Can Graduate School Actually Lead to Career Change?

It took me six years to fully change my career, and I’m still learning about the path in which I am headed. Here’s my story on the steps I took, why I took them, and most importantly, the many errors and lessons I learned along the way.

This is Part III of a now FOUR part series on career change. (Part III turned into a small novel so it has now been extended to include a Part IV. If Harry Potter movies can do it, I can too.) Here I explore the decision to return to school.

  1. Part I — When Your First Job Out of College is Not Your Dream Job
  2. Part II — Will This Decision Lead to Career Suicide?
  3. Part III — Can Graduate School Lead to Career Change?
  4. Part IV — A Career Change Success Story

Part III — Graduate School 101: Why, Where and How

Crap, I’m back to planning events. Bills needed to be paid, and in New York City, it often felt like even air cost money. I often joked, “The only way not to spend money in NYC is to not leave the apartment.”

After returning from Chile and completing a second round of internships, I took another job in event management. Returning to do work I didn’t necessarily love was an excellent incentive to start planning my next steps.

Returning to my likes versus dislikes analysis from Part I, here’s what I knew:

  • Loved doing research for the microlending organization in Chile.
  • Disliked that I lacked the financial education to fully understand all the theories and tactics behind small business development.
  • Liked reading articles and books on small business growth, management and venture capital and learning all the avenues an entrepreneur could take to grow a business.
  • Disliked my struggles with analytical problem solving.
  • LOVED school, classes, new notebooks and pens

Step 1 — To Be or Not To Be a Graduate Student

I began looking at a range of master’s programs, from public policy to non-profit management. I also considered continuing education courses, but felt a full degree was better at helping me switch careers. The amount of time and work required to prepare for this next step was equivalent to a full-time job. Furthermore, this was not an easy decision to make.

I spent months attending admission seminars at night and comparing reviews of programs online. I scheduled informational interviews with current students, read blogs (Thanks, Poets & Quants), analyzed reports on best graduate programs, studied the financial costs and benefits, toured campuses and more. It took two years of work before I walked onto campus as a student.

Why go back to school? Couldn’t you have just used transferrable skills and landed another job?

I tried. When I returned from Chile, I applied for jobs in microlending, non-profits, policy, and marketing. It was 2010, and I had trouble landing a job during the recession. There’s a reason changing careers isn’t always seamless, and I felt pigeonholed by my years of experience in events. I saw a master’s degree as a way to redefine myself.

Step 2 — Choosing a Graduate Program

  1. Programs: I focused on the program that had the best business, finance and strategy courses.
  2. Locations: I narrowed my search to New York City. I could receive in-state tuition if I chose to go to a public school, and NYC is one of the best places to network.
  3. Applications: Most applications require a basic application with job and school history, recommendations, test scores, resumes, essays and transcripts.

It’s worth the financial investment to put together a solid application package. People are available, for a fee, to help you achieve your goals, and this is not the time to give less than 100 percent as you’re competing with other equally qualified candidates.

Recommendations: No one tells you how difficult it can be to ask for your current work’s recommendation. For me, transparency with my manager was the best approach, but not everyone has management’s support. Still, it was a very stressful conversation that took weeks for me to finally broach, so pad in extra time accordingly.

GMAT vs. GRE: Research your target universities’ requirements. I took the GMAT and struggled with the quantitative section. I chose to study on my own, rather than take a class due to costs and time commitments. In hindsight, I should have paid the fees for a tutor or group class as it likely would have improved my weak areas. I took the GMAT twice and improved my quant score, but my verbal dropped from sheer exhaustion after completing the quant section. I recall a visit to a local Irish pub after that disappointment.

Resume & Essays: I had many people look at my resume and essays, but I also recommend paying a professional to edit them. It’s not worth the tension with your loved ones after arguing over the placement of a comma.

Transcripts: “Groan,” these take forever to obtain. I took classes at community colleges, two undergraduate institutions and a foreign university in an exchange program.

