Wrapping Up (Part 1) – Academics at HBS

What’s Coming Up

It’s been common refrain at HBS that we do a lot of ‘reflections’ – on our personal lives, careers, future direction in life, etc. But as a line in the HBS show said “now you must reflect deeply… within the next 10 seconds“.

It’s a whirlwind experience, and you hardly have time to breathe – especially in the RC (first) year.

Now, I’ve had almost 6 months since graduating and I truly have a chance to reflect on the last two years, and have the opportunity to try and provide an objective assessment on my experience at HBS – did it live up to my expectations? Did I wish I’d chosen differently? How cold is it REALLY on the bridge across the Charles river in January (answer: very).

A few requests I’ve had for topics revolve around three areas, but in general most people wanted an overview of the experience from someone who’s been there. So I’ll cover the HBS triangle: Academics, extracurricular activities, and career opportunities.

“You can only choose one to excel at, perhaps two without sleep. HBS is all about forcing you to make choices” – Anonymous Student

This is the first post covering the academic experience, and I aim to follow up before the year is up with the other two sections. I’ll be back before the end of the year to finish this off, I promise dear reader!

Starting Out in the Classroom: Cold Calls & The Case Experience

I was a recipient of my section’s first cold call in class, on the very first day. It’s a strange experience. By this point you’ll have heard a little about how the classroom format works (if not, check youtube here), maybe visited or even had a practice run at an admit weekend.

But there’s little that can compare to being asked to critically analyze a case in front of 90+ of your newest friends. This is an quintessentially HBS moment – and utterly brutal.

First, after a brief introduction, for me the professor started with “I always like to begin a new year with the person who is now sitting in my old seat”. His head turns to look me directly in the eyes… immediately my peripheral perception shuts down, and all I can see through my tunnel vision is the professor looking straight at you. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch all of that, could you repeat the second part of your question?”

During the brief respite comes the tightening in the chest. The voices in your head start early too: “Don’t say that, it’s a stupid thing to say”. “I hadn’t even considered that point of view”. “Oh dear..”. 

Eventually, I begin with “Well, I can see both sides of the debate…” and is immediately met with the response “A CLASSIC HBS answer! Pick a side! You’re her, so what would you DO…?”. The class giggles slightly as a collective (translation: “thank the heavens that isn’t me”). And so it begins…

Workload

After two years, I’ll have read over 500 cases, at a rate of two to three a day. In the beginning, it’ll probably take well over two hours to prepare for each class. Each class is 80 minutes long, and the curriculum is front-loaded so 3 case days are the norm to begin with, which adds up to at least 12 hours just for academic work.

You can add to this the usual socializing activities, getting to know your classmates, or within the first two weeks information sessions on various career paths begin. It’s a punishing schedule from the outset and time is scarce.

After a while, perhaps halfway through the second semester, this reduces down to between an hour, and an hour and a half (or less, depending on your level of interest and attentiveness) in total prep per class. This means that time becomes more flexible, but by then you’ve been thrown into first year recruiting (most likely – for summer internships) which soaks up most of this time, and if anything is more intensive.

The Section Experience

It’s a massive buzz getting your name card at such a well-respected institution. It sits in front of you for the whole year, and I got strangely attached to mine. You don’t move seats at all in the first semester, so you get to know your amazing seatmates pretty well too. They’ll almost certainly become good friends.

Over time you’ll meet the rest of your section. I’ve been genuinely open mouthed at some of the stories that sneak out during classroom discussions (or even more often outside). Even with the typical MBA concentration of consulting and finance backgrounds, the range of expertise in an HBS classroom is staggering. I found that those with more traditional backgrounds had ‘something else’ about them that meant they really stood out. Without exception it’s an exceptional group of people. I’ll write more about this in a later post.

Knowing each other so well, even after a few weeks in such an intense environment means discussions become raw quickly and opinions are free-flowing. This is a great thing. The professors can often go 5 or 10 minutes without talking, only pointing to the next raised hand to continue the discussion (this is quite a skill to do well, do not think this is a free-ride compared to lecturing at the front of the class).

