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Views from the top: MBAs reflect on their courses

The Independent
After all their effort has come to fruition, four graduates share the ups and downs of their studies and what lessons they took away with them

Oliver Weeks, 40, has just completed the full time MBA programme at Warwick Business School, where he won the dean’s award for academic excellence. He studied geophysical sciences at the University of Southampton and has worked with technology, financial services and the not for profit sector.

I was the oldest student on the full-time course. I didn’t go in to an MBA with a specific career aim – it was more to formalise my experience and to say “I am of this calibre”. There was also a more personal side to it – I was involved in the Paddington rail crash (in which 31 died in 1999) – this was a way of building back my confidence and putting a line under the experience and saying to employers ‘I’m still really good’.

I have two young children, so I had to combine the challenge of being a dad at home with full time study. I was worried about having enough time. I toyed with the idea of distance learning but didn’t want a course hanging over me for that long. Our first week was full of ice-breaker activities – intellectual challenges such as building a glider or a marble track across campus. External speakers, including an ex-royal marine, came in to talk on leadership, charisma and team work. I’m the type of student who likes to be well-prepared but the school didn’t hand out reading lists; they wanted us to start on a level playing field.

I lived like a student on campus at Warwick for four days a week and used every bit of spare time I could to carve out free with my family at weekends. It was quite extreme - often I’d wake 5.30 am to read up before lectures at 9 am. I was expecting to be intellectually challenged from the start but I didn’t realise how much time-consuming group work we’d need to deliver in the first term as well as completing courses in about six different subjects. In our group of seven, we had people from China, Sri Lanka, India, Kazakhstan. As I was the native English speaker with most experience, I ended up coaching and mentoring less confident students – I got a lot from that myself. Those who’ve done best from the course are the ones who seized the bull by the horns at the start and challenged themselves even if they felt uncomfortable.

Liam Wadsworth, 26, is one year through Manchester Business School’s 18 month full time MBA and will graduate in March 2015. With a degree in civil engineering with enterprise and a masters in enterprise from the University of Manchester and Manchester Business School, he has worked as an auditor and hopes to move into the technology sector.

Before starting I thought I might be young and inexperienced compared to many of the students – I came on a Young Potential Leaders scholarship for students with a good academic record but with less experience. I got in touch with last year’s YPL students who gave me advice so I could skirt around any stumbling blocks. Very wisely the school gets students in three weeks before the MBA starts to get them up to speed – this kind of forced integration definitely helps break the ice. We went on a team-building exercise in the Lake District - I made some of my best friends while dangling from a rope.

You need this kind of preparation to become an integrated team because client-facing work begins immediately – it’s a nice way to get you in the swing of interacting with businesses, presenting and so on. Not everyone was experienced in this though they all had good academic backgrounds.

You have to get good at time management very quickly – the first semester is definitely the busiest. The first three weeks is a wake-up call but it is manageable. You can make time for all the extra-curricular competitions and socialising if you get organised. Classes start around 9am but you could still be there at 9 pm. You have to pick your extra-curricular activities very deliberately and with a strategic outlook – some people want to do everything and it just kills them.

Teaching staff were very approachable – I asked advice and a lecturer spent two hours in the coffee bar taking me through a subject – it was invaluable.

If you could get hold of a timetable showing topics in the first semester and cover the basics before the course, you’d hit the ground running. It pays too to get to know your class mates well – usually someone is an expert at whatever subject you’re studying – they can give you information that you can’t find on the internet.

Emily O’Callaghan, 30, has just completed a full time MBA at Lancaster University Management School (LUMS). With a degree in business from Bangor University, she’s worked in business development for the health and social care sector.

I was anxious – as an undergraduate I wasn’t particularly academic and was concerned that study wouldn’t come naturally. My fears were allayed pretty quickly. An MBA covers many different topics but never in such depth that it gets too difficult and the emphasis is on personal development rather than getting the highest mark.

During the first week we went to the Lake District for team-building exercises, and stayed in those teams for the rest of the year – it was a great ice-breaker. I knew I’d be turning 30 during the course so I looked for a school with a wide spread of ages - I didn’t want to be studying alongside people in their early 20s.

We had a lot of information at the start and we used a Facebook page to remind each other about assignments. We didn’t have any major deadlines at first – just bits and pieces to get you used to the amount of work. We were a really supportive class – specialists would help out anyone who was struggling in their area. We took on responsibility for organising get-togethers almost straight away; people were very proactive. There was the occasional competition but no one would boast about their exam marks – in fact we didn’t even know. We really gelled as a group.

We did work long hours – but I can only work intensively in short bursts. Some students worked til the small hours, but I’d say a 9am to 9 pm day was usual. We were a small group – people did identify more with students from their own continent but we certainly all mixed.

My advice would be to take a holiday before you go because you’re not going to have one for a while – don’t come into this thinking you’re going to have a breeze of a year. The students who struggled most were those who flew off and didn’t work in between Friday and Monday. One person tried to continue with his job but only got through the first semester.

The MBA definitely served its purpose – before I felt I’d reached as far as I could go - now with the right skills and experience I’m facing more opportunities.

Abhinav Charan, 30, left his job at an energy company in Texas, United States, to complete a full time MBA at University of Cambridge Judge Business School. He’s previously studied engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in the United States.

I had to resign from my job to become a full time student – which led to a reasonable amount of anxiety. I literally wrote down my MBA expectations before it all started – it helps to begin with the end in mind. Sitting in a classroom of 140 students from 44 countries, I felt privileged. It’s hard to escape the beauty and glory of Cambridge.

I felt fairly well prepared – I did connect with a number of students through social media. I’d brushed up on concepts relating to finance and accounting and spent time planning my own finances for the year. Once you’re accepted into the programme, you’re no longer alone. There is the business school infrastructure which swings into action to make your transition seamless and maximise the value of your time. But above all, it’s about personal initiative.

During the first term, mixing with students was perhaps the most important task. The business school made a concerted effort to break the ice amongst us and the social life was one of the most memorable aspects of the MBA. Formal dinners are an integral aspect of the social fabric at Cambridge. I perpetually felt I was short on time for everything. Time management is a massive task but the richness of life around motivated me to find time to socialise and care a little less about being under-slept.

My advice would be: form relationships early, amongst students, staff and faculty. I learned early on not to simply network but to make friends. If possible try to learn everyone’s name before you start the programme. And just like joining a new company, you will be hit by new systems – MBA portal, library databases and so on. Life is easier if you learn to navigate them well. Also look beyond the MBA classroom – for example I took part in strategy case competitions, wrote a blog in the Financial Times and rallied people to run an energy and resources club. And figure out a game plan. A lot of banks and consulting firms have application deadlines looming in late autumn. The first few weeks can be a joyous riot but it’s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture.

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