TweetBack Thursday: Help Paying for Graduate School

Spencer DeWald is a question asking machine. I like this about him. He is engaging and intellectually curious, qualities we academics find hard to resist. Early indications are that he also asks questions others find interesting. My blog post answering his question on building your personal brand has had more hits than any other TweetBack Thursday post so far.

So, it is only fitting that Spencer be my first repeat questioner. He asked me to provide advice on how students could get others to help pay the cost of getting their graduate degree. Spence, I’m going to have a little fun with you here. Despite having my tongue-in-cheek, I hope you find my answer useful and that you will still invite me back to speak to your SMPS group. I am also going to focus my comments solely on a masters degree in business. My answer for a Ph.D. would be somewhat different and would make this post too long.

Spencer, you need investors. Donations are not likely. Government will loan you the money, but pure need based scholarships are rare for graduate students in business. So, you will need to make the case that you are likely to generate a good return for your investors. There are three primary suspects. The first are your parents. Maybe you didn’t cost them much as an undergraduate and they feel they still owe you. Maybe they are worried that you haven’t blossomed yet despite their sizable commitment and will easily fall victim to the fallacy of sunk costs. Maybe they just love you or believe in the value of higher education, but face it they are the most likely to invest on terms that are favorable to you. The problem is, the older you get, the more embarrassing it becomes to ask them to foot the bill.

Option 2 involves directors of admission and the people they report to: deans like me. If you want money from people like us, you are going to have to show that you are helping improve the quality of my program. You can do this by having GMAT scores, an undergraduate grade point average and relevant work experience that is near the very top of my applicant pool. A GMAT score 650 or above, a 3.5 GPA and two to five years of good work experience will get the attention of many good schools. A sub 600 GMAT, 3.2 GPA and little to no relevant work experience will not. On occasion a student may do so well in an admission interview that they wow people into thinking they will get a really high paying job upon graduation and boost the school on this important outcome measure, or exhibit some unique quality that will increase class diversity, but that is rare. The bottom line is the competition for program-based scholarships and assistantships is really stiff. You will need an excellent profile to get people to invest.

Option 3 is your employer. Generally speaking, large companies that promote from within are the ones most likely to help subsidize your education. They see it as an investment in developing their workforce. You should ask about these opportunities during the interview process. My sense is that companies have been less willing and able to do this in recent years as they have been forced to cut middle management positions, tighten budgets and limit promotion opportunities. You are also more likely to get these benefits after demonstrating your potential to the company through a few years of excellent work performance. Note that this type of work performance is also what admissions directors look for when making financial offers, so this type of experience helps on two fronts. The downside is that it is likely to get mom and dad off the hook.

Even if all these options fail, recognize that a masters degree obtained at the right point in your career to augment and update your knowledge and skills is a good investment. There is no reason to rush. Get a few years of work under your belt, gain some perspective and come back ready to maximize your yield from the program.

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It’s Not Optional

I love my job. Among its many positive elements is the opportunity to meet interesting people and learn from their insight and experience. On occasion these encounters even provoke a blog post.

I had lunch the other day with Dave Rothfeld. Dave has extensive business experience including an eight year run as General Manager at Bose and time as VP for Sales at what is now Viacom. These days he does sales management training, consulting and coaching. I was interested in meeting Dave because I have been considering hiring an executive coach.

After more than five years in the Dean’s chair, I think I have reached a level of professional maturity where the right coach could be very helpful to me (My niece Avery, may have nicknamed me “old dog”, but I can still be taught new tricks.) As a leader, it is very difficult to get good developmental feedback and advice. Direct reports tend to tell you what they think you want to hear. It is hard to openly contemplate decisions because people tend to place far too much importance on every word you mutter as they try to read between the lines. In short, it can be very lonely at the top. Having another experienced leader who can give you blunt, honest feedback on your performance and help you think through tough issues without pursuing their own personal agenda can be enormously helpful to both you and your organization. It is essential in this process that you trust your coach and that you have a good rapport with each other. So I was trying to get a sense of whether I thought Dave and I would mesh, learn about his approach, and what it might cost.

