Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Big Decision: MIT, Elsewhere, or Nowhere?

Two years ago, right around this time, I was in the midst of making a huge decision -- one that I knew could alter my future as much as anything I'd done before.  The question was this: Where should I go to school, or should I even go at all?  I suspect some of the readers of this blog are going through the same process now, so I thought it might be useful to share the story of how I ended up at MIT.  In short, it went a little like this: Weeks of anguish over whether or not to go to business school, then weeks of greater anguish over which school to attend, then, before I knew it, I was at MIT, loving life.  In long, it went a little like this:


Part I: Should I go to school?

By the time I had decided to apply to schools, I still had not made up my mind about whether or not to leave the working world.  I loved my job and the people I worked with, I had a comfortable life, and things ahead were looking bright.  So, why leave all that behind for a future with few certainties beyond the cash-strapped years I'd endure during and after school?   Well, jeez, when I put it that way...

It really came down to the fact that I wanted to learn How Business Works and couldn’t think of a better way to do that than through an MBA program.  Sure, I could have picked up some things on the job, but I was a scientist, and they generally didn’t let people like me near the real business stuff, so it would have taken years to accumulate as much knowledge as I could pick up in a single business school class.

In the end, there were three things that got me to the edge and nearly convinced me to take the leap:
  1. In the course of writing all those essays trying to convince admissions committees why I wanted to go to business school, I had managed to convince myself.  This, I later learned in class, was the result of the “consistency”and “commitment” principles.  I had been deceived because I lacked the very knowledge I sought!
  2. After taking the GMAT, writing the applications, and paying to submit everything, I had put a lot of time and money into the process.  I didn’t want this all to go to waste.  These, I later learned in the same class, are known as “sunk costs.”  Another principle.  Another business school trick.
  3. I was accepted at the three schools to which I’d applied.  It’s a good feeling to be accepted, a feeling of being wanted, of being appreciated, of being potential a source of funding. 
But what really convinced me was the wisdom of my older colleagues at work.  Many of them expressed regret over not going to business school full-time when they had the chance, and they didn't want to see the same thing happen to me.  I certainly didn't want to be in their position someday, tearfully telling a younger version of myself not to make the same mistakes I made.  So, that was it, I was going to school.

But any relief I'd felt over making that first decision quickly vanished, as I was faced with a new choice that made the first one seem no more daunting than deciding whether to put on my shoes or my socks first.


Part II: Where should I go?

From my list of three schools, I was quickly able to narrow my choices down to two – both local, both strong – HBS and MIT Sloan (yes, Harvard and MIT both made the same mistake).  Once I reached that point, I wavered back and forth between the two on a daily basis.  Part of the problem was that, despite both being MBA programs located within a few miles of one another, they each offered something very different.  HBS had the prestige, an amazing campus, a mind-boggling list of alumni, and would give me a chance to broaden myself.  MIT had the great analytical reputation, an incredible connection to the best engineering school in the world, and would give me a chance to focus myself (within the LGO program).  How could I ever choose one and leave the other behind?

A quick aside.  One thing pertinent to this story you should know about me: I am a terrible decision-maker.  I struggle to choose which cereal to eat each morning and am paralyzed by anything bigger than that.  So, to make it through life as a functioning human being, I have had to make some adjustments.  In particular, when making an important decision, I turn everything into numbers and choose the highest scoring option.  (Perhaps this should have been a sign that MIT was in my future.)   

In the case of the HBS vs. MIT decision, here’s how: I came up with a list of a bunch of things I considered important to me in a school (e.g. courses offered, classroom atmosphere, on-campus opportunities, post-graduation potential, etc.) and assigned each a weight based on its relative significance.  Then, I assigned scores, as objectively as possible, for each school across all categories.  Multiplying the scores by the weights and summing them generated overall scores for the two schools.  

Now, here’s the beauty of this approach.  The school with higher score is the winner.  If, however, I am not happy with the way it turns out, then I should choose the other school because it's clearly the one I prefer.  This method never fails.  In my case, this approach told me what I really already knew: MIT was best for me.  

