn’t give it to my kids. It was use it or lose it,” he says. He completed his doctor of physical therapy degree from the University of Saint Augustine for Health Sciences in 2019.

Today, Utzinger is starting a new business, the Fort Worth-based Runner Repair Shop, where he provides physical therapy to runners. He’s a marathoner himself and says most runner injuries are from overuse due to poor running mechanics. “If a tiny thing in their running mechanic is off, they beat on it forever,” he says.

“A patient may say, ‘My right ankle hurts.’ The reason why is because you have a problem with your left knee,” he explains. “You’re limping on your left knee and landing hard on your right ankle. So, three therapists have all worked on your ankle. Did anybody work on your knee? Let me fix your knee and your ankle will get better.”

Utzinger says he has a knack for movement and can watch someone walk into a room and know what’s bothering them.

In the past year, Utzinger has earned a doctorate, completed his 71st marathon and started a new business. What’s next?

“I need to get faster,” he says, his mind on the granddaddy of all marathons. “When I went back to get my doctorate, I slowed down a lot,” he says. “The test of a really good runner is to qualify for Boston, so I’m running harder now … so I can run for Boston.”

It’s never too late for a career change

Thinking of transitioning to a new career after 50? Cindy Hyman, director of alumni career and professional development, offers these tips:

The first step for mid- to late-career changers is to determine your non-negotiables.

Networking is a critical road to job search success. Once you’ve identified your job requirement, try the following:

Alumni Career and Professional Development offers resources and programs for alumni of all ages going through a career transition. Many career and professional development events will be held at the new Burwell Center for Career Achievement.

The third annual DU Career Skills Conference will be held virtually January 25-29, and will feature a variety of job search and professional development topics. This includes a webinar, Age Strong Workforce: Positioning 50+ Job Seekers for Success, on how to overcome some of the specific hurdles older workers can face during a career transition.

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