Why Earning My MBA was Valuable: 7 Reasons

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Life sometimes surprises us in ways we don’t always expect. When I began my MBA education in 2012, I thought I was doing it to differentiate myself from other civil engineers so that I could show business proficiency and understanding on top of technical engineering and project management skills. The goal was to become a leader of an engineering company – not one in particular, and the position varied by the size.  Today, I am still geared toward goals of organizational leadership, and the MBA changed my career for the better, while helping me find that the real estate industry was where I want to be.

I’ve been asked often about the value of an MBA, particularly by engineering students and alums of engineering programs. I always explain how it has to be a personal choice, but always explain what made my MBA experience valuable to my career to help provide the petitioner some context.

  1. I waited a few years after graduating. Had I gone to grad school of any kind straight from college, I would have gone for a technical engineering degree, despite my interest for the business world. I needed a few years to remove myself from homework and lectures and to just get experience and determine a direction. Had I entered a graduate engineering program right away, I may have never finished, or finished a degree unfulfilled and frustrated that I needed to make it work for me. Particularly beneficial for business school, I had at least four years of working in companies public and private, gigantic and small, to think about how real world businesses operated. This was valuable context to have as a background – without it, everything is just theory. Your work experience becomes case study for every case study you might undertake!
  2. I picked the format that was right for me. I was concerned about having the liquidity to pay the mortgage on my house if for some reason my renter didn’t or left, and I didn’t want to lose 2 years worth of engineering experience to go back to a similar role (that was before I realized what it was I truly wanted to do!) and simultaneously take on two years worth of tuition and living expenses debt, which would have been the case with a full time program. I seem to often impress people, and as a result get questions of why I didn’t go to Harvard Business School or MIT’s Sloan School of Management. All in one moment I am filled with regret and doubt that I could have gone to play at even bigger institutions, but I remind myself there was a lot more than prestige that went into my decision making. The part time, online program was the best thing for me at the time.
  3. I could afford to pay for it. My dad is a Boston College alum and last fall was my 31st season of BC football at 30 years old. When I had researched the program at the Carroll School of Management, I was enthused at the possibility of becoming a BC grad that I even put down a down payment after gaining admission. However, when I did the math out (which I should have done before the down payment), the cost of the program did not fit within what my employer was willing to pay and what I could afford.  The Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts was a far more affordable program, and even highly ranked – currently #1 in the US for on online, part time program according to Financial Times and now in the top 12 by the US News & World Report. I couldn’t imagine having student loan payments for part time grad school that were almost as much as my Boston apartment rent – for the whole 2 bedroom apartment.
  4. Made me a more marketable candidate. “MBA preferred” was what I believe was listed on the job description for my current role when I was job searching. Jackpot! That was an absolute advantage that I had against potential others applying for the role. It also opened doors with some great people in my network who knew and liked me, and could now see that I had taken, at least educationally, the next step toward working my way up and being a bigger contributor.
  5. Gained knowledge I was hungry for. I am an insatiable learner. I enthusiastically consume non-fiction every day for a half hour, or more if I have the time.  Reading a book that condensed an MBA into a few hundred pages was going to leave me with more questions than answers. I was fortunate to have professors in my program who were appreciative of my questions and digging deeper, as well as some group mates who were thoughtful about what we were trying to achieve. My eyes were opened to fields like marketing where I previously had no interest, and then learned about the power of what that field can do.
  6. I applied my knowledge everyday to gain context. The key to learning, for me, is applying what I’ve learned.  Every month we had cost reports and project summaries and I could see the cause and effect of certain things not just on a project but the company as a whole. I didn’t have the think about “what ifs” because the business decisions were playing out in front of me, in both positive and negative ways. I could make educated assumptions on outcomes if the opposite decision had been made.
  7. My expectations were realistic. At the time, I wasn’t trying to change industries. I was focused on learning and adding to my set of skills to be a better professional. I wasn’t expecting a $250K job right away and I wasn’t expecting to hit the c-suite immediately. I knew it would help step me up, and that it was up to me to make an impact with my new knowledge and skills. It would be a waste to put the paper on the wall and not realize that effort every day is what keeps accelerating careers.

 

Would I recommend an MBA? While it opened doors and was an overall positive experience for me, in my advice to others I’ll always say it depends. I’ll be writing on the reasons why I don’t think the MBA was valuable in an upcoming post so you can see the other side of the coin.  It really comes down to personal interest, if it works for your life situation and your goals, and your willingness to dedicate significant time and effort to focus and make it worthwhile. I have friends and colleagues who went full time and would never sacrifice their experience. Whenever someone asks for my thoughts, I dig deeper about their motivations.

What was your experience with graduate school decision making? Was your degree (or not getting a degree) worthwhile, and what if anything would you have changed?