As he talked about his experiences and approach, Dave mentioned that he frequently asks people to consider “what’s not optional” in their organization. These are things people must do if they are to remain with the enterprise. As Dave puts it: ” You can be bad at these things, need training, and have the opportunity to improve, but you can’t not do them. If you choose not to do them, you choose not to be a part of us.” He went on to note that, for example, in building an organization that wants to compete on customer service, you can’t choose not to help a customer or send them off to someone else. Helping the customer simply isn’t optional.

I found this to be a simple and powerful insight. In building a culture we have to ask, what’s not optional? In a research culture, you can’t choose not to engage in scholarly activity (even the dean). In creating a culture of engagement, you can’t choose not to have a conversation. In creating a culture of risk taking, you can’t decide to take the safest path and so forth. In academia where people are fiercely autonomous and professors’ classrooms are their castles, agreeing on what is not optional is a tall order. But we can’t define ourselves until we answer the question and hold people accountable throughout the organization: faculty, students, and staff.

Thanks Dave.

Happy Thanksgiving

Seriously people? It is Thanksgiving and you have got nothing better to do than read blog posts? The Lions are no doubt down by three touchdowns, but there is turkey to eat, family to appreciate and Black Friday shopping strategies to consider. Yes the family can be a pain and the mashed potatoes may be lumpy, but the economy needs you tomorrow morning. So unless you are my wife (she has been ready for weeks), stop reading blogs and put the finishing touches on that shopping plan so that you can be ready to take advantage of those bargains before the sun comes up.

And don’t forget: final exam time is just around the corner……See you Monday.

I’m all Ears

It is course evaluation time in the College, that time of the semester when students provide us feedback on their classroom experience. Contrary to popular belief, we care about them. Not only do they matter in pay and promotion decisions, teaching a class is an emotional experience. You are asked to be center stage thirty times over fifteen weeks, always be on top of your game and imprint every student with your wisdom so that they will leave your course understanding the world as you see it. Bad student evaluations for a faculty member are like bad theater reviews for actors: They sting. I have never met a professor who was indifferent about their student evaluations. Unwilling to accept criticism, yes: Immune to the slings and arrows of student feedback? Egoless in the glow of rave reviews? Never. Trust me, they always matter.

This is why it is both frustrating and surprising that so few students take the time to give faculty any feedback. Poor student participation in the evaluation process was a major topic at our college-wide faculty meeting on Friday. Since going to on-line evaluations, the percent of students who complete an evaluation has hovered at around just twenty percent. Faculty rightly question whether it is fair to draw any conclusions about their performance when such a small percent of students provide input. Is a failure to fill out an evaluation a sign of satisfaction, indifference or disgust? Frankly, if these response rates don’t improve, all students risk loosing a meaningful way to influence their college experience.

Providing people with good, honest, developmental feedback is hard. Every manager struggles to do this. It isn’t fun. It takes lots of time. It requires that you know a lot about their performance and can describe to them in words they understand how they can improve.
Students are an important part of the evaluation process because they are the only people who see the professor in action every day. They are in the best position to provide observations on the faculty member’s behavior, day in and day out. This is critical to providing good feedback. Organizations that fail to provide good developmental feedback fail to improve. A failure to improve is unacceptable to me. If we can’t get the kind of feedback we need from students, we are going to have to get it from some other source.

But before we shut students out of the process, I want suggestions on how to improve response rates and get higher quality data from students on faculty performance in class. Some have suggested making evaluations mandatory. This will improve the number of students who fill out the form, but not necessarily the quality of the information we receive (e.g. mindless filling out of the form). Prizes or group incentives are likely to produce similar results. I am inclined to include student training on evaluations in our Cornerstone class to emphasize their importance and improve the quality of information we receive. I am also inclined to provide rewards to faculty who get the most students to meaningfully respond. What I am looking for are policies that will promote a culture of student engagement and meaningful dialogue about the classroom experience. If you have suggestions here, like my big coffee cup says: I’m all ears.

