I began my career working for a college, working in public relations, without any prior experience. After approximately three years of on-the-job learning, I enrolled in school in the evenings and obtained a Masters degree in Marketing while maintaining my public relations job. About a year later, I returned to graduate school during the evenings to obtain my Master in Business Administration.
For many successful public relations practitioners, graduate degrees in business disciplines are not part of the typical career trajectory. But for those considering obtaining one, hopefully, my experience provides you some insights on what is a significant, and potentially life-changing, decision.
Why I Went To Graduate School
I started my first job, as a Public Relations specialist – drafting copy, press releases, and just about anything else that needed to be written, in 2002, fresh out of undergraduate school. I’d been an English major and had gone to college because it was expected, without any real plan for the future. I still remember waking up the day after graduation, horribly hungover from that last get-together with my boys, wondering why it was so bright. My father had opened the blinds and was repeating my name over and over. When I had forced myself to sit up and look sufficiently awake, my father asked me, “Well, what are you going to do for work?” That hit me like a freight train, as I really did not know. I’d spent the past four years working in fits and starts on the Great American Novel, working part-time for spending money, finding and losing love, chasing passing grades a month before finals, and little else. It was the height of the early 2000s recession: we were at war, and dealing with both a whipsawing Dow, and a weak job market. It took me six months to find a job, in part because I had not started pre-graduation, nor strategically sought internships or employment while in college that would have put me on a path towards gainful employment. I was lucky to find the job that I did, and swore to myself then that I would not take it, not future opportunities for professional advancement for granted.
After taking a few undergraduate classes at a local community college to burnish a less-than-stellar academic record (as suggested by several solid MBA admissionsguides), I decided to apply for a Masters in Marketing at a local college, as I felt I needed a greater academic grounding in marketing theory and practice to enhance my work which, as a generalist, had expanded to include branding, media buying, advertising, and direct marketing work.
Obtaining a Masters of Marketing
While I had begun my career without any real experience in my field, I had entered my Masters program with three years of experience under my belt. The confidence I felt in my own abilities as a marketer by the time of my admission had already substantially improved from my first day on the job. By the time I graduated I had approximately four and a half years total of professional experience, and one promotion, under my belt. So my perception of the range of my own professional capabilities did not widely expand during this period.
In sum, I found obtaining the Masters in Marketing benefited me in the following ways:
It allowed me a deep dive into the theories and practice of marketing. I found the insights from my professors, many of whom were former practitioners, or adjuncts who maintained full-time professional employment in marketing, advertising or public relations, invaluable. There were a few MBA students in my classes, but a number of practitioners who, like me, were pursuing depth in the subject, rather than the more general and holistic business education an MBA could provide. Some were aspiring doctoral students, and some were passionate marketers. Their commitment to, and passion for, the discipline deeply informed my understanding of it.
It allowed me to explore at length the areas of marketing of particular relevance and interest to me. My program’s ten course requirement allowed me a deep dive into a variety of relevant marketing topics I found fascinating, if sometimes esoteric. I didn’t under-perform in my undergraduate studies because I did not like learning; quite the contrary. I simply focused more on social learning than academic learning. As I had matured quite a bit by this point and developed a deep appreciation for academic learning, I dove headfirst into textbooks and projects, and likely drove my co-workers crazy with newly learned jargon the morning after each class.
It expanded my range of marketing knowledge beyond just traditional public relations. My job had expanded, and while I had been able to fake-the-entry-level-work-til-I-made-it, I was, at that time, doing higher level work which required more effort and understanding in order to perform properly.
It gave me some limited insights into public relations as a part of the range of business disciplines (though not nearly as much as the MBA). Moreover, my ability to connect my work to other parts of my organization I knew was limited. Even though studying Marketing grounded some of my understanding of my public relations in other core business principles that my Marketing classes touched on, I still did not understand them enough to be able to explain, say, the financial impact of my work on the overall organization. This (and likely a bit of a masochistic streak) informed my ability to re-enroll in night school of an MBA.
While I enjoyed my Masters degree program, I’d definitely list the following as drawbacks for your consideration:
I felt pigeon-holed. I felt like I was better at what I did, but also felt, to some extent, that that was all I could do. My professional experience and academic background were now in a single arena, and, in my twenties, I did not know whether I wanted to work in the field for the rest of my life.
It did not enhance my knowledge significantly in public relations. Simply put, a Marketing degree in Marketing is a marketing degree in Marketing and a Marketing degree in Public Relations is a Marketing degree in Public Relations. A relatively cursory scan of many Masters degree in Marketing departments reveals relatively few course offerings in public relations, so while I would have liked to take a couple more courses in that area, they simply were not available.
I still had general business knowledge gaps. Many of the marketing classes alluded to more fundamental business and economic concepts that I still did not understand. These were terms I heard at work as well, and while I looked them up, there’s a huge difference between the online dictionary definition of the word microeconomics and taking a class in it.
