Year 1 (and 1/3) in retrospective: academics

Happy 2017! Here is another update, 7 months later. With this pace I might add only one more post before the end of the GSB! However, I promised that I would summarize some of the key aspects of my experience, and I will keep the promise. This time, I want to talk about Academics, after completing 4 of out 6 quarters.

Too often, the MBA is depicted in the media as a “two-year vacation” and there could be nothing further from the truth. The rhythm is obviously different from work. No 9-7 pm (or enter finish time here), and no managers/investors/customers chasing you for the next deadline. You are the boss of yourself — but this is not being on holiday, it is simply called “being a student”. However, the volume of work is enormous and time is a scarce resource. It is important to continuously reassess your priorities: among courses, vs recruiting, vs other extra-curricular projects, vs time with your family, vs time with your classmates, vs your own well-being, etc.

Different classmates place different value on academics in this constant prioritization exercise. This is inevitable and reasonable. However, the minimum amount of work required to simply pass each course is still demanding. You can skim the cases or do a project half-heartedly, but this still take quite a large amount of time.

Personally I have felt since the beginning of the MBA that the cost opportunity of being here is huge, so I want to learn as much as possible (besides networking and advancing career, which I have been also focused on). Most importantly, I truly enjoy learning. At Stanford, I also realized that, for good or bad, I am unable to give a project “a 30% effort”. I feel restless about a task being carried out superficially. I can either do 0% or at least 80% — not to say always 100%. So I gave my best on academics, without sacrificing other important aspects of my MBA experience, and spending time with my spouse. With this attitude I unexpectedly won the Siebel Scholar award, which is awarded to the Top 5 students at the end of the first year based on academic standing and demonstrated leadership. It has been undeniably a rewarding achievement, but it was everything but a declared goal of mine.

During the first year I only took a handful of elective courses, since the schedule is almost entirely pre-defined by the Management Perspective and Management Foundations classes, with only a choice of Basic/Accelerated/Advanced level for about half of the courses. However, the second year is 100% electives. So the main choice that I am currently facing is where to focus my academic efforts. I picture this as a 2×2 (typically MBA!) matrix, with one axis being “how much I already know about the topic” and the other being “how demanding the course is”, in terms of credits, time in class, final deliverables, etc. So far I have made the conscious choice of 1) improving my skills and knowledge in areas where I am already good at, as long as the course is demanding and not a simple review (e.g. I am starting now an advanced course on Marketing Analytics); 2) find out about topics of interest of which I know little, as long as the course is interesting to me and not too crazy (e.g. I took an interesting course about the Economics of Platform Businesses). This has allowed me to balance my time and efforts.

Of course, there has been exceptions. The biggest has been the famous CS106A, Programming Methodology, one of the most popular classes across all Stanford courses. I knew very (very) little about programming, and the course was extremely demanding. However, it was one of the most rewarding experiences of the MBA. I will never directly apply that knowledge in my career, but programming a little Breakout videogame or reconstructing the logic of the Enigma machine was priceless. And learning how to logically decompose a problem into smaller sub-problems, and writing pseudo-code before even writing any Java, was a useful abstract lesson for the future.

The other exception has been the most famous GSB course, Interpersonal Dynamics (aka Touchy-Feely). I just finished the course so I don’t want to talk about it in detail, because I am still unsure how I feel about it. However, I am certain that the T-group experience and all the readings/reflection that I have done during the course will be a useful lesson in my life and career for decades to come. If you don’t know what I am talking about, you can find a pretty accurate course description here. However, summarizing in words this class is like saying that “The Godfather” is a movie about a mafia family. Whether you like it or not, it is hard to appreciate the uniqueness and richness of the experience unless you actually do it.

The quality of the courses has been high on average but, I will admit, with some variance. There have been a few disappointing courses in the first year, but this is absolutely not the right forum to complain, and I gave the honest feedback to the course professors to hopefully make it better the next year. Also, this is a personal opinion. The perceived quality of a course depends on where you are starting from in that subject and what your learning style is. Personally, I truly enjoyed courses with some well-explained theoretical foundations, but which were at the same time highly implementable in the real world. Conversely, I did not enjoy much courses which were too theoretical, or which seemed like a unstructured collection of topics.

Among my favorite courses so far, besides the ones I already mentioned, I would include:

  • Big Data, advanced version of the Management Foundation course Data & Decisions, which taught useful tools such as R and SQL, and practical applications of regressions and other types of supervised learning;
  • Electronic Business, which investigated the impact of technology on several industries (e.g. commerce, transportation, healthcare, entertainment, and others) and pushed me to think more critically about the logic of business models and how this can evolve, positively or negatively;
  • Macroeconomics (the real name is the fancier “Growth and Stabilization in the Global Economy”, but it is in fact Macro 101!), which was a great example of the combination I mentioned earlier: clear structure of the course, and theory used only to explain real world events — such as financial crisis, monetary policy, different growth patterns among countries;
  • Strategic Communication, probably the most useful course of the whole MBA for me. Lots of mock presentations in different contexts (small vs large audience, virtual, etc.), with useful tips and personalized feedback on how to be a more effective and persuasive speaker;
  • Leadership in the Entertainment Industry, a fantastic course on the TV/movie/gaming industry with a seriously impressive line-up of guest speakers. I liked this course so much that I decided to be Teaching Assistant this year.

Lastly, a note about grades at the MBA. As long as you maintain the minimum required academic standing, grades really don’t matter – period. No recruiter will ever ask about them, and it is unlikely that an academic distinction will have any bearing in securing a job after graduation. Having said that, a good portion of the students who make it into a competitive program like this (including myself) definitely want to do their best in the courses that they care about, regardless of grades. This is one of the possible underlying reasons why they were allowed in the program in the first place!

However, Stanford has a student rule about “grading non-disclosure”, which is thoroughly respected. Grades are never a subject of conversation. This encourages risk-taking in the choice of classes and promotes a more collaborative, rather than competitive, learning environment. At the end of the day, the quality of the students here is so high that a P (“passing grade”) actually means “plenty of good enough” – as I had read before starting the MBA in a famous letter of a GSB alum to first-year students. Two thirds of the way there, I confirm that is absolutely true.

Any thoughts?

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