I found in my group there was a great respect for the opinions of others, there was also a healthy appetite for debate and frank discussion. My own stand out moments include a section mate bluntly calling out a guest on his slightly dubious attitude to his staff, leadership lessons ACTUALLY ‘from the front-line’ and ‘while under-fire’ in Iraq & Afghanistan, or being expertly coached on the finer points of diversifying your asset portfolio by a former high-flying hedge fund analyst who sat a few seats away to my right.

Teaching

I hesitate to definitively assess any aspect of HBS, as I lack a point of reference at some of the other top institutions that are undoubtedly also excellent. But if I had to, the level of teaching is one area I’d generally give full marks. Compared to my undergraduate experience, the care, attention to detail, and knowledge of the staff (I include all staff, not just professors) is exceptional.

Professors have to spend one of the two semesters each year dedicated to teaching and writing new cases and it shows. They know you, your name, your background, and what cases you may be able to bring unique outside knowledge into the classroom, even before they set foot in front of your section. At the beginning of the semester, the professors have a seating chart with handwritten notes all over it, hanging behind their desk in their office. The preparation is outstanding – apparently a single case takes around two days to prepare to teach.

This is a contrast to many other top schools, where star professors are left to their own research and rarely leave their office. Of course, it is a big school and they are in demand, internally as well as all over the world in many cases. But over two years you will get enough time to get a real taste for top class academic thought. I could cite many examples, such as listening to Clayton Christensen explain the original thinking behind ‘disruption’, as opposed to it’s highly corrupted recent definition, is a real thrill and added a huge amount to my own understanding.

I’ve been fortunate to meet and get to know some of my professors personally. At times their families, and outside the classroom. They’re passionate, warm people who want to learn from you and your experiences as much as you do from them.

Curriculum

An oft-cited cause of concern amongst aspiring MBA’s is the RC (‘Required Curriculum’) at HBS during the first year. In contrast to Wharton for example, the first year is fully prescribed. There are no electives – you get what you’re given. Courses range from Finance (1&2), to Marketing, to ‘Lead’ (Leadership and People Management) to BGIE (Business, Government, and the International Economy).

You don’t get to choose any of your courses in your first year… the horror of enduring FRC (Financial Reporting and Control)! But with hindsight there is a good reason for this: a standard base in the class’s knowledge is a) is useful to you, why learn what you already like and know, not something new from sometimes genuine experts in the room?

And it’s also b) useful to others: in the second (EC – ‘elective curriculum’) year discussions are much better with some shared knowledge and base level of understanding in some quite niche topics. You reach a greater level of depth, faster as a result. And FRC is actually quite interesting… sometimes!

Of course, you could go elsewhere and dedicate yourself to 20-odd courses in the detailed assessment of fast-growing startups (or similar). But don’t expect everyone a) to know exactly what they want to learn, and b) don’t expect yourself to be comprehensible to others afterwards anyway.

Personally I’ve enjoyed the ability to pick completely new topics to me in the second year, with the safety net of knowing I won’t be completely out of my depth basing myself on the much broader RC year. And I’ve benefited from it.

“So, to summarize…”

It’s said HBS students get great at picking a position, talking a lot and arguing strongly for it. But they may lack in execution, compared to thinking and speaking. But most people at HBS already ARE doers. It’s an incredibly action-orientated and self-starting community. So while I can see why people may see this highly negatively, I’m more inclined to see this as a way of rounding out some rough corners on some already pretty talented individuals.

HBS is smart too. You’re in the family now. They want you to engage, discuss, challenge, and argue at every opportunity. And that’s the best way to learn – this isn’t undergraduate level getting spoon fed content out of a book – and you get out what you put in. In an academic context, they understand that in future you will become their next case protagonists.

A hugely surprising proportion of cases are from the perspective of HBS alumni. And many of them come back to class, to share their experience first hand. And then listen to what we think. What an endorsement.

Thanks to all those at HBS (fellow students and the dedicated staff) who made sitting in the classroom such a phenomenal experience for me over the last two years.

So to conclude my point…

As I’m halfway through my second year now, graduation is now rapidly approaching. I’ve neglected this blog in the last year, mainly because I felt I didn’t have a large amount to say.

However, with many still reading this blog after over a year since I really wound up posting, I realize I’m in a fortunate position to be able to provide the ‘inside story’ on HBS. So as part of my New Year resolutions, I’m announcing I’d like to spend a final few posts over the next 4-5 months before graduation describing how various things work from a student perspective, before I lose the ability to do so.