TweetBack Thursday: What to do when you have no idea what you want to do.

@Klandress asked me…”What do you do when you have a business admin degree and no idea what you want to do … Sell insurance?”

Sure, why not? It is good honest work and beats doing nothing. Whatever you do, don’t go back to school. Sounds like you just finished your degree and didn’t find the answer the first time. No reason to believe going back right away will help. Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. No use continuing to ask your friends and family either: sounds like they haven’t been much help.

I have to admit that I have never been in your situation. I have changed what I wanted to do several times over the years (e.g., cowboy, baseball player, astronomer, professor, dean) but I have never had no idea what I wanted to do. In many ways my advice to you is similar to the advice I gave @chrisjreagan in a recent post. Albert’s definition also gives you a clue to solving your dilemma. Whatever you have been doing hasn’t helped figure this out, so you need to do something different. Create a plan that you can implement in a proactive manner. Do not wait for destiny to find you. It isn’t coming.

Step 1, assuming you need a job to eat, get one. (If not, a walkabout might work, but it’s not likely). Step 2, realize that this is an entry level job, not your dream job. So ask yourself, what you can learn in this job that will allow you to take these skills and use them somewhere else if you don’t like it here or don’t perform as well as people might expect. If you can’t answer that question, the job is likely to be a dead-end (last resort) job. If you think the job has the potential to expand your skill set, move to Step 3: dive in. Step 4: while working this job, look to expand your professional network. Make a conscious effort to get to know and interact with people who are doing different things than what you are doing in your current job. Jobs that allow you to meet a wide variety of different people (see step 2) are good jobs to have when you don’t know what you want to do. Step 5: when meeting people, ask them lots of questions about what they do, how they got into this line of work, what the best parts of the job are and what the worst parts of the job entail. Step 6: when you find something among your contacts that interests you, ask them to mentor you so that you make good decisions about how to get into that profession. Maybe then going back to school would be a good thing to do.

So let’s evaluate a position in insurance sales. Sales skills are very generalizable, so the experience gained could be used in a wide variety of positions and careers. Also to be successful in this position, you would need to become knowledgeable about a range of financial products: a chance to add to your knowledge base. The job should allow you to interact with clients from a wide array of experiences and backgrounds and build relationships with people: Also a plus. Finally I would want to know what the potential for promotion within the company would be (what my options are if I like the work and want to stay), what educational requirements attach to these opportunities and what people typically make (not the top performer, but the median one) over their first few years. If the company promotes from within, provides a living starting salary to the typical performer and has a clear set of criteria for advancement it seems like an appealing place to start, especially if I haven’t found my passion.

A Fortune Cookie Admonition

My old friend Jack Fiorito once got a fortune cookie that told him to “curb the tendency to go off in several directions at once.” He had attached this admonition to his office computer as a reminder to keep his research focused and programmatic. Discipline, Jack had learned, is a recipe for success.

I was reminded of Jack’s fortune cookie warning this week when I attended a keynote address by Professor Alan Blinder that was sponsored by our Economics Department and the College. Professor Blinder is a very well-known Princeton economist who served as a member of President Clinton’s economic team as well as an eighteen month term as vice chair of the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors. He was speaking to a group of economics educators about why President Obama’s stimulus package was such a political liability despite the fact that in Blinder’s view the empirical evidence strongly suggested that it did much to reduce the severity of the economic downturn. Blinder thought the negative reaction was so bad that it would be difficult to get enough political support to use Keynesian fiscal policies the next time the economy needed them.

What went wrong? Although Professor Blinder thought some of the stimulus money was poorly targeted for job creation, a primary problem in his view was that President Obama had initiatives on too many fronts (e.g. The stimulus, reform of the financial sector, healthcare, education). In effect that the President had gone off in too many directions simultaneously. Many of these initiatives resulted in new legislation, but all this seemingly disparate activity made it difficult for people to understand the primary goal of his administration (e.g., how did healthcare reform help the economy?). In a time of severe economic distress, President Obama would have been better served to act like a laser beam on the economy.

