Monday, July 11, 2011

Above Average

Last Thursday I received my 9th annual, "Congratulations on getting through another year without getting fired!" e-mail from the company HR bot. This Thursday I turn 31. The average full-time MBA student at top-tier US business schools is between 26-28 and has five years of work experience at matriculation. Am I too late to the party?

While there are many people my age who choose to pursue an MBA a higher majority go the part-time, executive, or 1 year European MBA route. When I mention that I want to get an MBA many people's initial assumption is that I will pick from one of those options. They scratch their heads when I say I'm aiming for the FT programs. Yes, I'm older. However, that doesn't preclude a FT MBA from being a good fit with my goals.

First, an average is simply a blend of all data points. Will I be older than a lot of my classmates? Yes. Will I be the only one who's older than the average? No. People go back to school well into their 30s and much earlier than 26. Each situation is unique. So why now for me?

I've known for a while that I wanted to go back to school. Heck, I knew when I entered the workforce after graduation that at some point in time I would find myself back in a classroom again. However, my plans did not include an MBA. Since 2006 my goal has been to make a career change. While I had a natural ability for sales, I wasn't crazy about my job. Living through a miserable year with the manager from hell made it very clear to me that I didn't like what I was doing enough to ever deal with someone like her again. There was nothing this career could give me that would make enduring someone like her again worthwhile. I wanted to feel a sense of excitement about the work I was doing. While I always get a sense of satisfaction from closing a deal, the process of getting there was always a drag. I realized that business in and of itself just didn't resonate with me. Since I didn't want to stay in a traditional corporate setting I saw no point in pursuing an MBA.

Keeping this blog reminded me of how much I had always loved to write and for a while writing seemed like the perfect career path for me. I didn't know how I would make it work but I reasoned that I could go to school for two years to figure it out. At 26 I applied to MFA programs, positive that my writing would get me into a renowned program. It didn't. Even though I was crushed after all of the rejection letters, in hindsight it was the best thing that could've happened to me. Back then I was applying to graduate school more to escape my current work situation than to really pursue a new career path. I hadn't thought about what life would look like for me after graduation. Where would I like to work? What was my ultimate goal? I had no idea and in the end I think that was very clear in my applications.

As I regrouped from the disappointment of not getting into school I started to give more thought to what I really wanted to do with my life. I knew that I liked to write, but I began to realize that I'm not cut out to be a starving artist. While my current job offered me security and fed my competitive spirit it did nothing to engage my creative leanings. Volunteer experiences that involved fundraising, grant writing, and event coordination got me to start considering a move into the non-profit industry. I loved writing grant proposals and solicitation letters, negotiating partnerships between businesses and community organizations, and coordinating the logistics of pulling off large scale events like galas and award ceremonies. became a fixture in my browser. I tailored my resume to feature my growing list of volunteer experiences and applied to many development and fundraising positions. However, I was missing the glue that tied my current career field to the experience needed to be a non-profit development manager.

I wanted to go back to school but I needed to find a program that made good use of my transferrable skills while teaching subject matter that I enjoyed. Having a reasonable level of self awareness I knew that I would put forth more effort and do considerably better in a program that sparked my interest. I looked into Public Administration and Communications programs. These programs offered classes that I found interesting, had a concentrated focus on writing, and directly applied to the field in which I wanted to work. Although a part-time program would have given me the necessary classroom instruction I knew I needed more to make a strong case for switching careers. Full-time programs offered deeper immersion, more access to recruitment events, greater involvement in activities related to my chosen industry, and most importantly the opportunity for a summer internship to gain valuable real world work experience.

I planned to apply three years ago. However, I was a Michigan homeowner at the time. The value of my home had dropped considerably and I was in no position to take a 5 figure loss on sale as well as take on over $100,000 of debt for school. When my company offered me a position that required a relocation I accepted it. The corresponding 12 month relocation contract meant that I had to push my applications back a year, but it was worth it to me because it meant I could sell my home and not have to take a loss (loss on sale reimbursement is God's gift).

