MBA After Engineering: Open Up the World of Opportunities
Every year, there are 200,000 students who earn their MBA in the US, according to The Economist. These students come from a variety of backgrounds and have a wide range of interests. Given that all of the editors for the Discover a Career department of TWA have either a) recently completed their MBA, b) are currently working on their MBA, or c) are considering pursuing their MBA, we decided this was a great topic to dive into further. In the Q&A below we share why we chose the path of MBA and the advantages in obtaining that degree.
Nazneen Ahmed is currently pursuing a full-time MBA at HEC Paris, after 7 years in a petroleum engineering career. She plans to specialize in digital innovation.
Tarang Lal is pursuing a part-time MBA at UCLA Anderson. He has nearly 10 years in the energy industry and is specializing in finance and global management. He is actively involved with the Energy Management Group and Student Council, helping develop his leadership skills and network with like-minded people while obtaining his degree.
Leyla Ramirez pursued a full-time project management specialization degree at EAN University while working as a reservoir engineer for Oxy.
Why did you choose to pursue further education?
Tarang: With a BS in chemical engineering and the goal of being in management, I knew an MBA was something that would add value. However, after working for about 3 years in industry, I decided to pursue a MSc in petroleum engineering, helping me bolster my technical skills. As I reflect on both decisions (MSc and MBA), they have been based on where I was in my career path and where I wanted to go. While the jury is still out in terms such as ROI and ultimate career trajectory, I am grateful for the experiences and self-discovery through the process.
Nazneen: I wanted to learn about what makes a company tick. When I completed a master’s in engineering, I realised my passions diverged from the technical aspects of the petroleum industry. Gaining a deeper understanding of the interplay between operations, people, and finances seemed to be a great avenue to explore a different career alternative. A secondary motivation was a change in geography. I have either lived or worked in Canada, USA, and India, so I wanted to explore Europe with the MBA program.
Leyla: What motivated me to pursue a postgraduate degree in project management was the growing responsibilities in my job to actively manage and execute different projects. I had the technical understanding and drive, but I knew I could benefit from learning time and cost management skills to better recognize how to meet and exceed performance in those projects. My expectations of the program were rapidly exceeded as it provided me with a broader perspective of how an organization can thrive by following these principles.
How do you/will you tie in the learnings to your work?
NA: Before starting the program, I was keen to learn the hard skills of financial modeling, market research, and statistics. I quickly realized the greatest value of the MBA is learning and applying the soft skills of human interactions. My batch is composed of students from 48 nationalities which lends itself to a unique opportunity of learning to work with different cultures. With my desire for international mobility, I can apply the understanding of team dynamics in multicultural settings.
TL: Doing the MBA part-time has been a real blessing; learn it on Saturday and apply it on Monday. One of the best examples of how I leveraged the school work to my professional life has been a 360 feedback. By understanding the “why” behind a full 360 feedback and by structuring the conversation in a growth mindset model helped me uncover some blind spots while re-enforcing some of my strengths.
LR: Although demanding, it is a suitable synergy to study full-time PM while working in projects. I was able to test and apply many of the taught concepts and be fully engaged in the identification of process standardization and optimization opportunities. To this day, I value that the skill set learned is applicable to every aspect; both professionally and personally.
How has your perspective changed by undertaking business education after engineering?
TL: Many people might say the proverbial stereotypes associated with engineering and business; you think more in terms of finance and cash flow vs. technical aspects such as barrels and permeability. While that is true to some extent, the real shift for me has been in my personal growth; I have approached meetings with much more confidence, building out a solid agenda while being a more effective facilitator, and shifted my approach from networking to relationship building. While those are incremental changes, I believe it is a lot like compounding interest; done consistently over time, there can be a real shift change.
NA: Studying and working in a petroleum-centric city such as Calgary, I have mostly associated with people with similar backgrounds. At the MBA, I get to work alongside lawyers, singers, art history buffs, and of course, engineers. The amalgamation of such a cohort has fundamentally altered my perspective of the petroleum industry. I now wonder about the ethical framework of oil exploration, sustainable development, and dissemination of energy to the developing world, marketing approaches taken on by multinationals, and the changing energy mix. I aspire to keep discovering more and applying these concepts to my career post MBA.
