Our Experiences With Post-Grad Education (And If Our Programs Were Worth It)

From Masters degrees to a six-week course.
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Elle Woods, everyone's favorite post-graduate

Elle Woods, everyone's favorite post-graduate

Far and away the question Kelly, Jess, and I receive most often is, "How did you like your post-grad program?" There's so much confusion around graduate programs, namely whether they're worth the cost and effort. Because Leslie, Jess, and Kelly did three different types of programs, ranging from Masters Degree (in Kelly's case) to six-week course (in Leslie's), we asked them to share their experiences:

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Program: Masters of Science in Marketing from The University of Southern California
Length of Program: 1.5 years, part-time
Cost: For just tuition, approximately $50,000 (which includes a $5,500 merit scholarship I received at the end of the first year)

Tell me briefly what your program entailed: My program consisted of ten, 15-week marketing classes on campus at USC. The majority of my classes were in the business school (Marshall), but I chose to pursue most of my electives at the communications school (Annenberg). We took a wide range of marketing-related classes, from Marketing Analytics to Fashion, Luxury, & Lifestyle Marketing and Social Roles of Communication Media. I was in the classroom from 6:30 - 9:30 p.m. two days a week for a year and a half, and I commuted to campus either by car or train (almost an hour each way). 

What was the most surprising aspect of your program? My age! There were two very distinct groups in my cohort: 'Recent Grads With an Interest in Marketing' (ages 22-25) and 'Established Marketers Looking to Advance' (ages 27-30). I graduated from my program when I was 29, and I was shocked at how old I felt compared to the recent undergrads. Feeling older than most of the cohort meant two things: First, the ten or so of us who were in the older group all did the program part-time while working, so we were pretty much always exhausted. I think the recent grads had a much more social experience than we did; they went to tailgates and football games and drank wine at each other's apartments regularly, while the rest of us were pretty much just trying not to fall asleep at dinner with our significant others on the weekends. Secondly, I felt that we had more to offer in the classroom. We simply had more experience we could share and often felt more confident raising our hands in class. I took a Marketing Analytics class that had 70 people in it, and only three of us were consistently willing to actively participate in class discussion. It often felt like the younger students relied on the few of us who had a lot to share or who had a lot of experience to contribute more in class or to group projects, which felt unfair to me.

How did you balance work and school? I'll be honest: Balancing work, school, and my personal life was very challenging. For the first year, I was working for USC and freelancing, so I was on campus all the time and driving all over the city to meet with clients. Halfway through the program, I met my fiancé Alfie, and when I had about six months left, I got my job at cupcakes and cashmere. Until I met Alfie, managing it all was easier since I was single, and the balancing act was really just saying "no" a lot more often to plans with my friends. After I got my job here, the struggle was real. I was trying to balance a new relationship, a new dog, a new home, and a new job. I was constantly tired. I signed up for Postmates Unlimited and used it pretty much every night I wasn't in class (eek). I definitely "disappeared" from my friend group for a while, which I'm not proud of or happy about, but it's what I had to do to keep my head above water. I think I got through it mostly because I really prioritized sleep, and stayed at home studying instead of going out constantly.

Why did you do it? I got a Masters primarily because I wanted to stand out. Marketing is a really competitive field, so making sure my resume would be seen and seriously considered by employers for higher-level roles was a big motivator for me. There are a lot of positions in my field that actually require a Masters degree (I'm from Minnesota... obviously I've always wanted to work for Target someday), and I wanted to make sure I would be considered for those roles in the future.

What did you benefit from it? Like, everything. I love school just in general (Ravenclaw over here), but my program definitely made me a smarter, more critical thinker. I'm more analytical, better at managing stress, and more confident than I ever have been. I also formed relationships with a handful of other women in marketing who are invaluable to me.

Do you use your post-grad program in your daily work? (Have you ever?) Haha, yes. I laugh because I use what I learned constantly, pretty much every day. From big-picture things like the concept of "disruption" to smaller tactical things like pricing strategy and generating user profiles, I use what I learned all the time.