I was set to apply to M.S. Communications programs in 2009 until a very wise friend told me to consider the MBA. She's going to make an excellent marketer when she makes her career change. Unlike everyone before her who had suggested an MBA, she positioned it as a degree that would allow me to change careers. She stressed the flexibility of the degree across industries and the qualification it gives to more than work in a specific function but to lead it. I tried to argue that a Communications degree would be better suited to the type of roles that I wanted. I reasoned that an M.S. Comm was the equivalent of an MBA for the industries favored by the majority of Comm grads. I will never forget her response. "There is no equivalent to an MBA." With those words I finally did something that I was unwilling to do for the past three years. I researched MBA programs. To my surprise many had concentrations specifically devoted to the non-profit sector. Additionally, the programs had a distinct international bent that very few Communications programs could rival. At my friend's urging I decided to take the GMAT just to see where that could land me. Alas, in the middle of my GMAT prep I was offered another job transfer, this time a promotion back to the East Coast. Even though I wanted to go back to school so badly I could taste it, personal issues with my family made it imperative for me to get closer to home. The needs of my family took precedence over my personal desire to be in school the next fall.

So why is now finally the right time? First, I'm finally done moving. My current relocation contract expires in November and I will not be entering another one. There are no overwhelming financial obligations over my head either. The situation with my family has also improved. Most importantly, I am finally crystal clear on what I want to do with my life and how I will get there. I'm in a really good place with my current career and could continue to progress through management roles. However, I know that no matter how far I go in my current company I will never be excited to get up, get dressed, and go to work in the morning. I'm not running away from a bad situation, simply running toward something that suits me better.

Not everyone operates on a strict 5 year plan. When I graduated from college I assumed I would work for two years then go back to school to get an MBA to pursue marketing. I had no idea that I would rediscover how much I loved to write. I didn't know that the sweetest deal I would close would be between a local pizza parlor and my neighborhood association. I didn't always know what I wanted to do and I wasn't always clear on how to get there once I did know. When I did know life happened. However, I didn't sit still waiting for the stars to align. I progressed my career, taking advantage of all that working for a Fortune 500 company has to offer. I got involved in amazing organizations and solidified my interest in my future career. Subconciously and intentionally I built my candidacy. Yes, my window of opportunity for pursuing this particular degree is definitely small, but at this point in my life I am a better applicant now than I would have been at the average age.


Chesty LaRue said...

I agree! I, too, am a "non-traditional" student, but I know now that I wasn't ready during the average span of years. You definitely seem ready and I'm very confident that a b-school admission committee will agree.

Extra Starch said...

Have you thought of attending a part-time MBA program? The average age of PT programs are higher. PT students looking for career progression instead of career changer.

Alex said...

Good post and I'll be rooting for you. As a 30 year old just entering business school this fall, I completely agree that I personally was not ready 5 years ago. My personal, professional, and emotional maturation over these last 5 years will serve me well at b-school and I'm sure you'll find that of value as well.

(eskimoroll from GMATClub)

esuomtekcop said...

"While my current job offered me security and fed my competitive spirit it did nothing to engage my creative leanings. Volunteer experiences that involved fundraising, grant writing, and event coordination got me to start considering a move into the non-profit industry."

Can't agree more with you on this. I am also an overaged applicant for some top U.S. programs. I had started considering the MBA four years ago. A few lucrative promotions at work and the financial stability and peace of mind that it provides had created enough inertia to fend off any concrete actions. Over the years, I have become increasingly unhappy as I find that the nature of my current job is not inline with my personal values. Last year, I finally gathered enough strength to give a shot at the GMAT, and submitted my first application a couple months back. Let's support each other in this long winding journey!

Sagar said...

I can totally relate to what you wrote. 5 years back I would not have felt this sure of MBA as the next step. More you try new things, more you learn and closer you are to realizing what your dreams are. Your writing instills the belief. Cheers!