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Career Questions: Q&MBA

Q: What courses beyond the core curriculum add value to an MBA career?

A: Is everything in life a battle between breadth and depth, or does it just feel that way? Most MBA students expect to emerge from B-school well-versed in their field of concentration, but academic deans and recent business school graduates alike agree that students should not immerse themselves in their specialties to the exclusion of all else.
“I’m a big believer in breadth,” says Jim Smith, associate dean for the daytime MBA program at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. “I think it serves them well even in their first job, but [especially] as they move up the ladder. I do recommend that, for example, someone taking corporate finance take [electives in] advanced marketing and operations. If they work at a bank, they still need to understand their customers.”
Pick electives that complement your career goals. Cecil Shepherd, a 2000 graduate of the University of Michigan Business School, says accounting and finance electives have proved most helpful in his position as an associate in the fixed-income division of Lehman Brothers. But he believes that the value of these courses extends beyond his specialty.
“I’m on the trading floor working with bonds, so taking finance and accounting electives … [was] quite beneficial to me,” he says. “[But even] in general … accounting is really the most important discipline coming out of school that could help you in many, many different fields, not just in finance and Wall Street. Corporate structure is very important, too-understanding the cost structure of organizations and the importance to the success and viability of a company.”

Shepherd acknowledges, however, that marketing electives are just as broad-based. “There’s a concept of universality for taking marketing electives-one involving brand management, law or perhaps another branding course in addition to the basic marketing course,” he said.
Lucian Lui, a 1999 graduate of Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and lead product manager at Microsoft, cites brand management as an essential elective that applies to all aspects of business. “[It] drove home some key thinking about points of parity and points of differentiation,” he said. “This has implications way beyond brand management. This is about positioning your products competitively. [It] drove home some key learnings about marketing and assuming a unique position in the customer’s mind.”

For Debra Odeh, a 2000 Tuck graduate who is a manager in Accenture’s customer relationship management practice, coursework in financial analysis and modeling was particularly important. “I would recommend that students take as many courses as possible in this area,” she said.
The dot-com bubble may have burst, but knowledge of technology is still essential, even for MBA students entering other fields. “I think that MBAs need to understand the basics of technology so they can evaluate opportunities and not be snowed by people with more technical knowledge,” says Lui, who found a course in technology strategy to be especially useful. “Specific areas of technology would include Internet basics, e-commerce, networking infrastructure, information systems.”

Adds Odeh: “I would recommend a course that studies e-commerce from a `business plan’ or overall business strategy perspective … which also would help address some of the problems that these companies are facing today.”

Several business school administrators emphasize a different type of elective: softer courses that teach students how to manage and how to work within an organization.

Roxanne Hori, assistant dean for career management at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, says many students do not realize the value of such courses until years after they finish business school.

“One thing that I hear from alumni … is that an area that is undervalued when they were students is a program like Organizational Behavior, because they forget how important it is to know how to work within an organization, in addition to the hard skills that you need to do the job on a day-to-day basis,” she says.
C
ourses in leadership often do not reveal their true value until MBAs move up the corporate ladder. “Serious finance people … may not view those skills as necessary, but they will later on,” says Fuqua’s Smith. “Some of the general management courses on ethics and leadership are worth taking. … You can learn about your own style [of leadership] and think deliberately about how you want to behave as a leader and manager. [Power and Politics] is a very popular course, and whenever [students] take it, they say, `Wow, this will be really useful,’ almost surprising themselves.”

Printed with the permission of MBA Jungle mbajungle.com

October 15, 2001
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