Park Perspectives: An MBA can be a “career enhancer”
By Lindsey Staley, Two-Year MBA ’19
Park Perspectives are authored by Park Leadership Fellows
Much ado is made of the opportunities for “career changers” in MBA programs—and this is certainly for good reason! But what if you already love your job? Should you still pursue a full-time, two-year MBA?
Advocating for the MBA “career enhancer”
During my application process and throughout my two years at Johnson, I certainly came across many well-intentioned people with the view that the full-time, two-year MBA would not be worthwhile based on my goals. They asked:
- Why not do a part-time, one-year, or executive program?
- How will you earn a return on your investment?
- What about the opportunity cost of two years not working?
- While these are valid questions, I would make the case that the MBA is still worthwhile, even if you are a career enhancer and plan to return to your prior employer post-graduation.
Focus on your true north
In preparing for my MBA, I attended a presentation by an alumna, who gave a memorable piece of advice: “focus on your true north.” What she meant was that if you are clear on what you want and have a vision for how to get there:
- Don’t let other, less important things distract you
- Don’t let other people discourage you with their opinions about the worthiness or achievability of your goals
I came back to her phrase “focus on your true north” often during my two years at Johnson and it could be useful to other MBA career enhancers as well.
I began the MBA exploration process with some hesitancy because, on one hand, I had always known that I wanted to pursue an MBA and the timing felt right, but on the other hand, I was very passionate about my present job and employer. As I thought about it more, I realized that continuing my career with the company and pursuing an MBA did not necessarily need to be mutually exclusive. Thankfully, when I explained my goals and desire to continue with the company, my supervisor and other leaders at the firm were very supportive. Then the question became: how do I make it work?
While there was no tried and true way to do this at my firm, I have never been one to be discouraged by an untrodden path and used my creativity, determined to make it work.
Features and benefits of my MBA experience
- I continued to work for the company part-time (8hrs/week) during school year, which meant that I retained my health insurance and avoided having to reapply for a role post-graduation. Earning a small paycheck during school also allowed me to feel more financially secure and participate in some incredible travel experiences with classmates.
- During the summer between 1st and 2nd year, I interned at my company’s location in Johannesburg, South Africa. This gave me an incredible new experience, but also allowed me to stay connected to the firm and my field of interest.
- Because I had a very specific and clear goal for my career post-graduation, I did not participate in recruiting activities at Johnson. While this is certainly not for everyone, this choice freed up my schedule significantly and allowed me to get very involved in rewarding on-campus activities – such as taking on club leadership positions like Executive Director of the Johnson Board Fellowship and participating in seven different case competitions (winning 4!).
- From day one I consciously selected courses that were relevant to my specific career interests. Additionally, working part-time helped me to stay focused on my “true north” and each day I thought about how to apply the class content to my real-life job. For example, for my Sales and Business Development class, my final project was writing a sales plan based on the role to which I would be returning.
Career considerations: So, you want to come back?
Communicate with your employer and your sponsors at the company
And the sooner, the better. Explain why you want to get your MBA, why you want to come back, and what’s in it for them. For example, there are skills that you can acquire with the MBA that aren’t offered in corporate training programs or learned on-the-job. Additionally, the network you will acquire through an MBA could help your firm with recruiting great talent or winning new clients.
Has anyone done this before? Is there a formal program? Is there any financial assistance available? Outside of management consulting, few firms have formal structures in place. It is, of course, easier if there is a precedent, but it’s OK if there isn’t—just get creative.
Discuss the summer internship period
You could explore working in a different location, in a different line of business, on a special project, or even outside of the company such as with a client or vendor—again, get creative.
Discuss your return
Will you take a leave of absence or continue working? If you continue, how many hours per week is realistic considering that you want to take advantage of everything the full-time MBA has to offer.
Will you discuss role and compensation closer to graduation or sign a contract prior to school? Many management consulting firms that sponsor employees for their MBA will formulate a contract, which could give you peace of mind. However, there are also benefits to leaving things more open ended—you could have different interests and your employer could have different business needs for you after two years.
Financial considerations: What is this “ROI” thing?
Explore scholarships and sponsorship
I was very fortunate to receive the Roy H. Park Leadership Fellowship from Johnson Cornell and others in my position may be able to secure sponsorship from their prior firm.
Think about long-term ROI
Consider the long-term financial return on investment (ROI) rather than the short-term (one-three year) period that most MBAs focus on. Even if you end up not being sponsored or do not have a full-tuition scholarship, I would still argue that there is a significant long-term ROI for an MBA. For example, the MBA degree could be the necessary boost to get you hired into a senior role over another applicant; the interpersonal and technical skills learned in the MBA may allow you to excel even more in your job; and the network developed could help you win clients, recruit great talent, or find your next job.
Short-term rewards still exist
In addition to the long-term gains, even if you are returning to your prior firm, earning an MBA will often come with some sort of a salary boost, degree completion bonus, or title / role change. Be creative and put your new MBA negotiation skills to work.
While I won’t know for many years the true ROI of my Johnson experience, I can definitively say today that, considering my broadened knowledge base, leadership development, and new relationships, my personal, non-financial ROI is significant.