How to invest in your education strategically

24 Feb 15 How to invest in your education strategically

A guest blog by Mark Skoskiewicz

Using strategies is the key to success in all walks of life. But, like the term “thinking outside the box,” many people may get the gist of what it probably means to “be strategic,” but don’t really know how to go about actually acting strategically. Furthermore, while many people intuitively understand that all businesses need a strategy to be successful, many may not realize that this holds just as true for the individuals that comprise any given business.

One key to getting the most out of investments (of both your time and money) in your education is to go about making those investments strategically. But, what does this mean?

Before founding MyGuru, I was a business strategy consultant. I worked for a small firm that helped very large companies refine their long-term strategies, which typically involved placing more or less investment of time and money into particular markets, customers, and products.

A good business strategy consultant helps clients develop strategies with a four step process:

  1. Set a goal: How much revenue, profits, etc. do you want to earn and by when? What are you shooting for?
  2. Build a fact-base of information about what it takes to reach that goal and identify key gaps between what is required and what you currently have at your disposal: what capabilities, assets, etc., do you need?
  3. Develop and evaluate some alternative strategic options: What options exist to build the capabilities or acquire the assets needed to beat the competition and reach your goal?
  4. Choose an alternative and make a plan: What option best balances cost, benefits, and risk, and what is the specific plan that describes what needs to be done to implement the strategy you’ve decided to pursue?

Let’s apply this four step process to the decision to pursue a graduate degree in business.

#1 – Set the right goal
Setting the right goal and doing so with the correct frame of reference, is critical. Your goal gets cascaded down to influence a variety of activities in which you might engage.

For example, the decision to pursue a graduate degree in business probably needs to be associated with a goal that is broader than “get into a good business program.” Your goal might be something like “get promoted at work” or “create more career options”, or simply “learn new skills that I can apply at work.”

If you jump right in and set a goal to obtain an MBA because you want to expand your career options, you might miss the fact that obtaining a CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) or an M.S. in finance, both of which may be less expensive and allow you to keep working while earning your degree, are viable alternatives.

As we move forward, let’s assume your goal is to learn about different careers, create as much option value for yourself as possible, build a broad base of business skills, and signal to others that you are highly talented. If this is the case, obtaining an MBA would continue to be a top option for you.

#2 – Build a fact base of information
With the above as your goal, you’ll probably see that an MBA is a good option. Now, you need to assess your situation from multiple perspectives. To create option value for yourself, you’ll probably want a two-year MBA with an internship. That way, you can learn about different careers, get involved in on campus activities, and actually spend a summer working in a new industry. To build a broad base of business skills, many types of programs could work. An accelerated one-year MBA could allow you to do this.

Let’s consider the last goal we discussed above. You want to signal to others that you are highly talented. Well, that could mean different things to different people, and you need to do your research given your situation to ensure you create useful alternative courses of action. What do I mean?

Well, if you have an undergraduate degree from an Indian Institute of Technology, Oxford, or Ivy League U.S. school, you have already distinguished yourself as highly talented. These schools are very difficult to get into, and will stand out on your resume. As you research the cost-benefit of attending many MBA programs, you may find that there is a small group of MBA programs which would really provide you with an additional “signal” that would benefit your career.

However, if you earned an undergraduate degree from a less selective U.S. state school, then there is probably a larger pool of MBA programs which would provide that additional positive “signal” for you.

Finally, let’s say that you had a specific career goal in mind in step 1. Say, you wanted to get into finance, particularly investment banking. You might find, as you build your fact-base of information, that regardless of the MBA program you attend, you need to start joining all the relevant clubs, and networking aggressively with many different banks to demonstrate your interest in that specific career at the very beginning of your MBA experience, regardless of the school you attend.

#3 – Design alternative courses of action
Before designing a few different alternatives, you need to agree on some criteria, which should be linked in some way to your goals. Say, for example, for each alternative, you know you’re going to evaluate it based on the degree to which it:

  • Helps you switch careers, particularly towards finance
  • Signals to firms that you are an elite level talent
  • Builds general business skills in marketing and leadership that you don’t have today
  • May result, on average, in an increase above your current salary level that is commensurate with its tuition, room, and board costs
  • Is located in the U.S. or Europe
  • Can almost guarantee you a job after graduation, because you’ll be a foreigner in need of a visa

With those criteria, you can go ahead and lay out some options. For example, those options might be the following:

  1. No MBA, instead become a Chartered Financial Analyst
  2. Attend a top-ranked online MBA program
  3. Attend a top-10 U.S. MBA program
  4. Attend a top-25 U.S. MBA program

#4 – Choose an alternative and make a plan
You can imagine creating a matrix with the criteria above as rows and alternatives as columns, and putting check marks or scores of 1-5 in the intersections of the matrix where there’s a solid fit. This way, as you think about your options, you have a structured way to rank and re-rank your opportunities.

Let’s say you land on “attend a top-25 U.S. MBA program.” Now, you need to make a plan to implement that alternative. You need to be specific about understanding the:

  • Required GMAT score
  • Timing associated with submitting the application
  • Activities you should be able to show on your resume/application
  • Topics you should be addressing in your essays

Then, you need to map out a plan of attack for getting there. When will you study for and take the GMAT, who will write your letters of recommendation, when will you start your application, etc.

A little structure and a little strategic thinking can go a long way towards making you more confident in your decisions and more successful professionally.

About the guest author

After spending three years as an economics tutor at Indiana University and then earning his MBA from Northwestern University, Mark Skoskiewicz founded MyGuru, an education start-up focused on helping students improve academic performance through customized study plans, better study habits, and 1-1 instruction. 1-1 GMAT tutoring is one of MyGuru’s specialties. Mark is also close to publishing a new book on standardized test prep called Plan, Prepare, & Perform.

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