A Tale of Two Liberal Arts MBAs | TopMBA.com

A Tale of Two Liberal Arts MBAs

By Nicole Willson

Updated June 12, 2019 Updated June 12, 2019

“I use my liberal arts degree every day because it’s a big part of who I am as a person. It’s a lens through which I see the world,” says Alison Lindland, a 2008 graduate of Columbia Business School who attended Vassar College before getting her MBA. Certainly, a liberal arts degree can give its graduates a better understanding of the world and is a good complement to the business skills taught in an MBA program. Conversely, getting an MBA can help liberal arts graduates identify and access a greater number of job opportunities and broaden their business network, in addition to helping them build their business, leadership and quantitative skills. In this article, we look at two stories of how an MBA helped liberal arts graduates further their careers.

Using an MBA to take a tech career to the next level

Alison Lindland is an MBA graduate of Columbia Business School as well as the regional vice president of customer experience at email marketing company, Movable Ink. Before Lindland embarked on a career in technology, she had spent most of her time focused on theater. In fact, as an undergraduate drama major at Vassar, Lindland helped produce shows every six weeks, taking on a variety of different roles.

Most of Lindland’s pre-MBA job roles were also rooted in the arts. She managed the first online giving and interactive campaign for New York City’s Theatre Development Fund (TDF). Next, she worked as a senior account executive for TheaterMania.com, a (venture capital) VC-backed media ticketing company for live performing arts. It was during this time that Lindland started to consider getting an MBA to further her tech career. Although Lindland was already using the creativity and versatility cultivated during her undergraduate degree in her day-to-day work, she felt that a world-class MBA program from a top business school would help her develop the kind of skills she would need to advance in her tech career. She was also keen to expand her network.

Even so, Lindland says that applying a liberal arts mindset to the MBA environment helped her navigate her way through the Columbia MBA program. For example, Lindland says that she worked hard to get to know her professors personally – something that wasn’t the norm for the majority of her peers. Most of the students in Lindland’s MBA cohort had received their bachelor’s degrees at larger schools and therefore were not accustomed to having a more informal relationship with professors. “That wasn’t acceptable to me. I wanted to get to know my professors and understand their areas of research, so I just made it a point to go to their office hours and build relationships with them,” states Lindland.

It was through this desire to get to know faculty members that Lindland landed an internship at the Columbia Institute of Tele-Information. While taking a class in new media, she discovered that her professor was the chair of a renowned institute housed within the business school building. When Lindland discovered that this institute had no MBA interns, she took it upon herself to get involved, spending the final semester of her MBA program organizing a telecommunications conference. “It was one of the most rewarding and valuable experiences of my MBA career,” Lindland states.

In terms of using the MBA to further her tech career, Lindland says, “I had a pretty clear vision of the path I wanted to take and somehow it’s actually played out.” She knew she wanted to work for a big company in order to round out her technical and business development skills and, in particular, one that would allow her to work between Fortune 500 companies and venture-backed startups. That’s why she took a product management role in mobile technology at one of NYC’s largest employers, American Express, where she later transitioned into an email-focused business development role. The job came about, she believes, as a direct result of attending Columbia, which has a recruiting relationship with the company. When describing her first post-MBA employer, Lindland says, “American Express was a wonderful organization to have spent four years at, cutting my teeth learning about all aspects of marketing, customer management, how to build a business case and how to get investments.”

After spending four years at American Express, Lindland founded a startup with a friend from business school. Although the startup shut down within a year, she says it was a great learning opportunity and, along the way, she met the CEO of her current employer, Movable Ink. There’s therefore no hesitation when Lindland is asked whether getting an MBA opened up more job opportunities – “Absolutely!” she says. “First and foremost, the tactical skills you learn while getting an MBA in the core curriculum is a terrific foundation to a career in any area.”

The MBA as a means of career acceleration

Elsie Jamin-Maguire is a manager of new business models for chemical company, BASF’s digital transformation project, BASF 4.0, and another liberal arts graduate who worked in the arts prior to her MBA. Before getting an MBA from Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, Jamin-Maguire majored in arts administration and French at Sarah Lawrence College. An early management experience at that time came with via Downstage, a drama course which required students to run a small theater for a year. 

After observing how a theater was managed, Jamin-Maguire decided she wanted to switch over to the business side of theater and took an internship with a major Broadway producer. After the internship, Jamin-Maguire stayed on at the company, initially to help with the end of the tax year, but then for another three years, during which time she handled everything from regular payroll to taking investments for new shows and handling royalty payments. “For three years I basically got a hands-on grassroots approach to how these offices and shows run for years and years.”

Jamin-Maguire took this knowledge into her second job on Broadway where she worked as a director of finance. It was during this time that she began thinking about getting an MBA. By the time Jamin-Maguire was 26, she was already working in a major leadership role even though her peers were often in their 40s.

Despite the fact that Jamin-Maguire was interviewing at all of NYC’s major arts organizations in order to find her next role, they were all telling her the same thing; that she had to wait five years. “I got the same response from everyone which was, ‘you’re totally qualified, but you’re too young. Call us in five years.’” Jamin-Maguire did not want to wait, so she decided to go back to school.