LR: At work, improving my business acumen has allowed me to make strong recommendations that impact the development goals of the company. Whether individual contributors or leaders, we can all effectively contribute if we all have a clear understanding of the big picture. Personally, it has made me more curious to feed from the active and ever-changing business world.
Would you recommend it?
NA: Absolutely! If you can afford it, an MBA profoundly changes the way you look at the business world. The case-based approach, debates, and frameworks that are taught are very different from what an engineering education offers. Most of the hard skills the MBA teaches can be learned outside the classroom with materials offered online. What the MBA gave me was an international network and the perspectives that go along with it. Whether this undertaking translates to upward mobility in my career remains to be seen, but currently, I am exploring an internship offer with a tech startup in Paris and another one at a petrochemical company in Thailand. The world has definitely opened up for me.
TL: It depends on what you want and your personal circumstances. The MBA is in no way a holy grail or a guarantee into management. It is a guaranteed cost and the effort you put into the program is directly correlated with what you get out of it. The letters MBA are definitely valued in some roles, but more than the letters, it is how you approach life, both professionally and personally, that have impacted me. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity and am enjoying the MBA journey.
LR: Without a doubt. In the beginning, when graduating from a technical role the need of a business education is not very obvious. As I gained more years of experience in the energy industry, I realized that key business elements are what steer the direction of any project and it is fundamental to have this awareness. The decision to follow an MBA or other post graduate degrees is very personal, but in any case, I would recommend pushing forth having the business understanding. Moreover, it is a unique opportunity to interact with professionals from a variety of different professional and cultural backgrounds.
How do you balance professional, educational, and social responsibilities?
TL: It is simple; prioritize. Based on the situation, I have had to make some tough decisions on balancing work, school, and personal life. Weekend trips have now become exclusively to campus for school, golf days are replaced with study sessions, and some date nights are now stay-at-home nights. Having a partner that supports you is crucial because even though you might be the one pursuing the degree, it affects both of you. Also, if you are doing it part-time, having a supportive work culture is key (see response to next question).
NA: The MBA is an extremely demanding program. In one day, you are expected to attend classes, complete group work, prepare for case competitions, network, attend company presentations, and apply for jobs. As Tarang mentions above, prioritizing is key. In the first couple of months of the program, I ran myself ragged trying to attend all classes and events. As I better understood my goals, I have learned to prioritize sleep. With a more defined career objective, I can now concentrate on attending only the events that align with these. I have also learned to forgo some of the “networking” events that are dubbed Pbar parties at HEC Paris.
LR: It is not an easy task but planning ahead of time work and school responsibilities definitely helps. When I pursued the degree, I was working Monday through Friday, 8 hours a day, while three times a week, from 6PM to 10PM, I was going to school. The weekends were my best friend; to catch up on my sleep and get ahead on school work. As mentioned above, social life may not be very active, however pursuing any degree is only a matter of time to complete it. Keeping in mind the end goal will allow you to be focused and disciplined throughout the program while having the energy for work and school demands.
Is it better to do a full-time MBA or a professional program (part-time while working)?
NA: This is such a subjective question. Here you see the responses from all of us and can formulate your own opinions. I applied and was accepted to two part-time and one full-time MBA programs at highly ranked institutions. Since my objective was to change geography and function, it made more sense for me to undertake the full-time program.
TL: You are probably tired of hearing this response, but again, it depends. I have been fortunate to have a supportive work culture. I have been able to make it to some weeknight evening events that have enriched my experience and had some flexibility in my work schedule. Because of that, and the ability to apply my learnings in a professional setting while learning from others who do the same, I strongly recommend the part-time program. However, I do know several full-time students who also work part-time, so in the end, it doesn’t make a huge difference.
LR: It really depends on your personal preference, but personally, I would recommend part-time while working. It is indeed demanding, but it gives you the opportunity to actively apply new concepts and techniques to your work and to stay in the game. Nowadays, more than ever there are programs that are either taught online, in the evening, or during the weekend so the flexibility to further your studies while working is there.
The MBA is certainly an expensive degree, but one we all collectively feel has the potential to add value and make an impact in our careers. While this article highlights some of the authors’ viewpoints, we would love to hear your thoughts on the matter. If you have a comment, please reach out to any of us through LinkedIn.
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26 May 2020