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Why I Waited to Go to Graduate School

Six Industries and Seven Years Later: Why I Waited to Go to Graduate School

Posted March 25, 2016 by Sarah Ham - Senior Manager, Marketing Communications - AACSB International

You know that question they always ask you in job interviews—the one about why you’re transitioning from one industry (or career) to the next? One of the most common answers is, “I’m a life-long learner,” which then turns into a conversation about how you’re constantly trying new things, thanks to your natural curiosity and desire to succeed. How many of you have responded that way—and meant it?

I have. And that’s why I waited seven years to go back for my master’s degree.

Higher education had always been important to me, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to focus on or what my natural abilities were. I didn’t want to get an MBA or master’s degree just to have one; I wanted to see where my career path would take me and discover the hidden talents that would surface in the process. There were so many different industries, disciplines, and degrees, how could I possibly choose one—or even begin the search for one?

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

After graduating with a BA in English from Flagler College, I started looking for work. Sure, I could spell like a champ and knew how to analyze all things Shakespeare, but those weren’t exactly the top skills most employers were looking for. So I took my first job at a law firm, where I reviewed cases and wrote summaries for attorneys. That lasted one year. It just wasn’t me.

I moved on and wrote for an e-commerce, e-health website—gaining more experience in business and the vital role communications plays in connecting an audience with an organization. Another career step took me to a completely different industry—power generation. There, I supported a team responsible for providing staffing to power generation suppliers installing turbines at power plants all around the world. In meetings, I heard that life-long learner in me asking more questions: How did they know when the next project was coming up? Which clients had the most needs right now, and which ones did we need to learn more about?

Those questions turned into new responsibilities, and I was soon leading the market research efforts to support sales and business development. I was hooked. I started to see where my natural curiosity—and my career—would ultimately take me. In a matter of a few short months, our business unit was developing new client relationships and establishing a database of projects that assisted in forecasting staffing needs three years into the future. We saw real results from the research and strategic thought we had put into the sales process.

It was an exciting time, sure. But professionally, I was starting to feel like I had pieces of a puzzle without the benefit of seeing the picture on the top of the box to know what I was putting together.

One more career step as a marketing manager at a large-format printing company, and I knew I was on to something. I was now in a position that enabled me to apply all that I’d learned up until that point (communications, market research, market segmentation) while enhancing my skills in branding and brand management, customer relationship management, advertising and promotions, and networking.

The puzzle started coming together, but in order to complete the picture of the career I was building in marketing, I needed to go back to school.

Confidence: The New School Supply

There’s something to be said about walking back into a college classroom after seven years as a working professional.

Rather than feeling nervous and insecure about what I didn’t know, I was armed with a professional confidence that came from the hands-on experience I’d gained in my career. During my time in different jobs, I had already justified a proposed marketing budget and learned the ins and outs of a new industry in order to segment an audience based on alternative energy wind farms or coal-fired power plants. I chose to pursue a specialized degree—a Master’s of Science in marketing at the University of Tampa in Florida—and quickly found that my professional experience was one of the single most important “school supplies” I possessed. I knew what questions I’d need to ask and how to think not only creatively but strategically. I felt assured I would get much more out of my experience than I would have if I’d transitioned directly from undergrad to a master’s program.

Still working full time and supporting myself, the idea of taking on another responsibility felt daunting. There were many long days (and nights) ahead of me, a lot of group meetings in local cafes, and numerous weekends lost to building engaging presentations. My classes were filled with students just like me—and nothing like me. Diverse backgrounds, wide ranges of professional experience and industries, and varying degrees of teamwork gave way to a cohesive, collaborative cohort determined to master the discipline of marketing. We brought our day jobs into our night classes and applied our ideas to the principles and foundations of business and marketing. Conversations, debates, and discussions were richer, thanks to our collective experience.

Many of us had “been there, done that,” but we wanted to learn new ways to be there, to do that.

Worth the Wait

Pursuing any advanced degree takes an extraordinary commitment, and the only way to be successful is to focus on what inspires you. In the six industries and seven years leading up to the pursuit of my master’s degree, my career compass pointed to marketing, and my personal interests kept me there.

The syllabus on my desk and the books in my bag held the foundations of marketing and business critical to understanding how each depends on the other. I had to be curious. I had to be open. I had to be ready to apply my professional experiences—the successes and the mistakes—into the core concepts of business with professors who continually pushed me to the next level. Were you right about those rebranding ideas? Did you approach CRM the best way? How else could you have positioned that message to resonate with the target audience?

If you’re a working professional and considering going back to school, my advice to you is this: take your time. Be thoughtful in your approach, and respect the experience you’ve earned by applying it to a program at a school brings out the best in you.

What you learn on the job today will enrich your time in the classroom tomorrow.