Melissa Burke on How Athletics Gave Her a Leg Up in the Marketing Industry

In her eight years since graduating, Melissa Burke ‘11 has built a strong career in marketing with experience at FierceMarkets, Resonate, or Skyhook. But before she found what she liked doing, she had a challenging start to her career. In this interview, Melissa talks about staying on at Tufts while her friends moved on to get jobs, why your first job won’t be your last, and how her time playing Field Hockey helped separate her in her career.


What was the biggest lesson you learned from your time playing field hockey?

The biggest lesson I learned was how to let small things go. When you play a sport, you have to let a bad play go and move onto the next one in order to be mentally tough enough to compete at a high level. The same thing applies in the work world. If you make a mistake, you have to be able to move on and not beat yourself up over that because it doesn’t serve anyone well. Another lesson was how to work with all different types of people and personalities. Learning this early has helped me navigate working with different people in my current job.

Did you have a clear understanding of what you wanted to do career-wise when you were a senior?

Definitely not. I originally thought I wanted to do something with children’s media because I was a Child Development major and a Communications minor. I had an internship at a children’s media company the spring of my senior year but they couldn’t take on new employees at the time so I couldn’t continue working there. I knew I also enjoyed working on the sports marketing project I had worked on for my senior Communcations project (eventually turned into Fan the Fire) but didn’t know how to turn that into a career.  I ended up applying for the Program Assistant position at the ExCollege for the year after college to buy myself some time to figure out what I really was interested in doing. 

What was it like staying at Tufts for another year and starting your career at the ExCollege?

It was definitely challenging. I had a hard time dealing with still being on campus every day while all of my friends had moved on. It was also hard working on campus in a work capacity and having my work experiences start to meld together with my undergraduate experiences. I learned a lot about how the university operates though in ways I never would have known as just an undergrad so I have no regrets about the experience. 

Can you expound more on the lessons you learned from that year?

The first year out of college taught me that it was okay to let go of friendships that no longer served me, and to also feel comfortable being honest with friends and family about the struggles I was having with transitioning from college to the real world. Having been a college athlete on a successful team at a top school, I had been used to experiencing a lot of success in my life. Getting to the real world and realizing that I didn’t really know what career path would make me feel happy or successful was a tough thing to deal with. While that first year out of college was really difficult, it taught me a lot about being resilient and also understanding and accepting that just because I wasn’t happy in my current job, that didn’t mean I was a failure.

When did you know it was time to move on?

I knew it was time to move on almost two years after I had been at Tufts. I felt I had given everything I could to the different roles I held at the university (Program Assistant at the ExCollege, Special Events, Coordinator in University Advancement, and program director of Fan the Fire/mentoring SAAC). I realized that I needed to get away from Tufts for a while and experience a new city and a completely new job. I ended up taking a leap of faith and moved to D.C. to take a new job at FierceMarkets, a company run by a Tufts alum.


Has there been an experience in your career -whether at FierceMarkets, Resonate, or Skyhook- where the athlete mindset or having an athletic background gave you an advantage? 

Two things come to mind. One is how to be a team player and work with other people. I’ve noticed that the biggest difference I’ve seen on the various teams I’ve been on is that you can tell who played a sport and who didn’t pretty quickly. What gives people away is their ability to work together or not. Former colleagues who never played sports I noticed always seemed to struggle more with being willing to help train new employees or help colleagues work through issues their having. Former athletes all understand that the weakest person on a professional team can impact everyone else on the team and therefore more often than not take the time to help them improve and get better. Having this mentality helped me get promoted quickly to a team lead on my team at FierceMarkets. This all came from my experience as a teammate during my athletic career. The same thing has now happened at my job at Skyhook where I’ve been promoted twice in two years.

Are there aspects of marketing that you think athletes or someone from a sports background are well equipped to excel at?

Marketing can mean a lot of things to a lot of companies so it’s tough to say for sure. I will say though that the creative aspect is something that I do see carryover from being an athlete in the sense that athletes are constantly making things up on the fly during a game or match and the same quick thinking applies to Marketing. No two days are the same in a Marketing role and every day new projects are presented that usually need to get done asap. Marketing teams also tend to work with a wide variety of other teams in an organization so the skill set of being able to work with all different types of people also definitely helps. Successful Marketing people tend to also have more outgoing personalities which I think athletes also tend to have more often than not. 

What do you wish you knew about the transition from college to the real world before you went through it? 

I wish I had known that it was okay to not know what I wanted to do for a while and not feel like a failure because of that. Senior year of college is such a pressure cooker because there is immense pressure for everyone to get a job right after graduation or need to start a graduate degree right away. The perception is that those jobs also need to be at a well known companies or in high paying positions which is completely not true. I try to tell any current college student I know that your first job will most likely not be your last job, so it’s okay if you end up in a job role or at a company that ends up not being the right fit for you. 

It’s the hardest period of any college student’s life because everyone feels an internal competitiveness towards each other during the job search and it’s really easy to feel like a failure or like you’re doing something wrong if you don’t have the perfect job offer or have an exact idea of what you want your career path to be when everyone else seems to have it all figured out. In reality none of that matters after college. I only know two people who still work at the same companies they started working at after college, and most of my friends have worked at several different companies at this point in completely different roles. It’s taken me eight years to figure out what i like doing and I’m still figuring it out. I wish colleges and universities did a better job of having alumni come in and have honest discussions about this because the reality is everyone turns out fine and each person is on his or her own unique path.


What advice would you give student-athletes struggling with anxiety about the future?

As hard as this is to believe, you’re going to be just fine. There are definitely going to be ups and downs after college in both your personal and professional lives but that’s okay. The best piece of advice I can give is to try and be open and honest with your friends and family about what you’re going through because the odds are they are probably struggling in some way too. Social media feeds into our worst tendencies to portray our best selves but we all know that it isn’t a true reality. It makes it a lot easier for everyone to feel like their friends are living fabulous lives when in reality they probably have stuff going on as well. Building and maintaining a strong support network is the biggest thing that has gotten me through life’s ups and downs so far in the real world. Don’t be afraid to admit you’re struggling or having a bad day. The worst thing anyone going into the real world can do is try and tackle it alone and pretend everything is great because the reality is at some point things won’t go your way but that’s life and your support network is there to help you get through it.

Finish this sentence: My biggest strength as a leader is… 

having compassion for other people’s current circumstances and personalities. I really make the effort to get to know the people on my teams and understand what makes them tick so that I know how best to motivate them. I also try and know what’s going on in their personal lives as well so that if they are going through something difficult I make sure to try and be understanding of that and not make their lives more difficult.