It’s a cut-throat world out there and the marketing industry is one of the most competitive. To stay ahead of the pack many individuals are contemplating further study, but the associated complications such as cost, family and work commitments, not to mention the devastating effect study has on one’s social life, means the thought of ‘going back to school’ is all too often placed in the too-hard basket. Normally you might ask around, go to a few information nights or chat to past graduates. Well, Marketing has done all the research for you.

We asked the main stakeholders involved in postgraduate study – the recruiters, the lecturers and the students themselves – the three main concerns facing potential studiers: to study or not to study? An MBA or a masters of marketing? Full-time or part-time study? Whether their answers confirm your decision that further study is just all too hard, or sends you hightailing to your nearest enrolment office, we hope it proves helpful, one way or another.

To study or not to study?

That is the endless question facing many in the workforce who want to get ahead. What is going to be more beneficial for your future success, to get all the work experience you can or go back to school and learn new skills? And it really pays to do your research – literally. With some postgraduate courses, such as the perennially popular MBA costing up to $50,000, you want to make sure you get your money’s worth.

Book learning versus the school of life

Luke Henningsen, executive general manager, Chandler Macleod Professional Recruitment, believes that further study is always looked on favourably by employers and recruiters alike, but not only because of the skills such a course may instil. The capacity to take on and complete a postgraduate degree says a lot about a person.

“A job applicant who has secured a postgraduate qualification is, of course, perceived to possess the theoretical core knowledge of the course curriculum,” Henningsen says. “This in itself represents an advantage over candidates who have not studied to the same level. But additionally, and more subjectively, applicants who have embarked on further education have also displayed a certain level of desire and discipline to achieve, often key qualities that an employer would look for, and this is a big asset.”

In contrast, Georgie Toll, practice manager, LINK Recruitment Sales and Marketing Practice Group, believes that recruiters and potential employers generally view work experience more favourably. Somewhat surprisingly, Sam McConnell, former editor of Marketing who is currently undertaking a masters of marketing (MoM) at Melbourne Business School, also believes that success is equally, if not more, important as formal study.

“[Postgraduate study] definitely won’t be more beneficial than on the job experience. I started the course at Monash and am now at Melbourne so I’ve seen both courses – while you learn a lot, there is still a lot of academic crap thrown in for whatever reason. Stuff that you’d never waste your time with at work and won’t use or think about after the subject is finished. These courses help you build on experience and expertise and are valuable for this reason, but give you neither [on their own]. I would not recommend the course to someone with no work experience, that’s for sure.”

Relying solely on work experience to further your career, however, has its drawbacks. Gladys Ambrosio, who is currently completing an MBA at the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) at UNSW, decided she needed a postgraduate degree because she felt that work experience is not always quantifiable.

“Titles in the workplace have become deceiving,” she explains. “A brand manager in one company may have a bigger scope of responsibilities than a brand manager in another company. Work experience is definitely important in one’s career, especially a marketing career, but if you’re looking at upward and cross-geographic career mobility, you need to have something portable that will be more or less valued consistently across companies or countries in the region.”

Not surprisingly, the two lecturers interviewed for this article believe that further study is always beneficial for people wanting to improve their career prospects. As Monash University’s Irene Powell points out, they could hardly say otherwise, given their occupations! But both admit that work experience is also essential; in fact neither institution will accept students straight out of an undergraduate degree.

“You do need on the job experience because that is much more temporal information in terms of that’s the stuff that helps you do your job today,” says Powell. “But to do your job tomorrow and plan for the future and as you move through most organisations it’s the ability to look towards the future that’s important, so the framework is what the education give you, the principles of a job is very much context specific knowledge, which may or may not be transferable.”

“I think what happens is when people start learning from experience they start doing the same thing repeatedly in different conditions and they end up making the same mistakes,” says Murali Chandrashekaran, professor of marketing and head of Marketing Cluster, AGSM, UNSW. “Whereas what happens when you go to graduate school is that it allows you to abstract out; it exposes you to examples from diverse companies and connects and start teaching you how to think about detecting patterns in the environment.

“I think they both have their strengths, but they also both have their weaknesses. Postgraduate study tends to be a lot more abstract and, if you don’t make the effort to learn how to apply these in different connects, it’s just going to be textbook learning.”

The return on your investment

The cost of a postgraduate course should also be taken into account, because simply adding letters after your name is not a free ticket to a higher salary or a more senior role.

“To achieve return on investment it is crucial that you also work hard to apply your learnings and transfer your education from the classroom to the work environment,” Henningsen is careful to point out.

But two highly respected global surveys, the Financial Times and Forbes rankings, demonstrate the financial returns of MBA courses around the world. These studies suggest that students can expect to double their salary within two to five years, while ANZ CEO, John McFarlane, is famously reported to have said that he changed industries and tripled his income as a result of studying an MBA.

AGSM, like many business educators, keeps track of its students’ post graduation earnings and the average MBA graduate is reported to have an average salary level of US$115,693 and an average salary increase of 81 percent three years after graduation and Forbes calculated a 30 percent ROI three years after graduating with an AGSM MBA.