Beautifully drawn chart of my business school
preference over a conflicted two-day period.
Still, after making this decision, I attended the HBS admitted students open house just for the experience.  Over the two days, I ran the full gamut of HBS vs. MIT emotions I'd dealt with over the past few weeks. My decision was so sensitive to all sorts of minor factors I hadn't previously considered or fully understood.  While the open house ultimately solidified my decision to attend MIT, there was a time when it nearly reversed my choice.  Afterwards, I even drew up a quick chart (see right) to show my wife how I close I came to choosing HBS.  

Having had this experience and thought about the many considerations that go into these types of decisions, I now present to you...


Part III: Things to consider in your decision

The most important thing to do when choosing a school to attend (or even to attend one at all) is to gather as much information about the school as possible.  Here's what I recommend:
  • Talk to students – past, current, and future.  I am generally bad at this because I don’t like to bother people, but students love talking about their schools and will give you lots of relevant and informative input.  You can also take from these interactions some information about the types of students who attend the school – their personalities, interests, motivation for being there, ambitions, etc. 
One of the main reasons I chose MIT was because of the people I met there.  I simply felt like I would fit in.  There’s an endearing modesty/self-deprecation about many MIT students -- especially among the LGO crowd -- that really appealed to me.  LGO students are also very considerate.  For example, a group I'm in with three other LGOs recently needed a meeting room in the main Sloan building, but all were occupied, some by single students.  Sloan has a policy that groups can ask single students to leave a room if no other rooms are available, and this was the perfect time for us to take advantage...except that none of us wanted to do it.  It just felt too rude.  So, we sucked it up and met instead in the middle of the noisy cafeteria at lunch time.  I thought this experience perfectly captured the classic LGO personality -- selfless, polite, able to get the job done regardless of the circumstances.  This is exactly why I wanted to be part of this program.
  • Attend a class (or two!).  While one class is in no way representative of the entire academic experience at a school, it can give you a sense of what you’re getting yourself into.  For instance, I went to a class at HBS, a school with an reputation for unparalleled learning experience, thanks to its mastery of the “Case Method." I wanted to see for myself just how amazing the HBS Case Method is, and to also get a feel for how well I'd fit in this type of learning environment.  Turns out, I hated it.  The professor teaching the course, though legendary, failed to bring the class to his intended conclusion, even apologizing for it at the end of the class.  While I'm sure this doesn't happen in every session, it showed me that this method has its flaws and is itself not reason enough to choose HBS over MIT.
  • Read!  There’s a ton of information on the internet and in books about MBA programs, and you can learn a lot about a school by reading as much as possible about it.  Just remember that not everything you read is true, especially when the source is a message board (or a blog!).  I derived a ton of value from the LGO blogs while making my decision.  In fact, they played a huge role in giving me a sense of the LGO students’ personalities, and I hope mine is doing the same for at least a few prospective students out there.


Part IV: Was I right?

Absolutely.  Honestly, I could not be happier with my decision.  MIT Sloan has been a great fit, and the LGO program in particular was exactly what I’d hoped it would be.  Here are just a few of the reasons why LGO worked out so well for me:
-          I immediately had ~47 guaranteed friends.  LGO is a very tight group.  This is great if you’re socially awkward and usually have trouble getting to know a group of strangers (not that I would know...someone else told me this).  You get thrown right in with the other LGOs, and real, actual relationships develop quickly.
-          I got the best of both worlds.  In addition to the great business school education I have gotten at MIT, I was also immersed in a bunch of MIT’s world-class engineering courses in some very interesting fields, including energy and biotechnology.  This was a bonus, since I really had gone back to school to learn about business.  It's really an amazing program.
          I got a job.  LGO's tight relationship with its partner companies means that LGO students have an excellent chance of landing a job with one of these companies.  We're also qualified to do lots of other interesting things and seem to be particularly appealing to consulting companies, though most of us have no desire to do that type of work.
      In short, LGO has been greatI highly, highly recommend the program, but you have to make sure it's right for you.  Do your analysis.  Hopefully, the numbers come out in LGO's favor.