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If only I’d known that before studying an MBA! Hard work advice for prospective MBAs

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This article was also published in the 14-Nov-2013 issue of Finweek Magazine

In the 2013 Finweek MBAconnect.net MBA Life Impact Survey, prospective MBAs get invaluable advice from MBAs who’ve been there, done that. This article unpacks the second theme: Be prepared for hard work, and lots of it.


Background to the Finweek MBAconnect.net MBA Life Impact Survey

Earlier in 2013 Finweek, together with MBAconnect.net and FeedbackRocket.com, carried out the second MBA Life Impact Survey on 1,597 current MBA students and MBA alumni throughout South Africa.  The aim of this ground-breaking study was to answer the core question: “Should I do an MBA or not?” We did this by exploring all the areas of one’s life that are impacted by an MBA degree. So we looked not only at the traditional elements like career advancement and remuneration, but also at other areas like family and relationships, stress, work-life balance, lifestyle and health. We also examined the psychological aspects affected by the MBA (such as leadership development, status, confidence, outlook on life, etc.). In order to make a more informed decision, prospective MBAs need to weigh up all these factors if they are thinking of studying an MBA.

Download the full survey report for free here


What is this series of articles all about?

Looking back on their MBA journeys, I’ve heard many MBA graduates say: “I wish I’d known that before I started the MBA!” Sadly, unless you have a network of MBA graduates you can tap into before you start your MBA degree, this is advice you usually only hear when it is too late. The 2013 MBA Life Impact Survey, carried out by Finweek, MBAconnect.net and FeedbackRocket.com, solves this problem in a simple, innovative way. In the survey, one of the questions we asked MBAs was the following: “If you were starting the MBA all over again, what advice do you wish you had received?” We’ll be running a series of Finweek articles summarising what they had to say, and the themes that emerged. If you’re about to embark on your MBA journey or are thinking seriously about studying an MBA, you’ll want to read their tips first. This advice from MBAs who’ve been there could have a dramatic effect on your decision to do an MBA or not, which business school you choose, but also when in your life you study an MBA. It could also save you a lot of heartache, pain and stress during your MBA studies.


In this second article of this series, we focus on the second advice theme: BE PREPARED FOR HARD WORK AND LOTS OF IT. 

 

The MBA is not for the lazy or the faint-hearted. The heavy workload and long hours take over all areas of your life, leaving little time for anything else.

“It’s a tough journey. So fasten your seatbelt.” (Current MBA student, Milpark)

“Be prepared for late nights and early mornings. Hectic workload.” (MBA graduate 2012, NMMU)

“That I will never rest until the MBA is completed.” (Current MBA student, NWU Potch)

“It’s not for the faint-hearted.” (MBA graduate 2002, Milpark)

“I wasn’t prepared for how much work we would be expected to do (in) so little time.” (MBA graduate 2010, UCT)

 

Understandably, for many MBA respondents, the workload was simply too great, as pointed out in  Sections 16.3 and 16.4 of the actual survey report).

Is there a way to avoid or reduce this workload? Unfortunately not. So much so, that many MBA respondents advised newbie MBAs to either fully accept this disruption of their lives, or not to study an MBA.

“Be prepared to give up your life for two years.” (MBA graduate 2011, GIBS)

“Don’t (do an MBA)! It consumes all other aspects of your life. So if you are not fully prepared to put all other things on hold for 2-3 years, rather study something else.” (Current MBA student, Milpark)

“The programme impacts every single aspect of your life for good and bad.” (Current MBA student, UNISA)

 

Do you need to be highly intelligent to get through the workload? A number of MBA respondents didn’t think so. In their opinion, to complete an MBA degree successfully, perseverance, discipline and commitment were more important than intelligence.

“I received it – ‘A MBA is a degree in endurance, not intelligence. Therefore stick it out and you will get it.’ ” (MBA graduate 2012, GIBS)

“It’s not about intelligence, it’s about perseverance.” (MBA graduate 2012, Henley)

Interestingly, one respondent had a different take: they felt that it was their natural intelligence and working smart that helped them get through the workload without working long hours.

“You don’t have to study ridiculous hours. Natural intelligence will go a long way. Time management is key in dealing with the volume of work, so you have to learn how to study smart instead of hard.” (Current MBA student, WBS)

 

So how does one explain this counter-intuitive view? One theory is that the MBA degree, and the case study approach that underlies it, requires a very different form of learning compared to school or university.


