Shooting for the Moon: How I Made My Decision to Pursue Graduate School


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Last Friday afternoon I took a major step towards pursuing a career in public relations by officially sending my security deposit for the Master of Science in Public Relations program at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. Getting to this point was a long journey that started around the beginning of September. From researching the top graduate PR programs to actually making a decision between the five schools I was accepted into, the long process has finally played itself out in order for me to come to this decision.

But, how did I get to this point to begin with? That’s an interesting story…

The Start of a New Beginning

Anyone who knew me personally

around the spring of 2011 would’ve told you that it would’ve taken the opportunity of a lifetime for me to leave the city of Detroit. A few of those same people would’ve also told you that graduate school was a distinct possibility for me after paying off some of my debt from my B.B.A. at Northwood. This is mainly because I wanted to establish my own small firm in marketing/public relations solely in Detroit as a statement to all of the city’s nay-sayers. After all, if you can make it here you can make it anywhere, right?

Now, fast-forward to September 2014 – four jobs later – where I have a 180° perspective on both things. I’m no longer just interested in telling positive stories from Detroit: I want to tell positive stories from around the country. And, after three years of freelancing you’d think I would be making enough progress towards a career in PR, right?

See, that’s the thing… Four jobs after getting my first degree, I find myself struggling with a number of things:

  • Creating a market for my freelance work that serves as sustainable income
  • Landing positions with PR firms to build experience
  • Landing any type of marketing/PR positions that I’m actually interested in
  • Staying focused enough on building my freelance into a business
  • Actually keeping a job

So, Why Graduate School?

One night in late in September I was up and unable to sleep thinking about ways I could turn my freelance career into something self-sustaining that I have full ownership of. I don’t remember exactly how, but I was thinking of all the things I felt I was lacking – mainly organized work samples, outside of the few press releases I’ve written, to build my portfolio. Then, what started as me stressing out about what to do with my life ended up with me Googling graduate PR programs.

Now, keep in mind that before I had no desire to bury myself in more debt by pursuing a master’s degree with still most of my undergrad loans to pay off. Not only that, but I had also developed a growing skepticism about people going to graduate school – mostly that they couldn’t, or weren’t trying to get jobs in “the real world.”

And yet, the more I was reading about different graduate programs, the more it caught my attention that perhaps THIS was my next move to make. It got me thinking about opportunities students had:

  • To work with Fortune 500 companies as part of their class assignments
  • To take part in student-ran organizations that build their experience
  • To be connected and utilize established alumni bases for pursuing career opportunities
  • To learn and practice all the skills I’d read about in PRDaily in a conducive environment

In the end, it became clear to me that grad school was a way for me to just get a new start towards my PR career in general. Sure, I was still concerned about what the costs could be, but it wouldn’t hurt to at least go through the application process and find out, right?

So, Where Should I Go?

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My online searching led me to consider applying to eight schools. But after digging down deep into each program I only decided to apply to five; besides, there was no way I’d be able to afford all those application fees after what I paid to study for the GRE. So, who were they?

Boston University

Part of what I was looking for was graduate programs that were in or near major cities. Obviously, Boston U fit the bill as it’s located near the city’s downtown and south side areas. Boston U’s PR program also had a pretty decent curriculum where I could take classes focusing on the social impact and non-profit side of things. That, and it was close to Montreal, where my girlfriend had talked about moving to once she was done with school.

Unfortunately, one of the things I didn’t know about Boston before was that it’s one of the most expensive areas in the country (even though the city itself is only the 24th-most populated in the U.S.). Of the five schools I put in applications to, Boston had the second highest cost of living, surprisingly more than Los Angeles. County. Clearly, this makes the university expensive as well at around $90,000 for three semesters. The $22,500 scholarship I was offered – split evenly into $7,500 for each semester – wasn’t enough for me to justify taking out more than $15,000 potentially in private loans to fund the rest of the cost.

Another thing that was awkward to find out? Boston has a pretty racist reputation. This, as well as the expenses, made it the first school whose offer I turned down.

Northwestern University

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My interest in Northwestern goes back to my senior year at Northwood when I was just casually looking up grad schools in case I couldn’t get a job right out of school. Their M.S. in Integrated Marketing Communications program was something very few schools seemed to have, and at the time, I’d never been to the Chicago area. So, when I read on their site that they strongly prefer applicants with professional work experience, I knew I had to keep them in my five-year plans.

