So, you feel that you're finally ready to go back to school after graduating from college, eh? But instead of taking up an additional college degree, the moment has come to move on to the next level. This time, you're targeting an MBA.
As I'm sure you've deduced at this point, taking up a Master of Business Administration degree is not an easy decision. For some, it may even be a tougher than choosing a college course because people at this point of their lives have to juggle a lot of things – time, career, finances, friends, and family.
While the tuition fee may be one of the most visible burdens associated with MBA education, especially when it comes to the top business schools, time is actually the biggest price to pay. Instead of using the years to enrich your relationship, watch the kids grow up, or advance a career, it will be spent studying after office hours and on the weekends. This may sound like a big price to pay but I feel that it is worth it in the end.
For those of you sitting on the fence, I've written down a few candid thoughts on surviving the MBA program. It is my hope that by sharing my own journey, you may be enlightened on whether this is the path you wish to continue on.
Why do you Want an MBA?
The first thing you need to settle is your reason for securing an MBA degree. Some people want to take it up to advance their careers. Others decide to take up an advanced degree for the prestige it carries. There are those who take it up for the purpose of advancing their knowledge. Then there are others who study in order to improve their businesses. While these are the three most common reasons I have come across, you may have your own.
There are no right or wrong reasons because each reason will be deeply personal. What is important is to hang on to them throughout the entire program to keep yourself motivated.
In my case, all three reasons listed below inspired me to take up my MBA. The good thing about having more than one is that I would switch between them during different points of the program. In the early stages, all of them drove me forward. During periods in the middle of my stay, I would alternate by picking the most relevant at the time.
One example is when I switched jobs, the driving force became career enhancement. When I encountered a subject I particularly liked, the driving force became my quest for knowledge. During my last year, all three reasons came into play once more.
If your reason is to acquire the prestige that comes with having an advanced degree, then you're on the right track because people with MBAs tend to be acknowledged experts in their given fields.
However, I would be remiss if I didn't point out the level of prestige will be connected to the school you graduate from. The better the reputation of the school, the higher the prestige.
Speaking about fields, modern MBA education allows students to pick certain fields one is interested in towards the end of the program. During my time, some of the more common ones include Human Resources, Marketing, Operations, and even Information Technology. The choice of subjects will dictate the content of the comprehensive exam taken at the end of the academic portion of the MBA program.
Increasing your knowledge
If your reason is to increase the amount of knowledge you possess, getting an MBA will satisfy that requirement. With all the information being hammered into your brain throughout the program, it is impossible for you not to absorb anything. And even if you do forget something, or are lacking in knowledge of a specific topic or process, the program will teach you how to acquire that knowledge.
[You'll come out learning something, even if it isn't immediately apparent to you.]
However, there is a caveat once more – the best business schools are the ones that provide maximum leverage. This is because the top universities recruit the finest teachers and attract the best students. On one hand, the finest teachers provide the best theoretical and applied knowledge. On the other hand, the best students can share their own experience, something that might not be found in books.
That doesn't mean that schools outside of the top three universities aren't competitive. Thanks to the continuous efforts of the Philippines' Commission of Higher Education, or CHED, the advances made by the top universities are continuously cascaded to the rest of the country's educational system. The minor downside is that it just takes a while for other schools to get up to speed. The upside of this lag means that students receive knowledge that has already been tried-and-tested, distilled, and refined by the time they are adopted.
Advancing your career
People have this mistaken notion that an MBA is the magic bullet that will miraculously change their lives upon graduation. It is not. Unfortunately, most graduates realize this painful truth a year or two after completing the program.
If your reason is to advance your career then it is, unfortunately, a mixed bag. Let's start with the bad news first...
If you think that adding those three capital letters to your resume will guarantee hiring, think again. My own experience is that only an MBA graduate will hire another MBA graduate. Unfortunately, the biggest reason for this attitude is that people with lower degrees tend to be threatened by those with higher ones. This can be problematic in careers wherein MBAs are uncommon, such as the Information Technology and Engineering fields.
Now for the good news...
There are jobs wherein an MBA is not only an asset, it is a requirement. Education, Marketing, Sales, and even Human Resource are some of the fields where MBAs make the most impact. It also tends to be sought after for upper management positions, such as those involving a CEO, COO, President, or Vice-president.
Improving the business
Whether it is to put up a new business or improve and existing one, the MBA program will be able to help. Using the case study method, majority are about individuals or companies that have existed in the distant past or in the near present. There also a few that happen to be fictitious individuals and companies in order to present extreme situations.
I recall one teacher telling me that one of the objectives of MBA studies is to distill centuries’ worth of experience into several trimesters of classes. By studying the successes and failures of past and present companies, it is the hope that students will avoid making similar mistakes as well improve on what has already been done.