Chandrashekaran is quick to point out, however, that not everyone is doing it for the money.

“I think the numbers would suggest that there is a financial return on investment on average, but that is just one aspect. The other is personal fulfilment. I think the issue of whether there is a return needs to be balanced by what the objectives are.”

Studious qualities

The last time you cracked a book was over 10 years ago or maybe you didn’t even finish your uni degree? Not to worry, the qualities found in successful students have more to do with thriving on challenges and change than a love of pure learning.

“Further study is quite beneficial for people who are looking for a change of career for instance,” says Chandrashekaran. “People who get the most out of higher education are those who are open to taking new information and new ways of thinking, and are open to the ideas that further study. Eventually all it does is teach you new ways to think. So if you tend to be a little more closed minded, then you may not get the most out of time spent at graduate school.”

Irene Powell agrees; however, she finds that it is the individuals who have some kind of external motivating force who may find it easier to rise to the occasion.

“Those that are ready for a new challenge, either in the job that they’re in or the job that they would like to be in, I think, these students embrace the challenge. Quite a few of the people who are running their own business, and would like to do a better job in that field or feel like they have got some gaps, I think they often benefit because they are immediately applying their learnings. They are the masters of their own fate, as it were. And again there is another group of people who perhaps didn’t do an undergraduate degree and have done well in their job, but are really looking for the intellectual challenge that says that they can do it.”

But while you may feel that you would benefit from an MBA, Powell is quick to point out that timing is one of the most important factors to be taken into account.

“I think timing is important, so I might advise somebody that today might not be the right day to enrol, but it might be in 12 months. Because I think the work experience is really important to get the most out of any further study. So I think it is always beneficial, but sometimes it is good to wait a little while and get that work experience before embarking on, and investing in your future as a potential masters student.”

MBA or masters of marketing?

Well, here you are. You have balanced the books, weighed up the consequences and come to the admirable conclusion that the time is right for you to further your education. But, as a marketer, will you get more out of a generalist degree, such as an MBA, or something specifically related to your skill set and current career, such as an MoM? The MBA has become the degree du jour for managers the world over. An impressive 25 percent of all postgraduate degrees, completed both in Australia and around the world, are MBAs. But the answer to this question is not easy, and requires you to ask yourself some very difficult questions about what you want to get out of your degree.

“If you seek to obtain a professional role or a mid-level management role within your chosen field of marketing then a degree in marketing could be perceived to be the most advantageous path in regards to further education, as your study will give you a thorough grounding and deep knowledge within your professional field,” says Chandler Macleod’s Luke Henningsen. “However, longer-term a more generic qualification, such as an MBA, could become more advantageous as you climb the corporate ladder to a level that takes you beyond the parameters of your core field, as your study will have provided you with a greater breadth of knowledge. The size of your organisation may also be a factor to consider, as you may be required to operate as a generalist in smaller businesses.”

Gladys Ambrosio, with an undergraduate degree (and a successful career) in marketing under her belt, decided to take on an MBA, both because of the degree’s flexibility and the fact that it provided a stronger set of credentials when dealing with people from various functions within the organisation.

“It is very easy for a finance or an operations person to dismiss a marketing specialist, but I don’t think that will be the case if they know that you also underwent study of their fields,” she says. “As a marketer, you need to be able to speak the language (or languages) of the cross-functional teams you lead. An MBA gives you the critical knowledge that crosses functional boundaries that will allow you to lead confidently.”

Both Ambrosio and McConnell believe that one of the greatest benefits of an MBA is the international recognition, and therefore transferability the qualification offers, particularly if you want to work at a multinational organisation.

Irene Powell, from Melbourne’s Monash University, agrees that each degree is suited to particular individuals, as not everyone wants to be a CEO.

“A MoM is really suited to middle management roles, [for those] who know that marketing is where their career is at. They want to be the marketing managers and the marketing directors rather than the general managers or the CEO… the MBA qualification is that corporate role and the MoM is that marketing director type role.”

Chandrashekaran believes that an MBA is more suited to people who don’t know exactly what they want to do, but want to land a better job, as it allows them to get into the program and then pick where they want to go. But, he goes on to point out, some people don’t have the luxury of the time or money associated with taking on an MBA – which can cost up to $50,000 and four years of your life – before you really know what you want to do with it. Such an investment is not always feasible and this must be taken into account when choosing your course.

Many businesses look favourably on MBA graduates for a number of reasons. The rigours of an MBA are well-recognised and indicate that the graduate has been through an education system that requires them to apply knowledge across a number of different concepts. Such a degree is also attractive in progressive companies with changing perceptions of management and marketing.

“What the MBA does is recognise that the entire business needs to be represented in decision-making, and more progressive businesses say we want people who have a broad-based ability to think about managerial problems, and not practical marketing problems,” says Chandrashekaran. “As organisations and the role of marketing itself changes, just having a specialised MoM might not prepare [a graduate] for future changes in how marketing itself is being viewed. So anyone contemplating a MoM needs to ask themselves, will this prepare me for the changing role of marketing within the organisation itself?”

