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MIT made my wife cry…

September 15, 2012

Only Nixon could go to China…

Two months have passed since I last blogged about the MIT EMBA experience. I wish that I could write to you about a summer vacation or time otherwise spent with my family, but it simply did not work out that way. Although this blog evidences my considerable enthusiasm for and pride in the EMBA program, there is an imprecise resentment that I harbor over the impact that the program has had on my family that makes me a little less of a fan.

There are a few themes that you’ll find in my writings. I speak often of the sheer volume of work in the program, using metaphors as varied as the King James Bible and steamrollers. I write regularly of my own personal transformation, for I am undoubtedly a more commanding and more able executive. And I relentlessly recommend the MIT EMBA to prospective students.

My opinions on all three matters remain as deep set as they have been throughout the program. In fact, I will go so far as to predict that when the MIT EMBA program is finally ranked (as you may know, the program won’t appear in US News & World Report and other rankings until it has graduated at least 3 classes) it may well knock Wharton from its pedestal. This is the most senior program by both average age and work experience; it is far more selective that Wharton (25% admissions vs. 45%); 40% of students already have advanced degrees; 83% are director-level and above and nearly a quarter of the class are C-level and above… plus, well… it’s MIT.

And now to China…

One of my classmates recently coined the term “The EMBA Discount Rate” to refer to the conversion between the faculty’s estimate of our workload and the reality of our workload. In general, the students take the faculty estimate and double it. We started doing this with final exams in the first year, when the faculty would tell us that the exam was designed to take 3 hours and then give us 6 hours to complete it. Without fail, I always took between 5 and 6 hours to do the exam. For awhile, I thought that maybe I was just the “slow one” in class, until beers at Champions last winter had everyone telling essentially the same story… “Wow! I almost ran out of time on that (Econ, Accounting, etc.) final.”

This trend of underestimating the student’s workload peaked this summer. Officially, the summer term is an 18 unit term, compared to the Fall and Spring terms, which are 28 and 29 units. The EMBA ’12 class had told us (the ’13’s) that summer wouldn’t be too bad. It was a vague, but hopeful sign that the load might lighten a little. You may recall some of my prior blog entries where I write about EMBA mirages… those moments where it seems like a break might be just around the corner, yet hope constantly revealed itself to be an illusion born of wishful thinking.

The summer term was not a mirage… it was a bloodbath. It was the most horrifically overloaded period that I’ve experienced in the EMBA program to date. It was awful. I am tempted to claim that it was immoral, but it lacked the kind of conscious and purposeful malice normally associated with evil. No, this was an accidental bloodbath, not an intentional one. Sort of like forgetting to fill up the gas tank before setting out to drive across Death Valley… Oh, wow… sorry. Jeez… It was an accident, but we’re still dying in the desert out here.

I try never to blog about any topic that I haven’t heard corroborated by my classmates. My original purpose with the Disruptive Sloanie was to truthfully record the actual experience of the program. I feel a very real responsibility not to go off on personal tangents… I tend to use lunchtime conversations as a way of making sure that my perspective and experience is shared by at least some of my classmates.

There were two separate conversations that led me to believe that I was not the only soul who felt that all was not right with the EMBA workload… that somehow, we were flying this aircraft well beyond its summer term design limits. I’ll call the first conversation the “Unhappy Other Talk” and the second one the “Cardiac Care Talk”.

Our drama begins July 1st, when I completed the Data Models and Decisions final, two days after I had finished the Financial Management final. We slid through the July 4th holiday and returned to Cambridge for the July 12-14 weekend session and two more of MIT’s truly differentiating courses: Operations Management and Systems Dynamics. This is where MIT earns its Blood on Concrete reputation.

The core of the Operations Management course is a factory simulation, which runs for 6 days, 24 hours per day. Your team of three people must manage the factory, making decisions about when to purchase capital equipment, manage inventory, forecast demand, and so forth. It’s important to note that it runs for a full work week, 24 hours a day, while you are working at your real job, not while you are in Cambridge. In that sense, it’s like an intense version of the high school class where you have to bring home a baby doll and care for it to simulate what life would be like if you had a child. Except that you can’t get your mother to help you out by running your simulated electronics manufacturing facility because, although she can feed a simulated baby, she probably can’t do demand forecasting worth a hill of beans.

