How I Doubled My Income With Two Years of Grad School
I majored in the lucrative fields of English and creative writing in college with plans of entering the grand world of publishing. But the Great Recession and the growing struggles of the book industry did not make for the most promising of employment opportunities. I finally landed an Editorial Assistant job at a non-profit that was launching its own book imprint. I was making $30K/year while living in NYC. I lived from one toilet paper roll to the next, getting my 99-cent rolls at the bodega down the street when needed.
Meanwhile, like many college grads who are vaguely dissatisfied with their careers, I started thinking about graduate school. I considered all my options: MFA programs, med school, law school, veterinary programs, PhDs, and more, but nothing felt quite right. During all this exploration, I made incremental promotions/job changes in the non-profit sector. Several years later, I was making a $55K annual salary at a stable, straightforward job with good benefits. But I was still unhappy. I was also finally able to put what I wanted in a graduate program into words:
- It couldn’t put me into major debt unless it had significant likelihood of a high-paying job afterward (i.e., MFA programs were out)
- It couldn’t lock me into a single industry; if all my flip-flopping told me anything, it was that I needed flexibility and options to change jobs/industries/functions if I wanted to (med/law/vet school was out)
- It couldn’t take too long to complete (goodbye, PhD)
Then I thought about an MBA. Believe me, never in my life — never, ever, ever, ever — did I imagine myself attending business school. I was not a business person. I was a bleeding-heart liberal who would only do what I considered “meaningful” work (either in creative or nonprofit sectors) and my view of MBAs consisted of the worst stereotypes: future investment bankers and consultants who were only out there to gain as much money/power/status as possible.
But I started doing my research. MBA programs are only two years long (or less). They are designed to place you straight into a job after completion. Most people do a three-month summer internship between the two years, and not the unpaid kind — these internships paid FAR more than even my current job did (this part blew my mind). This meant I’d have some kind of income during my schooling, and it seemed like a 6-figure income post-graduation was pretty damn likely.
On top of this, the MBA degree is ultra-flexible. It does not lock you in to a specific industry or function. It somehow gets you a substantial pay increase without teaching you narrow skills. I think this aspect of the degree is really what won me over in the end.
I ended up taking the GMAT (most programs take GRE scores, too) and applying to business schools. In the meanwhile, I looked for mission-driven companies like B Corps where I thought I might be able to do some good. I chose my MBA program in part because I knew a couple of these companies recruited grads from that program. I was lucky enough to secure an internship with one of those companies (three months of an annualized $77K salary with full relocation/housing covered), and I returned to the company full-time after I graduated.
This is where it really got wild: My starting salary was $105K with a 10 percent annual bonus and a $30K signing bonus. (I mean, bonuses?? Of any kind?? Are you kidding me? After working in non-profits for so long, it took me a while to wrap my head around this.) The cross-country relocation covered 100 percent of my move, which was probably a $15K value. This package was on the lower end of what graduates from my MBA program received.
The leap in income was staggering. Was I a different person with a completely new set of skills/experience than before grad school? No — my resume was exactly the same as it was before I enrolled, and I really only had one semester of schooling under my belt before I got my internship offer, which then led to my full-time offer. But the fact that I was a MBA student afforded me interviews and opportunities I would never otherwise have had. MBA programs are more of a sorting mechanism or a job placement service than anything else. Getting into the program in the first place — and demonstrating ambition afterwards — is what companies want to see.
That’s where the caveat comes in. You need to do a decent MBA program to increase your chances of getting a highly paid job afterward. Almost every school out there offers some kind of MBA program, but I’d say you need to attend a top 25 program to ensure solid job prospects afterward (mine was somewhere around #15). That said, DO NOT think that it’s impossible to get into a good MBA program. You don’t need to have gone to a highly-ranked college for your undergraduate degree. You also don’t need a perfect GPA — I had a B+ average. You don’t need to have business-y work experience; B-schools value diverse backgrounds. My non-profit experience helped me stand out in the applicant pool, and my classmates included writers, artists, horse trainers, and chefs. To my fellow ladies: Business schools are always looking for talented women. Student bodies still skew heavily male; some are only 30 percent female. There are significant scholarship opportunities and other support programs to bring more female talent into the business world, which is sorely needed, in my opinion.
Yes, I do now have $80K of student loan debt under my belt along with two years of lost income and retirement savings. I was lucky to get scholarship support — my debt could have been much higher than that. But I also more than doubled my income, and my lifetime potential earnings have grown exponentially. In one year, I was able to put away retirement savings equal to three years of past contributions with my prior job.
When it comes to saving money, increasing income is one of those options that sounds great in theory but also seems impossible to achieve. Promotions, raises, and job changes help along the way, but grad school can be a good option if you want to make a life-changing move. An MBA can open doors that were once locked and bolted shut. I’m still amazed at the opportunities I now have in front of me and marvel at the salary I make. Even though I never thought I’d go to B-school, I am very glad that I did, and I hope other (perhaps more unconventional) potential grad students consider it.
Anonymous is in her mid-30s and works for a do-gooder company that tries to improve people’s health and the environment. She also wears jeans everyday to work and despises suits and business casual clothing.
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