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Public Relations: Do I Need a Master's in Marketing or an MBA?

Christopher Hundley works in communications. During an extremely caffeinated stretch, he earned an MS in Marketing and an MBA.

MBA vs. Master's Degree in Marketing

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 Master's Degree in Marketing while maintaining my public relations job. About a year later, I returned to graduate school during the evenings to earn my Master's 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, my experience will hopefully provide you with some insights on what is potentially a 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, nor 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, I decided to apply for a Master's in Marketing at a local college, as I felt I needed a more significant theoretical 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 Master's in Marketing

While I had begun my career without any real experience in my field, I had entered my Master's 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.

Benefits of a Master's in Marketing

In sum, I found obtaining the Master's in Marketing useful because:

  • It allowed me a deep dive into the theories and practices 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 many 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 underperform in my undergraduate studies because I did not like learning; quite the contrary. I simply focused more on social learning than academic knowledge. 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 grown, 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 to perform appropriately.
  • 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 for an MBA.

Drawbacks of a Master's in Marketing

While I enjoyed my Master's degree program, I’d definitely list the following as drawbacks:

  • 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 Master's degrees 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 vast 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 recognized authority or credibility, just knowledge. But considering that my MBA did just that, whereas my Master's did not, I would not suggest a Master's in marketing if enhanced credibility is the desired outcome.
  • The smaller program made networking harder. Even in night school, you tend to take core MBA courses in cohorts, whether you are maintaining a full-time or part-time schedule. Master's 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 an MBA

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, maybe my growing knowledge and rising self-confidence elicited 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 appropriately 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 practical 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 apply what I learned the next day instantly. 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 more comprehensive range of applications.

Drawbacks of an MBA

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 entirely new for 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 ready to in a Master's 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 important 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

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 and been able to take advantage of graduate extracurriculars. However, neither program was all work; we often managed to find the time to take classes until 9, meet until 10, and grab a drink at a corner bar for a minute before heading home.

Cost Considerations

Cost is a significant 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 specified minimum grade point average, and agree to work for the firm for a certain number of years after graduation.

Two to five years is a typical period in such agreements. Such agreements are not particularly common in the public relations industry, and even when they are available, they are often challenging 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 7:00 p.m., 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 more significant 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 regarded more highly if, post-graduation, you are looking to work in-house for a firm’s public relations shop. 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.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Christopher Hundley