One of the most interesting things was the chance to meet bright people from all over the world and from very different industries. I was the only medical doctor on the course, but it was the best thing I’d done for a long time.
“What’s a doctor doing on this course?”
In hospital medicine, careers tend to follow a prescription from pre-registration house officer through to consultant. I became a consultant and lead clinician simultaneously at the age of 34. After a few months, I began to get “itchy feet” and looked around for new challenges. I dallied with private practice, took a “mini-sabbatical” working for two months in Paris in a centre of excellence, and tried academia, producing several abstracts and considered a MD. None of these really appealed.
What I did learn though, was that I was becoming increasingly frustrated by the way things were done in the NHS, and when the offer of Deputy Clinical Director was made, I accepted on the basis of receiving good management training. I noticed how few senior, professional managers had a clue about management.
The MBA is the “gold standard” in management education and is increasingly becoming an entry-level qualification for top jobs1. But, there is a vast range of types and styles, and it pays to carefully consider which MBA to do. The course I chose was the modular Executive Part-time MBA at Leeds University Business School, my old alma mater. LUBS is ranked in the top 100 business schools in the world, and top 15 in the UK. The prestige of the business school determines to some extent the value of the MBA2.
The MBA was a great eye-opener. I quickly realised that there were better ways of working, it was possible to organise effectively and I could make a difference! It was refreshing to interact with top managers from both the private and public sector and wrestle with similar issues. It was surprising to see how often the NHS could be used as case study material for how not to do it!
It is often said that MBAs are not for the faint-hearted. Indeed, the workload is fairly intense and it can be strange to find yourself back in the examination hall! However, I would say that any doctor who can pass professional exams should not find an MBA too taxing. On the contrary, the stimulus of learning new material is very powerful and the fact that your career does not depend on it takes some of the pressure off.
Now, I feel “doubly qualified”. I can reinvent my career as I choose, and I have lost that de-motivating, sinking feeling so prevalent in many consultant colleagues.
What an MBA is and isn’t
It’s worth just clarifying and remembering what an MBA is and isn’t. First of all, it’s an academic degree, a Master’s level qualification, a Master of Business Administration. The name is, actually, a bit anachronistic since you’re not primarily learning about business or administration! In fact, the content of an MBA is very variable but basically, it’s a Social Science degree in Management.
You’ll find that what is actually taught during an MBA course varies greatly and depends on the type of course, e.g. generic or specialist, and crucially, on the institution offering the course. Some will concentrate on ‘hard’ subjects, meaning the more numeracy-based ones, such as accountancy or finance. Others prefer ‘soft’ subjects like leadership and organisational behaviour. Most will provide a mixture of both.
So, choosing the right MBA for you is pretty important, though I would say that you’ll be surprised at the subjects you enjoy, which might not be the obvious ones you’d imagine. For instance, I thoroughly enjoyed accountancy (and did pretty well in the exam!), even though the thought of it filled me with foreboding! Probably, like most education activities, it depends to some extent on the abilities of the teacher. If you have an open mind, there will be aspects of all the subjects that will engage you.
Don’t forget that most courses offer the chance to select certain subjects as options, whilst retaining a core of “essential” ones. If the course is accredited by the Association of MBAs, then, amongst other things, there are certain prescribed subjects that must be taught. This is an attempt to guarantee the content and quality of the course.
If you think an MBA will teach you techniques of management or how to run a project, then think again! It’s a higher level degree not a training programme. Don’t expect to learn the intricacies of PRINCE 2 methodology or become a black belt in Six Sigma! The MBA may touch on these topics to illustrate general principles and applications, but it won’t, for example, make you an accountant overnight! However, it will open your eyes to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the theories that underlie many management fashions that are so often taken as ‘Gospel’ by unwary consultants and practitioners alike!
Why do one?
For clinicians an MBA can revolutionise the way you see things. This is not overstating it. You will be challenged constantly about the way you work, about the way you interact as individuals, groups and organisations. You will learn things that make you say, “Why didn’t someone tell me this before!”
You will gain respect and status amongst colleagues across your organisation and will obtain the ability to link disparate groups together. Your qualification will be transferable across any industry. It will add value to your CV and to you personally. It will open up doors previously closed and help prepare you for leadership roles.
Above all, you will gain a confidence and optimism that your efforts can make a positive difference in any organisation, even one as strange as the NHS!
If none of these reasons appeal to you, don’t do it! Begin with the end in mind. Ask yourself honestly, what’s my reason for doing this and what will I do with it once it’s over.
Will I be up to it?
This is a common anxiety especially for people with no previous experience of management, or who feel that mathematics is not their strong point. However, don’t despair, it’s not that bad! If you already have a first degree or equivalent then you shouldn’t find an MBA too taxing from an academic point of view. Like anything new, there is a learning curve to climb. Coming to terms with a new vocabulary in social science can be a bit perplexing! If you really struggle with basic maths then consider taking a refresher course. Many MBA schools offer additional support in maths, or will be able to suggest appropriate courses.
I strongly believe the key thing is your attitude. You will need to apply yourself to the course and maintain momentum throughout. The people on my course who struggled were not lacking in intelligence, rather they had other priorities and allowed work to accumulate till the easiest option was to quit. I would also add that if you choose to study in a language in which you are not completely competent, then you will find it pretty tough.
What’s the commitment in time?
The course prospectus will suggest how much time is required. Personally, I found that the modular part-time approach was very helpful. This involves short, high intensity times, say 3 or 4 days full-time every 6-8 weeks for the taught aspects. After that, a couple of hours a day for about 2-3 weeks to get the assignment done should suffice.
I found that doing an hour’s work early in the morning was highly productive. However, everyone’s physiology and social situations are different and you will have to decide what works best for you.
A word to the wise, get the explicit agreement of whoever you live with before you start. The MBA can put a strain on relationships and you will need the support and understanding of those around you. If relevant to you, explain to children what you’re doing and ask for their understanding, too; make it a family affair!
Gather information. Read this article carefully, and research the links. Approach your organisation for support. This includes time off for study and financial support for the course fees, which are often high. Be realistic. You will have to provide a good reason to your organisation for this level of commitment, but on the other hand, a forward-thinking organisation will want to retain and encourage its best employees!
1 Economist (2003) Charisma helps, but it’s only a beginning. The Economist, 23rd Oct, 2003.
2 Bickerstaffe, G. (1998) Which MBA? Pearson Education Limited, London.