Change in Plans

"Tell me," the career counselor said. "Why did you decide to study for an MBA?"

The question, though not unexpected, left me silent for a moment. I'd always planned on answering this question. However, in my original plan, the questioner, time, and circumstances were different. I was supposed to be answering this question during a job interview after successful completion of my MBA. Instead, I found myself addressing the issue in a career counselor's office after my first year of the MBA program. It didn't fit my plan.

I moved to Seattle from the Midwest three and a half years ago after accepting a corporate-level position with a prosperous and well-known Fortune 500 Company. I'd spent my career in the environmental, health, and safety field. This position was the logical next step.

In my plan, I would work for some time for this company, prove myself, then pursue an advanced degree that would then allow me to continue my upward career trajectory. My ultimate goal was to become a C-level EHS executive in a Fortune 500 company. I wanted to be the one setting policy, not just implementing it. The plan seemed relatively straightforward at the time.

The first part of the plan went well. I did well in my job, received good reviews, and mulled which advanced degree I would pursue. I considered a law degree, an MBA, or an advanced degree in engineering. I talked to several people whose opinion I trusted. In the end, I decided to pursue an MBA because I believed that it would take me to an executive-level position within the company. Combined with my chemical engineering background, I believed an MBA would make me an attractive candidate to get where I wanted to go.

A Time to Celebrate I talked to my employer, and they very generously offered to send me to school and to cover a significant portion of the costs. After much research, interviewing, and visits, I ultimately decided to apply to the executive MBA program at the University of Washington Foster School of Business. It had an excellent reputation, and I particularly liked the class schedule. Meeting once a week for eight intensive hours (along with a few extremely strenuous residence weeks) was very appealing to me as a working professional. Applying was an exhaustive and rigorous process. My husband and I celebrated when we learned I had been accepted.

On the first day of class, in August 2008, each student was interviewed by another student. I was asked what my biggest concern was upon entering the program. My response was that since I had an engineering background, I'd studied little to none of the traditional business classes, and I was concerned about learning a new "business" language. In addition, I had concerns (that were shared by just about everyone) on how to juggle a full-time class schedule with a full-time job. However, my answer was immediate when I was asked, "What are you going to do with an MBA? " Remember, I had a plan.

Soon after, the bottom fell out of the economy, and the stock market. So much for plans. My employer, a company extremely dependent on the housing industry, started hemorrhaging money. The company sold several divisions. There was talk of massive layoffs. The very week after I started my MBA classes, the department in which I worked was cut by 70%. I was one of the lucky ones. I survived.

My employer was not alone in this plight. In my class, there were a dozen students who deferred enrolling in the program by a year because of the economy. Many conversations in class started with the query, "How is your company doing?"

The Team Effort Once classes started, however, there was no time to focus on much beyond class and work. I was very lucky to have been put in a study group filled with extremely bright and talented professionals. While UW called us the Purple Team, we dubbed ourselves the Phoenicians. We developed a team charter that we have stuck to so far. The five of us—Rebecca, Aidan, Dave, Eric, and me—have become an extremely effective team. Together we have coached, cajoled, and encouraged each other, through midterms and group projects and homework, through accounting and economics and statistics among other classes, all with the eye to the goal: "Starting as a team, and graduating as a team."

Everyone knows that as 2008 rolled into 2009 the economy did not improve. Similarly, my employer's financial situation did not improve, suffering record losses for fiscal year 2008. In the spring there was another round of layoffs. This time, I was not one of the lucky ones.

My plan had failed. Suddenly, I was without work, enrolled in an expensive EMBA program with no corporate support. My initial concerns—that of learning accounting or balancing full-time school with full-time work—seemed like luxuries compared with what lay ahead: balancing school while also managing a full-time job search.

Sticking It Out My husband and I sat down and considered the options. I could continue with the EMBA program with its premium price. I could transfer to a full-time day or evening program, which would undoubtedly be less costly. In the end, we decided that I would stay with the EMBA program. The EMBA class schedule would undoubtedly be more attractive to a new employer, but most important, I didn't want to miss the camaraderie and support of my fellow Phoenicians and the rest of my EMBA class.

Several days later I found myself in the career counselor's office, facing the question: "Why did you decide to study for an MBA?" It occurred to me in that moment that my answer had changed from the confident assertion I had made at the beginning of the program. I had expected the MBA to fill out my skill set and give me the tools I needed to go where I wanted in my career. What I had underestimated was the broadening of my skills and world view. I had always been so confident that I would be an EHS executive. Now, after just a year of my program, I could see there were many more options before me. I'm no longer convinced that I will finish my career as an EHS executive. There are so many more possibilities.

I had thought originally that I would be considering the possibilities at the end of my program. After reflection, my current situation has just moved up the time frame. I am in the middle of a full-scale, full-time job search. I am taking time to consider all the options and being selective for what positions I apply and interview for. I am finding this process to be as much about self-discovery as it is about searching for a full-time job.

In hindsight, it's rather amazing how much my paradigms have changed in a year, the first of my MBA program.

I can't wait to see what I learn in my second year.

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