Was my masters degree worth it? Yes, but not how you think

A person's feet walking on newspapers. A quote over it that reads, "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." by Derek Bok
From Flickr Creative Commons: Celestine Chua

Disclaimer: I was one of the fortunate who had my masters degree almost fully-funded by the organization I worked for. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t cost me; I still had to put a lot of time into my schoolwork and my classes were held an hour from my home, so there was a lot of driving involved.

I often speak to professionals who are torn on whether or not to go for a higher degree. In most cases, a higher degree in the short-term (5 years) probably won’t result in a raise or a promotion. So, they often ask, is it really worth it?

In aggregate, the higher the education level you attain in the U.S., the lower your employment rate and the higher your income will be. So, generally speaking, even if you don’t see a short-term gain for earning a higher degree, there is most likely going to be a long-term gain for you. But, when I think back on what I learned most from my masters degree, what makes it ultimately worth it for me are the tools that I now use in all aspects of my life.

The first main tool was how to look up good information. As one of my colleagues (a financial analyst) put it, “The thing I learned in my masters degree that I value the most is knowing how to look up corporate data.” Knowing where, and how, to find data is incredibly helpful in most careers and in your personal life. Want to know how much the CEO is paid of the stock you own? I can find that. Interested in the graduation rate of your local high school? No problem. Curious on the latest studies about caffeine? Give me a few minutes, but I’ll get it to you.

The second, and even more important thing I learned in my masters degree was how to tell the difference between good information and bad information. This is a combination of knowing where to look and  how to look. For example, a family member told me about a major controversy that resulted in the firing of the local superintendent about three months prior to him telling me. The problem? No record of any firings could be found in the local newspapers and the school’s own board meeting notes showed no change in the name of the superintendent that was supposedly fired.  Or seeing a study about how a certain food is good for you, but when I look-up the study, I found out the major food manufacturer for the food conducted the study, meaning it is biased to fit that outcome. Or a study on health that does seem legit, but doesn’t control for other factors that might be affecting the results or has a very small sample size.

The two skills above, as the examples show, are not only useful in my professional career, but also in my personal life. It’s made me a more-informed citizen and voter, it’s made me a more discerning consumer, and it’s prevented me from spreading false information.

So was my master’s degree worth it? Absolutely. And I’m convinced that I’m not done learning yet.

Instacart price comparison, how much does grocery delivery really cost you?

A basket of groceries on a grocery check-out conveyor belt
Photo from Flickr Creative Commons: qmnonic.


Instacart, a grocery delivery service especially marketed to busy young professionals such as myself, has started offering their services in Houston, Texas. I was curious how much it really cost to use their services. Luckily, I had my last grocery receipt, so I decided to do a comparison. In short, to use Instacart would cost me about $30 more for $70 worth of groceries, so a 43% increase!

Additional observations:

  • Instacart did not have quite a few of the items I regularly buy. Apparently they will grab anything not listed for you, but I have no idea how much more that would cost. 
  • They did not have the full selection of produce, which would cause me to make some adjustments that included buying much more expensive options (such as the organic cucumbers below).

 Details of the comparison:

Item H-E-B (Alabama St. Houston) Price Instacart price for same store
Clear Care Lens treatment 20.97 25.39
Hill Country Body Wash 3.23 3.99
Orti Di Calabria Marinara Sauce 5.99 7.29
HEB 1% ½ Gallon Milk 1.98 2.69
HEB Sparking Water 3.29 Unflavored not offered, only lime.
Frozen Boneless Skinless Chicken Breasts 6.98 Not found
Tandori Naan Bread 2.88 Not found
6 pack Central Market Dried Cranberries 1.49×2=2.98  2.09×2=4.18
Cherries (.85 lbs) 5.98 6.09
Fuji Apples (7 apples) 3.81 5.95
Clif Bar 1.00X2=2.00 Not found
HEB Brie Double Crème 4.98 4.89
Chobani Greek Yogurt, individual plain 1.18 1.49
Poblano pepper (1 lb) 1.78 Not found
Red seedless grapes 3.12 4.79
Asparagus 2.98×2=5.96 4.89×2=9.96
HEB baby carrots 1.48 4.89
Cucumber .68×2=1.36 Could only buy organic, at 4.89 eachx2=9.78
HEB Pumpernickel Bread 3.48 3.09
Farmhouse Cage Free eggs 2.69 3.29
Taxes 2.00 Included
Delivery fee None 3.99
Total (only including items found on InstaCart) $71.19 $101.75

Are we effectively communicating with future-oriented people?

This post starts with the assumption that the work on the three orientations, past, present and future, is accurate. That may or may not be the case, but it’s an assumption for this post.