Quite a number of my classmates who had their own businesses or were part of the family business found the classes to be quite helpful. Apart from improving their existing organizations, classmates who planned to launch new businesses ended up doing so after graduation.
What MBA School Should I Attend?
While there are quite a number of great schools to choose from in the Philippines, the two institutions that stood out for me were De La Salle University and the Asian Institute of Management.
For me, De La Salle University, or DLSU, is the best part-time MBA school there is. Even before graduating from high school, this institution already had the reputation for being the standard for business education. Based on my own experience, it provided a good balance of western and eastern knowledge, instead of weighing heavily on just one.
Many of the professors have doctorate degrees who continuously conduct research in various disciplines. These same professors also have considerable real-world experience so much of their research can actually be applied in the organizations you and I work for.
Still on the topic of teachers, DLSU is very strict about the quality of its educators. If persons do not meet the university's standards, corrective action will be initiated. And if this doesn't work, then these same people will not be invited back to teach.
Another great thing about DLSU is that business administration is 1 out of 14 centers of excellence the university is officially recognized to have. These range from accounting to physics, making it the highest number for any private university in the Philippines.
Not only is it top-ranked in the Philippines, Times Higher Education, or THE, lists DLSU as the only private school in the Philippines to be in the top 3 percent in the world.
The average duration to complete the program is four years. But if you overload, like what I did, you can shave off a about a year for just the academic portion.
When it comes to full-time studies, I believe the Asian Institute of Management, or AIM, has no equal. Established by prominent business leaders and a number of top schools, including Harvard Business School and DLSU, it is the first Southeast Asian school to receive accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, or AACB, based in the United States.
While typical part-time schooling can take three to four years to complete, the full-time curriculum of AIM means that graduation takes place after 12 to 14 months. This shorter duration does come at a price as the tuition fees of AIM are considered to be one of the highest in the country. However, all the graduates I have spoken to feel it is well worth it.
Another thing that makes AIM attractive is that the student population is probably the most diverse in the Philippines as a considerable number come from outside of the country. This helps enrich classes as the experience from other countries contributes to the learning process.
You can't go wrong with either one of these schools when studying in the Philippines. Both institutions conduct all their classes in English, making them ideal for local and international students.
With both schools having so much going for them, I eventually settled on DLSU because the part-time schedule allowed me to work while studying.
What are the two MBA Versions?
The MBA versions I refer to are the thesis and non-theses paths. For the former, an MBA candidate has to prepare a thesis demonstrating his or her mastery of business administration as a requirement for graduation. This thesis is then defended in front of a panel of three experts.
Interestingly, people who decide on the non-thesis track incorrectly conclude that they can simply jump into graduation without having to do anything other than passing one’s academic subjects. I’m afraid that isn’t the case because those choosing the non-thesis track still have to write and defend a paper.
This paper will be typically based on the Strategic Management class, which is basically all the classes rolled into one – Accounting, Marketing, Financial Analysis, Information Technology, Human Resources, Operations, and Ethics, among others. Other than fulfilling one requirement of the program, this paper will be able to serve as the blueprint of an organization because it will tackle everything it needs from the short to long-term. The organization in focus can be the company one works for or owns. It can also be a company one plans on set up in the near future.
Now if you’ll be asking me what will be the easiest way to graduate, I’m afraid that the answer isn’t cut and dried because both have their own challenges to overcome. On one hand, a thesis requires students to conduct research in order to finish. On the other hand, the Strategic Management paper will require that students dissect every possible aspect of a business.
[And when I mean every aspect, I mean literally every aspect because the panel will be composed of people who specialize in the line of business you choose for your topic.]
Is it Easy?
My short answer is no, because if it was easy then more college graduates would have an MBA degree tucked under their belts.
However, others have opposing thoughts on the matter. You may have come across the arguments: An MBA is no match to a master's degree in psychology, information technology, or even statistics, let alone physics and mathematics. I certainly won't argue because other master's degrees are highly focused and specialized, making them difficult indeed.
What makes an MBA degree different is that it is much broader than other disciplines. It contains parts of psychology, information technology, and statistics. It even has operations research, which includes topics taught in physics and mathematics. It isn't enough to master these subjects individually, as one needs to be able to integrate all of them when coming up with analyses and solutions to problems. So, while other master's degrees are difficult because they are highly specific, the MBA's challenge is due to its being broad.
Similar to what many may have experienced in college, the ease and difficulty of subjects will depend on the student. For some, accounting will be tough while other may breeze through it. Statistics can be quite a challenge for many, but there are a few that take to it like a duck to water. Even something as seemingly mundane as business communications can stagger sales and marketing veterans used to presentations because classes are conducted in English and under pressure.
