Planning Your Master’s Degree with an End Goal in Mind

September 20, 2015


As an active Indonesian UCLA Anderson alumnus and founder of Toga MBA consulting, I’ve come across many people interested in pursuing an MBA degree at my alma mater and other top tier schools. I found that most of them lack a deep understanding of what an MBA program is all about. This limits their ability to deeply understand the schools they’re applying to and consequently adversely impacts their admission chances. Over time, I traced this to a lack of structure in their approach when planning their MBA applications.

Looking back at my high school days at Concord Academy, what Ali Bhanji – my college admissions counselor – did when he was helping me with my college essays was put more structure into it. I don’t think I would have gotten admitted into top colleges like Carnegie Mellon and Tufts without his help in doing so. Thus, I believe that having a structured approach is applicable whether one is pursuing a bachelor’s, master’s degree, or PhD.

Master’s Degree Plan in 5 Steps

One of the most valuable things I learned from my MBA and post graduation work experience at a global management consulting firm like A.T. Kearney is a structured way of thinking that has enabled me to have greater clarity of the things I need to accomplish and their respective priorities both in my professional and personal life. I realized that this is applicable to planning and preparing one’s university applications. As such, what I want to do here is share a 5-step process for how to do that, which I created using management consulting methodologies.

Step 1: Identify End Goal and Direction In Life

The first step is to identify what is it that you want to achieve in the short and long term. In my case, I wanted to make a long lasting impact in improving Indonesia’s human capital resources and I started Toga as a step towards that goal. This will involve a lot of soul searching of what you are most passionate about. I recommend talking to people that know you best to help provide some insights. After doing so, you can then define the areas you need to develop both professionally and personally. Both can be further broken down into subcategories short + medium + long term goals for professional and IQ + EQ for personal. There are other ways to approach this but the key is to start as broad as possible and ensure that you subcategorize in a structured manner. This will enable you to identify your development areas comprehensively.

Step 2: Hypothesis of Degree’s Support of Development Areas

The second step is to take a hypothesis-driven approach in how a Master’s degree will support your development areas. For example, if you were considering an MBA and you identified improving your general management skills and developing strategic thinking ability to help make a career switch into management consulting, your hypotheses tree would be:

  • Level 0: An MBA is the most suitable degree to support my short and long term goals.
  • Level 1a Personal: most sharpens my general management skills.
  • Level 1b Professional: provides strongest platform to help develop strategic thinking critical for management consulting.

You can further expand this issue tree wider and deeper to include all the development areas identified in the first step.

Step 3: Proving Your Master’s Degree Hypothesis

Next, you would try to disprove your hypothesis because if you can’t that means it’s true. This process would involve reading what you can find online and perhaps talking to people that have a relevant perspective on the matter like alums with the same degree you are considering to pursue. Before you actually start your research however, it’s important to think through what are your key evaluation criteria according to your background, academic interests, and career goals defined in your first step. If you don’t, you will find yourself researching without a clear idea what you are looking for. One example of an evaluation criterion is to assess the likelihood of breaking into the industry or career you want if you have that particular degree. One of the ways to assess that is by analyzing employment reports published by the school. In this step it’s possible you come across another degree that suits you better, which would disprove your original hypothesis. If that were the case, you would go back to the 2nd step and create a new hypothesis issue tree with this new degree type.

Step 4: Estimate Willingness To Pay/Sacrifice for Master’s Degree

After you have confirmed that the degree in your hypothesis is the most suitable one to help support your life goals, you should consider the amount of financial and personal commitment you are willing to make to obtain that degree. Financially, you want to look at how much you are willing to spend to pursue this degree given its expected benefits. That should include tuition fees and additional living cost to fully estimate the total cost of attendance. It’s also critical to account for opportunity cost – expected income that you would have earned had you not pursued this degree. Personally, don’t forget that you would need to sacrifice your family and/or long-term relationship to pursue this degree. If you determined after this step that the benefits you expect to receive is not worth the investment, then the next step is moot.

Step 5: Selecting the Right Programs/Schools

If you do determine that the degree is worth the investment, the next step is to select the right set of programs/schools to apply to. I recommend using a risk versus reward approach. Risk here refers to your chances of getting accepted to the school. One of the admissions factors for example is the average and mid 80% range GPA of the class profile. Reward meanwhile refers to the expected benefits a degree from that school would give you. To do that, you want to carefully list your KSF (Key Selection Factors) based on the things that you value most based on the self-introspection you performed earlier in step 1. An example of a KSF could be the strength of the field you wish to specialize in or the geographical location of the school. To be efficient, you should first filter out schools you would not want to apply to using the KSF.

Time is Key in Planning Out Master’s Degree Application

This 5-step framework to help plan your master’s degree  although simple would require a lot of time to execute properly. As such, you should plan as far in advance and start the process early to ensure you are able to prepare your school applications optimally. Studying for the required standardized test itself can take up to 3 months. Of course this is where taking test prep lessons and hiring admissions consulting firms can significantly help reduce the time spent as they can guide you how to do things efficiently and provide you access to all the information aggregated from their years of experience helping many clients. One thing that’s clear however is that the decision to pursue a Master’s degree requires serious commitment of your time, energy, and financial resources along with a well planned approach.

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