The Elevated Value of Today’s MBA

Active learning amplified by professional experience and a rich network of contacts makes the new breed of MBA graduates more relevant than ever for today’s businesses.

By SmartBrief Education
Published January 2019

It’s a given that employers want people with practical knowledge and experience. But they’re also looking for those with certain innate abilities that aren’t easy to learn on the job, such as understanding how to show initiative and take responsibility. “While some of the specific skills for jobs have changed, certain ones have been associated with an MBA for a long time, and they’ll be just as relevant 20 years from now,” says Robert Sumichrast, dean of Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business.

Take communication, he suggests. That encompasses “not just being able to express yourself verbally or in writing, but also listening. We find a lot of the problems in communication these days occur because a person doesn’t understand what’s being said or is too busy worrying about how to respond and doesn’t really take the time to listen.”

Then there is the issue of being able to work in a team. “While it always has been critical, I think it’s even more so now — and what you think of as a team has changed,” Sumichrast asserts. “There’s a lot more emphasis on interdisciplinary teams. There’s a lot more recognition that we are living in a very diverse society, and you need to be able to work well within your business with people that are different than you in cultural, academic and functional ways.”

Enter the evolved brand of Master of Business Administration degrees, intended specifically for the working professional. No longer a “nice-to-have degree,” the MBA is becoming a go-to for those looking to advance their careers into leadership roles or new directions altogether.

HOW IS IT DIFFERENT FROM THE MBA OF OLD?

For one thing, students learn in a very active manner, Sumichrast says. “There certainly is the theory that you need to learn from reading or lectures,” he admits. But the new iteration features ample hands-on learning; face-to-face discussions; projects involving real companies tackling real issues; interaction with professionals in the field; and coverage of current topics, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data and robotics.

The aim, he adds, “is not to turn you into an engineer or computer scientist. Our goal is to help you make good business decisions, to develop a strategy to use your financial resources wisely when investing in these areas.” For example, when students in Pamplin’s MBA programs learn about cybersecurity, it is not about the technology per se. “It’ll be more about how you can implement cybersecurity in a way that minimizes errors, that really takes the strategy you’ve got and makes it a reality,” he says.

Then there’s the networking — making those contacts with others that serve in ways that reach far beyond scoring another LinkedIn connection — and that can only come when you’re a member of an elite institution. At Virginia Tech, it’s known as the “Hokie Nation.” The Pamplin alumni network alone consists of 50,000 individuals all over the country “involved in many ways, formally and informally, and providing a lot of opportunities for students who are completing an MBA program,” Sumichrast says.

MBA IN ACTION: SEEKING THAT SECOND CAREER

Drew McNulty was fast approaching a crossroads. In just three years he’d be at the 20-year mark with the U.S. Marine Corps, on the job long enough to begin receiving retirement benefits but still young enough to begin a second career. While he’d held multiple management positions in military strategic operations and planning, including running a Marine Corps recruiting station with 55 recruiters on staff, he found it difficult to imagine sharing his “marketable skills” during upcoming job interviews with ordinary hiring managers. “Trying to bring the average employer up to having a real understanding of what it is you did and how it was applicable [to their jobs] was really a stretch,” he says.

Not interested in going into typical post-military careers involving government service, think tanks or defense contractors, McNulty considered his options. He already held a bachelor’s degree in aeronautics engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy and a master’s degree in military science earned online through the Marine Corps University. This time around he wanted to join corporate America as a commercial banker and knew that an MBA program was the right route.

McNulty was determined to choose a study program where he could attend classes in person with people who had experience in the business world. He and his family had orders to move to Northern Virginia, so that’s where he looked. He chose Virginia Tech for two main reasons: He wanted to attend the “highest-ranking school” for a part-time MBA in the region, and he had a friend who’d attended Pamplin for a different line of study “who had good things to say.”

Specifically, McNulty joined the Evening MBA program. For four years, he attended a single course — sometimes two — each semester, while also finishing up his career with the Corps, doing some work with NATO on the side and helping raise four kids. During that time, he recalls, “I think I spent every single airplane ride to and from Europe studying for classes or writing papers.”

