Postgraduate Lives: 'It's just like a full-time job'

Christopher Stephenson, 23, is studying for an MSc in advanced marketing management at Lancaster University Management School

I was brought up in a family business. After an undergraduate degree in business studies at Sheffield University, I spent two years at M&S, first as a graduate trainee and then as a commercial manager responsible for annual sales of £10m. I loved the retail business, but didn't want to stay on the operational side of things. I wanted to move into a role with more of a strategic element. So I decided to take a 12-month career break.

I was brought up in a family business. After an undergraduate degree in business studies at Sheffield University, I spent two years at M&S, first as a graduate trainee and then as a commercial manager responsible for annual sales of £10m. I loved the retail business, but didn't want to stay on the operational side of things. I wanted to move into a role with more of a strategic element. So I decided to take a 12-month career break.

After learning the value of real life experience, I knew that a theory-based programme was not for me. I needed a course that would bring marketing to life. Marketing is about innovation, it's about thinking of new ways to exceed customer expectations, and how to deliver to such expectations profitably. Most importantly, marketing is what businesses do. Thinking like a marketer is thinking like a business person; it is a skill that you learn.

The course started with research methods, then moved on to case studies, looking at areas such as consumer behaviour. Each week we have some great debates on the cases. I'm really developing my critical skills. It hits you when you have dealings with a business as a consumer and think, "God, why are they doing that". You see something that an executive in London has decided but that hasn't worked in reality. I can relate what I'm learning to my job at M&S. Historically, M&S has tried to attract everyone, but there is a danger that if a company is not specific enough, it won't attract anyone. Take restaurant chains, for example, you can't sell fish and chips and American food in one place if you truly want to meet differing customer expectations.

If I go back to M&S, I will definitely take what I have learnt into the real world, which is why I am doing this course. I spend a lot of time studying. There are 25 hours a week of seminars and workshops, and I spend another 25 hours a week on background reading and course- work. It all takes as much time as a full-time job!

I am interested in branding and the things people associate with different brands. For my dissertation, I'm going to work with Dr Emma Banister, a leading consumer-behaviour researcher, looking at consumption and supermarket chains. How do the associations that consumers have with supermarkets affect the ability of such businesses to move into non-food areas such as fashion? Tesco, for example, trades on the "every little helps" slogan - which is great for food but how do people feel wearing clothes, or furnishing their home with products associated with a brand image that is good value?

Ideally, I'd like to do an MBA at Harvard. My long-term plan is to be on the board of an international consumer-goods company. At 17, when I chose to do a business-studies degree, I didn't have the confidence or ambition that I have now. You get good A-levels, a good degree and a great job, and you suddenly think, Yeah, I can do this.

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