But about what, I am not so sure. I’m accepting suggestions for this, and I’ll try to tackle a few of the more popular ones. If there’s something you’re particularly interested in, leave a comment below!

FIELD 3 – The ‘capstone’ of the RC

FIELD 3 is the final and third part of the FIELD portion of the RC (Required Curriculum – 1st Year), a unique part of the HBS MBA experience. And as the first year reaches its final stretch, we’re fully in the swing of setting up our micro-businesses.

FIELD 3 asks you to form teams with 4 or 5 other MBA students. This is the first time this year we’ve been asked to form our own teams – giving you the opportunity to test your pitching skills and powers of persuasion with fellow classmates that your idea is viable and deserves attention.

Our team is focusing on the perennial battle that many feel around exercising, and needing that ‘extra little kick’ to get out and exercise or eat healthily. So we’ve started Badger. Badger is a new service that links personal trainers and nutritionists to users remotely on demand.

badgerhome

Badger’s homepage – Low cost health and nutrition advice and motivation

The idea is that people get much more motivation when they have some form of accountability to a real person, and people pay for a gym trainer just for that reason, but that’s just too unaffordable for most people. We hope that this can bridge the gap and give a real connection at a fraction of the cost, and help people to achieve what they want to achieve.

We’re feeling pretty pleased that we’ve managed to get our service up and running, and we’re accepting beta testers if lovely readers want to give it a try. Just go to joinbadger.com to sign up!

FIELD3 obviously isn’t exactly the same of starting a real business. The timings are pretty compressed, with due dates based around the academic calendar, and a pretty limited scope. However, it’s a great chance for many in the MBA program to try (and maybe like) something they have never tried before for whatever reason.

It’s been a great experience so far, I’ve tried and learnt some completely different things, and I’m really excited to see how we get on.

HBS is the only business school (to my slightly outdated knowledge) that has this sort of program required as part of the curriculum. I think this is a great feature as you get a completely diverse mix trying out starting a business, and I’ve already heard of some (FIELD has been running about 5 years now) that have gone through FIELD and completely changed their career direction because of it – an achievement in itself. I’ll keep you posted with how Badger does!

FIELD 2 – “International Immersion”

A core part of the Harvard Business School MBA curriculum is FIELD, divided into 3 distinct parts;

FIELD 1 – Leadership Intelligence: An introspective classroom based-program focused on self-awareness.
FIELD 2 – Global Intelligence: A global immersion program, with a team-based project in an emerging economy.
FIELD 3 – Integrative Intelligence: Groups of 6 MBA first years are tasked with launching a microbusiness within the semester.

I’m not sure how I feel about the module names (?!), but click here for more information about: HBS FIELD.

In each section of FIELD, the emphasis is on ability for practical ‘doing’ skills, rather than knowledge-based learning. I’ll admit I was intrigued by the experience prior to HBS, and while many programs now offer some sort of ‘experiential learning component’ the effort and resources put into it by HBS did make it one of the more unique programs.

Most of the top schools offer some form of experiential learning, but I found it quite unusual to a) have it scheduled as part of the formal curriculum and also b) what this enables is to work in a group with your fellow students rather than an individual experience.

Instead most other schools focus on student-driven/optional programs which while giving greater flexibility inevitably offers a different type of experience – if it happens at all – due to all the other great things that are competing for your attention.

FIELD 2 takes place in the first year, with preparation in Cambridge and a placement in between the two semesters. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend my time in Chengdu in China – not somewhere I was familiar with before my placement. While not a common tourist destination, it’s certainly somewhere interesting to visit from an academic point of view.

A chengdu street

A Chengdu market street – fully immersed

The course places you in a small team of 6 MBA students, assigned a project from a local company in your placement city and given a week to propose a solution. A significant portion of the week is dedicated to understanding the local market, tastes and preferences, ensuring mutual benefit for both team and company.

It’s been a fascinating week, and I was really lucky to be working with a social enterprise in startup community, which completely challenged my own preconceptions of business in China. Working with them led to a very different type of learning from just a tourist trip/b-school trek.

