MBA reflections #2

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Last weekend I graduated from my MBA  course at Warwick Business School. The ceremony marked the conclusion of three years’ of hard, but incredibly rewarding and very enjoyable, work – despite the challenges of balancing study with career and family life. I’ve also been enormously privileged to meet some great people along the way and make some fantastic friendships.

When I started the course I said that I would post regularly about my experiences along the way. That was three years ago and I’ve failed miserably to keep my promise, but on the positive side, I completed the course, managed to maintain some semblance of balance in my life and graduated with a distinction.

When I take a moment to reflect, I’m pretty chuffed with what I’ve achieved, so now seems like a good time to pause and reflect on the experience, and hopefully pick out a few lessons that can help others thinking about a similar path. So in no particular order, here goes…

1. You get out what you put in. It’s a pretty simple equation. An MBA from a good business school carries a lot of prestige, but it won’t gift you opportunities. You need to have a good idea of what you want to achieve by doing the course when you start, then take every opportunity to draw the value from the models, events and networking opportunities you get involved in along the way. You might have a very clear idea of the job you want to go for once you’ve completed the course, or your goal might be less specific, and be about exploring a new career direction, for example. Both options are fine, but a plan gives you purpose and helps guide your choice of modules, research topics and much more along the way. Of course, be open to new ideas and the possibility that your plan might change. After all, one of the reasons you signed up in the first place was probably to broaden your horizons.

2. things you’re interested in. It’s hard to write an assignment, let alone a dissertation, if you’re not interested in the subject. Most courses will give you some freedom in the subjects you select for your assignments. Choosing an issue to analyse or a company to research that you’re personally interested in makes the experience much more enjoyable and will probably result in a better quality paper. When I planned papers and my dissertation, I asked myself three questions:

– Do I find this interesting?
– Is it useful from a business perspective?
– Does it have some academic value?

If the answer to all three is yes, then you’re probably onto something

3. It’s all still in there. With any course, once a module is over it can feel like you’ve completely forgotten all the knowledge you just gained as you start on the next one. It’s all still in there, but to keep it fresh I tried to draw on ideas from previous modules in the new modules I would start. Reading around the topic – particularly following the business news – is also a great way to apply the lessons you’ve learned. Finally, I found studying part-time a great advantage because I could think about events and experiences in the workplace in the context of my course and even put a few things into practice. Whether you work while you study or not, using what you learn to reflect on your own experience is a great mental exercise and a good way to embed the learning.

4. Meet new people. One of the most rewarding things for me about the course was meeting new people from very different professional backgrounds to my own. If you’ve spent your whole career in a particular profession, surrounded by particular kinds of people with similar personality profiles and skill sets it becomes very easy to assume that everyone in business is like that. Having my assumptions challenged, seeing the variations in how people think, act and solve problems, and the subtleties involved in making a team work with radically different personality types and skills certainly forced me to confront my preconceptions.

5. Broaden your horizons. Without doubt the school where you study will offer a wide range of modules to choose from, some firmly within your area of experience, others way beyond it. Of course, the modules you choose will be guided by what you want to get out of the course (see point one), but an MBA is a good opportunity to explore some new areas, learn some new skills and bring some breadth to your expertise. I’ve often found that the lessons I think are going to be least useful prove to be the most useful and vice versa. Serendipity is a wonderful thing, so give it the maximum opportunity to do good work.

I’ll leave it there for now, but I reckon I have a few more ideas I can share in another post. Any thoughts or ideas you have, please feel free to add in the comments.

MBA lessons #1

Back in January I promised to publish some regular posts about progress on my MBA in the hope that they would be useful for other potential students.

It’s now September and so far I haven’t published a thing, but I make no apologies.

The course is demanding and to do well and get the most value from the learning experience takes a significant time commitment.

So in the competition between study, work and family time this post has sadly been the loser until now, but hopefully I can make amends with some reflections on the first nine months.

So far I’ve completed modules on accounting, economics, organisational behaviour, and I’m now studying operations management, marketing and statistical modelling and analysis.

The curriculum is broad, but it also goes into quite some depth on each topic, so the learning experience is comprehensive. As you would expect in a business qualification though, there is an emphasis on developing the ability to apply the knowledge gained in a professional context, with plenty of academic rigour thrown in which you can read about below.

The experience has ranged from frustrating, difficult and stressful, to thought-provoking, stimulating and plain good fun. Overall however it’s been a hugely rewarding experience so far, and long may that continue.

Here are a few things I’ve learned so far:

1. Plan your time: Whether you’re studying full-time or part-time, the work schedule can be extremely demanding. Especially, for part-time students like me who are trying to balance study with a full-time job, falling behind is easy to do and when that happens it can be difficult to catch-up. The way to avoid this happening is to begin the course with a really clear time planner that enables you to plan your study schedule for the semester ahead. I’ve seen these break the workload down week-by-week and even day-by-day, depending on the student’s situation and working style. It can also be worthwhile to specify when you will make time for lesson reading and note-taking, and when you’ll attempt tasks and exercises as it’s when you actually apply the material that the learning really sinks in.

2. Keep practicing: Whether you’re being assessed by exam or coursework, completing practice exercises as you work through the course makes a big difference to the quality of your learning. The benefits in an exam situation are pretty obvious: you’ll be able to recall information, apply concepts and construct a comprehensive, logical answer much more quickly if you’ve had plenty of practice. When it comes to writing coursework, if you’ve already had experience applying the concepts you’re being asked to demonstrate in a lesson exercise, you’ll find applying them in the final assignment comes much more naturally. Crucially, you’ll also be more adept and linking different topics together, giving you a much more sophisticated grasp of the topic as a result.

3. Develop your style: The MBA course aims to give skills and knowledge you can apply in a professional context. Nevertheless, it’s an academic qualification and so the assignments you produce need to demonstrate the appropriate level of academic rigour to succeed. This means not only sharpening your skills of analysis and interpretation to determine the best business recommendation to make on a problem you’ve been set, but also justifying your recommendations with solid academic research, theory and evidence, and thinking broadly and reflectively about the problems posed to you so you can arrive at a truly nuanced answer. If you’re studying a topic in which you have some direct professional experience, it’s easy to forget the second part of this. Years of experience in a particular field mean that often we instinctively ‘know’ the right answer, but we forget how to set out our justification. It’s this skill an academic course forces you to reawaken.

4. Don’t get spooked: Particularly on part-time programmes with an emphasis on self-study, it’s easy to get spooked by the progress of others in your cohort. While you might be feeling satisfied one minute that you’ve completed Lesson 4 of Accounting, the next you’re in a state of dismay when you discover a fellow student is up to Lesson 8! As I quickly discovered, everyone has their own individual style of learning and works at a different pace. Some people like to study several topics simultaneously, others prefer to take a more sequential approach. Some prefer to complete the reading for an entire topic before attempting practice questions, while others like to blend the two. It’s your course and you need to work at a pace and in a style that’s right for you. Time planning, once again, is important here, but so too is reflecting on how you learn and focussing on the techniques that will get you the skills and knowledge you’re looking to gain.

There are plenty more lessons I’ve learned from the past nine months and no doubt many more to come.

As I begin to focus my mind on the end-of-semester exams happening in December, I’ll share some further thoughts  on my experiences so far.

If you’re thinking of embarking on an MBA and you have any questions, then please do let me know and I’ll think about how to cover them in my next post.