Having said this, if you are faced with a tough subject, do not wait until the last minute to speak with your teacher about it. He or she can suggest something to help you cope. The worst case is that you will need to drop the subject and re-take it under better conditions, such as when you have a lighter load.
[While a dropped subject may be a blemish to some, it is a better option than a failing grade.]
What Tools do I Need?
Technology has taken a lot of the difficulty out of writing papers and providing presentations. The days when people hammered on a mechanical typewriter for term papers, physically wrote on spreadsheets to help with financial analysis, and used Manila paper for presentations has, thankfully, passed.
You will need a computer to write your dissertation, with the laptop being preferred by most students because it allows them to make corrections in any location, be it their room, library, or classroom. It is also a requirement for presentations conducted for just about every subject in the curriculum.
An internet connection is also needed for the large volume of e-mail from the school, professors, and classmates. Thankfully, schools today provide free internet connections for their students while on campus. Quite a few schools also provide e-mail addresses with the school’s domain while enrolled.
A printer will be needed as the program requires quite a number of papers to be submitted. A flatbed scanner is quite helpful for adding photographs or digitizing hard copies of documents that need to be included into one’s presentations or papers.
While the school has standardized on Microsoft Office, I have found that open source alternatives can be used. The worst case is that a few minor adjustments may be needed when sharing files between different programs. When students use different brands, I suggest adding a buffer to deadlines so that shared files can be tweaked.
[This is especially important when dealing with presentation files.]
The programs that will be used on a regularly include a word processor, spread sheet, and presentation software that can save to the Microsoft format.
Do I Have to Work in a Group?
The MBA program is generally group-based, which means that the seemingly never-ending list of assigned cases will need to be worked on by teams week after week. While going at it alone may be possible, learning how to work in a team as a leader or member is part of the education. So, if you want to maximize your learning, build your network, learn from your classmates' styles, and pick up new personnel-handling skills, working with in a group is the way to go.
With groups usually composed of four to five people, it would be helpful to get to know your classmates as soon as possible. This way, you can align yourself with members whose skills complement your own in order to increase the chances of garnering higher grades.
In case you are wondering, group work will not be required for all subjects as some professors prefer to assign cases individually. On one hand, this can be more difficult since you have to do all the work yourself. On the other hand, working alone means you can accomplish things at your own pace.
During my stay in the program, I had to set aside a lot of time after work and during the weekends to meet with different groups I was a part of. Going home at 9 in the evening was a regular occurrence during these moments. It was tough, but I always had a sense of accomplishment after these study sessions were over.
How do you Want to Graduate?
Do you want to earn a silver or gold medal, which are the equivalent of magna cum laude or summa cum laude? Do you want to take your time? Or do you want to graduate as soon as possible? The reason I ask is that these different objectives mean adopting different approaches.
Graduating with honors
Getting a silver or gold medal means you'll need to exert a lot of effort into everything that you do, whether it is individual or group work. In the case of the latter, you may need to work harder to compensate for possible weaknesses group members may exhibit. It also means that you need to clearly understand what your teachers expect from you and meet or exceed those expectations.
Most of my classmates looking to graduate with honors avoided overloading on subjects so as not to dilute their efforts. This does have the effect of prolonging one’s stay in the program, though.
Graduating at a leisurely pace
If you wish to take your time, you may want to take the absolute minimum load required semester. Several of my classmates did this to minimize stress and create a better work-study-life balance.
At some point you may even decide to skip a term or two to relax. But before doing this, it may be helpful to note that that there is no such thing as a leave of absence at the graduate level. The MBA program is designed to be completed within a certain amount of time and any vacations taken will not extend the deadline to finish.
Having said this, I suggest checking how much time there is to spare before taking a break. Also, don't completely use up your leave of absence; retain a buffer for emergencies.
If you want to finish as early as possible, then you will have to overload on subjects. Keep in mind that doing so may impact your ability to earn a silver or gold medal. It will also mean a lot less time can be devoted to non-school actives.
I chose to finish as early as possible because I was worried about unforeseen circumstances that could delay graduation. My biggest concern was that the economy would tank and lead to widespread layoffs. And if I were to lose my job, I would need to dip into my tuition budget for my day-to-day expenses.
In addition, this, tuition fees increase practically every year. So, if I were to take an extended vacation, the money I set aside might not be enough to cover the remaining subjects when I returned. I was also worried about burning out, so the sooner I finished, the earlier I could rest and relax without having to deal with deadlines.
