Two Paths to an MBA

For busy IT professionals who want to earn an MBA, the options are either part time for four years or an intensive executive MBA program. Consider the experiences of two IT pros who took those different routes.

As IT departments partner more closely with the businesses they support, an increasing number of IT professionals say they see the advantage of earning an MBA degree. The formal training gives them a leg up in understanding the organization and using technology to make the company better. The degree can propel their careers to the top of IT - and beyond.

Unfortunately, most employed IT professionals don't want to forfeit the momentum or the money that their current career provides. So those who decide to pursue an MBA while continuing to work choose between two hard roads: the part-time MBA, which generally takes four years to complete, and the executive MBA, which can be achieved in two grueling years.

Meet two IT professionals - both of whom expect to earn their MBAs by this spring - and see how they handle the demands of work, family and school through these two approaches to earning an MBA.

The Part-Time Plan

Name: Rashi Rai, senior systems analyst

Company: Merck and Co., Whitehouse Station, N.J.

Current degree program: Part-time MBA at Rutgers Graduate School of Management, New Brunswick, N.J.; began the program in fall 1997

Undergraduate education: Rutgers University, bachelor of science in computer science (major in mathematics, minor in psychology)

Experience: 4.5 years at Merck

"Being in a corporate environment, it's important to have business knowledge," says Rai. "It's not just about finding a solution to the problem anymore; it's about understanding why there is a problem."

With nearly 50 credits of MBA course work under her belt, Rai says she's now able to work with internal clients on projects that involve technical and business process changes.

Rai's MBA concentration is in management innovation and technology, and she hopes to move into a technical management role at Merck. But she recognizes that the degree is no guarantee of success.

"Just because you get your MBA does not mean you are going to be a great manager someday," Rai says. "I'm earning my MBA to learn as much as possible about having the tools to be a good manager, and I'm hoping to be promoted based on my skills."

Since 1997, Rai has commuted approximately one hour from her job to the Rutgers campus two nights each week for three-hour classes. She takes two courses each semester and estimates that she spends another 15 hours each week studying and completing class assignments.

"In the beginning, it was exciting just to be in the program, but I'm hitting 'senioritis' now," Rai says. She says handpicking elective courses geared toward her interests and working with top-notch professors keep her motivated. Rai's husband is also in a part-time MBA program one year behind her, and the two encourage each other.

Rai didn't consider enrolling in an executive MBA program. She knew that as a relatively new employee who's fairly young, she most likely wouldn't qualify for that privilege. Plus, she was in a hurry to get started on the degree.

"A lot of part-time MBA students aren't necessarily looking for a career change," she says. "Instead, we are looking for increased responsibility in the paths we've chosen." Rai is studying for the MBA degree to improve her chances of reaching senior management positions within Merck's IT area. "While I enjoy project management, I am interested in a more strategic leadership role in the future," she says.

"Working full-time and earning the MBA degree part time is not for the faint of heart," says Rai. "You need to know why you are earning your MBA. It's not enough to want the degree. You have to be motivated by the learning and the chance to apply it on your job."

The Executive Track

Name: Christopher P. Ricciuti, principal, IT management consulting

Company: IBM Global Services, New York

Current degree program: Executive master's program at Kellogg Graduate School of Management, Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.; began the program in August 1999

Undergraduate education: Boston College, bachelor of arts in political science, bachelor of arts in sociology

Experience: Eight years at AT&T Corp.; nearly three years at IBM

"My grandfather, who came to the United States from Italy, taught us, 'Education makes you smarter faster,' " says Ricciuti. "That's exactly what I'm finding in business school. Skills like activity-based costing, which took me three months of experience to learn, took me one lecture at school to understand."

For Ricciuti, "fast" is the operative word. Every other weekend, he boards a plane and flies from New York to Evanston, Ill., where he spend three days with 70 other executives cramming in four courses per semester. Reading and studying take up most of his free time.

Often, Ricciuti and his wife, a TV producer who travels on business, catch separate planes at the airport and don't meet up again for a week or more. But they're supportive of each other's aspirations.

"This schedule has the potential to stress a marriage or make it stronger," says Ricciuti. "My wife and I have to work hard to get time together, and when we do, we focus on each other."

Ricciuti chose Kellogg for its emphasis on team-building and collaboration, two important skills he uses on the job. "The happiest day of my life - other than my wedding day - was when I was accepted at Kellogg," he says.

An IT consultant to Wall Street firms, Ricciuti wants the MBA training to help him provide end- to-end client solutions that include an understanding of all facets of business and not just IT and marketing, which are his areas of expertise. The course work is paying off.

"I literally take material I learned from the weekend and apply it to my work the following Monday," says Ricciuti. Occasionally, his clients will razz him about using business school buzzwords, Ricciuti says. But for the most part, his attendance in the program is a nonissue, even though it takes him off-site one Friday every other week. "My focus at school has helped me to focus better at work - I have less time to get things done," he says.

"This is not an 'MBA lite'; it is a full MBA program," says Ricciuti, who hopes to take on a broader leadership role in his IBM practice once he earns the degree.

Engaging, caring professors make the weekends energizing, and Ricciuti talks on the phone every day with classmates, whom he describes as the brightest, most well-rounded people he has ever met. "When I look around the classroom, I know I'm with the future leaders. Many of these people will one day be the presidents of their companies," he says.

Vitiello is a freelance writer in East Brunswick, N.J.

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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