I also feel pretty pleased to have completed a small project that really seemed to influence our hosts, and changed the way they were thinking about a problem. They were more than happy to stay in touch and promised to share the results, which we will hopefully get to see soon!

For this semester, we are now on to the next part of the FIELD program, FIELD 3…

First Semester – Diversity and the Case Method

It’s been an unbelievable first semester at HBS, and I’m still catching my breath. The first semester is notoriously tough, and things become a little more about finding your own path in the second (Elective Curriculum, EC) year, once the first year (Required Curriculum, RC) is over.

After the opening of a new year I both have a little breathing space and time to reflect on 2014, as well as my first semester. I’m lucky enough to be on my way to China (via Thailand) for the first big installment of HBS’s FIELD program so I am writing this with the best view I’ve had in quite some time…

R&R during FIELD

R&R before FIELD

With a semester down and a shocking 25% of the MBA course already completed, I can at least provide a little more depth on some of those things you probably wanted an insider’s viewpoint – I know I did – before you apply.

Attitudes and Diversity at HBS

A big one before I left, and like many I’d read this NY Times article. Would these be my sort of people? Would it really be a diverse experience? Well the answer, to me at least, is a resounding yes.

Almost every case we discuss seems to have someone with a background in that or a similar industry. Everyone seems to have an amazing range of interests, even those with a more traditional career background. There’s a really nice group of LGBT’s in my section, and a huge numbers of nationalities are represented by the flags at the back of our classroom. It’s certainly more diverse than the perception I had before I got to HBS.

In addition to the vast array of backgrounds, I have to say everyone is a whole lot… nicer and collaborative than I expected. HBS I suppose has a reputation as the a temple of capitalism and of representing the dog-eat-dog cutthroat corporate world. It is highly competitive for sure, but not at all costs, and there is plenty of kindness and great team spirit shown by my fellow students.

HBS classroom with a wide array of nationalities represented

HBS classroom with a wide array of nationalities represented

Case Method & Grading System

The case method has gradually been adopted by many of the leading B-schools for at least part of their teaching – Harvard (as pioneers of the method) use it the most and teach virtually all their course material by the case method. I’ll readily admit that this doesn’t always make sense, with occasional classes away from the core content sometimes appearing to be ‘an exercise in disguise’. However, most of the material does adhere to the case philosophy pretty closely.

If you’re not familiar with the concept, this video does a pretty good job of explaining the preparation involved in this type of class. The chance to discuss, try out your own ideas and engage with the professors is highly valuable. I’m still stunned that my (at that point future) professors were greeting me by name in the week lead-up to first class – each professor learns by pre-provided photos the name of every student, along with their academic and career background, before the semester begins.

If you’re familiar with it or watched the video, you’ll understand how crucial class participation is. HBS pushes you, hard, to participate, and this can cause quite a bit of pressure. Grading (varies with course) of class participation is roughly comprised 50% of your final course grade. This consists of how much you’ve participated and whether you have made a valuable comment.

With 94 students in each class, the average is to ‘comment’ once every two classes or so. With grades allocated as a 1 – top 10%, 2 – middle 80% and 3 – bottom 10% of each class, the aim appears to be to identify extremes while reducing comparisons between the rest of the class.

The pressure while still unfamiliar with this system is intense in the first semester. As an international student I feel fortunate to have English as my first language in this context. The English of those with a second language is genuinely superb, just a slight lag in reaction times can cause students initially to be unable to get into the conversation.

On a positive though, many of those in the class have said to me that while this format is taught initially, it is the best language lesson you can get, and already seemingly fluent speakers now sound like native speakers.

There was a revealing insight from one of my professors in the last semester;

Even just five years ago, I walked into the classroom in the first semester and I usually knew who would be my ‘three’s’ [the bottom grade]. It was the international students, as their grasp of English left them at a significant disadvantage. Today, its not at all the same – the international students all have truly exceptional language skills and you often can’t tell who is not a native speaker

Verdict so far

The loan I have is the biggest financial liability I’ve ever had (excluding a shared mortgage) and the first statement caused my parents to ask if it’s a mistake. If you’re reading this you probably know what a commitment HBS is (and many other top tier B-schools are). In that context I have no hesitation in saying I have no regrets whatsoever in taking up their offer of admission. It’s a phenomenal place to be, and the experience is only just beginning.