Wall engraved quote saying, "Our future is greater than our past" by Ben Okri
Photo from Flickr Creative Commons: SAN_DRINO


My friend, we will call her Melissa, is losing weight (very successfully I might add!). But she’s not doing it to look better; she’s losing weight because she foresees, based on family history and other factors, that this will benefit her long-term. My friend Melissa is future-oriented. I am the same way and her comments have made me, a burger loving, pizza craving person, go to Whole Foods for a salad for lunch, not because I feel guilty or want to look better, but because I want to still be healthy at age 60.

If you look at most marketing messages they are focused on the short-term. “Look better naked” reads a billboard for Gold’s Gym, “fast-acting” reads most medicine labels, and “change beginning tomorrow” is the theme of most political ads.  In the same way, many ads appeal to the past-oriented people, mostly through nostalgia. But what about the major subset the population that is future-oriented? Are we communicating effectively to them? We do for some products or services that lends themselves naturally to it, such as financial planning, but often, we forego discussing the long-term benefits in favor of short-term ones.

Perhaps we should start by including our target market’s orientation in our marketing process. For example, if we know that a large portion of our target market is future-oriented, we should talk about more long-term vs. short-term benefits. And, if we have a split target market when it comes to time orientation, craft messages for both.  In this method of thinking, Gold’s Gym would keep their “Look better naked” message but also have messages for those that are future-benefit oriented, such as “Still be able to hike a mountain at age 60.”

Addressing the Question: Why branding is important

A couple posts ago, I gave my thoughts on how to respond when asked about advertising return on investment (ROI). Today, I’d like to offer my favorite analogy to explain why branding is important. Although the need for consistent communication seems so fundamental to those of us in marketing, advertising, and communications, it isn’t to everyone. So, I created the “Meet Joe” analogy below to explain branding in a way that most, if not all people understand. If you like it, please feel free to use it for non-commercial, non-proprietary reasons. All I ask is that you give me credit for it.

Meet Joe Branding Analogy

Envision yourself as a hiring manager and…

Meet Joe

Man in a suit
Photo from Flickr: David Boyle

Joe is interviewing for a position in your company. Because of how you do your interviews, you end up interviewing Joe three times. At each interview, Joe appears to be different. He gives a different resume each time with basically the same information, but with some variations. One time he’s dressed in a full suit, then the next he’s in khaki’s and a polo shirt. Then the next time he’s dressed in slacks and a sport coat. One time he comes in and acts very formal and professional and then the next time he is very laid back and acts like you two are best friends. Then the next time he comes in, he acts very distant.

  • Based on that info, would hire Joe?
  • Why not?
  • Do you trust him?
  • Is the communication about your business like your interview with Joe?
  • Is it consistent?
  • Are you confusing your customers about who you are and/or causing them not to trust you?
  • Inconsistent branding including different logos, different looks to your different marketing pieces, etc. can confuse the customer. This is why branding is important.
  • It’s ok to emphasize different elements of your business, but if you’re doing it so much that your customers are confused about who you are, it’s a problem.

So there’s the analogy. I use it a lot during my talks on Broken Windows Theory and marketing. Do you like it? Would you make any changes to it? How do you explain why branding is important?

Attributing costs in marketing is essential

A calculator, a cost sheet, and a hand and pen writing on it
From Flickr: Dave Dugdale

More than once, I’ve been accused of being too strict in how I attribute marketing costs to projects. I am very strict, but for good reasons:

Reason 1: Attributing costs allows for leadership and owners to understand and budget for costs

A couple of years ago, I began working on a project. The leadership for the organization I was working for looked at what was spent on the project in years past and gave us that amount to work with. The issue? It was less than 1/5 the actual cost of the project. Why so? Because people weren’t attributing the costs they incurred back to the project. Instead, they were absorbing them into their own budget.

This might seem like an OK thing to do, but it really isn’t. First, it “hid” the actual cost of the project so the organization’s leadership weren’t able to critically assess the project using actual cost numbers. At the cost they thought was correct, the project was a great deal. At the actual cost, the project became questionable. Second, it created a lot of difficulties for our committee because, since the other departments had their budgets cut and could no longer afford to absorb the costs of the project, we had to back to our leadership, ask for money, and justify why we needed it.

Reason 2: Critical business decisions are made based on costs and budgets

One department I worked with once said that their department was losing sales because of a reduction we’d made in their marketing budget. I decided to do an analysis to see if that was true by looking at a variety of variables and looking for correlations. I could not find a correlation between the drop in their sales and marketing expenditures no matter how I ran the numbers. But, I found that the particular division was down to making a profit of  $15,000 per year. The problem? Because their marketing budget was being charged back to my account, their profit and loss statement didn’t include their marketing costs ($25,000). With all their costs accounted for, the department was losing $10,000 per year. Critical business decisions about this department we being made based on incorrect numbers because not all costs were accounted for.

