Modernize Your Marketing Degree: 6 Tips from a Grad Who Learned the Hard Way

If you’re a marketing student in 2014, you should be stoked. Marketing is one of the most exciting fields to work in right now, and it’s rapidly evolving. So rapidly in fact, that your school’s curriculum can’t even keep up.

The sad truth is that even top university marketing programs will leave you ill-prepared for the real world. A degree in marketing doesn’t cut it anymore—at least not without a little modernization.

Shopify: We Don’t Hire Marketing Grads

It all dawned on me in my final year of university. With graduation on the horizon, like many seniors I began putting my feelers out for a job. And, like many Ottawa students, one of the first companies I had my eye on was Shopify. Rapid growth, a great product, and a world-class company culture aside—they’ve got a freaking slide in their office alright?

So I eagerly went to one of their job fairs, an open-bar, ugly Christmas sweater party at their office (lol yep) and chatted up some Shopifolk about marketing roles. The shocking truth followed: Shopify doesn’t hire marketing grads.

“We don’t typically hire marketing grads,” I was told. Huh? “Most of our marketing team have more of an engineering background.” Alrighty then.

Like a frying pan to the face, I realized good grades weren’t going to get me the exciting career I wanted. After all, the companies I was interested in weren’t running TV or billboard campaigns like we learned about in school.

Wait a minute—what the hell do these marketing teams do all day (besides, you know, taking turns on the slide)? I really didn’t know.

And thus, the journey began: I set out to modernize my marketing degree.

My Advice to Marketing Students in 2014

That was one year ago. With the knowledge I’ve crammed into my brain since then and the benefit of hindsight, this is my advice for marketing students.

1. Don’t get buried in your homework

So, we know school curriculum can’t keep up with the rapid evolution of marketing. Once textbooks hit the shelves, many are already out of date. And you’re not studying Physics or BioMed—a GPA just doesn’t hold that much weight for a marketing candidate.

The new graduates that get the online marketing roles today are the ones that have taught themselves the things that matter. There are so many worthy things to learn and most of them aren’t taught in marketing programs.Sean Ellis

With that in mind, you’ll want to allocate your time accordingly. I’m not saying skip class, and this definitely isn’t an excuse for laziness—you’ll have to focus this energy elsewhere. Where? I’m glad you asked…

2. Learn on your own

If there’s one thing university is teaching you, it’s how to learn. And that’s your biggest asset as a marketer. Your career will be defined by learning something new every day. Learn, evolve, or fall behind.

…if you get into Marketing… you’d better love learning. This space changes more frequently than Lady Gaga’s weird outfits.Travis Wright

So what are the gaps you should be filling in to modernize your degree?

At a high level, marketing degrees today don’t prepare students to wield the power of online data and online channels. These things aren’t just part of a subset of marketing called “online marketing” anymore, it is marketing. Now let’s dive into the details.

Brian Balfour’s (VP Growth at HubSpot) T-Shaped Marketer concept is a great place to start. Let’s take a look…

Wow—that’s a lot of stuff you probably don’t know much about. That’s okay. The good news is, your classes are giving you some Base Knowledge that will help lay a foundation. Namely:

  • Statistics: Don’t be a part of the 90% of marketing students who skip this class; a solid understanding here will help you make meaningful conclusions from data. And don’t trust me on that number, because I made it up.
  • Behavioural Psychology: I found this was touched on in most of my marketing classes. Don’t miss your Consumer Behaviour class and if you’ve got an extra elective, you can’t go wrong with Psychology.
  • Branding, Positioning, Storytelling: No complaints here. Your marketing degree will serve you well on these.

Which means you’d be wise to spend some extra time developing these skills:

  • Programming: You don’t need to be a pro, but the basics of front-end languages will serve you well (HTML, CSS, and JavaScript). With this knowledge, you’ll find you can execute more on your own, communicate with developers better, and you’ll become a better problem solver. It’s also pretty fun.
  • Product Design & UX Principles: Since these days marketers are working more closely with and testing on products themselves, understanding design principles is a valuable skill.
  • Analytics: It’s pretty shameful that a lot of university marketing programs still don’t have a course on analytics. This is insanely important because this is how we track business performance, learn, and improve.

