MBA or MPA: Shana Katz Ross

Please enjoy the second in our “MBA vs. MPA” series – started last week. Why did you get your MBA or MPA? Thanks again to Nina Sharma West for seeking out candidates and conducting these interviews.

Future Leaders in Philanthropy (FLiP): Why did you choose to pursue a graduate degree?

Shana Katz Ross (SKR): The quick answer is that I needed to – both because I needed the credentials to make me stand out in the job market and because I needed the skills to move forward in my career.  A graduate degree was worth 15 years of working my way through the ranks.

The slightly longer, personal answer is that I had come to realize that I liked my job, fundraising, but wanted to have a larger personal impact in the world by rising to a leadership position, quickly.  That said, I knew that I needed some more formal training to be able to make my next steps – I could see problems that I wanted to solve, things that I knew could be improved, but I needed to learn how to fix them.  Also, I wanted to go back to school.  I was working for a university, where the proximity to various programs of great learning was tantalizing.  It dangled graduate education in front of me…and an immediately useful degree like an MBA was the only choice for me.

FLiP: Why did you choose the program you ultimately attended?  Describe it for us.

SKR: I selected Yale SOM because while it was an MBA program, I felt that it put a huge emphasis on a well-rounded approach to business and strategy, combining academic and practical curricula.  That’s even more true now that they have overhauled their program.  There are some business schools out there that are more like vocational schools than graduate schools…at Yale, you read academic economics articles and the WSJ.  It’s taken for granted that you need to know why something works instead of just how to make it work.  And rather than teaching business subjects as unrelated (marketing as independent from competitive strategy as independent from finance), they ask that students consider all aspects as interconnected, from the beginning of your program.

When I was looking at schools, I narrowed my search down to a handful of schools where I could get the education I wanted.  Then, the campus visits told me everything.  At one school, I got lost on my way to the admissions office, and when I asked a passing student for directions, I got a withering look, and she said “Oh, I’m not going that way,” before turning on her heel and walking off.  At Yale, the promises that students studying nonprofit management were not seen as second class citizens to those on a more standard MBA track were clearly true, mostly because the majority of the student body is interested in philanthropy in some way – if not as employees in the sector, then as future donors!  PONPO, the program on nonprofit organizations, run by Sharon Oster, was also a huge draw, as was the ability to take classes around the University.

FLiP: Did you consider choosing an MPA instead?

SKR: I considered an MPA very briefly since a dear friend was at Fels, loving her experience.  But I am not drawn to government policy work, so it was not a good fit for me.

For the amount of money and time you spend on graduate school, I think you want a degree that impresses people into taking you seriously.  Unless you are going into public policy, exclusively, an MPA does not do that.

FLiP: Has your program helped your career prospects?

SKR: Absolutely.  For one thing, it taught me a new way to think.  I analyze problems more systematically, and have a better understanding of the way organizations (and I use that term to include private sector businesses) work – behaviorally, financially, strategically.  That is now a part of what I bring to the table as an employee.  And, to look at it in a more crass fashion, I am currently employed as senior management at one of the ten largest community arts schools in the nation – a job that was redefined to suit my skill sets.  Thanks to everything I learned, I not only oversee marketing, which is the job they were planning to fill, but I have a role to play with developing organizational structures for this large nonprofit.

It’s also taught me a great deal of respect for the nonprofit sector.  In addition to juggling all the financial, strategic and other organizational concerns of the private sector, executives in the nonprofit world are beholden to mission in a way that influences every other decision they make.  There are plenty of uninformed or thoughtless folks in the world who are under the impression that only the least qualified individuals in the workforce work for the nonprofit sector.  If and when I decide that I need a career sabbatical to the private sector, my skills, my degree and my network will let me do so – instantly squashing any thoughts that my career path has been anything but my choice.

FLiP: What standardized test did you have to take for your program, if any?

SKR: I took the GMAT.  And rocked it.  A note to folks who are non-standard MBA applicants – if you really want people to stand up and take notice, ace the GMAT.  Take a course, buy a book, whatever you need to do, but don’t settle for an “OK” score figuring you’ll write great essays or something.

FLiP: Did you attend part-time or full-time?

SKR: Full-time.  I would not recommend a part-time program unless someone is looking exclusively for a pay raise based upon credentials.  Part of what you should be getting as part of an MBA program is a network of contacts and friends you can call upon to bound ideas around.  You are not likely to get that with a part-time program.

FLiP: How many schools/programs did you apply to?

SKR: Four.

FLiP: If not for pursuing your degree, what track would you have considered taking?

SKR: That’s a good question.  I didn’t actually consider anything else once I realized I wanted to get an MBA.  It was unquestionably the next step I needed to take at that point in my life.  Now, of course, the world is open and there is a dizzying array of tracks I could take.

FLiP: Did you obtain your current job because of your degree?  Was it through a school contact, or did the job require a graduate degree?

SKR: Yes.  My current job was created for me because of my degree.  It was through a school contact – an administrator who I got to know well tipped me off that the organization was seeing a marketing manager, but my degree and skills allowed me to shape the position into Director of Communications.

FLiP: What advice, if any, would you give to someone who was considering getting an MBA or an MPA?

SKR: If you can’t fully answer the question “Why an MBA, why at X school, why now?” then you are not ready.  That said, an MBA education is one of the most useful educations you can get…without a doubt, it changes the way you think about everything.  Whatever you wind up doing, you’ll be grateful for your education.  And make sure to give equal weight to organizational behavior classes.  The best strategy in the world is useless if you can’t get people to adopt it.

I would also like to encourage women in particular to pursue their MBA.  It’s absurd that less than a third of students in top business schools are women.

FLiP: Are you happy with your decision?

SKR: Yes.  I made dear friends who are now scattered across the globe, with whom I look forward to consulting for various perspectives or calling for help throughout my career.  I can hold my own in a conversation with people in virtually any field of business.  And I love my job.  It was well worth two years and a hefty dose of student loans (which will be paid by Yale’s loan forgiveness program as long as I work in the nonprofit sector).

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