I have a very clear memory of finishing my bachelor’s degree back in the late 90s and exclaiming to anyone who would listen that I would never do another exam as long as I lived. After three years of full-time study I’d had enough and was ready to enter the world of work.

When I say ready, what I really mean is that I had no idea what I wanted to do and no plan for finding out, all of which meant that I fell into a temp job, which led to a role in credit control and, in due course, to the very real consideration of a career in accountancy.

My life could have so easily gone down that path if it wasn’t for two life-changing interventions. The first came from my dad who said he just couldn’t see me as an accountant and that he felt I was better suited to a career in marketing. The second was when a vibrant and exciting PR agency moved into the empty office next door to where I was (not so merrily) working away on my spreadsheets. Everyone I met who worked there seemed friendly and lively, and gave the impression that they were generally having a ball. I knew very little about PR at the time but I was intrigued.

My ‘lucky break’

As anyone who knows me will testify, I’m a pretty chatty person and I would often end up in conversation with people from the agency while waiting for the lift. That included the boss who turned to me one day and asked why I didn’t work for her. I responded by asking why she hadn’t given me a job yet and a few short weeks later I found myself walking through the door as the agency’s newest account assistant. It was a classic example of someone employing for attitude over skills or experience, which is very much the approach we take here at Southerly.

That was the start of seven of the most formative years of my professional life, during which I progressed to account director and head of my division. I truly believe that the marketing agency environment is one of the best places to develop a whole range of skills that are essential for career success. You learn to think fast, research new industries, juggle multiple jobs while sticking to constant deadlines, come up with creative ideas at the drop of a hat and develop strong relationships with colleagues, clients and other stakeholders which, in the case of PR, are often journalists.

The marketing agency environment is one of the best places to develop a whole range of skills.

Time to learn more about marketing

After about three years I realised that, much as I’d learnt a lot about PR and working life in general, I didn’t know as much about marketing as a broader discipline. Many of my clients were marketing managers or directors and I wanted to understand how PR fitted into the bigger picture so I could deliver more strategic consultancy. This led to my first experience of combining work with study in the form of the CIM Professional Diploma in Marketing completed via evening classes over four terms. That required a certain level of discipline, but I was up for the challenge and I sailed through the course and came out the other side feeling significantly more confident and knowledgeable – in fact, it’s fair to say that I felt like a true marketer for the first time.

Fast forward another decade (or so) and I found myself contemplating a further return to study, this time in the form of a master’s degree. Studying at this level shows commitment to and a high level of expertise in a given subject. It requires critical analysis, independent thought, the ability to build a well-reasoned argument and the completion of a unique piece of research that contributes to the body of academic knowledge in that area.

Having worked in marketing-related roles for 15 years, the idea of delving into that discipline at an advanced level, learning more about the theoretical frameworks that underpin my daily activity and gaining a qualification that showcases my interest and capabilities was extremely appealing.

Picking the right course

There are several routes to gaining a master’s qualification, with many universities offering excellent part-time and distance learning courses, but I opted to throw myself into it wholeheartedly and go for the one year, full time, full power option. I had two criteria when picking the course: the first was that it had to be at a well-respected university and the second was that it added value to my existing experience and skill set. One league table, numerous university websites and several applications later I made my choice and enrolled on an MSc in Marketing Communications at Birkbeck which is part of the University of London.

As well as offering a well-structured course with an interesting and practical set of modules, Birkbeck also stood out as the only university running full-time master’s degrees via evening classes. That was appealing because it provides greater flexibility in terms of working while studying, which was something I was keen to do. Thankfully it was something that Southerly was happy to support, so at the end of September I went from being a full-time employee to working part time and being a full-time student again.

The reality of combining work with study

There are definite upsides to student life. I love being back in a learning environment with modules delivered by passionate lecturers who are themselves engaged in research that’s helping to expand the field of marketing. One term in and I’ve already learnt a lot, from effective strategic planning to conducting reliable market research. I also enjoy whipping out my student card and nabbing a discount at every possible occasion.

For all the benefits, there’s no denying that it’s hard work. The course can best be described as relentless. There are lectures, seminars, compulsory reading, optional (but necessary if you want a good grade) reading, group projects and exams with questions that are designed to rattle you and get you thinking at a critical level. Balancing all of that alongside a job isn’t always easy and there have definitely been days when I’ve thought that there must be easier way to live my life.

Having said that, I love the fact that the course and my job complement each other so well. I come into work full of ideas for new ways of doing things and ideas for discussion with the management team. I also find that work is often a respite from the otherwise all-consuming nature of the course. Similarly, I have plenty of professional experience and real life examples to contribute to seminar discussions and team projects, which helps to bring the theory to life.

The course and my job complement each other so well.

Time to get qualified

One thing I’ve witnessed over the years is that a lot of people find themselves working in marketing without any formal training or qualifications. I’ve worked with many highly talented people who seem to get along absolutely fine without going down that route and all credit to them. Having said that, I do think there are many marketing practitioners who would benefit from a more rounded, theoretical understanding of the subject.

Marketing is often still seen as the ‘fluffy’ department, more concerned with spending money on whacky creative ideas than on strategic vision and return on investment. There’s a real opportunity for marketers to up the ante and become more strategic and more able to contribute at board level, and formal study has a lot to offer in terms of achieving that goal.

There are those who feel that academic frameworks and processes are too rigid and simplistic to be truly useful in practice. Real life is never black and white. Budgets, timescales, habits, beliefs and company culture have a huge impact on the way a business can and will undertake its marketing activity. My view, however, is that those frameworks and theories provide a valuable starting point, a logical basis for discussion and debate and a reminder of the angles that should be considered, even if they’re not always followed to the letter in reality.

I hope to come out of this master’s as a more effective marketing professional who can combine academic theory with real-world practice and show what effective marketing can achieve… and in the meantime, I’ll continue to make the most of those handy student discounts.