Four years later after simply reading about how cool their IMC program is, I found myself getting accepted. However, my enthusiasm for the program had tapered off for two reasons:

  • While the IMC program has an interesting curriculum of classes, none of them included learning graphic design. Why was this a big letdown for me? Maybe it was because all this time I’d been thinking about how the program would make me a “complete” communicator. Maybe it’s just me, but part of being a “complete” communicator involves being able to tell organizations’ stories using branding, graphics and logo design. How could a program teach me about “branded content” without teaching me the practical skills behind creating a brand?
  • I didn’t realize how expensive Northwestern would be. I think what makes it more so is because the university runs on a 10-week terms system, similar to how Northwood ran my first three years there. Sure, I was offered a $25,000 grant to split between five terms, but that’s still almost nothing when each term costs around $30,000.

University of Southern California

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It’s USC. It’s Los Angeles. It’s California. I mean, what else is there to say? And, after paying a visit out there in November for their graduate school open house, I could see what all the hype was about. The weather was a comfortable high 70’s – low 80’s all weekend with the sun out in full view. Both the students and professors seemed really laid back and approachable. The Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism has tons of student-ran organizations to get involved with. Best of all, students in the PR program have the opportunity to spend a summer fully-funded working in Capetown, London, Shanghai or Hong Kong. Who could blame me for making this place my top choice?

Sadly, studying at USC also came with a hefty price tag. And, unlucky for me, since my GRE scores weren’t quite there, that price tag was going to have to be paid with student loans. Don’t get me wrong, I knew that grad school in general would be expensive and would likely require a bit of borrowing. Still, even with most of my undergrad debt to pay off there’s only so far I’m willing to go with that kind of financing. Even with it being my top choice, attending USC would’ve been going TOO far, just in the first year alone. At the end of the day, dreams do come with a price, and I just couldn’t fathom borrowing that much money for a master’s degree many in my profession would argue does not enhance your value.

Georgetown University

In my research of the top graduate schools for PR, Georgetown’s program was by far the most interesting. The biggest draw for me was their Center for Social Impact Communications which allowed students to get involved with local non-profit organizations and help them with their communications efforts. Not only that, but PR students could also earn a concentration of sorts in cause communications. Sounds awfully similar to what I do with my freelance work, am I right? And I could see how Georgetown gets away with this; the D.C. area is ripe with these types of organizations.

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The other thing about D.C. though? It’s one of the nation’s top five most expensive places to live. Also, since Georgetown’s program runs more like an adult degree program for working professionals, other questions I would’ve had to answer were:

  • How long could I have stayed with family in the area?
  • Where would I stay if that didn’t work out?
  • Could I have found an employer who would’ve been willing to cover some of my costs?
  • How long would it take me to be able to live on my own again?
Photo Credit: Jennifer Yackel |The Post-Standard
Photo Credit: Jennifer Yackel |The Post-Standard

Financially, I knew that Georgetown could be feasible. Despite not offering financial aid outside a few service-based organizational scholarships, the school would’ve required the least amount of borrowing for loans. However, it was the questions above that still made Georgetown feel like more of a gamble than an opportunity. Still, I could say that had all things been equally financial aid-wise with the more traditional grad programs I applied to (meaning, had I received little or no funding at the other four schools), I was prepared to take my chances and make the move to D.C. Leave it to Georgetown’s former biggest basketball rival to throw a wrench in my plans!

Why Syracuse University?

If one of the best things you can keep is your word, Syracuse University sure does a lot of the best things right. When I first started the research process I wasn’t sure how interested I was being at Syracuse compared to three other schools. For me the curriculum, while still practical and interesting, lacked the flexibility that other programs offered, leading to concern whether I’d have the chance to hone in on my particular interest within PR. Truthfully, I only found out that Syracuse had a graduate PR program based off their reputation in  sports broadcasting.

Things started to take an interesting turn once the application process started. My statement of purpose essay for Syracuse was one of the toughest to write in that I could only speak my piece in 500 words – the shortest limit of all the schools I applied to. Plus, I also had to submit a video interview, the process of which wasn’t smooth at all. My first recording was interrupted by my phone’s loud vibration on the couch. Then on my second recording I literally stuttered to answer some of the questions that popped up. The way they have it set up, you’re not allowed to do retries unless you’re having technical difficulties. So with my second recording complete, I started to think my chances at getting in at Syracuse were sunk.