Part-time or full-time

And then we come to the final, and possibly most important, question that every would-be graduate needs to ask themself: how am I going to fit this into my lifestyle? Is it better to take time out of work in order to study full-time and get it over as quickly as possible? Or continue to work, grit my teeth, take on study part-time and wave goodbye to my social life? Both students interviewed opted for the full-time option and, while they agree that this was the best option for them, this route is not without its challenges.

“Because I was coming from another country and seeking to work in another market in the Asia-Pacific region, I felt that I had to keep my focus on getting my MBA done first, then use that as a tool in securing a post in a new market,” says Ambrosio. “As a full-time student, you completely forego income generation while doing your study. Hence, it was a real challenge for me to go back to the student budget mindset after having worked for six years as a marketer… going back to study is like signing up for a 24-hour job that doesn’t pay you a salary. I had to adjust to having my daytime consumed with lectures and group work, then having my evenings eaten up by homework, papers and projects. When you’re working, at least you are able to sign off when you leave the workplace.”

Sam McConnell initially began his degree part-time, but found the combined workload of study and work difficult to juggle.

“It’s hard work,” he says. “The time was the most difficult thing while I was completing the course part-time (still working full-time) – you are busy enough at work without having to think about study when you get home. Now that I’m full-time, it’s much easier to manage the workload.

“The financial challenge continues be the toughest one – how can you keep earning? [Postgraduate study is] also a motivational challenge, as you need to drive yourself to complete the work.”

From an employment point of view, however, if you can handle the pressure of working and studying simultaneously, the fact that you completed part-time study at a postgraduate level can speak volumes.

“Experience coupled with further education is the perfect mix, and part-time study often offers the perfect blend of theory and practice,” says Luke Henningsen. “An applicant who has studied part-time is often required to display a greater level of discipline, particularly if the applicant has been holding down a full-time marketing position and studying in their own time. This requires commitment, exceptional time management skills, drive and a burning desire to succeed, certainly very admirable qualities that employers look for.”

Fellow recruiter, Georgie Toll, agrees that part-time study is considered better, if for no other reason than it keeps your skills up-to-date.

“Beyond undergraduate level, spending a substantial amount of time out of the market may be detrimental, as you may be perceived as having lost touch. Generally, individuals who combine postgraduate study with work are seen as more employable.”

Both Powell and Chandrashekaran agree that part-time study is an excellent way to round out the textbook learning you receive during class time with practical applications in the office on Monday morning.

“I think for graduate studies the ideal is studying part-time and working full-time, because you are actually immediately able to apply what you are leaning,” says Powell. “You are validating what you are doing by examining your own role, what you are doing at work, theories of how things have happened in a more general setting.

“What part-time students tend to have less of is time to synthesise, so synthesis is hurt, but application is enhanced, while for full-time students, synthesis is enhanced, but application is hurt because they wait for a year and a half before they get a job and are able to apply these concepts.”

Some potential students may be wary of convincing their employers that they want to go back to school. It really is a decision that requires the support of your employer, even if you are planning to only study part-time and continue to work full-time. But, according to our recruiters, most employers are fans of the idea.

“Most employers will absolutely see the benefit of their staff achieving a higher level of education,” says Luke Henningsen. “Not only does this increase the skills and knowledge of their workforce, but it also instils a degree of loyalty in their staff members, assisting in staff retention.”

“If your employer is not willing to allow you flexibility during core business hours, study will be detrimentally affected,” warns Georgie Toll, but don’t be discouraged, as she has seen first-hand how alternative arrangements can be negotiated. “For example, current LINK employee Carla Fitzpatrick currently works two half-days so that she can also study, as she has agreed with her manager that she will perform some duties outside of core business hours.”

A word of advice

We hope that an investigation of the above three questions has helped some readers who are wrestling with the idea of postgraduate study, but before you make your final decision, here are some tips from those who have been there before, or are there to help you on your way. Good luck, and whatever you decide, may you have a happy and prosperous future.

  • Ask yourself why you want to embark on this course – make sure you know that it’s not a ‘quick fix’ option.
  • Work out what you want career-wise and decide exactly how the masters will help you achieve this. If you’re better off to go to TAFE, or work longer hours at work, do that instead.
  • Research the impact that further study will have on your lifestyle.
  • Speak candidly with your employer and try to ensure that your expectations can be met.
  • Match your course to a field of expertise that you enjoy and that you are passionate about.
  • Make the most of the resources in terms of the staff.
  • Take advantage of all the school has to offer, whether that be networks, internships, famous speakers or exchange programs.
  • Learn statistics! Take as many stats classes as you can, as hard as it may be, as it’s going to help you educate your intuition and predict the laws of the marketplace.
  • Go for the best program, because the difference between a good program and a mediocre program is hard to quantify, but you will be very bored if the people around you are not stimulating.