As I reflect on the many discussions I have had in my first four months and what they tell me about the aspirations of our stakeholders, the challenges we face, and the opportunities that lie before us, that fortune cookie and the President’s experience weigh on my mind. Organizations have a finite capacity to embrace change. An over-riding goal helps give actions a clarity of meaning and makes it easier to communicate our accomplishments to stakeholders. We need to keep it simple stupid.

TweetBack Thursday: Plan to Gain Better Access to Fortune 500 Recruiting

Today’s question focuses on gaining better employment opportunities for students. More specifically, William Thomas Van Hest asked: “I’d be interested to hear what the plan is to gain better access to Fortune 500 recruiting.”

Career Services does a good job of attracting a lot of companies to campus for their Fall and Spring Career Expos. Many of these firms are Fortune 500 companies. The list from the Fall 2012 Expo can be found  here. The College also has a list of companies it is targeting to bring to campus and Lonny Butcher spends much of his time trying to do this.

More generally, any plan to increase campus recruiting begins with an understanding of the company recruitment process. Campus recruiting is expensive so when a company decides to recruit on campus, it regularly evaluates its outcomes to ensure it is getting a good return on investment. Key points in this evaluation process include:

  1. How much does it cost us to send a recruiter(s) to campus?
  2. How much interest does the recruiter get during the visit (number of students showing up for info sessions, coming by their booth at the job fair, signing up for interviews (e.g., is my day full?), and if students do research and know about the company)?
  3. How many offers do I extend for an interview at our location (Am I finding what I’m looking for)?
  4. What percent of students accept my offer to visit the company (Are the students serious about us)?
  5. What percent of students survive the next steps in the interview process and get hired (i.e., what is my yield rate)?
  6. How well does the new hire perform (out of the gate and over the first year or so)?
  7. How long do they stay with my company?

Realize too that companies do not go on an unlimited number of recruiting trips. So to become a regular part of a company’s recruiting process, a school may have to displace another school on their calendar. This means they are going to have to outperform at least one school on the last three items above.

Now let’s apply those steps to UCF. Not very many Fortune 500 companies are headquartered in Central Florida. Our region is dominated by small and medium companies that serve either the defense industry, a growing healthcare segment or the tourism/hospitality industry (or as Lonny calls it, the 500 pound gorilla). This has two implications for a plan to attract them here: (1) we are not near them, so it costs more to visit our campus and they will want to get above average returns for visits here. (2) Students need to be willing to relocate in order to pursue jobs with these firms. Yet, roughly 80% of our graduates, including 75% of a Cohort MBA graduates remain in Central Florida. Firms tell us many UCF students do not want to leave the region.

So, we are disadvantaged in the recruitment process for many Fortune 500 companies on items 1,2 and 4. This is problematic, but it doesn’t need to be deadly. We can overcome these challenges if the company finds a large number of students with the qualities they want, that high numbers of those who accept interviews survive the next steps in the recruiting process, do well on the job and stay for a long period of time (items 3, 5, 6, and 7). So to the extent that we can work to attract those firms that are looking for the exact qualities in their employees that we foster in our students, the better the “match” we will be and the better we will perform on items 3, 5, 6 and 7. This is one of the reasons why I am such a strong advocate for building a culture in the College that fosters a distinctive set of qualities in our students: it will help attract the right employers to campus and increase everyone’s yield rate: theirs and ours.

Whether these are Fortune 500 companies or not isn’t as important as whether these are companies that are attractive to our students and vice versa. So, I would ask you: what companies would you like to see recruit here? What qualities do they have that you find appealing? And what research have you done to lead you to conclude that you want to work in these firms?

Hey, Lonny what do students tell you?

What is College For?

I am hosting my second Tweetup of the semester on November 19th. It is one of the ways I try to connect with students, understand their aspirations and get feedback on the UCF experience. You can sign up by clicking (here). This Tweetup will focus on building a unique culture for the College: one that will help develop a distinctive set of qualities on our graduates that advantage Knights in their careers and life.