The Harvard case study method

The Harvard Business School system of analysing a case study can be applied not only to the MBA, but also to real-life business cases that you need to assess and act on in the workplace. A case study is a very detailed analysis of a real-life business situation.

What are the key elements of the Harvard case study method?

  1. According to Harvard Business School, the first step is to put yourself in the position of the decision-maker as you review the case study and identify the challenge(s) that you face;
  2. Analyse and reflect on the case, and reach a decision as to what course of action to take. This could be based on case data, research and/or past experience;
  3. Back up your decision with data;
  4. Focus on the key issues. Distil them down to the core essence;
  5. Be willing to recognise the value of others’ opinions.

 

Since the MBA often involves analysis of case studies and open-book exams, unlike school or university, rote-learning won’t help. In fact, it could even hamper you because there is simply too much to learn off-by-heart and not enough time to do it. Rather, success in the MBA depends on the ability to:

  1. Summarise copious volumes of material, such as articles, readings, cases, etc.
  2. From these summaries, to condense that entire subject, be it HR or operations or financial accounting, into a few key principles,
  3. To understand these principles extremely well, and
  4. To argue for a position using these principles and real-world business examples and data.

 

In an MBA degree, a typical exam per subject may be three hours long, involving critical analysis of a lengthy real-life business case study with detailed financials. So if you cannot pull out the most important elements of that subject, with business examples and data, to support your argument, you‘ll struggle. This ability to identify in a short space of time what is important, to prioritise, and hence to make effective business decisions quickly and under pressure, is one of the most valuable soft skills that the MBA develops. It is a key skill that differentiates leaders from followers. It builds leaders out of MBA students.

 

This supports the following findings in the survey:

  1. 92% of respondents believed the MBA improved their decision-making in the work place (see Section 5.4 of the actual survey report); and
  2. almost 90% of respondents felt that the MBA made them more effective leaders in their careers (see Section 5.3).

 

Not surprisingly, in spite of the workload, the overwhelming majority of respondents (82%) felt that the MBA was still worth doing, as outlined in Section 3 of the actual survey report. Only 2% regretted their decision to do an MBA.

“Be prepared to sacrifice time and money, but be sure that it is worth it.” (MBA graduate 2012, EBS)

“It will test you in all areas of your life but it will build you in all areas of your life as well.” (Current MBA student, NWU Potch)

 

So coming back to the advice aspect, what are the key takeaways in order to be prepared for lots of hard work in the MBA?

  1. The MBA is not for the lazy or faint-hearted. The heavy workload and long hours take over all areas of your life, leaving little time for anything else.
  2. Either fully accept this disruption of your life, or don’t study an MBA.
  3. Many respondents felt that, to complete an MBA degree successfully, perseverance, discipline and commitment were more important than intelligence.
  4. Others found that natural intelligence and working smart helped them get through the workload without working long hours.
  5. In order to cope with the excessive workload, MBAs need to develop the ability to identify in a short space of time what is important, to prioritise, and hence to make effective business decisions quickly and under pressure. This is one of the most valuable soft skills that the MBA cultivates. It is a key skill that differentiates leaders from followers.
  6. In spite of the heavy workload, the vast majority of respondents felt that the MBA was still worth doing.

 

So if you’re embarking on an MBA degree, instead of trying to avoid the hard work or complaining about it, embrace it as an opportunity to learn and grow. In the words of a 2001 MBA graduate from NMMU: “Work hard, be passionate about your studies, learn as much as you can.”

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Author: Colette Symanowitz

Managing Director of www.BeatingBullies.com and www.MBAconnect.net. Passionate about entrepreneurship, personal branding and networking. I also tweet under @mbaconnect_net and @Beating_Bullies

3 thoughts on “If only I’d known that before studying an MBA! Hard work advice for prospective MBAs

  1. Great piece of article. It has come late for me but thank God all the information is favoring my choice. With an Engineering background MBA has added a management dimension to my technical skills. I now look at issues from many perspectives. I feel more confident at work than ever. For me pursuing MBA, not overlooking the pressure it brings, is one of the best decisions I have ever made.

  2. I just now wanted to thank you again for this amazing web site you have built here. It can be full of ideas for those who are really interested in this kind of subject, specifically this very post. You’re really all really sweet along with thoughtful of others in addition to the fact that reading your website posts is a good delight with me. And what generous gift! Mary and I really have enjoyment making use of your recommendations in what we should instead do in a few weeks. Our list is a kilometer long so your tips are going to be put to fine use.

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