A mentorship program run through Pamplin put McNulty in contact with another Hokie, who served as a commercial banker with First Citizens Bank. Those conversations with his mentor confirmed his choice of career. Independent study projects, such as one in a finance course that allowed him to spend the semester researching a company through the lens of an analyst, gave him opportunities to dig into the kind of work he’s now doing as a professional. In fact, that same company is now on his prospect list.

But it was Virginia Tech’s flexibility that ultimately paid off for McNulty. In the middle of his studies, he and his family moved yet again to another location that would have required a considerable commute. “The university worked with me,” he explains. “We looked at a couple of different options. And the [school] supported me in going to another accredited university for three classes that would allow me to graduate.” That event took place in 2017. “It just turned out to be great,” he says.

THE MBA MEANT FOR WORKING PROFESSIONALS

Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business offers its MBA in three variations to suit specific student needs.  However, every program has one thing in common: They’re intended for people who already have careers.

“What we did at Virginia Tech a few years ago was to say that we really want to focus on the working professional — someone who wants to enhance their career or make a change in the direction of their career, but not at the expense of continuing to be a business professional,” says Pamplin Dean Robert Sumichrast. That allows those students to come into the classroom, he adds, “and use what they’ve learned as part of the experience of the MBA program.”

From there, however, the programs vary by schedule, location, completion time and the amount of work experience held by students when they first arrive to class.

The Evening MBA courses meet once each week in Falls Church, Va. Students may choose to take between one and four courses, depending on whether they’re part-time or full-time.

The program requires 11 core courses and six elective courses that can be bundled into one of nine specializations, such as hospitality and tourism management, business intelligence and analytics, or information technology management. The average work experience held by students is between eight and nine years, though the minimum to apply is two to three years. Completion is between two and five years, with most finishing in three and a half.

The Professional MBA follows a hybrid model, bringing working professionals together in person for one weekend each month (Friday and Saturday) and delivering courses online in between those class meetings. This program meets in three Virginia locations: Richmond, Roanoke and Newport News. Students have an average of nine years of work experience, though the minimum to apply is three years. Completion is 24 months.

The Executive MBA follows an 18-month accelerated approach for professionals in the Washington, D.C., metro area. This program, which convenes in Arlington for two weekends each month (Friday and Saturday), merges classroom instruction, domestic and international residencies, and leadership development with a focus on business analytics, innovation and globalization. The average work experience held by students is 13 years, though the minimum to apply is six years.

MBA IN ACTION: PUTTING THE LEARNING TO WORK

Flexibility was also the priority for Kelley Milligan Kline. After considering other notable alternatives for earning her MBA in the Washington, D.C., metro area, she chose the Evening MBA program at Virginia Tech because it alone allowed her to pick her own classes and the order in which to tackle them. Because she doesn’t like to waste time, Milligan Kline chose to take a full load of four courses over several semesters, so she could finish her MBA as quickly as possible ― and did so while: 1) working full time as a controller for international research firm D3 Systems; and 2) planning her own wedding. She graduated on Dec. 14, 2018.

Milligan Kline opted for a concentration in finance because that fit a lifelong goal: to become a chief financial officer. What she didn’t expect was how applicable the lessons in class would be for her day job. An international finance class, for example, taught her “the ins and outs of currency exchange and how to protect your company from foreign exchange currency fluctuations.” As a result, she put a plan into action at D3.

A discussion during a finance class about leasing was an apt topic for a person in a position to influence her own company’s long-term office leasing arrangements. “That truly had a significant impact and benefit to my company monetarily,” Milligan Kline says.  “I would not have been thinking ahead that much if I weren’t in class.”

Then there was the evening she attended an organizational behavior course that was covering interpersonal exchanges. The next day she went back to work and apologized to colleagues for the way she’d previously handled a particular situation.

As Milligan Kline notes, “I just found that every class had an immediate impact at work, which is something I really didn’t anticipate going into an MBA program.”

DEFINE YOUR FOCUS

Both MBA graduates confess that time management was their biggest challenge — struggling to stay on top of school work while holding down a job and following through on family obligations proved difficult at times. But they also say the effort was worthwhile because they’re closer to their long-term dreams.

Don’t go into it “before you understand what your ultimate goal is,” advises Milligan Kline. “Make sure this is something you want to do, because you gotta give it 100 percent. Dig deep and figure out what you want from this degree. Then find a program that caters to that.”