For most people, working full-time while pursuing an MBA is more than enough. Spencer Suderman is not most people. Three years ago, even as he worked in an IT strategy role for the Walt Disney Company and pursued an MBA online from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Isenberg School of Management, Suderman was spending precious free time following his passion: seeking a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.
His goal: set the all-time mark for the most inverted flat spins in an airplane — in other words, spinning upside-down in a biplane while plummeting to Earth at about 8,000 feet per minute.
In 2014, halfway through his MBA, Suderman eked out a new record — 81 spins, three more than the previous mark. (He shattered his own record two years later with 98 spins.) He was exactly halfway through the Isenberg MBA program, which he later finished with honors and a 3.95 GPA.
“Here’s why this is part of the story: Everything I’ve done in my life, I’ve done to an extreme level,” Suderman tells Poets&Quants. “I’ve done that in my flying, I’ve done that in my professional life, I’ve always pushed everything I’ve done to the extreme. So if I was going to get an MBA, I wasn’t going to get a B average — or even an A- average. And I wasn’t interested in an average program.”
12TH-RANKED PROGRAM COSTS JUST OVER $35K
The UMass-Amherst online MBA program is ranked 12th in 2017 by U.S. News & World Report. It boasts some 600 students, with rolling admission (deadlines October 1, February 1, and June 1) and classes available in spring, fall, winter, and summer. Most students aim to finish in two years. The program is 100% online, though according to Jennifer Meunier, director of marketing and communications for graduate and professional programs at UMass-Amherst, the school also has a part-time program where students can take classes online or at satellite campus locations around the state.
Tuition for the 39-credit online program is $900 per credit, bringing the full cost to $35,100. Some two-thirds (67%) of new students are employer-sponsored, according to U.S. News, while about a fifth — 22% — graduate with debt.
UMass Amherst has offered an online MBA since 2001. In that time, of course, there have been “large shifts technology-wise, streaming content and how the content is delivered,” Meunier says. There have also been the addition of focus areas: business analytics, entrepreneurship, finance, healthcare management, marketing, and sport management. “For the most part,” she says, “our program is good for the generalist, but we do have those areas of specialization.”
The school accepts GMAT waivers for those with a master’s degree from an accredited institution with an overall GPA of 3.5 or above and five-plus years’ work experience, or those with a minimum of 10 years’ post-undergraduate professional work experience, overall undergraduate GPA of 3.2 or higher, and demonstrated leadership and supervisory experience.
GMAT STRUGGLES DON’T SINK SUDERMAN
Spencer Suderman might have liked to avoid taking the GMAT. He had decided to pursue an MBA because, after years of working in Silicon Valley, he “really wanted to make a change … by formalizing all this business knowledge that I’d acquired.” But in all his research and planning for the MBA, the GMAT turned out to be one of the hardest parts of his journey.
Having graduated years before from SUNY with a bachelor of science in business management, then having worked for several years in IT, Suderman likely would qualify for a GMAT waiver if he were applying today. But waivers were much rarer in 2012 and 2013, when he was prepping to apply to B-schools. And his distance from his school days meant he was starting from a disadvantage.
“That was the reality of being in my forties, not having been in school for quite a few years, being somewhat distant from the questions and subject matter on the GMAT — I think I gave up pretty quick on the idea of getting a score in the 600s and becoming a Harvard MBA,” he says. “I think I let the practice test scores help guide my view of where to apply. I’m not into wasting time and I’m not into pipe dreams, so I said, ‘OK, what’s reality?’
“My undergrad work was pretty good and my GMAT score sucked, so where did I really have a chance of getting into a program that is well-respected, well-regarded?”
He started making charts and spreadsheets and pulling information from Poets&Quants and U.S. News, and eventually he settled on a group of public universities, including UMass-Amherst.
GETTING MORE OUT OF EACH STUDENT
He chose the Isenberg online MBA for two reasons: With his wife also studying for a master’s degree, he couldn’t afford to take two years off. And, UMass-Amherst accepted him.
“The thing I really liked about UMass — besides that they accepted me — is that when I researched the school and some of the people who came out of that school, I was blown away,” Suderman says. “Jack Welch graduated from their undergrad program. I was so blown away that I incorporated it into my essay: I wanted to show that I did my research about the school, about people that graduated from the school. It wasn’t that hard to find some really notable people in business, in politics, in sports, in leadership — and in my essay I focused on those types of leaders.
“I suspect my GMAT might be at the low end for Mass — they never told me, and once I got in I didn’t really care. You only want to know if you don’t get in. And I was just so happy to get accepted!”
Once accepted, Suderman pounded out the degree in two years, graduating in January 2015. He was impressed, he says, by the diligence and helpfulness of the faculty, and by the ease of taking the classes online. “Someone like me who works full-time, being able to log on throughout the day to check in with the discussion to see if there’s something I can add or should add — it’s great.
“I found all the professors had real-world experience outside the teaching environment, and there were a few who even would take the time to email me directly and sidebar with me on a conversation I was participating in and get me to go a little deeper. It’s not like they are questioning what you are saying in a negative way; I think they’re doing it to get more out of you. They’re really trying to get you to think more, like they feel you had more to add.”
‘NOT JUST FLYING — AEROBATIC FLYING’
Of course, Suderman had a bit more going on than the average student. There’s the Guinness record for inverted flat spins, for example.
“While my vocation has been IT for two to three decades now, my avocation, my passion, is flying — and it’s not just flying, it’s aerobatic flying — and it’s not just aerobatic flying, it’s air show flying. I’ve been an air show pilot for the last 11 years. So I’ve been trying to break a world record and differentiate myself.
“In the big picture, I was working full-time and about six months after I started the MBA I went to work at the Walt Disney Company. While I was doing that, I’d been doing air shows, mostly on the weekends, and I was pursuing this world record that I first tried to break in 2011. I finally broke it in 2014 — smack dab in the middle of working on my MBA and working full-time.”
Suderman wasn’t done. It wasn’t enough to break the record by just three spins — so he kept at it, and broke his own record in 2016 with an incredible 98 spins. Now he thinks he can break that — and get as many as 120.
“I learned something along the way that is going to tie this all together: If you’re going to do something, you go all the way — and that’s how I approached the MBA program,” Suderman says. “I found what I thought was the best online well-respected, well-regarded MBA program that I could get into — I wasn’t going to get into a top-10 Harvard MBA or Stanford MBA, it wasn’t going to happen. So I found the best program to apply to that I felt I could qualify for, and then in the course of attending that program, just knock it out of the park. And I think I did.”