  1. Choosing a School: I chose the full-time MBA at the City University of New York’s Baruch College. Why? Money and academic programs. First, Baruch’s in-state tuition made this one of the more affordable programs, and they also offered me a hefty scholarship. Second, I had access to incredible professors who also taught at NYU and Columbia. Lastly, second year classes were at night, which gave me the opportunity to work during the day (an offering most full-time programs do not provide).
  2. Finances: I was very cautious with debt, both credit card and student loans. I cut expenses drastically to the point of a friend teasing me over hand-me-downs. No shame here! I graduated without debt by saving, receiving some help from parents (Forever grateful Meyer family!), living in a rent-stabilized apartment (met Mickey and Minnie Mouse a few times), and extending my paid summer internship for the entire second year of business school.

All the sacrifices were worth it, especially now when I don’t have loan payments. But, there were times when I wanted to quit or splurge. I can remember getting home at 10pm and settling in with my textbooks and takeout tacos, and in the middle of an exhausted cry session, thinking, “How can I possibly get up again tomorrow for work?” Well, I did and others went back to school with more stress than me, i.e. with children to feed. For me, I strongly believe in taking it one day at a time and creating a graduation countdown from the first day of school.

Step 3 — Pursuing That New Career!

Knowing I wanted to change careers by attending business school, I knew I had to hustle. (Yes, I did cheer myself on with the high school cheer, “Be aggressive. Be, be aggressive!”) I was competing with individuals who had years of work experience in my industries of interest. *Note: my cohort was incredibly supportive and encouraging of each other even when competing for the same positions.

How to Hustle in School 101

  1. Rely on your previous skills and experiences: I bet you would never guess, but graduate school led to more event planning! I became President of the MBA Association leading speaker series, networking sessions and socials.

To meet venture capitalists, investors and entrepreneurs, I would volunteer at conferences and events and network as much as possible. Volunteering to work events allowed me to skip paying the hefty fees and landed me an internship at a venture capital firm. Leverage your previous skills to meet people.

  1. Try Different Jobs: Since I wasn’t clear on exactly what I wanted, I was strategic and applied to a variety of positions. I enjoyed my time at the venture capital firm, but I wanted to try working for a large corporation. Working for Colgate-Palmolive was beneficial in my discussions with recruiters for a full-time position. I would never recommend taking a job solely for its name recognition. However, it had many benefits. I liked the formal program, the training, the pay and the networking opportunities. Plus, I learned I liked IT projects and change management.
  2. Play the Student Card: I cannot emphasize this enough. Meet with everyone you can. Ask for their advice, opinions, help with introductions, feedback, etc. There is no other time in life where people will give you an inside look into their lives and jobs. People love helping students and sharing their experiences. Even when I was nervous to reach out, it was always worth facing the fear.
  3. Use every opportunity and spare time to network. Although I covered this above, I can’t stress enough how beneficial this has been to my career. Volunteer, join local professional organizations, set up informational interviews, go to events and conferences, network at other school’s events, and if you want to meet someone, you can even arrange for them to speak at your school. Your network is key to landing a mentor, an internship and full-time job.

Plus, you can give back to people in ways you might not initially imagine. Ask if you can help your network achieve their goals. I believe it’s important to be known as a giver and someone people can count on for help.

  1. Thank Everyone. Thank you emails or handwritten thank you notes must be sent. Either work. Buy coffee, drinks and/or food. Send $5 Starbucks cards. Donate your time and help others also succeed.
  2. Builda strong network among your classmates and help each other achieve long-term goals. I can’t speak more highly of my cohort at Baruch. I built incredibly strong ties with the students, and I am grateful for their encouragement, advice, support, jokes, tutoring, coaching, introductions, and for sharing a scotch or beer with me. I still rely on a core few regularly to discuss work, projects, negotiations and more.

Graduate school is a huge decision, and obviously it’s not for everyone. However, it was the best decision I made to achieve my career goals, and it ultimately led me to a new career. It helped me transition into the tech industry, and I can’t wait to share about this in my next post.

Coming up next:
PART IV — A Career Change Success Story