She vacillated between getting an MBA and an MFA, but chose the former since she felt it would open more doors. “An MFA was still only in the arts industry. It wouldn’t have given me as much exposure. I thought an MBA would give me an opportunity to use my skills in different areas and give me a broader set of skills.” In addition, Jamin-Maguire noticed that a lot of the nonprofit leaders she knew either had an MBA or were in the process of getting one.

Jamin-Maguire chose to get her MBA from Fisher because of the fact that it was a relatively small program within a large university. Fisher’s location in Columbus, Ohio, also meant that she would have access to the arts. However, simple economics also played a factor here, since she says she would have found it difficult to afford an MBA while also paying NYC rent prices.

During her first weeks at Fisher, Jamin-Maguire began meeting students from different backgrounds. While she had worked in theater since she was 16 and had started her MBA program with a singular mindset, her outlook began to change once she was presented with a lot of opportunities she hadn’t previously considered, including working in business development for BASF. Fisher is one of three to five core schools from which BASF recruits. She decided to work there in order to have a broader range of work experience as well as a better understanding of how corporations work.

Jamin-Maguire also opted to pursue a role in business development as opposed to continuing in finance, a discipline that she felt was, “too narrow,” to hold her interest every day. In addition, the Fisher MBA alumna was keen to progress into a general management role, something that is emphasized in BASF’s two-year MBA rotational program. Jamin-Maguire’s role has given her experience in new areas, such as innovation and digital technology as well as opportunities to travel and work with global teams.

Liberal arts college vs. the MBA: Differing experiences

“I think everything is different about attending a small liberal arts college versus a large MBA program,” states Lindland.

At Vassar, Lindland had classes with as few as four people, whereas Columbia’s MBA classes have no fewer than 66 students (the size of her cluster). While large class size can be daunting, Lindland says, “you can still learn in important and meaningful ways in a more rigid, lecture-style classroom setting.” So as not to be overwhelmed by differences as pronounced as this, Lindland advises liberal arts undergraduate students to focus on what it is they want to get out of their MBA experience.

The biggest difference, in Jamin-Maguire’s opinion, is that a liberal arts degree provides graduates with a broader perspective, in terms of ways of thinking and approaches to the world as a whole. Indeed, she notes that there is huge variety in the way in which liberal arts students plan to use their degree after graduation. By contrast, Jamin-Maguire believes MBA programs are more targeted in their teaching, saying, “it’s giving you specific skills to survive in the corporate world.” In addition, students come out with at least an overview (depending on the elective courses they select) of specific disciplines, such as economics, accounting and marketing.

Adjusting to an increased emphasis on quantitative skills and more tests

Another major difference between an MBA and a liberal arts program is the MBA’s emphasis on quantitative skills. Lindland, who had not taken math since high school, says that she had a, “larger learning delta,” than those in her cohort who had, for example, studied statistics at undergraduate level. At the same time, however, she says there were a lot of opportunities to improve her quantitative skills and, since she had more to learn, she ended up getting more for her money. Supplemental tutoring, on-campus and virtual classes, forming a study group with other students in her cohort as well as preparing for the GMAT, are all things Lindland identifies as helping develop her quantitative skills.

A, “huge wakeup call,” is how Jamin-Maguire describes her first semester, as she transitioned from discussion-based learning to test-based learning. While most of her classes at Sarah Lawrence had not required exams, exam results counted for a large part of her overall grade as an MBA student at Fisher. Faced with what she calls a, “fire hose of information,” Jamin-Maguire felt that she had to go back to the mindset she’d had during her high school days when she was studying for her advanced placement exams. She also found help through a study group which she formed with like-minded students in her cohort.

Using MBA networking to connect with those in different industries

While at Columbia, Lindland was able to take advantage of the program’s MBA networking opportunities to open up job opportunities. “The network is terrific and very, very helpful,” she says, adding that fellow members of a cohort are keen on, “helping each other rise together.”

Jamin-Maguire was also able to use her MBA to expand her network. “My Sarah Lawrence friends are near and dear to my heart, but they are all in the arts. They’re all in film and television, which is great, but it’s a very narrow field if you decide you want to go in a different direction.” Getting an MBA gave Jamin-Maguire the opportunity to meet people from all over the world and who hold experience in a far wider variety of industries. She says that her MBA network is a, “genuine network,” since she feels she can call these people and ask about their families as well as to ask them for career advice. “It’s a really nice blend of both worlds, I would say.”

An MBA can also teach liberal arts alumni how to find business resources from within their liberal arts network. During Lindland’s time at Columbia, she was heavily involved in starting a group called Columbia Ventures Community which seeks to bring together stakeholders from across the university in order to support people in technology. Lindland then took that model to Vassar where she discovered dozens of accomplished graduates who were focused on careers in tech and who were also clearly interested in connecting with likeminded peers. “Taking that MBA networking mindset and applying it to my liberal arts cohort was a win-win,” Lindland states.

This article was originally published in October 2016 . It was last updated in June 2019

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Nicole is the SEO manager of TopMBA.com, as well as a contributing author. She holds a BA in history and sociology, and a master's in library science. Aside from her work for QS, Nicole is a long-time contributing editor and administrator for WikiHow.