P.S. Good luck to all those applying in R2 this year!

Next time: FIELD2: The adventure abroad

First month at HBS

What. A. Ride. I’m only able to write this because I accidentally turned up half an hour early to something. My head is just spinning…

At HBS you’re an active participant. In everything. From class, to extra-curricular involvement, so with 100% Type-A personalities organizing a social gathering, the pace is relentless. It’s not like my undergraduate studies, and I already treasure the rare hour or two to myself I can allow myself every couple of days.

The first few weeks (edit: month and a half! Really?!) are everything I expected, and more. There’s been so much I could mention right now, and simply haven’t got room. I’ve been trying to decide how I can keep this updated in a sensible way as the initial rush begins to calm a little, considering my new workload. So I’m going to give a brief update and try and regularly cover a topic I think might be interesting to those outside the ‘bubble’.

HBS Baker Library from across the Charles River

HBS Baker Library from across the Charles River

Section Life

HBS is divided into sections, with roughly 10% of the class in each (currently 94 in mine). I’ve been allocated to the best section, obvs! The section becomes your academic and social center. All classes are taken together – a significant piece in itself due to the case discussion method in use at HBS.

While the professors are truly excellent teachers, you’re meant to learn from each other as much as the professor themselves. It’s an engaging experience, and certainly no falling asleep in the back row (however much you may want to)…

We’ve recently discovered that there is no ‘science’ to putting sections together, no late night evenings with lots of coffee looking at the backgrounds of the 900+ students as we’d assumed up until now. They split the class into 10 equal parts, and the only consideration is to check for a roughly even mix of international students to US nationals. The amazing diversity of the class admitted each year does the rest for them, and so far it’s incredibly successful. The diverse background of my classmates is staggerring and much more different than I’d expected based on the traditional background of your typical MBA.

If you’re looking at HBS as a possible school, I strongly urge you to see a class if at all possible (ideally two differing subjects) and if not, at least watch the video above. The level of preparation is extensive, allowing the class to take a more ‘free-form’ discussion rather than a tightly scripted one.

As well as inside the classroom, your section becomes your social unit too, actively encouraged by the school – a close bond outside the classroom fosters openness and sharing within it. It doesn’t always happen and work out (there are always whispers and rumors of the ‘broken’ section), but usually it does.

It begins from the first day and we now have an elected president, treasurer, social chairs, athletic rep, international rep. Intra-mural sporting events within the class are competed between sections, party attendance is a competition between each section for the highest… competition seems to be a theme at HBS.

Looking ahead

So far, we’ve been what feels like an incredibly busy time. Apparently it is not. Extra-curricular activities are just kicking off, the recruiting season is now about to begin (we have been protected so far at HBS, unlike some other schools, but this is about to end already) and exhaustion levels look likely to escalate.

Pre-MBA: The fun begins

I was aware ‘professional London’ is a pretty multicultural community, but the last few months have really made me realise how much.

With just over a month to go before we start arriving on campus for registration, fellow HBS ‘admits’ have started to leave on last minute trips abroad – holidays, or more often, trips home to family.

Our group in London contains a surprisingly (at least for me) few Brits in our group, and is already a wonderfully diverse group. I think I’ve counted a few more British candidates coming from other international cities as well, rather than from the UK.

This has been gathered from our own small group of the incoming ‘Class of 2016’ – every couple of weeks during the spring there has been a small get together or event somewhere in London, and there’s been a steady stream of people to meet, especially as the later rounds of admissons get their decisions and join in. I think it’s possibly the first really useful outcome from Facebook I’ve yet been involved in…

Our group's latest drinking spot, a nice way to say goodbye as a group to London

Our group’s latest drinking spot, a nice way to say goodbye as a group to London

Professionally, the group is rather less diverse (unsurprisingly in London, as the dominant industries – finance and consulting – dominate) but this is more than made up from a real mix of experiences and personal interests once you get past the stock ‘so, what do you do?’ question.

It’s been a thoroughly enjoyable spring, enough to concern me that all this MBA nonsense is going to get in the way too much of having a good time (but I suspect not)! Cheers to the HBS London bunch, can’t wait to see you all in Boston!