What was the best/worst part? Best: Being back on a school campus, two of my professors, winning four "best practice" awards for final class projects, the women in my program who I became friends with, all the amazing guest speakers (from companies like Smashbox, Patagonia, Uber, MAC Cosmetics, Nike, etc.), becoming Valedictorian. Worst: Being exhausted all the time, group projects, expensive cafeteria food, always being concerned about money, the long commute.

How long did you consider the program before you actually applied? I actively thought about getting a Masters for almost two years before I applied! I really thought a lot about which degree made the most sense for me; simply deciding that I didn't want an MBA or a Masters in Psychology took over a year. I finally started getting ready to apply once I discovered that there was an M.S. in Marketing program in the city I already lived in (there aren't that many in the U.S.), which meant I wouldn't have to move somewhere else to get the degree I wanted. I only applied to USC, and obviously I got in!

Did you take the GRE and how did you study for it? I took the GRE right before I applied. I got a good score (but not a great one) and cried in the parking lot after the test because I didn't hit my target score after months of studying. I actually took the GMAT in college, but my score had just passed its expiration date by the time I was ready to apply to grad school (whomp). My friends will definitely remember me lying on the floor during a casual dinner/movie party doing vocabulary flashcards more than once. I also listened to a vocabulary podcast every day on my commute to and from work for two months (called Victor Prep). I wanted to make sure I would slay the Verbal section (I did) because I knew my math score would be shameful (it was). When you're 27 years old, five years out of college, and trying to remember how to do high school math and work out problems against the clock, it's a struggle. I used a lot of prep books. I ended up applying with my original score, which I now know was totally fine, and got in more so because of my prior work experience (I know this because I helped with admissions for the next class!).

How did you justify the cost? That's a great question. From my perspective, my program was actually a really great value for a Masters program (hear me out!). An MBA, which is the Masters degree many people in my field choose to pursue, is not cheap. Many MBAs will cost you well over $100,000, with the top schools surpassing the $200,000 mark. Instead of getting an MBA, I decided to get a "specialized" Masters degree to reduce the overall number of required classes, which decreases both the time it takes to graduate and the cost. At approximately $50,000, my program was much more reasonable, if you compare it to an MBA from a top school. I am extremely fortunate in that my parents helped me out (I recognize my privilege here), and I paid for the rest myself out of my savings. I also worked the entire time to pay for my rent and other costs of living, so I wouldn't have to take out student loans. If I had chosen an MBA instead, I would probably have $50,000 in debt right now.

Was it worth it? I guess only time will really tell on this one, but yes, I do feel that my program was worth it. As stressful as it was, I loved getting my degree. I really thrive in an academic setting, and it made me think that maybe my "retirement" will be spent Dumbledoring it up in a college marketing department somewhere. The relationships I made were so important to me (we truly helped each other survive), and I'm incredibly proud of all the work I did and the job I got as a result.

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Program: Design Communication Arts Certificate at UCLA Extension
Length of Program: When I enrolled, it was about a year and a half if you participated full-time, but the requirements have since been adjusted, so you can now get your certificate in about a year.
Cost: Roughly $11,000, including supplies and an Adobe membership.

Tell me briefly what your program entailed: A thorough graphic design certificate program that focused on visual communication. I took courses like Color Theory, Photography, Typography, and Branding that gave me a holistic understanding of graphic design methodology and prepared me for a potential future job as a designer (...which was clearly not the path I wound up taking!). 

Why did you do it? A mentor of mine pulled me aside at my previous marketing job and asked me a question that had never been posed to me before: If you could have anyone's job at the company, whose would you want? I thought about it and realized that eventually, I'd strive to have my VP's role, but I felt a disconnect between our creative team and the marketing team. Everyone is a critic when it comes to graphic design (and generally has a strong opinion!), but it's not always rooted in design theory or principles. I decided that in order to be the best marketer I could, I should have some design experience under my belt so I could work in tandem with them, bridging the gap between the art and science, and come from a place of knowledge when providing feedback. 

What did you benefit from it? I'm now pretty fluent in most of the Adobe programs, have a better eye for layouts and photography, know why certain colors pair well together, and understand design concepts that used to just be "my gut" telling me to do something. 

Do you use your post-grad program in your daily work? (Have you ever?) Literally every single day while I'm creating Stories, taking photos, creating one-sheets, and thinking bigger picture about the future of the cupcakes and cashmere brand! It's been extremely useful, and while some of the classes seemed a bit monotonous (I was already a self-taught Photoshop wiz before the program), I still learned something from every one.

