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12 Professional Development Tips for MBA Students: From Coursework to Workplace


Posted April 28, 2017 by Donald Shandler - Author, Consultant, Professor - University of Maryland University College Graduate School

As an MBA student, you are high performing and self-directed, and you recognize the MBA degree as an important component for career success. However, you may not be aware of certain developmental opportunities embedded within the process of earning your degree.

The following recommendations are from my experience in managing graduate programs and teaching MBA courses. Divided into four sections, they provide MBA students with a professional development pathway from program start to degree completion.

Early in the Program: Establishing Developmental Building Blocks

1. Initiate an MBA career portfolio.
MBA students complete a wide variety or research-based projects during their academic program. Many of these projects have potential to become part of an MBA career portfolio. Examples include completing an organizational situational audit, conducting a market research study, and designing a leadership development plan.

Suggested Action: Identify two to three projects by course. At the end of the MBA degree you will have a portfolio of approximately 25 research-based, graduate-level projects that will not only “memorialize” your MBA experience but also document your academic performance.

2. Affirm, document, and advance your competencies.
Your competency-based MBA coursework will most likely provide you with the opportunity to complete a competency-based skills gap analysis. This assessment tool will assist you in identifying your competency strengths and those that require additional development.

Suggested Action: Take time to affirm your strengths by keeping a competency log. As an MBA professor, I often hear students express surprise in recognizing their skills after completing a competency-based project. Make note of these skills in your log. They may be relevant to your current or future career.

3. Nurture your self-esteem.
Research indicates that most individuals do not receive sufficient, ongoing positive feedback for their performance, especially at work. However, MBA classroom activities, projects, and self-assessments provide students with a wide variety of positive and constructive feedback. Use this positive feedback to nurture your self-esteem.

Suggested Action: Start a positive feedback journal or file where you record positive comments that you have received from professors, classmates, and colleagues. Review the journal or file monthly. Past MBA student feedback suggests that this really works in nurturing self-esteem. For a self-esteem bonus item, add, as appropriate, a line to your email signature: “MBA Candidate, University Name, Graduation date.”

Midway Through Program: Increasing Your Developmental Momentum

4. Keep the big picture in focus—completing the MBA.
Avoid academic- and work-related activity traps. Peter Drucker once described an organization as a place where a lot is going on and nothing is taking place. Students may get caught up in outside activities and fail to keep the big picture in focus—completing the degree.

Suggested Action: One of the most popular MBA course concepts for achieving your end-goal is to use the SMART format to outline your plan of action (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely). This concept can be used not only to meet individual course requirements, such as designing a leadership development plan, but also to manage progress through the MBA program. Many of my former students have used the SMART goal methodology with excellent results, by employing short sentences in bullet format to provide specifics for each SMART goal element.

5. Generate a healthy self-interest and balance work, study, family, and life.
There is absolutely no question that working professionals have the constant challenge of balancing work, graduate studies, career, and family obligations. This is the single plea for assistance that I hear repeatedly from my MBA students.

Suggested Action: Steven R. Covey and his coauthors suggest in First Things First that traditional time management concepts do not work. They say that rather than focusing on “time and things” emphasis should be placed on “relationships and results.” Recommendations include “How to turn your weeks into an upward spiral of learning and living” and “How to lead your life, not just manage your time.”

6. Embrace Social networking and initiate a website.
MBA students are generational “digital natives.” They use social media to establish and build professional relationships. Here is a specific opportunity for self-promotion.

Suggested Action: Launch a website using “just your name.” This would simply include your first name, last name, and .com. Your employment in an organization and/or owner/operator of your own business may come and go. But, your “name only” website remains a “declaration of intent” and a constant place where people can find you. You can post information that transcends your job changes and shifts in business. Many politicians and leaders make use of this “name only” website approach.

Toward Graduation: Initiating Final Actions

7. Join professional organization(s).
Many MBA students work in highly specialized fields. They are “knowledge workers” who are employed by “learning organizations.” Joining one or more professional organizations is a fluent extension of both their work and educational experiences. Take the time to join and participate in a professional organization in your field of work.

Suggested Action: Identify, if you have not done so already, one or more professional organizations that support your professional goals. In addition to an industry-specific organization, consider a general management or human resources organization. Start your participation by becoming active in a local chapter, and then move on to state and national. Volunteer for a committee. And, consider attending the organization’s regional or national conference.

8. Occasionally reinvent yourself.
“Change” characterizes organizations and professions. Very few jobs or careers remain static, as organizations respond to the fiercely competitive global economy. Market-driven organizations respond to these demands by changing organizational structure and eliminating and adding positions. This is the “new reality” of the “new economy.”

Suggested action: MBA students should be formally and informally prepared to respond to this change by reinventing themselves and responding to new opportunities. Be open to developing an alternative career path that repositions and capitalizes on the competencies you have acquired. A “new you” will be well positioned to respond to new employment opportunities.

9.  Cultivate an internal and external peer network.
At this point in your MBA program and career you have become aware of the importance of networking. Networking is not just a job search activity; it is an ongoing career management strategy that can benefit both the individual and organization.

Suggested Action: Initiate an informal network development plan in which you strengthen your peer network by cultivating a relationship with internal peers as well as with external peers. Perhaps you can meet for coffee or lunch to discuss mutual professional interests and concerns. Don’t be surprised by the productive outcome.

Degree Conferred: Achieving Gold Medallion Status

You have now completed your degree. But, learning never ends, and a variety of developmental opportunities still exist.

10. Pursue complementary professional certifications.
You have now completed your degree. But, learning never ends, and a variety of developmental opportunities still exist.

Suggested Action: Consider the internationally recognized certifications and courses offered by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), Association for Talent Development (ATD), and the Project Management Institute (PMI). As examples: SHRM offers certifications for the HR Professional and programs for Developing Organizational Change Skills. ATD offers programs that will help managers become an Expert Coach or a Learning Manager. And, PMI provides certificates in Project Management Profession and Portfolio Management Profession.

11. Write and publish.
Writing and publishing is not only a good way to learn, but it can also advance your career. When successful consultants are asked how they develop prospects and clients, the answer most often is through speaking, publication, and referrals. And, as an MBA student you already have an advantage in that you have been immersed in preparing graduate-level research-based papers and projects.

Suggested Action: You have received faculty feedback regarding your writing strengths and areas that need improvement. Why not consider identifying a publication source for a paper you have written? Or, use the concepts you have studied to inspire a journal article. The process can begin by submitting a short article for an internal organizational newsletter or a professional association newsletter. A next step would be to develop and write an article for a journal or trade association. Perhaps you will emerge as a thought leader.

12. Help others and pay forward.
More than likely, a number of individuals have helped you complete your degree. Faculty, colleagues, and family have been part of your support team.

Suggestion Action: As you complete your degree and advance your career, seek opportunities to mentor, coach, and help others dealing with challenges similar to your own. Consider identifying a colleague or family member whose you can now help advance. You have an opportunity to emerge as a mentor and coach and pass on to another individual the support you received that helped you become a MBA graduate.


Donald Shandler HeadshotDonald Shandler is an author, consultant, and professor of MBA courses at the University of Maryland University College Graduate School. He has served as an assistant vice president for graduate and adult learning at Marymount University, Virginia.

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