The 30-Something and the Maybe MBA

Since graduating from college nearly a decade ago (holy hell), my career trajectory has been anything but expected or planned. I’ve been very fortunate in being able to continually move up the ladder despite some setbacks, and one can say that fortune comes with tenacity, grit, and the irony of lack of belief in oneself to forge ahead without any sense of entitlement getting in the way.

At 30, I look at the last ten years of my career and think, wow, there’s a true story there, one which wasn’t at all expected. There’s logic to the journey – basically, despite initially enrolling in school for theatrical design I quickly found my talent for the written word far surpassed my ability to sew in a straight line. Four rough years of college later, in a bit of a clinical depression funk, I realized that I was not meant to do entry-level work. My bosses realized that as well, and at first, not in the happy smiley everything worked out sort of way. But as I got my footing I also managed to have this crazy career in marketing. I found out that many college graduates, even those who could whip up fancy spreadsheets like no one’s business, had no idea how to write a damn sentence that someone else would want to read. My writing became my M.O.

As much as my writing propelled the first stage of my career, it also kept me on some strange neat path that I hadn’t seen from afar. Marketing is an interesting mix of science and art, requiring the ability to quantify everything you do while doing in it a way that feels enchantingly human. It’s an interesting career, for sure, one that forces you to remove your “me” cap and become a zombie cheerleader for a business, for better or worse. It’s certainly not the type of art which I once pursued, the one where you were rewarded for wearing your heart on your sleeve, or at least making a sleeve for someone’s heart to be worn on. Instead, you must take on the mindset of robot. In the case of technology, you must become machine with a human touch, you must be able to write persuasive masterpieces about software which improves business processes. And you must find in your heart the same passion for this as you would saving the wales or uncovering the cure for cancer.

When I daydream about pursuing an MBA or another degree, it’s not because I expect my salary to rise or my career to further skyrocket. It’s because I highly value what I’ve learned and what I will learn in this world of technology, but in the long run I want more than anything else to work for a business where my passion need not be so forged. Or at least partially forged as I always choose jobs where I at least find value to the product being sold, but there’s a vast difference between committing one’s life to selling technology that optimizes processes that would be done anyway, just not as well, to one that actually solve major problems that make the world better.

At the end of the day, though, a job is a job is a job. Now that I’m in my 30s, I’m trying to move away from this childhood desire to do something big, to change the world or at the very least to make the world THINK and LAUGH – now I just need to, you know, make money. And I am indeed making money. Many of my friends from back in the day would have their jaws dropped straight to the floor if I were to tell them I make over $120,000 per year before my bonus. They wouldn’t be so shocked about this if I were a banker on Wall Street, but no one really understands what I do and fewer would recognize that this job of mine deserves such a salary (for the record, I do not feel wealthy at all, and imagine a $250k-$300k a year salary would enable such feels.)

Most people go for an MBA to achieve a higher salary, and many are disappointed how the degree doesn’t actually work this way – especially if you come in with a high salary already. Others go in to switch jobs and expect to be able to maintain the same salary, which also doesn’t work. If I were to go back to school, I’d do it to switch career paths, but also to ideally maintain the same salary, or near it, and not have to go back to ground zero. Not possible, really, as I wouldn’t start out in management but instead as an individual contributor. The thing is I’m best as being an individual contributor. An MBA is designed for manager training, which is why I’m attracted to it, because if I want to maintain and grow my own salary I would need to be come a better manager and to move further away from individual contributions. I would hate that though, I really want an advanced degree which makes me a more skilled expert in a certain area, so I could be highly valued and well-paid for my individual contributions.

This returns me to wanting an advanced degree in HCI vs an MBA. I go back and forth over which one would make more sense, if either, but given my goal would be to either go into UX or product management, an HCI degree with two years of somewhat technical training would help me get where I want to be. But that still requires giving up two years of salary, paying a lot for the degree, getting into a really good program, and doing well in that program. Given my historical success in academia, this is a terrible plan. Given this is my life and I want to shift professional directions quickly before I have kids(?) a graduate degree might not be a terrible idea.

The whole kids things is throwing me off more and more by the day. This isn’t something 10 years out any more. If I want kids, they’re happening in the next five years. That’s all very soon. Life is short and it moves fast. An MBA is probably useless as it would require me to take jobs with more travel requirements and in-office time to actually get value out of it. On the other hand, an HCI degree could land me a position at an agency or in a business for a couple of years (agency would probably be preferred for a wider range of experience, though I’d be fast to accept a UX position at a wearable technology company) and then I could feasibly consult while still having the time to see my children(?) grow up.

The last thing I want is for my future kids(?) to see me dislike my career so much. I want to be clear too that I don’t actually dislike my job, it’s my long-term career that just isn’t working. It’s hard to separate the two but it’s necessary now as I’m focused on being highly successful in the short term. But the next 10 years of my life, well, they could either be — moving up in marketing towards VP (well paid, high stress, untied to the product experience), or lower-level roles in product/UX that pay probably less as a whole, but where I’d be much happier (not entirely happy as engineers can be so stubborn to work with when you’re trying to explain why a product should be built in a certain way, but persuasion is key to the success and satisfaction of any career.)

It’s clear that what I’m doing right now isn’t going to work for the next 10 years, nor is the natural trajectory of this career. So how do I go from where I am now to where I think I need to be? Perhaps the degree is actually the right path. I keep coming back to wanting an MBA from a prestigious school, but even if I could manage to get into such a program I am convinced the more STEM-y degree in HCI would serve me better in the long run. Why? Management can be learned on the job, online, and through various short-term programs, but it’s much harder to learn a science this way. What I need is to hone my quantitive persuasive skillset in order to support more creative concepts. You can get that out of both an MBA and HCI degree, but I’d imagine in technology it would be better to earn the degree in design research over the MBA.

Regardless, if I’m really going to do this, then I need to stop twiddling my thumbs and make it happen.

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