Beyond the Rubber Stamp: How to Make Your MBA Meaningful

Note: While this post will tie indirectly to healthcare, it is primarily focused on my personal journey through a top-tier MBA program. Sorry for the diversion for my healthcare readers, but also wanted to capture thoughts that may be relevant to others considering an MBA in the future.

Depending on who you ask, getting an MBA is either the most meaningless or the most transformative time in the life of a young professional. The reasons for attending a graduate business program are equally as diverse. Some go to accelerate promotion to senior management. Some to change careers into a role more suited for their interests. Others go for a two year social break or for a $200,000 rubber stamp they can use for validation of their skills. Whatever the reason, once accepted to a program, it is up to the individual to maximize the value captured from this investment (although, if you fall into the $200K rubber stamp category, I urge you to find a cheaper path to do that).

For me, transformative doesn’t begin to describe my experience. Tomorrow, March 18th, is the last day of my 2-year MBA program at Kellogg School of Management (graduating 3 months early). This time has been enlightening in many ways beyond the scope of a graduate education. Through dedication, discipline, and the support of others, I will leave Kellogg better equipped to make an impact outside the borders of the Evanston campus.

So what makes an MBA valuable? Quantifying this “value” in general terms is incredibly difficult given the highly diverse, individual reasons that people attend business school. The value captured, however, is determined almost entirely by each student’s relentless dedication to self-improvement. You truly get out of it what you put in - no matter which school you attend. There are plenty of people attending Boston University that got more out of their MBAs than those who go to Harvard.

Given the significant professional and personal strides I have made over the last two years, I wanted to share my path with some unsolicited advice for future MBA applicants and enrollees. Here is how to get the most out of your graduate business education:

Allocating Your Resources

Acceptance to a top-tier MBA program is worthy of praise for the hard work you undoubtedly put in to get there. However, please realize that acceptance is the first rung of an incredibly tall ladder. It is time to get climbing.

Graduate education is not designed to hold your hand and guide you through a specific track so that you can become a McKinsey consultant or a Google PM. Instead, MBA programs are a set of resources that you must choose to prioritize based on your personal goals. Academics, clubs, conferences, competitions, career preparation, networking, personal development, and social events are just a subset of the multitude of opportunities that you will have once you arrive.

How you choose to prioritize these opportunities is a highly individual decision, and it is paramount that you make it on your own. Getting sucked into what all of your friends are doing is the best way to lose value from your investment. At Kellogg, we called this the “atrium effect.”

For me, I prioritized career preparation, networking, and leading Kellogg’s Business of Healthcare conference over everything else. If I had a choice between taking a meeting with an exec from an interesting company versus studying for a test, I always chose the former. Your time is the most scarce resource of all, and you must define how to use it best.

Outline Your Professional Trajectory

There are a lot of people that go into business school with absolutely no idea what they want to do. Many will tell you that an MBA is designed to help you figure it out. I believe this is inaccurate and leads to unnecessary flailing throughout your first year.

That said, you don’t need to know exactly what your professional goals are after school, but having an idea is incredibly helpful as you craft your resource prioritization. Here are some things to think about:

  • Industry: What are the 1-2 industries that you are most interested in?

  • Role: What role are you looking for at a company? Corp development, marketing, operations, product, strategy?

  • Size: Do you want to work at an established company, growth stage, startup? Do you know the difference between them?

  • Geography: Are you tied to a specific location?

  • Others: Beyond your career, what else did you come to business school to do? How can you focus your time to achieve these goals?

If you can narrow these items down to at most 2 potential options, then choosing where to spend your time gets much easier. This is NOT an easy thing to do, but you should spend your summer before school getting as crisp as you possibly can. The firehose turns on the moment you step on campus. It is much easier to refine it as you go along rather than having to construct it from scratch in your first quarter.

The Internal vs. External Network

One of the main reasons that many people get an MBA is the value of the “network.” At school, you will interact daily with similarly minded peers who are on a dedicated path to career success. Some of those peers will also be passionate about similar industries or projects, and they will become an amazing source of engaging conversation throughout your time on campus.

However, I also urge you to go beyond your peers and alumni in the building of your network. Business school is a prime time to dedicate yourself to growing your sphere of connections beyond just those with an immediate connection. With the brand of a top-tier school behind your name, you will be amazed at how many more executives will be willing to pick up the phone for an introduction.

Personally, I had 3-5 different conversations with executives across the healthcare industry each week. I learned to expertly craft emails and LinkedIn messages that would get me a 20 minute conversation with almost anyone (okay, hit rate was probably closer to 60%, but still pretty good). In those meetings, I learned more about interesting companies, sought advice for future career moves, and kept up with the incredible work being done in my target industry. I now have a list of over 100 people that I have spoken with, and I am excited to continue these conversations once I start my new role.

Get a Get a Job

The walls of a graduate business school, like any university campus, are a literal bubble. It is incredibly important that you take a step outside when you can. There is nothing like seeing how the new concepts you have learned in the classroom manifest in the real world. You do not need to wait until school is over to gain this insight. Many companies are supportive of cheap labor in the form of interns from MBA programs, and they are surprisingly easy to find. Yes, I am saying you should get a job in business school.

When I got to Kellogg, I knew that I wanted to become a Product Manager in the healthcare technology industry. Since I had served in many similar but slightly different roles in the past, I thought it would be useful to get some real, hands-on experience while in school. After many cold phone calls in my first quarter, I stumbled into an opportunity with a precision medicine company, Tempus. For a year, I worked 20-30 hours a week on top of my course load and extracurricular activities to learn how to exceed in Product. I was super tired a lot; but, the experience I gained and the impact I had at Tempus were the most fulfilling aspects of the last two years.

The social scene of an MBA program can be a ton of fun, and I do not discount the friendships built by many who engaged heavily in these activities. But, disciplined, ruthless prioritization of your time is the best way to make a giant leap into your next professional role. I am insanely excited to start my job after school, and I firmly believe the hard work I put in over the last 18 months led to this opportunity. Good luck to everyone heading into business school soon. Make it count.