A Roadmap For Oil & Gas Young Professionals Pursuing Graduate Education

Last week, I made the case that going back to school for a graduate degree is essential if you want to enjoy a successful career progression.  I also said that the choice of degree was up to you:  if you’re set on being a researcher a PhD is a requirement, but for those looking to learn more without following too narrow a path, an MBA or technical Master’s is the way to go.  I’ll focus my attention today on the Master’s route and welcome any comments from PhD holders or candidates in the comments section.

Once you’ve made the decision as a Young Professional to further your education, there are many considerations to keep in my mind.  Here are some insights I’ve learned, collected from nearly 6 years of stubbornly wanting to continue clinging to the “student” label:

“Do I really have what it takes to go back to school?”

Unless you’re going to graduate school straight from university, this is likely the first concern you’re going to have.  After all, you’ve settled into an “adult” job with a nice pay check, and while you may find yourself working late occasionally, you’ve (hopefully) left behind all night cram sessions every few weeks.

From my experience and that of my classmates, I can say that this is a concern that goes away pretty quickly once you’ve committed to it and have been in class a few weeks.  After that point, you just fall into a routine and push ahead.  Even before matriculating, you’ll have had to pass the GRE or GMAT, so you’ll already be used to studying and preparing in your spare time.  I’ll even say that you’ll become so efficient with your time while earning your degree that after you graduate you’ll wonder what to do with yourself!

If you’re really apprehensive about going back, why not try to attain a professional certification, for instance the PE license for engineers, or CFA for financial professionals?  These will still be valuable additions to your list of qualifications, but with a much shorter and less continuous time commitment.  Passing these exams is still really challenging, but all you have to do is study for and pass a handful of tests.  Doing so will get you back into the routine of preparing for an exam, without as much of a time or financial commitment as fully launching into a graduate program.

Full time or part time?

This is the most important decision you’re going to have to make when it comes to plotting your graduate school journey.  For MBA degrees, there are really only two reasons to consider a full time program.

First, you want to attend a well known, “brand name” program, such as Harvard or Stanford.  Be aware that if you go to these schools or any other full time program, you should carefully consider the cost of tuition/living expenses AND lost income over the two year course and weigh it against a realistic expected return after graduation.

Second, if you work in an industry and want to change career paths completely, the full time option is a good one.  You will be completely immersed in classes, free to network with your classmates and explore the subjects that really interest you.  Furthermore, in any full time MBA program you will be expected to do an internship in the summer between the two academic years:  this is a great opportunity to get experience in your new, desired field!

Frankly, I’m of the opinion that unless you fall into the two categories above, there’s really no reason to give up your current income and job progression in order to go to a full time program.  For those looking to do MBA’s, there are so many options.  In Houston alone, there’s Rice, the University of Texas,  the University of Houston and Texas A&M, just to name a few.  You can even get a degree from Cornell!

I received my MBA part-time from the University of Texas’ McCombs School.  It’s an amazing program, and the students I graduated with are truly brilliant.  Speaking honestly, I’ll admit that it doesn’t have quite the cachet of Harvard or Stanford, but for several reasons that didn’t (and still doesn’t) bother me at all.

I wanted to stay in oil & gas, whereas the most “famous” MBA programs tend to be feeders for banking and consulting.  In well known West and East coast programs, even if an incoming class represents a diverse mix of industries, oil & gas usually doesn’t feature prominently among them.  By staying in Texas, I could stay close to the industry and ensure that I stayed on track with my career plans.

Also, I chose to go to McCombs keeping in mind that perhaps THE BIGGEST consideration when choosing a school is…the network you get to join.

Young Professionals, if you haven’t already realized this, here it is:  the people who are on paper the smartest don’t always come out on top.  That’s not to say the ones that do make it aren’t intelligent, it’s just that they knew the right person, in the right place at the right time, in addition (of course) to being qualified.

Furthermore, in life and in business, your progression depends not only on the people you know, but also how they do in their careers as well.  Sound unfair?  It’s really not, because you have a choice in how you build your network!

In the McCombs program (Rice University’s statistics should be about the same), about 50% of people work in energy:  that’s HUGE!  I want to build a successful career in oil & gas, and part of that entails being friends with others who (besides from just being great, fun people to be around) will also be successful in oil & gas.  Don’t think for a second that if you do a part-time program you’ll be around students who are only partly engaged:  these are seriously hard working, bright people who want to push their career forward.  I’m proud of my classmates, and hopefully my experience provides you some reassurance that a part time MBA program is a great, valid, and completely do-able option.

