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I overcame my disability to achieve a master's degree and accelerate my career

Simon Bell shares his story of how he overcame his disability to pursue a Master's degree in Marketing, resulting in a deepened understanding of the field and advancement of his career.

I have a history of facing challenges during my university education; in 2013, I graduated with a BA (Hons) in Photography, following a close family bereavement in the final year. More recently, my own chronic illness tried and failed to prevent me from my goals.

In 2015 after exploring photography as a career for two years, I embarked on a change in direction towards marketing, originally in adult retail for two years and then solidifying that direction in the photographic technology sector. After more than four years in the field, my career progression stagnated, and I realised that I lacked certifiable credentials to evidence my expertise.

Alongside this, I was also dealing with getting a diagnosis for and managing my hidden disability. In 2018, shortly after participating in a rowing competition in Paris, I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis, a type of inflammatory bowel disease. I want to do more to raise awareness of this hidden disability - it can be an embarrassing topic, but it is more common and life-limiting than most imagine. The chronic illness significantly impacted my life; it induced anxiety over transport and meant a lot of time spent at hospitals having tests and infusions, regularly being on steroids, taking 17 pills a day and most sadly, giving up my hobby of rowing.

In 2020 I started looking into various accredited courses and other options and decided to pursue a Master's degree in Marketing, feeling it would have more reach and gravitas as a qualification. The fact that the MSc Marketing course at Birkbeck is accredited by the leading professional body for marketers worldwide, the Chartered Institute of Marketing, meant I would be equipped with the best opportunity for developing my career. I was also still working full-time and didn't want to take a career break to study, so Birkbeck's evening study model was the ideal solution.

Balancing my studies with full-time work was a challenge, but one that I was willing to take on to help get ahead in my career and with the help of Birkbeck's Disability Support team, I was able to manage my health and my studies simultaneously. They provided me with resources and allowances that made it possible for me to continue my studies without sacrificing my health. Birkbeck's approach to my illness was not only useful but also very human. One of my tutors even wrote a personal note of encouragement to me when she found out what I'd been going through.

In 2022, the last year of part-time study, it became evident that therapeutic options for managing my colitis had all failed and that surgery was the only option left. This coincided with my dissertation and after applying for mitigating circumstances, I was awarded a 10-week extension. Fortunately, I was able to start the research element of the dissertation before going into hospital, and during this time a huge number of participants completed my survey, enabling me to get started once I had recovered four weeks later. In the next two months, I both worked and completed all 12,900 words of my dissertation, researching as I went and achieved a mark of 73%, an achievement I'm super proud of.

Studying has been an incredibly beneficial journey for me, both in theory and practice. I gained new insights into marketing and learned from experts in the field; I particularly found the elements of my course that covered branding interesting and have enjoyed applying them in my day-to-day work.

The skills and knowledge I gained through my studies also helped me become more confident in my abilities as a marketer, which translated to success in my career. Since starting my MSc in Marketing, I've changed jobs twice, each time accepting roles with more responsibility and better pay. I now work for a lighting company and my day-to-day is busy, varied and really stimulating. I work on brand aspects of marketing, which includes market research and I also explore how AI and tech can help the company's marketing strategies and processes.

Pursuing my Master's was challenging but the rewards have been significant. I have no doubt that the knowledge I've gained will continue to serve me well in my career. It's also had a knock-on effect on the rest of my life – the progress in my career has meant that my husband and I are now in the process of buying a house!

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