Push or Pull? The Decision to Leave the Military and Pursue an MBA

In the first of our new series of guest posts directed at military applicants, army veteran and Cornell MBA Peter Sukits shares candid, actionable advice for military veterans considering a transition to a full-time MBA program.
Pete is an aspiring career coach, author and finance professional living in Cincinnati, Ohio. He served for five years as a commissioned officer in the United States Army, and deployed to Afghanistan in 2009. After separating from active duty, he earned an MBA from the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University.
Through the process of transitioning, he learned many valuable lessons in the areas of expectations, mindset and preparation when undertaking the shift from military to academic and civilian life. We look forward to sharing his advice with you here.

There comes a time in many military lives, where those that wear the uniform wonder what it’s like on the other side – the civilian side to be exact. For some, it’s just a temporary, fleeting thought provoked by the latest shenanigans in training, policy or personnel. But for others, it’s a deliberate choice punctuated by reason and motivation. One of the most common routes for the latter is the pursuit of an MBA at a top-ranked graduate school of business.

This seems like a logical decision. You’ve led soldiers, marines, sailors or airmen – most likely in combat. You can make hard decisions and maintain a clear head in complex situations. All of these experiences are highly valued in MBA programs and in business. Unfortunately, there are a few other cold, hard facts at play here.

  1. The above connection alone is not enough to convince an admissions committee that you are right for their program. Unlike the military, performance and credentials alone will not accomplish the mission.
  1. There are literally thousands of potential MBA students in the exact same shoes – MBA candidates that have already been in the business world and have a sense of the culture. You must stand out from the rest.
  1. The MBA program is also investing time, money and resources on you, and needs to have a sense of security that you were the right choice and that, most importantly, you will succeed once you exit its hallowed halls.

This leads to addressing one of the single most important questions you must answer for yourself prior to even applying:

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Why an MBA?

Peter Sukist Afghanistan

Remember, business school is not a destination in of itself, but a stepping stone on a greater journey. If all you have envisioned of your post-military life is attending the degree program or university, then you need to do some serious soul-searching for your motivators.

In general, are you “pushing” yourself away from the military because it just doesn’t align with who you are anymore or is there some new career opportunity “pulling” you towards it? Which should it be? Is there a right answer?

Allow me to introduce you to the business school equivalent of “Hooah” – and that is… “It depends!”

Rarely is the answer so easily conjured. There are certainly going to be elements of both dynamics going through your mind. However, the need to define goals – that career “pull” post-business school, is essential for you to get your new mission off the ground.

I remember when the importance of career pull first hit me.  I was at a prospective student weekend at one of my target b-schools. There I sat at a large round table with about a dozen other candidates, and a senior faculty member who was a former partner at a prestigious consulting firm. We all went around the circle, speaking a bit about our background and our post-MBA goals.

I was utterly shocked at the specificity of some of the statements. “…and I’m very interested in consulting, more on the M&A transaction side, with an emphasis on the consumer and retail industries, with a possible long-term career path in corporate investor relations…” Whether or not it all turned out this way is irrelevant. The point is that they had thought about it, and were prepared with that answer. It shows direction, the ability to plan, clear decision-making – all the things upon which military candidates pride themselves.

Presumably, these other candidates have been in the business world and know a thing or two about it, right? Maybe they even have first-hand exposure.

This is where your civilian counterparts may have a slight edge over you. They’ve been there. They’ve lived the business culture. Does that excuse you from developing your goals to that same level? Negative. Does the admissions committee expect you to have clear goals and tangible passion for your next career? Absolutely.

One the most beneficial tools in our collective military kit bag, is the backwards planning process. Start with the objective in mind, and work backwards from there. Is the objective in this case the MBA program? No. Your objective is the career “pull” that is motivating you towards the MBA. Business school is a stepping stone on a journey, remember? If all you’re doing is pushing yourself out of the service without a real pull towards something, you will be setting yourself up for failure.

What do you see yourself doing in five years, or even two years? What kind of work interests you and what industries would be the best fit given your unique skillset? This is where hard work and doing your homework will come into play (we will get into that in more detail in a future post). Outlining your short and long-term goals will not only be prominently featured in the essay section of the application, but will also show up in your interview.

Tasks to Prospective Students:

      • Learn as much as you can about the types of careers that MBA graduates go into post-graduation. You can easily find this data on any business school website. Each business school has resources like the example below:
      • Research these industries/companies online and familiarize yourself with their basic business models. Get a sense of what interests you.
      • Contact the veteran’s associations at the schools in which you’re interested, and speak with as many transitioned veterans as you can. Get their perspective on the big picture of careers and using business school as a path to their career.
      • Participate in military veterans workshops hosted by companies who are looking to hire military talent. Some of these are competitive, so you will need to apply and be familiar with the industry and the work that they do. Some examples include:
      • After completing the research and identifying your post-military goals, decide if the MBA is the right step for you. If so, center your list on schools that will best help you meet that objective.
      • Be flexible in your choices. No plan A survives first contact, and you must be able to pivot one way or the other if things change.

Last but not least: this list is not all-inclusive. This is not a formula, nor an exact science. There is a method, but also an “art” to transitioning as well. Use your instincts, be open-minded and stay positive.

We’ll have more military-to-MBA advice posts from Sukits coming soon, so stay tuned!

If you are looking for guidance on your MBA application, follow the discussion group.
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