So that covers MBAs…what if I want to study a technical subject such as engineering?

For technical Master’s degrees, the considerations aren’t nearly as complicated.  Yes, if you want to attend a brand name technical school such as CalTech or MIT, full time is the way to go.  With regards to the networking consideration that is so important to choosing an MBA program, I personally don’t see this as a big component of a technical program.

In a technical program, you’re expected to do the work and master the material individually:  gaining proficiency in a field is the goal.  Conceivably, if you always understood everything presented in class, you could finish a program without talking to anyone else.  Is this a good thing?  That’s up to the individual to decide, but just be aware that the reputation of the school or the network doesn’t matter as much as with business school.  In my experience, as long as it’s accredited, a technical degree is a technical degree, period.

What’s your schedule like?

Working in oil & gas, you could be in Houston one day, and then on a plane to North Dakota the next.  Furthermore, if things aren’t going smoothly at the rig site, there’s a chance you may be on one of those “come-back-when-it’s-fixed” trips.  This could be problematic if you have to make regular class appointments.  Provided you can get to an internet access point, situations like these make a great case for distance education.

For instance, I have a friend who works out of Singapore, and goes offshore a lot.  Knowing that he was going to have to work his school assignments around his job, he applied and was accepted to a distance MBA program organized by the University of North Carolina.

The same thing is possible for technical degrees.  I’m about 75% of the way through Texas A&M’s distance learning petroleum engineering program, and so far that arrangement has worked out really well, even though it takes a lot of motivation to watch the class videos consistently every week!  Regardless of whether I’m in Houston or traveling abroad, I just need to log in to the course website and turn my work in.  If I need help, there are always the class message boards, and it’s very easy to organize group Skype calls.

It’s really important to keep in mind here that these distance programs are backed COMPLETELY by the parent schools, and the degree you earn makes no mention of the “distance learning” aspect:  the qualification is the same as if you’d earned it on campus.  This is very important to validate if you’re considering a remote learning program!

The experience is a lonelier one than that of the UT MBA program I graduated from, which met in a classroom every other weekend.  Again, this is due to the nature of the work:  as an MBA student, you’re expected to do a lot of team projects, whereas as an engineering student, it’s just you and the problem sets.

Regardless, if you prefer to earn a technical degree or MBA in a classroom, there are options for that too:  perhaps you’d like to explore an MBA program offering classes on weekends or evenings, or a Master’s in engineering on a local university campus.  In fact, a friend from business school previously managed to take time out of his work schedule to attend classes at Rice in order to pursue a Master’s in mechanical engineering.

One last piece of advice to Young Professionals on this topic:  if you aren’t married or don’t have kids, know that this is a PERFECT time to go back to school.  Work schedules are tough enough without having to worry about a family, so give some serious thought to getting this out of the way as soon as you can so that you fully enjoy not only the benefits of a degree but also more family time in the future.  When I graduate from Texas A&M in December, I’ll have been doing the work/study routine for over half a decade.  It’s been challenging, but I can’t imagine what it would have been like with a family to take care of.  I’m looking forward to getting on with the rest of my life with school well behind me!

The cost

This is a big one, but don’t let it turn you away from going back to school.  Do I think it should cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to further your education?  No, but that’s beside the point and out of the scope of this article:  all that matters is that even with costs being what they are, if you choose the right program it WILL pay off.

The cost of a two year MBA can be 2-3 times the cost of a technical degree.  Does that make one more valuable than the other?  No, the costs are what they are, and the relative merits of each are an individual value judgment.  The success of a person also depends largely on how they’re able to utilize their education, not how much a certain degree costs to obtain.

If you go the part-time route, many companies will pay for some or all of the degree, depending on how relevant your studies are to your work (many of my classmates working for oil companies had full or nearly full rides from their employers).  If you sign up for these reimbursement programs, make sure you’re also aware of any stipulations:  Is this aid taxable?  Do you have to stay on with your employer for a certain time after graduation?  Do you have to stay in the same role after graduation?

For what it’s worth, I’ll say that while the costs were daunting, I’ve nevertheless found them manageable, and am confident that I will get far more out of my degrees than what I put in over the course of my career.

Some final words

There you have it:  many of the biggest considerations for going back to grad school.  Now that you’ve read my experiences, I’d love to hear yours in the comments section.  If you have any more questions, I’d love to answer those to.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this short series on returning to grad school.  I’ll be back in a week with my usual commentaries on all things oil & gas!

Until next time…