MBA Deans Share The Hardest Classes They Ever Took

Wharton Dean Geoffrey Garrett



“I didn’t go to business school for graduate school. I did my Ph.D. in political science. When I went to Stanford as an assistant professor, game theory was all the rage. There was a fantastic year-long sequence in the political economy PhD program in the business school that I thought I really should take. But, it was really hard – so much math. And I had a full time job. And my math wouldn’t have been good enough to get admitted to the program as a student. I managed to gut it out through the first quarter before waving the white flag. But the foundational principles I learned in that course have informed my thinking ever since.”

– Geoffrey Garrett, Wharton School



Dean Scott DeRue, University of Michigan (Ross)


“For the past 10 years, I have taught Organizational Behavior. But what very few people know is that, as an undergraduate business student, I failed my first organizational behavior test. I still recall the exact score (53 out of 100). Professor Dick Blackburn, who went on to be a thesis advisor and mentor, was my instructor. I will forever be grateful to him for his wisdom and counsel. This was the class where I learned that the “soft” skills are often the “hard” skills. And this was the class where I developed a fascination for organizations and the people in them.”

– Scott DeRue, University of Michigan (Ross)



Dean Mark Taylor, Washington University (Olin)


“My Ph.D. is in finance and I was a finance professor and finance industry practitioner for years before I took my MBA. I found all of my MBA courses (perhaps with the exception of finance) challenging but at the same time engaging and enlightening. This was particularly true of Organisational Behaviour. While the subject matter and methodology were radically different from what I had encountered in my previous academic training, I suddenly saw many of the management and leadership issues I had encountered in my career in a new light. In particular, while I had already served in a number of leadership positions in universities and in the finance industry, my organisational behaviour courses helped me see the parallels between professional service organisations in academia and the finance industry and improve my leadership skills. Perhaps the toughest business-relevant course that I ever took was not, however, offered in a business school: I took a part-time master’s degree in English literature while I was working as a finance professor, and the insights many of the courses gave me into human relationships and behaviour have remained with me ever since.”

– Mark P. Taylor, Washington University (Olin)



Dean Matthew Slaughter


“Producer and Consumer Theory during my very first term of graduate school at MIT. By the end of the first class session, I realized that I was in way over my head as a liberal-arts undergraduate who foolishly skipped the recommended pre-term math camp. I was very unprepared for the mathematics intensity of a PhD program in economics. My struggles that year helped build a lot of humility that (cue inspiring Tuck-mission music), over time, became confident humility and gave me a solid foundation for my future research and teaching.”

– Matthew J. Slaughter, Dartmouth College (Tuck)



Rice Dean Peter Rodriguez

“I don’t have an MBA. I took economics and finance courses. But my toughest class in graduate school was Advanced Microeconomics. The hardest part was studying for the general exam, mostly because it forced you to move far away from simple intuition. What appealed to me about economics was that it felt intuitive. I felt capable in economics. The exams were only proofs, which were far less intuitive. I could explain rather than prove it, but that wasn’t enough. I had to find new skills and take a disciplined mathematical approach, but it all felt unnecessary. I was fighting the thrust of what the professor wanted.

I learned that sometimes you can’t fight that. You have to go and trust your professor. Eat the broccoli. You have to learn this. It’s good for you. I got help. I talked to my classmates more than in any other class. I was so reluctant to do that. It was an alpha culture and hard to admit I needed help. It wasn’t until much later that I realized how much strength it took to be vulnerable intellectually and that made it one of the most important courses that I ever took.”

– Peter Rodriguez, Rice University (Jones)


Dean M. Eric Johnson


“As a Ph.D. student at Stanford, my most challenging course was stochastic calculus. Ideas from other areas of science, like Brownian Motion, were quickly finding applications in modeling financial markets and even inventory management. The mathematics were complex and dense. Like much of business school, survival was in the group – finding others who had even the smallest measure of added insight and were willing to help the group move ahead.”

– M. Eric Johnson, Vanderbilt University (Owen)




Rohan Williamson

“Organizational behavior. Mainly because I was trained as an engineer – accounting, finance, operations, stats, economics were very quantitative and easy to me. I could take those all day. Organizational behavior was a core course in the first year of my MBA – too early for me to have a full appreciation for it.

Looking back, that class asked me to use a part of my brain I probably had never used before. So, it created a lot of challenges for me – thinking in detail about organizational, personal, and leadership issues was something I was not used to. I was an engineer and played sports – that was my exposure.

Over the years, I have referred back to my notes from that class, and I wish I had taken it more seriously. I kept all of my textbooks and notes from the program – I still have them 25 years later. Since then, I have taken executive leadership courses – I was in a better point in my career to appreciate them then.”

– Rohan Williamson, Georgetown University (McDonough), Interim


Dean Jim Jiambalvo


“The toughest course I ever took was a Ph.D. class in Microeconomics.  Mathematics played a major role in the course. Since my undergraduate studies were in business, my math background was “lacking” to say the least.  Also, this was in the era of “chalk-and-talk” and the econ faculty didn’t provide a lot of intuition into the theorems and proofs. Fortunately, I had great classmates in the Ph.D. program and benefited greatly from study sessions with them. That was the first time I worked in a study group in my academic career.  It’s common today, and I certainly understand the tremendous benefits associated with teaming!”

– Jim Jiambalvo, University of Washington (Foster)





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