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To Pursue or Not To Pursue a Mid-Career MBA?

by Akshar Awalgaonkar, EMBA 2020

Well, I battled with this question for over five years until few months ago. I just made up my mind that I am going for it. Some dreams come true when the time is right. If they happen sooner, you don’t appreciate them enough. And if they happen later, then you don’t care as much. I feel I am embarking on my executive MBA journey at the right moment. Here are few snippets covering my thought process as I made up my mind on pursuing my long-time dream. This might provide you a perspective in case you are debating the same.

The dilemma

At 33, things are way different than they were when you were 22, right? You have that mortgage to take care of, cars to pay off, a child to feed, a college fund and 401K to invest in and a lifestyle to live which you and your family have gotten comfortable with. On the work front, you have been climbing the corporate ladder, gaining bigger responsibilities, getting busier. Obviously, it is very easy to feel content with this phase of life which creates the dilemma: Do I really need the MBA, now?

The right question

Many who think of pursuing an MBA frequently keep pushing that decision forward like I did. By asking “Do I really need an MBA?” I kept kicking the can down the road. Ultimately I got the needed clarity over a bike ride at Mackinac Island with my wife. She asked me “Instead of thinking IF you need an MBA, shouldn’t you be focusing on WHY you need it?” I always knew I married a genius, but it was thanks to that bike ride with her that I realized I didn’t want to disturb my comfort zone, and thus I had been conveniently posing the IF question, the answer to which always brought me back to the zip code I was in love with.

The shock

The WHY question seriously sent me on a journey of self-discovery. I started to think, what’s the purpose of my life, the path I had chosen and the destination I was seeking to reach? I was shocked to see how little I knew about myself. What I thought would be a day or two worth of thought process ended up turning into four to six weeks. The first few weeks were spent in self-reflection in solitude (at Starbucks, to be precise). The next few weeks were invested in chatting with people I trust and admire to ensure I wasn’t crazy in my thoughts.

The aha moment

Making a positive impact on everything I touch has always been the purpose of my life. Gathering the best minds together and getting them collectively excited about reaching newer heights has been the key formula to my growth in professional life. Being a leader, agnostic to a specific function, was certainly the path I wanted to stick to which also bolstered my ability to continue fulfilling my purpose. I always assumed I knew where I was going, but that wasn’t true; as I found out – I have no destination. Whilst driving without a destination with my family is a favorite weekend activity of mine, I realized that I can’t be doing the same with my life in general. I still haven’t found the answer! That’s why I want to surround myself with folks who either have figured it out or have similar ambitions as mine.

 The right kind of MBA

This is a crucial decision and subject to one’s preference and expectations from MBA. It was clear to me that I can not do the full-time MBA since I am not willing to give up on the lifestyle my family has gotten used to. Considering the phase of my life and career, an executive MBA made the most sense for me as I wanted to be surrounded by professionals whom I can look up to and who will inspire me as I seek my own answers in search of my destination.

The school

You can’t get this wrong. Don’t solely depend upon school rankings and public perception. Even though they are important aspects one should consider, it is extremely important for you to feel the connection with school. After researching about a few and attending information sessions of some, I realized it is Kellogg for me. I instantly aligned with Kellogg’s “low-ego, high-impact” mantra and felt it in every interaction I had with the admissions office as well as many of the alumni. I am so much in awe of Kellogg’s approach and values that I did not apply to any other school but Kellogg. I was fortunate to make it in the first attempt but I would have kept going at it relentlessly (until they gave me admission) in case I was rejected.

The application process

Since I decided to focus only on one school, I dedicated a lot of time preparing an application I was fully satisfied with. Essays are super critical and took almost a month as I had a lot to say yet needed to wrap it up in very few words. This is when I fine-tuned my thought process and focused on what really mattered. Time sponsorship from your employer is critical, especially if it is for an executive MBA. In addition, receiving recommendations from your current/previous managers, peers and direct reports takes few weeks as well. The on-campus interviewwas a crucial step, for which I prepared thoroughly. All in all, It was a good three to four months for me to put forward my application.

The elephant in the room

I would say, the thought of paying high $$$ certainly was the biggest hurdle to cross. Just because I was uncomfortable with the monetary burden, I kept raising the ROI question. That, my friends, is a vicious circle. If you are looking at an MBA just as a means to increase your salary, then this question will bother you, every day. I got out of that mindset as I reflected more on WHY I needed the MBA. Money is certainly a craving but shouldn’t be the only one. Some companies will offer full or partial tuition assistance. For me, the moment I deeply reflected on WHY, the $$$ & ROI question became secondary. One should look at it as an investment in yourself. My two cents would be to not get hung up on just the short term gains but rather think how brilliant this experience will be for you and where it will lead you in the future.

The real fear

As I get ready to embark on my journey, I am certain that I am going to struggle with maintaining a decent balance between life, work and studies. Having said that, things and responsibilities are not going to get any easier as I age, so now is probably the best time. Family back up is a must-have for anyone to proceed. If it wasn’t for my father, who always pushed me to dream big, and for my mother, who is a constant source of energy in my life, and my brother, who thinks world of me, I wouldn’t have had the courage to move forward. Your spouse, kids and the loved ones will indeed suffer the most, will be taken granted for throughout these two years, but if your dream means something to them, they will stand behind you like my family did. The onus would be on me to make sure they get every ounce of my time when I am not working or studying. Easier said than done for sure, but embracing the fear and then getting ready for it is probably a better strategy than undermining it.kellogg-emba-family

The last-but-not-least thing

Whilst you are debating your pursuit of this dream, if you are truly serious about it, you’ve got to stop being the hurdle yourself by focusing on the right questions instead. You do need to surround yourself with people who matter and whose opinions you care about. You need honest feedback agnostic to your liking. Soak every bit of advice that will help you formulate your own rationale BUT do your best and stay away from negative people. There are plenty of them out there.

As Chris Gardner, played by Will Smith in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” says to his son: “Don’t let somebody ever tell you that you can’t do something. You’ve got to protect your dream. You want something, go get it. Period.”