Interview: Cynthia Wharton of South Carolina Moore

Cynthia Wharton

Cynthia Wharton

For prospective students in their thirties and forties, an MBA can be a great way to remarket yourself, says Cynthia Wharton, director of Employer Recruitment and Outreach at the Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina.

Do you get a lot of older students in your MBA programs?

Traditionally, we have several programs that attract older students. Part-time MBA students have the opportunity to work; classes are in the evenings and on weekends. Students may want to gain additional knowledge through an MBA program, but not let go of a job if they have one. In other instances, students may want to be in job-search mode during the day and continue with their schooling at night.

In our traditional MBA program, we do see some older students come through. The mean age is around 27-28 at Moore. Some years it can be a bit higher or lower. We aim to find students with at least two to four years of work experience.

How do older students fare in the classroom?

Some older students may find it more of a challenge than others. It is important to decide about one’s attitude beforehand. Anyone with five or ten years of experience will often find it a jolt to come back to school, especially if they have done well in their professional career. The longer one is out of the academic arena, the more of a jolt it is.

In the current environment, many professional people have added baggage associated with their career, especially if they have been middle or senior management. Perhaps they have taken voluntary leave or have been laid off. It’s important to look into counseling or a life coach to see if they are ready to go back to school. Yet, going back to school will usually be the best thing they can possibly do.

Many managers are now younger than the employees they manage. This is an issue in real life that MBA programs tackle. Older students use the opportunity to retool themselves and get their skill set up to speed. Old-school marketing was one thing, but now many people in marketing need more analytical and statistics skills, more computational analysis. Sometimes people don’t have the opportunity to gain or use those skills in their current positions. The MBA environment gives students the opportunity to look at their careers and skill set and what they need to go forward. With older students mixed up with group work, presentations, strategy projects, it’s a wonderful opportunity to get one’s head back in the right place to enter the workplace.

How do employers view older students?

The big issues that recruiters have when looking at older students are the same regardless of the age range. They are always looking for the best talent. Every major or minor corporation wants to find the best talent. Age really has less to do with it than the student’s good judgment and analytical skills, a can-do attitude, and flexibility. Given the economic environment, we are actually expecting a larger number of older applicants to come through.

Not all employers are looking for older students, just as not all employers are looking for younger students. Employers are looking for the right fit. For older students, it is not just about enhancing one’s personal tool kit but also learning how to rebrand. Remarketing oneself is an important part of what one is able to do in an MBA program.

Would you recommend a part-time MBA over a full-time program for older students?

If a prospective student is in a position to do a full-time program, it’s excellent. There is a tremendous amount that can be achieved. There are more opportunities for bonding and networking. When prospective students come in to talk, we try to provide the best counseling. It’s important that people find the right fit. Some people can’t afford to drop everything and go back to school full-time. However, the full-time experience allows people to network with peers in the classroom and outside of the classroom experience. Getting the degree is more than just a name for a resume; it’s also building a network of alumni which is valuable for the rest of their lives and learning from classmates.

We find that often people are stretched too much, which of course depends on the school and program. I have a lot of respect for the part-time students. They have a tremendous amount of dedication. Some people have a hard time managing that, but it is such an individual experience. Online distance learning programs could benefit some students but that really depends on the individual; maybe some people can supplement the networking which usually happens in a traditional program. Distance learning can be wonderful as one component of a program however students will miss a tremendous amount of face-to-face experience. Technology, however is overcoming the difficulties and things are changing. However still some things can’t substitute for face-to-face learning.

What advice do you have for prospective MBA students in their thirties or forties?

There are lots of reasons for people to think about going back to school full-time. Older students should think about: Who am I?  What have I achieved to date? Where do I want to go? and How do I best get there? It depends on the individual and finding the right fit.

Students coming in with an IT, engineering or consulting background in combination with an MBA is now much in demand by many companies. If students can develop good communication (oral and written) skills, they are definitely interesting for companies. We have a required internship for our international program which includes language training and an internship as part of the degree, which is unique in that respect. Older students can gain cross cultural credibility by developing functional competency in a language through an internship abroad. Companies are looking for mature managers with cross cultural and language experience; there are opportunities here for older students, as well.

A lot of the people who are thinking about coming back to school are very bright people who may not have been in a test-taking mode lately. It’s important to recognize, especially for professional managers, for people who have never had accounting, etc. Maybe they need to buy “Calculus for Dummies” or take a formal class in accounting or statistics, to get back into that mode.

There’s the old adage: when you are given lemons, make lemonade. It’s hard in any economy when someone is laid off, and there are lots of reasons why good people get laid off. I think that whenever an older person decides to think about becoming a student again, it’s not to run from something but to something. Think about what you are running to and why. Think about finding the right fit. Alleviate the stress and tension, if the reason that you are going back to school started with something negative. These things become really obvious to a recruiter. Recruiters are looking for a positive attitude, flexibility, energy and a passion to help an organization achieve its goals. Those traits, along with maturity and newly-acquired or updated business skills, combine to make MBA challenge worth the effort !

Photo Courtesy: University of Southern Carolina Moore School of Business

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