And that’s just one layer. But remember, you don’t want to bury yourself in homework (even if it’s self-induced). The advice in the sections that follow will help you hit the other layers, understand what to focus on, and bring it all to life.


3. Follow smart people and read a lot

I remember in my first year of business school one of my professors proclaimed, “If you want to be successful in business, you must read the news.” Since then, I check BuzzFeed daily.

It’s not bad advice. But for marketers I would add that you really must follow marketing influencers online (their blogs, on Twitter, on other online communities). And not just specific people, pay attention to what your favourite companies are doing too. This will help you stay ahead of the curve.

The best education (for my dollar) has been in following the people who are smarter than me…Mitch Joel

Also, read a lot of books (not textbooks!). Anything that inspires you.

There was a time in my life where I didn’t read much, and now I look back on it as the most superficial and bleak point of my existence.Ryan Holiday

Yikes, I should read more.


  • Countless marketing rockstars all in one place, talking and sharing ideas. Go here often, and don’t be afraid to contribute.
  • A paid resource, but a really great one. Tons of one-on-one interviews with smart people. For me, listening to experts talk clicks in my brain in different ways than reading can.
  • If you’re looking for books to read, start here and join his reading list. Genius marketer and a really inspiring person in general.

4. Get involved

Real original, right? Seriously though, joining a school club is a great place to test out those marketing chops. It’s a lot like working for a startup.

What’s that? Your club needs to sell hundreds of tickets to an event? Sounds like a marketing challenge to me. Use those coding skills to cook up a landing page, find creative ways to promote it, track conversions with Google Analytics, add in a little hustle… BAM you’re applying this shit already.

Try to pick a club that’s very entrepreneurial. If you’ve got an Enactus at your school, just join that. Using entrepreneurship to change the world for the better… who’s not down for that? Enactus students all over the world are doing some pretty amazing things and you can too.


  • Enactus: For realz, it’ll change your life.

5. Find an internship

Taking on an internship is another great way to put what you’re learning into practice. Choose wisely though.

If your school has a co-op program that’s a great option, but I found the placement choices were a bit limited. A lot of the choices are specialized roles at big companies where you don’t get enough broad exposure.

That’s why I’d recommend seeking out a role at a startup if you can (even if it’s part-time and/or unpaid). It’s faster-paced and you’ll be able to see how your marketing efforts directly impact the business.


  • Ask around at your local startup incubator if anyone could use a hand (I got a job this way).
  • Reach out to your favourite companies with enthusiasm (I’ve gotten interviews this way).
  • Go to local Meetups and other events and chat with marketers and entrepreneurs (Build your network and you’ll never have to apply to a job posting again).

6. Get a different degree

Alright, before marketing professors show up at my door with pitchforks, I mainly suggested this to stir the pot. But seriously—you don’t need a marketing degree to be a marketer.

Modern marketers come from a variety of different backgrounds, and these diverse skill sets are often their greatest asset.

Making use of their analytical skills, many marketers now have engineering backgrounds. Others value their background in social sciences, and some are even dropouts.

I was fortunate enough to major in economics, which has a major impact on marketing. Many economic principles remain unchanged and do in fact guide my decisions on a daily basis.Jordan Skole

If you’re about to jump into business school, keep this in mind. If you’re currently a marketing student and not getting much out of your degree, try a different discipline. And if you’re not a business student at all—use that to your advantage.

My journey started a bit late, but yours can start now. Whether you dream of working for a tech startup, a marketing agency, or a big corporation, modernizing your marketing degree is critical.

As time marches on, there will be less room for traditional marketers and more demand for modern marketers. Since I’ve taken this path, a lot more doors have opened for me. More exciting ones.

After all, you want to ride the wave, not watch it from the shore, right?

Overwhelmed? Have questions? Email me. Want to learn more? Join my course for marketing students who want to get ahead.

This post originally appeared in Medium. Comments can be seen there.


Modernize Your Marketing Degree

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