Was it worth it? Yes–but if I could go back, I'd likely take more specific General Assembly classes that catered to my exact career needs instead, rather than earning a certificate with some courses I found to be redundant or unnecessary. And I could have saved myself quite a bit of money!

What was the best/worst part? The best was getting to explore and wrangle a new side of my creativity that I'd never really had the opportunity to play with. I love visual storytelling, and this gave me all the tools I needed to communicate without words (which was the opposite of my journalism undergrad experience!). But the weekly critiques were rough. I'm extremely sensitive, put everything I have into every assignment, and therefore take criticism very personally. Every single class had public feedback, both from the instructor and my peers, where you were picked apart and I knew after a few weeks that I could never handle being a graphic designer full-time. 

Do you feel like getting your certificate helped you get your job at cupcakes and cashmere? Yes! I think it helped my resume stand out and gave me a point of differentiation during the interview–having a degree in journalism and marketing along with the certificate made me a more well-rounded candidate. 

Tips for getting back into a school mindset? I think most people know if they thrive in a classroom environment (I certainly do!). Some prefer to learn on the job, and others like to be instructed. If you're on the fence, perhaps full-time school isn't the right answer, and some part-time classes might achieve what you're looking for. If you're in a situation where your future requires a lot of additional education, I would focus on how fortunate you are to be able to dedicate time to learning something new—it's something I reminded myself every day I was dragging my feet (aka driving my car through LA traffic) not wanting to sit in a class for three hours. Not everyone has the opportunity to get additional education!

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Program: Columbia Publishing Course
Length of Program: 6 weeks, full-time
Cost: $4,000

Tell me briefly what your program entailed: The Columbia Publishing Course (CPC) is a six-week intensive program out of Columbia's School of Journalism that includes three weeks of book publishing, followed by three weeks of magazine publishing. The classes are primarily lectures by leaders in the New York publishing world, including Editor-in-Chiefs of nearly every big magazine, and heads of publishing houses. The Book and Magazine segments each ended with an intense days-long project, where you had to pitch a title to a publishing house, then create the plan for a magazine. It's a highly specialized amazing example of what a post-graduate program can be. 

Why did you do it: In college, I spent two years interning at the children's publishing company Candlewick Press in Boston. At an informational interview with my then-mentor, the head of marketing, I expressed an interest in working there after college, and she said, "We'd love that, but I won't let you." She told me that if I was serious about a career in publishing, I had to spend a few years in New York first, where some of the largest publishing houses are. I took her advice and spent my senior year taking the bus to New York for informational interviews with editors I admired. At every interview, I received the same advice: The best way to get your resume to the top of the pile is to attend the NYU, Oxford, or Columbia Publishing Course. At the time, they were the best way to get your foot in the door of a magazine or publishing house, but the media landscape has changed so much since I attended (they definitely didn't cover blogs in my course), I'm not sure that's true anymore, unless you're interested in a career at a traditional publishing house.

Did you go right after undergrad? Why/why not? I did! I actually skipped part of my graduation ceremony to drive to New York and move into the Columbia dorms. I started class that Monday! Really, it just came down to momentum. I didn't want to take a summer off, and I knew the course was the best way to launch me into the career path I wanted. 

What did you benefit from it? So much! As valuable as the lectures were, the networking was truly invaluable. Because I was one of a handful of people in the program interested in magazine and online media (as opposed to fiction publishing), I had direct access to EICs of nearly every magazine. During the program, I landed an internship at Tasting Table, which spun into various internships and freelance opportunities, until I finally landed my first Editor role, at Food52.

Do you use your post-grad program in your daily work? Not directly, but I do find that I reference my knowledge of magazine and book publishing regularly in terms of planning content (and tapping friends who still work in the biz, especially for inside knowledge on new book releases to check out for The List ;)

Was it worth it? Yes, absolutely! It gave me the opportunity to hone my interest in publishing and opened so many doors for me. 

Do you feel like getting your degree helped you get your job at cupcakes and cashmere? Not directly, but I don't think it hurt having the program listed on my resume.