Dear Graduates: 10 Truths I Wish I Learned at Commencement

 

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10 years ago this month, I stood atop Harrington Gym’s upper level, watching down on friends graduating from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Despite the dreary and wet day visible out the windows behind me, there was hope, joy, and pride as graduates walked in from their journey across Earle bridge and the quad. Four years of an engineering education was a grueling adventure, but full of fun memories outside the lab and relationships deepened by hard work and hard play. .

Watching and listening to the proceedings, I realized that it would be me (hopefully on a sunnier day) in the cap and gown the following year. Fear rushed in of everything that was left to accomplish and that I’d leave behind after accepting my diploma. I decided to embrace the journey and every opportunity, to soak up experience of my last college summer and senior year.  It was my goal to live life to the fullest, to work hard, but equally important, play hard. I was an optimist then, without appreciation for what life can bring, whereas I am now an optimistic realist.

There is a lot I know now that I wish I knew back in 2008, or could start preparing for a year in advance for in 2007.  Many lessons I learned myself, and others I learned from the experiences of friends and acquaintances, and was thankful to not learn personally.   

  1. It’s an ambiguous world out there, without a clear set of directions. No, you can’t argue for your grade to be changed if you didn’t understand the assignment. You’ll be required to ask more questions and figure out more on your own than you might be used to. At the same time, spinning your wheels for too long can set you back. Learning how and when to ask questions and when it is right to research for yourself will be key.
  2. Everyone is replaceable. You don’t matter as much as you think you do at the beginning, and even as you progress. Your pedigree and grades are thrown out the window when you first start out, and you’re forced to start at ground zero again.  This may be an opportunity if you were not a strong student, or an opportunity to rise in a different way if college was a glowing success for you.
  3. Hard work alone does not guarantee success. You’ll see others without the skills, ethics, and personality advance when you don’t. This is a tough lesson, but sheds light on important self reflection and what you want in a job and employer, as well as what you should be providing as an employee. Perhaps you change your job, and perhaps you take a chance to strike out on your own.
  4. Sleep matters more than you think it does, particularly without the opportunity for mid-day naps. Dedicate the time to resting overnight. It’s for both your safety and your success. After graduation the need for late nights should subside.  5:00 AM becomes the time to wake up for the gym, instead of heading to bed at 2:00 AM.
  5. Your feelings will be hurt (too bad, it’s a tough world out there), and you will likely experience discrimination (this is unfortunate even in a tough world) if you are in an “underrepresented” group. Learning to take criticism helps you to gain insight into others’ perceptions of you, and since perception can be reality, reacting in the right way can help you develop your personal brand. As for discrimination, if speaking up in any way does not stop it from happening, it is time to leave or take different (perhaps legal, depending on your experience) action. Speaking up for yourselves and others will be important.  Finding mentors and peers with similar experiences and learning how they handle situations can help solve problems and also be cathartic.
  6. Feedback must be requested. The lack of consistently-given grades in the form of convenient feedback can set you back if you don’t ask for insight into progress. This is a thin line to follow, as you don’t want to pester constantly for critiques, but also need to be able to assess performance. Some companies have formal systems in place for formal and informal requests for feedback, and others may be rudimentary if have anything at all.  Finding yourself an incredible boss will make a difference in getting the right type and amount of feedback.
  7. Socializing and keeping in touch with friends will be difficult.  More effort is required to maintain relationships, especially across town and state lines. Until you develop great new communication practices, always have at least one roommate. Learn to pick up the phone to call and to answer, to have conversations more meaningful than short texts, and and to go beyond posting and liking on social media. You’ll be surprised by how much more connected you feel by getting off social media and reaching out more organically.
  8. Similarly, finding activities to get involved in that are meaningful to you to take up time and meet people are important to personal, career, and service aspects.  The social circle and extra curricular activities are harder to find and more expensive to participate in than student activity groups on campus. Think about where you can add value to others and where what you learn will add value to your career. Professional organizations can be great for meeting friends, future colleagues, and potential business partners.
  9. Your family will matter more to you than they ever have before.  Whether you spend more time with them via living at home or less time by moving across the country, the impact of family will be immense.  Parents suddenly are older than you realize, and siblings have matured and changed in your absence. Take advantage of having everyone around you, whether physically or in spirit. Life is short and so many are taken too young.
  10. Your first job isn’t the be all and end all. It is certainly a great foundation for the rest of your career, but your opportunities will depend on how you make the most of open doors, or opening doors, once you start your career. Job hunting can be frustrating and exhausting, but it can pay off in spades for you if you execute your search by selling your skills and backing up your promises. Failure or success if up to you. Change is now inevitable, but loyalty while you with your employer can help gain access to new and exciting career experiences.

Best of luck to graduates and those of you remembering your own graduations this month of May! What are the lessons you wish you knew upon the closure of college and the commencing of the rest of your life?