Sarah Caldwell, MBA student of Southern Methodist University Cox School of Business, describes how she chose to pursue an MBA and gives advice to future applicants.
Name: Sarah Caldwell
School: MBA, Southern Methodist University Cox School of Business
Hometown: Midland, Texas
Profession: Contractor Operations at ISN Software Corporation before MBA; pursuing a career in finance within the energy industry
Why did you choose your MBA program? Do you have advice for students on how to make a decision?
I think that choosing an MBA program should go beyond the typical factors (i.e. rankings, concentrations offered, etc.) and I would advise to think very carefully about the type of MBA experience you want to have and actually visit each campus. For me, I knew I wanted to join a full-time program in a big city in Texas, study finance specifically within oil/gas, and be part of a smaller class size. That really only left me with 3 schools in Texas – all 3 programs are impressive in their own rights and offered me exactly what I was looking for. It wasn’t until I visited each school that I could feel a palpable difference in the ‘culture’ of each program. I chose SMU Cox because I wasn’t just a number with the smaller cohort, their network seemed truly loyal and supportive of alumni and students alike, the opportunities made available by being within such close proximity to dozens of Fortune 500 companies are second to none, and ultimately the student culture felt very inclusive and social going beyond just being classmates, but actual friends.
How did you decide that an MBA was the next step for you? What advice do you have for students considering an MBA on how to make that decision?
I always knew that whatever career I decided to ultimately pursue, I wanted to have a graduate-level education, whether that meant law school, business school, or a master’s/Ph.D. program. To be honest, it took me several years after my undergraduate education to ultimately decide what path made sense for me and the type of career I wanted to have. I felt that having an MBA provided the most value for the different industries and types of careers I was interested in along with weighing the current environment (i.e. saturated market in law, need for women in business, etc.). I always give my friends and family this same advice when they ask me if pursuing an MBA is worth it: just do it. Yes, it is challenging coming back to a school setting, balancing life at a later stage in life, and it can be a burden financially, but I will never regret my graduate education. Aside from quite literally doubling my previous salary, I feel that I am well equipped to be successful in my career, more confident in my leadership and management skills, and (sounds cliché) but dreams of running or even starting a company don’t seem so far-fetched anymore.
What do you think makes your MBA program and experience unique?
Without a doubt, our Global Leadership Program (GLP) makes the SMU Cox MBA program unique. The GLP is a first-year capstone where we study a particular region of the world and then we actually get to visit that region and learn first-hand from government officials and executives from various companies. For my program, I chose to study and visit Seoul, South Korea, and Shanghai, China, because I had never visited Asia, nor did I know much about the two countries. As a class, we studied the history, economics, politics, and business environments and then learned about the companies and government organizations we would be visiting. For many of us, it started out being just a fun, class trip abroad to celebrate the end of a tough first year, but it turned out to be so much more than that. Don’t get me wrong – it was an absolute BLAST to travel abroad with your MBA friends! But the experiences, people, and things that you learn only by physically being there is indescribable. We were in the region during a very volatile time for both Korea and China with the North Korean tensions rising, business environments adjusting post-Trump, along with the many political oppositions. Being able to talk about those issues with executives of Samsung, GM, or Goldman Sachs was incredibly eye-opening and gave us the opportunity to see these things from the other side. I know the things that I learned and experienced on that trip I will carry throughout my career as well as personal life.
Do you have an internship during your MBA? How does that experience influence your education and career?
I interned for ExxonMobil as an analyst within their Corporate Financial Services group and spent my first 2 months in their Budapest, Hungary office and my last month at their Houston campus. Having that internship right in the middle of your first and second year is great for several reasons: 1) you get the chance to apply what you learned in your first year in real-life, 2) you get the chance to ‘test-drive’ a company of interest before committing full-time, and 3) you can tailor your second year to fit exactly what you need. The skills that I learned from various management classes as well as our Global Leadership Program set me up for success working internationally in being able to navigate cultural differences and communicate effectively. Going back to working full-time really allows you to ‘re-align’ your mindset and goals and allows you to assess what other classes would be beneficial for a particular role. For instance, my project at ExxonMobil was very data-heavy and I had to learn how to use various data analysis tools, such as Tableau. So the first class I selected going back in the fall was a data visualization class. The internship is really the real-world experience that drives home what you learn in class and gives practical application, tying together the entire MBA experience.
Advice for Future Applicants
What is the one thing you wish someone had told you before you started the MBA application process?
I wish that someone had told me not to stress out too much and to not second-guess myself. I can be quite hard on myself and get in my head, especially when it comes to something that I really want. Yes, the application is a vital piece of the process and it’s important to piece together the best application materials that you can. But, as hard as it may be, take a breath and focus on the fact that you will end up in exactly the right place for you. Another practical piece of advice I would give is to reach out to the admissions directors, especially to those schools that you are most interested in, and if possible visit before you submit the application. It helps for them to put a face to the name and it also lets them gauge your interest in them as well.
What is it like to transition back to school after being out for a few years? What advice can you offer students returning for their MBA?
I’m not going to sugar-coat it, the first few months of entering an MBA program can be a bit rough, even more so if you are coming from out of field. I have always been very studious and I’m one of those nerds that actually likes school, so it wasn’t as rough for me as it could have been. My best advice is to treat school as your new full-time job. I found that physically going to campus for either class or to study from 9-5 at least Monday through Thursday is the perfect way to stay on track. I will say I will miss the flexibility of my schedule though when I go back to the workforce! Take advantage of the flexibility while you can. Also, don’t be too studious – grades are imperative and it’s important to work hard for your future, but still remember there is more to the MBA experience than just new classes. Explore other industries, attend seminars, join clubs, go to class happy hours, network with alumni. Make the most of the experience and make it one you will take with you throughout your career.
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