However, four weeks later after my application was sent, I receive an email saying my video is still missing. Apparently, the video where I struggled to get through questions didn’t completely upload. What a huge sigh of relief! By some kind of mix of fate, destiny, and luck, I was given a third chance at doing my video interview. While I didn’t exactly kill it, it was much better than the one that I thought already went through. And, sure enough as they had stated on their website, I received my acceptance email from the Newhouse School before the beginning of March, albeit in my spam folder.

As I started checking out more information on what to expect next, I came across Newhouse’s cost comparison chart. The first thing that jumped out to me was the fact that I applied to three of the first six schools listed; and man were those schools expensive! If that weren’t enough to convince me that Syracuse could be the most feasible option, I received an email three weeks later stating that I’d been awarded a $10,000 Dean’s Scholarship. Now, when split evenly between the fall and spring semesters, that $10,000 only covers a quarter of the cost; however, there’s a psychology behind that $10,000 that spoke to me. You see, on their website Syracuse lists the five amounts of Dean’s Scholarships that applicants could potentially be awarded, in addition to other scholarships that could potentially be awarded to program-specific candidates. The scholarship I was awarded was the exactly the middle amount any student could’ve received. Whereas it seemed like Boston U and Northwestern offered me their minimum amounts (there’s no way for me to tell specifically since that information wasn’t specifically listed on their sites), Syracuse seemed to be making a statement that said:

“Hey, we actually kind of like you and are serious about having you here! We know you could probably go anywhere you want to, so here’s a little more money for you to consider joining us and not them.”

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So instead of ruling them out, I decided to make plans to attend their Master’s Preview Day at the end of March. The event was a chance for me to get more questions answered to determine if Syracuse would be right for me. It was a cold day and I originally had trouble finding my way to Newhouse, but I made it 30 minutes early and got the chance to talk to some fellow attendees – both of whom already were attending Syracuse for other programs. After a brief lunch before the start of the event, we sat in to hear the dean’s pitch on Newhouse and two current students talked about their experiences at the university in general. Then came the moment I was looking forward to most: the chance to ask my program-specific questions to my program chair, Dr. Rochelle Ford. Of the 15 or so other potential students in the room, I asked the most questions by far, but Dr. Ford was patient with me and provided solid answers. By the end of the event, I felt confident enough to believe that my education at Syracuse would help propel me into my specific interests in PR.

When it comes down to it, I’m choosing to pursue my master’s at Syracuse because they showed the most interest in me. Newhouse impressed me by disclosing all, if not most, of the information prospective students need to make a decision on whether their programs are right for them. Unlike with many other schools I considered, Newhouse was honest about the type of financial aid students could receive, especially by listing each of their dean’s scholarship amounts for students who didn’t meet the criteria for other program-specific scholarships. Newhouse also stuck to the deadlines they posted regarding when students should expect to be notified during the admissions process. It’s this kind of honesty and communication that I appreciate in all of my relationships, and Newhouse demonstrates this as well as showing empathy for their students.

So, what’s next?

In order to make the most out of my graduate studies at Syracuse it was suggested that we as incoming students have a clear idea in mind what we most want to get out of the program. As someone with without too much formal experience in PR, there are many different areas I want to explore. The way I see it, there are many different ways I could pursue and continue my career in PR. The questions that remain include:

  • Should I use this opportunity to continue building towards my own small firm specializing in cause-related clients?
  • Could I explore new industries in PR that I’d never had the chance to pursue before? (i.e. sports and entertainment)
  • Is there a way I could do both?
  • Since I know I’d like to teach at the university level in the future, should I go ahead and complete the thesis track for my program?

Dr. Ford compared the master’s PR program at Syracuse to a buffet. The overarching theme behind her statement was to question what we as students would take from the buffet in order to make the most of our program. While I’m anxious to discover what’s next, there is no questioning that I’m very fortunate to even be in this position. I look forward to being able to share more about my studies at Syracuse this coming summer, and hope that maybe my stories could inspire someone else out there.

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