The nearly two-year journey that led me to Michigan State University’s Broad Graduate School of Management to pursue an MBA has been filled with numerous twists and turns and plenty of hurdles. MBA students bring with them a variety of experiences and backgrounds. There is no one type of MBA student, despite the fact that I previously believed the degree was only for financial wizards who had already made significant strides in their business career. I never imagined the MBA could be the right fit for someone whose talents leaned toward creativity and communications and who was still climbing the ladder at work.
Pursing an MBA was not part of my initial plan. The life of a foreign correspondent at a large metro newspaper was the goal at first. It was a job that sounded sophisticated and glamorous. In addition, it combined two of my greatest passions: travel and writing. As an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, I set my sights on obtaining a position in this coveted field. I quickly declared journalism as my major, and I wrote articles and columns for several student publications. After graduation, I landed a position as a staff writer at a small newspaper and was thrilled that I had taken an important step toward my career goals.
It was quickly apparent, however, that few industries were declining as rapidly as the newspaper business. Online content was booming and offered a crushing competitive edge. With circulation and sales numbers deflating, opportunities for advancement were scarce. After two years of covering municipal elections, attending countless school board meetings, and compiling numerous police beats, I accepted a position as a staff writer for a magazine that covered commercial real estate throughout the Midwest. Although I wasn’t jetting around the globe covering current events, I was still traveling and writing. But once again, the opportunities for advancement were not what I had hoped.
TASTE OF PUBLIC RELATIONS
I decided to redefine my career goals. Since I had developed a background in the commercial real estate industry, I was hired by a commercial real estate brokerage firm as part of the company’s public relations team. I was eager to expand my skill set beyond writing and reporting while still using my communication abilities. I was finally working in a more traditional business setting, and my responsibilities rapidly elevated.
This extraordinary opportunity led me to accept a marketing communications role for an integrated development and construction firm. In addition to honing my communications skills, I was now involved in several marketing and new business-development initiatives, such as website redesign, digital media, managing a corporate advertising program, and numerous direct mail campaigns.
Shortly after I joined the firm, the Great Recession pummeled the American economy. The company went through several rounds of layoffs and implemented numerous cost-cutting measures, including a mandatory pay cut for all employees. Although my career was advancing in this new role, I became uncertain of the company’s stability and what the future would hold if I remained in place. I began to seek other opportunities, but I noticed a trend in the requirements for many of the positions I coveted: An MBA was required or preferred.
The competition for jobs was fierce as unemployment climbed and more job seekers, unhappy with their current situations, were also searching for new positions. I managed to secure several offers, but the salaries and responsibility levels were not what I had expected. It became clear to me that if I didn’t have an MBA, the jobs and type of career I wanted would remain out of reach. Additionally, I enjoyed the commercial real estate field, but I had a desire to switch from business-to-business marketing to business-to-consumer marketing in a brand manager role. Typically, these employers wanted candidates who were already experienced in B-to-C marketing, and this developed into another roadblock.
I set my sights on obtaining an MBA, and the first step was, of course, taking the GMAT. I had been out of school for seven years, and I knew I would struggle to settle comfortably into “study mode,” so I enrolled in a class that met every Saturday morning for nine weeks. Having studied math on a limited basis in college, I found the quantitative portion of my studies difficult. I stuck it out, brushed up on the foundations of math online, and began to feel more confident in my abilities.
Studying for the GMAT was nothing short of grueling, and it was difficult to find the time with my demanding job and social obligations. I committed to studying on the train during my commute to and from the office, started working out on my lunch break instead of after work, and dedicated an additional two to three hours of studying in the evening. I cut back significantly on time with family and friends but still allowed myself one night a weekend for fun between Saturday and Sunday study sessions. For once in my life, I was actually thankful for the bitter cold Chicago winter that kept me inside with my study guides.
The class was instrumental in preparing me for test day. Taking the GMAT was one of the most difficult and challenging tasks I have ever endured, but is clearly a necessary evil for getting into business school. With the GMAT behind me, I was then faced with the decision of selecting the right school. I was completely overwhelmed with the choices and felt as though my research was leading me in circles. I finally decided to narrow my choices geographically at first, and from there I found programs that offered strong marketing tracks. I applied to two programs in Chicago and one out of state. When I was accepted to Michigan State University, I was thrilled. The program’s top-notch marketing curriculum and dedicated individualized career services were outstanding. In addition, from the moment I was accepted, I felt welcomed by the school and received the personalized attention I needed to make my decision.
After a visit to the campus, I could see that the curriculum and reputation of the business school met my expectations. I had my heart set on attending MSU. In addition to attending classes, however, I knew I wanted to broaden my marketing work experience and keep my existing skills sharp, because I was going to be out of the workforce for two years. I contacted the school’s university relations department about obtaining a graduate assistantship, as I had a strong background in the field already. I interviewed with the department and was offered a position. This opportunity would allow me to work in a best-in-class marketing and communications department for a Big Ten university while also offsetting my tuition expenses. My decision was final—I was leaving Chicago for East Lansing, Mich., to become a Spartan, and I was one step closer to my dream job as a marketing manager for a top-tier company.