It did not heighten my credibility at work: Further, I did not feel as if I was perceived any differently. I did not go to graduate school looking for a credential to imbue me with any enhanced perceived authority or credibility, just knowledge. But considering that my MBA did just that, whereas my Masters did not, I would not suggest a Masters in marketing if enhanced credibility is a desired outcome.
The smaller program made networking harder. Even in night school, you tend to take core MBA courses in cohorts, whether maintaining a full-time or part-time schedule. Masters degree students have a few core courses, and their pick of the remainder. There were generally fewer familiar faces in the non-core marketing classes. In the core marketing class, many of the students knew each other, having already taken courses together. A significant benefit of business school is networking; this made networking a bit trickier.
Obtaining a Masters In Business Administration
Some of the main benefits I’ve found from obtaining my MBA as a public relations practitioner:
Increased credibility: There was a noticeable shift in the recommendations I made at work even before I graduated. Perhaps it was because my recommendations had more quantitative heft than they had had before, perhaps my growing knowledge and rising self-confidence elicited a certain deference from co-workers, and perhaps it was, to some extent, the credibility of the credential. In any case, while people were not going out of their way to solicit my advice, some co-workers now noticeably gave my recommendations more weight than they had previously.
Balance sheets were no longer intimidating: Being able to work properly assess my organization’s financial position not only helped me determine the initiatives recommended to leadership, but how to sell them effectively – especially ones with a price tag.
Collaborative work becomes a bit easier. This may not be true if you work for a firm with a rigorous internal training program and effective courses in collaborative work. I did not. But by the end of the first year with nearly a dozen group assignments under my belt, not to mention management courses that covered theory and best practices for collaborative work, I had a much better handle on managing group projects and achieving needed outcomes.
Night school allowed me to instantly apply what I learned the next day. This was a benefit of both programs, but more so the MBA as its broader base of information allowed me to apply my studies to a broader range of applications.
There were not too many drawbacks, besides sleep deprivation, during this period. The MBA was far more challenging, especially as some of these topics were completely new to me. The one drawback I’d note, and it’s relatively minor, is:
Not being able to explore my major as deeply as I would have been able to in a Masters program: My MBA major was Computer Information systems, as by this time I was overseeing a web services department and had developed an interest in technology. While I had seven courses between major requirements and electives I could take, it felt inadequate for a field as expansive as business technology. Further, now that I had a fuller understanding of the scope of business, there were other classes outside of my major that I really, really wanted to take. A business graduate program is not built for exploration like an undergraduate liberal arts degree is.
Other Considerations for Pursuing Graduate Business School
Part-Time vs. Full-Time Experience
I can’t compare the experience to attending an MBA program full-time, but I can say I found the ability to directly apply many of the concepts I learned to my work literally the next day immensely fulfilling. I would have liked to have spent more time with my classmates, as well as been able to take advantage of graduate extracurriculars. However, neither program was all work; we often managed to find the time to take classes til 9, meet until 10 and grab a drink at a corner bar for a minute, before heading home.
Cost is a major consideration. MBAs, especially those at top-rated universities, are expensive. Some of the more prestigious and well-known firms will pay, or reimburse you, for educational expenses upon completion of what’s known as an Educational Assistance Agreement, or a Tuition Reimbursement Agreement. Usually such a contract stipulates that you must obtain a degree in a field directly related to the firm’s needs, maintain a certain minimum grade point average, and agree to work for the firm for a certain number of years after graduation. Five years is a common period of time in such agreements. Such agreements are not particularly common in the public relations industry, and even when they are available, they are often difficult to take advantage of given the nature of the work. I remember one human resources representative for a well-known agency told me flat out that it was rare for employees to leave before 7:00pm, so even though they offered 100% tuition reimbursement, she could count on one hand the number of employees who took advantage of it. I count myself lucky. What my first employer lacked in internal training opportunities – it had none, it made up for in full-tuition reimbursement after a year’s employment.
Full-time study may be necessary, if you are on the agency-side which makes cost an even bigger consideration, especially as there are typically fewer scholarship dollars available for MBA students than for other graduate degree disciplines. Loans are an option, but a risk, as MBAs are not necessarily seen as an indicator of excellence in the public relations field, especially on the agency side. Demonstrated success, prestige of brands you’ve worked with, and portfolios (especially for creatives), are considered more accurate gauges of talent; however MBAs may be considered more highly if, post-graduation, you are looking to work in-house for a firm’s public relations shop. Further, many graduate school salary studies indicate that alumni with MBAs in Marketing tend to make a bit less than their colleagues who studied, and work in, finance or any other MBA major. You want to make sure you have a solid financial game plan with realistic projections for post-salary income, especially if you plan to forgo a salary for a two-year MBA program.
After spending nearly a decade and a half doing communications work, I now work in government relations. However, I still dabble in communications work, as an active freelancer. I'm also a husband and proud father of two boys.