The transition from work to school can be difficult for many MBA students. But it can be even more pronounced for members of the military who are also making a transition into civilian life. Some members have families. Others are acclimating to a less structured life. Like everyone, they are being wrenched out of their comfort zones and taking on roles they’d never expected.
This week, Poets&Quants published its Class of 2015: The World’s Best and Brightest MBAs, recognizing the top MBA graduates worldwide. Among these students were six members of the United States military. As part of their nominations, we asked these service members to share their experiences at business school, including the biggest surprises and hurdles they encountered, along with the lessons they learned and advice they’d give to future MBAs. Here are some of their thoughts.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: THINK COMMUNITY, NOT CUTTHROATS
The first weeks of business school can be humbling, as students go from being a star to an ensemble member. Scott Schmidt, a United States Army Major who graduated from the University of Iowa’s Tippie School of Management, was astonished by the level of talent around him. “Early on in my experience,” he writes, “I had that startling moment of realizing how much I really don’t know. Seeing first-hand how much talent there is out in the world, and the vast array and diversity of skills my classmates have was enlightening.”
At the same time, Boston University’s Blair Merlino, a psychological operations specialist with the U.S. Army, was pleasantly surprised by how supportive the Questrom Business School community at BU was. “Having no business background beforehand, I expected to be at a major disadvantage, initially. I found that in many classes I was not behind the curve, but when I was, many people were ready to offer me some aid. I, in turn, was happy to do the same. I was surprised that such a competitive environment could also be so collaborative.”
For Derek Ray, a Captain with the U.S. Marine Corps, that sense of community extended to alumni too. “In my two years at Darden, I never had a call or email to an alumnus go unanswered. In most cases, I got a reply within the 24 hours. In every encounter, I found every Darden alum was more than happy to bend over backward to help a member of the Darden community.”
The biggest shock, however, was internalizing an easily-overlooked bit of wisdom: You are solely responsible for your experience. “The variety of opportunities out there also surprised me,” Schmidt notes. “I was blown away by how much is available to MBAs, and the fact that you can really forge your own path if you choose to.”
And that extended to making changes. “We learned quickly that [Fuqua] was almost always student-run,” adds Bering Tsang, also a Captain in the United States Marine Corps, who graduated from Duke Unilversity. “It would be on us to make changes that better fit our expectations. This kept the community honest because there was no one to complain to or pass blame—if one thought something could be better—Fuqua let you work to change it.”
ESTABLISHING PRIORITIES AND BALANCE AMONG THE BIGGEST OBSTACLES
For many first year MBAs, establishing priorities and managing time were the biggest adjustments. And military veterans were no different. During his program, Schmidt struggled with “deciding which academic area to focus on that would provide the most opportunity in the future [and] figuring out which of the tools I could learn that would maximize my effectiveness after business school.” Similarly, Rey was “Fighting the F.O.M.O. (Fear of Missing Out).” “There were so many great organizations and extracurricular activities at Darden in which I wanted to be involved,” he laments. “There were always events that I wanted to attend, and speakers I wanted to hear. But business school is all about finding a balance. As much as I wanted to be involved, I learned that I was most successful when I was able to find the optimal balance between spending time with family, academics, socializing with friends, and extracurricular activities.”
Merlino wrestled with this overstimulation in a different way. “The most difficult part, by far, was the constant interaction with people. I very much like people, but after being stuck in a small team room with 5 other students for 12 hours of work, it was sometimes hard to drum up the motivation to go straight out to a social or networking event.”