Things worked out well for me because even if I dropped a couple of subjects, I actually caught up to the batch ahead of me. I was even able to save enough to start the Doctor of Business Administration program.
Can I Skip the First Day of Enrollment to Avoid the Queues?
Schools like DLSU typically allot anywhere between 2-3 weeks for enrollment. The first day is usually on a Monday and the last on a Saturday. Since most students are part-timers, the longest lines tend to be on Saturdays, specifically the first one. To avoid the long queue, many opt to enroll in the second or succeeding week.
While this may be more convenient, I strongly suggest enrolling as early as possible to give yourself enough time to deal with any unforeseen hitches. While issues such as incomplete documents or non-submission of grades are extremely rare, the time used to correct any oversights can mean you will be charged penalty fees and miss a few class sessions.
I have never encountered any problems during my stay in the MBA program, but I have heard of one story wherein a new student's college transcript wasn’t received by the school. While the registrar and student tried to sort things out, it ended up in a late enrollment and getting into class a several sessions late.
What is the Protocol of the MBA?
Furious debates have been raging on for quite a bit on whether graduates should append “MBA” or any other master’s degree it to their last names. And from the looks of things, these arguments won’t be settled any time soon.
In my case, I simply followed the lead of my professors, which is not to add it to the end of my name in business cards, e-mail signatures, or even in social media sites like LinkedIn and Facebook.
As mentioned earlier, I had a mix of full-time and part-time professors with the latter being more numerous. Whether it was inside the academe or outside, none of them ever appended their master’s degrees to their names. And since my mentors never did it, far be it for me to do otherwise.
What Else do I keep in Mind?
Before wrapping up this essay, there are still a few more things I would like to share about my journey in the MBA program,.
I know I don't need to say this, but I will anyway – don’t do it. You may have gotten away with procrastinating in Grade School, High School, and maybe even in college, but it will certainly spell failure if you continue doing this in the MBA program,.
The fact of the matter is there is simply too much work per week to take care of. Postponing it, even for a single day, will drown you. Not only will procrastination drag you down, you will take your entire study team with you.
Keep in mind that the same people you study with may be the same ones who will put in a good or bad word for you after graduation. So, if you gain a reputation of dragging people down with you in school, no one will want to work with your when school's finally out.
Be Nice to Everyone
The second bit of advice is to be nice to everyone in school, not just to teachers but to the non-teaching staff as well.
It goes without saying that you should never to pick a fight with your teacher. While you may argue a point in class, do so only if it is appropriate, such as when your professor opens the floor to dissenting opinions. And if you must express dissent, make sure it is phrased in a respectful manner. At the end of the day, teachers are human and grades will have a subjective component to them.
Just because the non-teaching staff doesn't have the direct power to affect your grades, doesn't mean they cannot help. The dean's secretary can recommend which teacher would be great as a thesis adviser or better off as a subject matter expert. The department head's assistant can suggest how to approach a particularly strict teacher about grades. Even the security guard can point you to the right person to ask about scholarships or enrollment issues.
The bottom line is that everybody in school can help make your stay a more pleasant one, so make sure you are nice and respectful to all of them.
Don't Fight with your Panel
Perhaps the best bit of advice I got came from a teacher talking about the politics of the oral defense. He said that students should never, under any circumstance, fight with their panel.
Being passionate about your topic is fine and defending your ideas is to be expected. But fighting and refusing to accept the wisdom of the panel is a recipe for disaster.
The panel is not there to belittle your work or make you look like a fool; it is there to make you and your paper better. Consider the fact that getting in front of them means that your adviser found merit in your efforts. In questioning you and suggesting changes, the panel improves your paper to the point that the school will be proud to add its logo to it. It also makes it better to the point that when other students do their own research, your paper becomes available to them as a school-approved reference.
[This means is that you’re not the only one who has a stake in your churning out a good paper.]
So, when it is time to defend your paper, remember the panel is on your side, no matter how it may appear at the time. Fighting with this group of experts doesn't do anyone, especially you, any good.
In spite of all the financial, scheduling, and case-load difficulties, taking up my MBA was the most fun I had for the educational stage of my life. I enjoyed it so much that I continued on to the Doctor of Business Administration program right after graduation.
If you're still on the fence on whether to take up your MBA, or any other master's degree for that matter, I hope that my own experience has enlightened you. Still, don't let my own account be your sole source of information. Ask around and get the thoughts of trusted and reliable people so you know exactly what you're jumping into.
[I would avoid consulting the know-it-all relative or friend because they may end up doing you more harm than good.]
And if, after all your research, you do decide to take the plunge, buckle up and enjoy the ride. It may not always be a smooth one but getting to the finish line makes the trip worthwhile.