But before you attend the Tweetup, I’m asking that you watch this video from Seth Godin: Seth is talking about primary and secondary education and how it was designed to ensure that we had a sufficient number of workers for our industrial society. I like this video for a variety of reasons, but the most relevant point for the Tweetup is that it shows how a culture was purposefully created that fostered certain qualities in people, qualities the economy of the time demanded and valued (e.g., respect, conformity).

Seth goes on to note that we are no longer an industrial society. That today, the American economy has a different set of drivers. So, he rightly asks in today’s world: “What is school for?” It is an excellent question. I doubt he means that we should stop teaching math or science or English. I also doubt that he thinks we should stop trying to create well-disciplined minds capable of solving complex problems. What he is really asking is: what set of characteristics should school foster in today’s students? Once we understand that, we can create physical spaces, design learning experiences, develop rituals, and extol role models that will help create a culture that supports our goals.

In searching for a unique culture for our College, I am essentially asking “What is College for?” Like Seth, I’m not asking whether or not we should teach students about net present value or the four Ps of marketing. I am asking: what qualities do we want to instill in our students? Which ones are most important to their success in life and which of these qualities do we choose to emphasize in building a distinctive brand for the College?

Let’s talk.

TweetBack Thursday: The Challenge of Staying Current

My very first UCF Twitter follower was @C_Pritchard.  He has a certain status with me. Not just because he was a trend-setter but because he asks really good questions.  Clayton asked me to comment on “the challenge of a university to stay current to the ever changing skill needs of the market.”  Wow, Clayton books could be written on that topic: I’m sure several have.  I can’t do justice to your question in a single blog post but let me make three observations about how I think about this topic.

First, a surprising amount of the “skills needed to succeed in the market” really haven’t changed much over time.  When you look at data from employers about what they look for in new hires, the same things appear year after year: (1) good communication skills; (2) the ability to work in team settings; (3) an analytic mind that understands numbers, (4) the ability to creatively solve problems and (5) the ability to motivate others.  This is why I am so big on students developing good conceptual frameworks and strong general skills.   Writing, math, and platform skills never go out of style.  Critical thinking from a well-disciplined mind and problem solving abilities are important in all work environments (and life in general).   Make sure you get these while you are in school.   Your career will take you in several, often unexpected, directions.  These are difficult to predict. An investment in general skills will see you through: The rest is largely context.

This gets me to my second point.  A good college education makes you a life-long learner.  It teaches you how to learn and adapt.  How to take things you are familiar with in one context and apply them to a different environment.  So, if you got a good marketing class and a good IT class, you should be able to learn what you need to know about internet marketing on your own.  If you feel you need some additional help, take an executive education class.  Executive programs and workshops are far better at getting you up to speed on emerging issues and practices than traditional college courses.  University courses tend to be about expanding your conceptual tool kit, developing general skills and giving you information about best practices in established areas.  They are not well-suited to just in time learning on emerging trends in highly specialized areas like IT where practices change quickly.

None of this is meant to suggest that curriculum does not change in response to business needs. Colleges of business rely on their advisory boards: groups of accomplished business professionals in their fields to ensure that program content is both rigorous and relevant. These boards can be very helpful in identifying general trends across industries that suggest modifications in curriculum: things such as the ability to work in cross-functional teams, entrepreneurial thinking, or an increase in demand for people with mathematical modeling skills.   What is important is to identify trends and new fundamental skill sets that are being employed across a variety of industries—things that if taught will increase the employment prospects of students across a broad spectrum of employers, not just for a few.

So in a sense, university curricula are conservative by design: We want to make sure you understand the fundamental concepts and principles of your chosen profession.  The practice of business can be trendy at times.  Theory X was replaced by Theory Y which was replaced by Theory Z.  Total quality management had its day:  Lean manufacturing too.  Six Sigma has its followers.  Big data and sustainability are currently all the rage.  It’s hard to guess which of these things will persist, which will evolve and which will fade away, but if you get a good organizational behavior course and understand statistics you’ll be able to adapt to the latest practice whatever it might be.