July proved to be a perfect storm when the first Systems Dynamics homework, which required developing a causal loop model for your real-life company, was sandwiched between the 6 day factory simulation and a second Operations Management revenue management simulation homework… all while my real company was launching a new product in our first pilot hospital near Pittsburgh.

Foolishly, I had set my wife’s expectations based upon the EMBA ’12’s advice that summer would be lighter than the prior 10 months. This proved to be a grave error on my part. Cynthia developed plans wherein I would take the family to Kennywood, Idlewild Park, picnic on the farm, go to church, and all manner of other family oriented activities, none of which came to pass. The denouement came near the end of July, with my wife sitting sobbing in the living room chair telling me that it’s like I’m “no longer here”… I just sit in my chair, oblivious to the family, working on my laptop for days at a time. It had all of the heartrending drama of a man caught having a mid-life crisis, but without the joys of illicit sex with a doe-eyed coed. All I got was a ton of homework…

Back in Cambridge on August 3rd, I found myself sitting around a table listening to my classmates telling me nearly identical stories. One of my classmates, upon hearing about Cynthia crying, told me that his wife had similarly said that he was “no longer present in their marriage…” One by one the other guys around the table copped to incredibly similar stories. The real pain of the EMBA program was being inflicted not on us, but on our wives, as we were taking more and more time away from them to Feed the Beast: the unrelenting steamroller of MIT’s workload. Something had to give and it turns out that most of us were keeping up with our jobs and the EMBA program by letting our marital and familial obligations slide.

The time crunch continued during the Weekend Sessions themselves. In order to fit Operations Management within the curriculum, the lectures were extended from three hours to five hours on some weekends. The extra two hours were significant to me. I found my attention wandering during the final hour or so of these extended classes, to the point where I had to re-watch the lecture on video capture when I returned home because I knew that I really hadn’t absorbed the material in class. This, of course, added more sweet sorrow to a frozen summertime romance as I took even more time from my wife.

When we returned to Cambridge on August 17th, the EMBA program sponsored a clambake at the MIT Sailing Pavilion on the banks of the Charles. It was a welcome break, the heat wave had broken and the weather on the Charles was sunny and warm, but with a cool breeze. Some of our classmates went sailing out on the river, while the rest of us ate a pretty incredible meal.

One of our classmates is a cardiologist. The conversation at our table soon turned to a discussion of blood pressures and blood pressure medications… a number of us had seen our BP’s elevate during the course of the program, either from the additional stress or an inability to maintain an exercise program. I know that we’re the most senior EMBA program in the nation and, well… the physical stresses of the program are real and do have an impact on our health. It was at that moment that enough was enough.

I made the claim earlier that I do not think that the significant workload is intentional. I do think that culturally, MIT’s desire to ensure that its EMBA program meets the rigors of an MIT degree are partially at work here. I also think that there is a systematic lack of calibration among the faculty regarding the length of time that it truly takes to do the assignments. The rest, I rather imagine, has much to do with the youth of the program. There are still scheduling issues to be resolved as the program begins its third year. I have considerable faith in the character and good intention of the program’s leadership and I suspect that two years from now the Summertime EMBA Massacre will just be a distant memory.

One point that might be well worth pondering is whether starting the program in September, rather than October, and then giving students the entire month of August off might help to alleviate the stresses on the families – an idea that one of my classmates surfaced during the clambake. A normal vacation with our spouses and children would go a long way toward minimizing their EMBA trauma.

In the meantime, I am regularly receiving emails from new EMBA’s who ask me whether I have any advice for them as they enter the program. I tell everyone the same thing… spend as much time with your family as possible before the program starts. Buy them little presents… take them out for dinner… do whatever it is that you like to do as a family. In the coming months, you aren’t going to be there as much as you have been… and while you signed up for this program and all of the challenges that it entails, they really didn’t. They will have a very difficult time adjusting to your receding presence as the workload mounts. And make sure that even when you can’t spend as much time with them that you continually tell them how much you love them. It matters and it will make all the difference.

-R.

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