Reason 3: Shareholder/taxpayer accountability

Working for community colleges for the past nine years has made me very cognizant of being very transparent with all projects and their costs. The taxpayers should be able to ask and receive a correct answer about any project they so choose. So should shareholders. Assigning costs to the correct project is essential, and ethically necessary, for public and shareholder accountability.

So call me too strict if you will, but I think it’s absolutely critical to attribute costs correctly.

What do you think? How do you feel marketing dollars should be attributed


Why I support STEAM (adding arts to STEM) in education


For the past few years, the hot new buzz acronym in education has been STEM, which stands for the four disciplines science, technology, engineering and math.  Everyone from educators to politicians have been promoting STEM education as a way of pulling our country out of the economic recession and securing our economic future as a nation. Recently, there has been a movement to add arts into the educational mix to create an emphasis on STEAM vs. STEM.


Why I support STEAM (adding arts to STEM) in education

I come from a STEM family. The majority of family members are medical professionals and engineers. So, they had hopes that I would be too. And I don’t fault them for that; they wanted what was best for me and STEM jobs usually mean a good income.


I was taken to every “Women in Science and Math” and “Students in Technology” event that my parents could find. I would go, but I’d proceed to sit there and draw or flip through the program and mentally rate the quality of advertisements in it instead of paying attention.


You see, I like STEM; in fact, at one point I wanted to be a marine biologist. But the reality is, STEM isn’t where my strengths are.  I would do very well in my STEM classes, but I’m a marketer through and through, and no matter how much I was encouraged otherwise, I was still more geared towards the arts.


How adding arts improves the model

The STEAM model with arts included opens new doors for education, employment and innovation, and it recognizes people like me as having gifts that can help this nation move forward. One of the biggest false assumptions is that you cannot make a good income if you are in an arts career. The reality is, there’s value in those who can market and sell products and services and, because of that, my income is similar to many STEM jobs.


The other assumption is that arts don’t integrate with the rest of the occupations as well as the others do. This is also not true. I may not use science or engineering in my role often,   but I absolutely utilize technology and, as I pointed out to a marketing student recently, if you’re planning to work as a marketing director, you had better be very good at math.


Trevi Fountain in Rome Italy
A large portion of Italy’s prosperity (including tourism) can be linked to the inclusion of arts. From Flickr: cfwee

Allowing people to follow their talents

In addition, we should be looking at the natural talents of our people and matching them with careers that will utilize those talents so they can excel to their full potential.


I know of several friends who are in the middle of career transitions because they’ve come to realize that they aren’t happy with their work. In most cases, there is nothing wrong with their chosen career, it’s just not where their natural talents are, so they struggle in it and/or don’t find joy in it.  Imagine, as an example, someone naturally talented at engineering being a painter. I’m not saying this combination couldn’t work, but I am saying that, in most cases, the person geared toward engineering would struggle less, be happier, and be more productive in an engineering job. The opposite is also true for an arts-oriented person.


So, adding arts creates some opportunities for people to utilize their natural talents in a way that can benefit us all. That’s why I support the movement to focus on STEAM.

Time management series: Effective studying for the non-traditional (or accidental) student. The 20/10 technique.

A wind-up kitchen timer that looks like a hamburger
I recommend a non-ticking kitchen timer for the 20/10 technique. From Flickr: pasukaru76

This past weekend, I had to complete over eight hours  of training for my work via online videos and online readings. Not my idea of fun, but very much needed. To survive this and to pass the required tests at the end, I dusted-off my old study trick from my cranial shelf.  I call it the “20/10 technique.”

20/10 technique

What you’ll need:

  • A comfortable, quiet place to study with no interruptions.
  • A kitchen timer (non-ticking type). A phone timer will work, but I don’t recommend using your phone because it can be it’s own distraction.

The steps:

  1. Organize your space and prepare to study. Have your computer turned-on, something to drink (coffee, water), etc.
  2. Set your timer for 20 minutes.
  3. Do your work for 20 minutes straight. DO NOT let yourself get distracted.
  4. When the timer buzzes, reset the timer for 10 minutes.
  5. Do whatever you want to do for that 10 minutes as long as you know it takes less than 10 minutes. Grab a snack, start a load of laundry, etc. I recommend something that will get you up out of your chair and moving. I don’t recommend something that is similar to your studying. So, if you’re studying is reading, don’t use that 10 minutes to read something else. If you’re working on the computer, don’t use your 10 minutes to pay bills online.
  6. Go back to step 2 and start all over again. Do this as many times in a row as you can.

Why it works:

  • Educators have been stressing for a long time that you need to study in short increments. Twenty minutes is a good amount of time. When I started using this technique, I found I remembered more and got higher grades.
  • If you have a full life outside of schoolwork, this still allows you to make progress on your other tasks without feeling guilty. You can still get the laundry done, the dishes cleaned, etc. during those 10 minute increments.
  • It provides a structure to your studying. When that timer goes off, it’s hard to ignore it and continue to play on Facebook.