Testing A Career Path With An Independent Study

Erica Swallow MIT Independent StudyTwo years at Sloan have come and gone, and throughout the experience, people have periodically asked me about my favorite part of the MBA program. Indeed, after first year came to a close, I wrote about my favorite aspects of the program — the class discussions, international treks, C-functions, greater MIT, and the Boston experience. But having another year under my belt since then, I’d like to add one more item to that list: Independent studies.

During my final semester at Sloan, I conducted two independent studies: One on high school career development programs and another on bolstering women in business and here at Sloan. Both were opportunities to spend time focusing on topics that inspire me, but one — it turns out — was a pathway to a new career.

The high school career development programs study (see the final report here) was focused on understanding current players and existing opportunities in the education sector. For it, I collaborated with education non-profit Noble Impact to determine how the high school education system might be transformed by greater involvement from communities and businesses.

My research entailed three stages: Internet research, phone and in-person interviews with key players at non-profits and businesses, and creation of a final report. All along, I was asking, “How are high school students currently engaged in career development?” and “Which businesses are most engaged in K-12 education? How and why?” While scoping out the sector, though, I was also looking for scalable product opportunities that existed to solve the skills gap between the classroom and workforce. I, too, consistently pondered over how I could get involved after Sloan to have the greatest impact in education.

My research, it turns out, was a great career path test. During the time I spent interviewing stakeholders and collaborating with Noble Impact, I became more familiar with how I could contribute to the industry and the particular team I was working with.

This past week, I spent time in Little Rock, Arkansas — where my collaborators are based — discussing my study findings and getting to know their team and the students they serve. Most importantly and excitingly, I got to hear from students about what they liked and wanted more from Noble Impact’s programming.

Noble Impact eSTEM Class
ABOVE: During my Little Rock visit, student enrolled in Noble Impact’s entrepreneurship/public service courses at eStem High Public Charter School shared their thoughts about what experiences meant the most to their education.
[Photo by Noble Impact educator Chad Williamson]

Getting insights from students, along with the research I had been doing, absolutely sealed the deal for me. I really enjoyed working with the Noble Impact team, and I was inspired by the students I met and their passions for learning and doing. When the trip came to an end, I was excited that the Noble Impact team asked me to join their efforts post-Sloan. Luckily, it was a no-brainer — the independent study had enabled me to get to know everyone and their work. It was easy to imagine how I could contribute and what we could build together.

Most Likely To Succeed Film Tribeca Film Festival
ABOVE: I even incorporated a bit of ‘edu-tainment’ into my independent study by attending the “Most Likely To Succeed” screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film chronicles High Tech High, an innovative charter school in San Diego.

Noble Impact CEO Eric Wilson said it well, actually. “Doing an independent study is a way for you to take control of designing the next chapter in your life,” he said in a recent conversation. “It’s a mental transition from being reactive to proactive. If they’re not starting a company, a lot of students — both undergraduate and graduate — approach the job search by responding to opportunities, and they’re doing that right before or after graduation. An independent study is a tool for you to be proactive in designing the next chapter.”

Eric also aptly pointed out that an independent study is a form of risk mitigation. Making the transition from the MBA program to a new career is full of complicated decisions, and testing out a career path is a way to minimize some of the risks involved in starting a new life. “You’re moving off campus, starting a new job, coming to the realization of student loan debt,” he says. “You’re making all of these decisions in your life, and they’re all an extension of the job you take. The value of an independent study is to mitigate the risks with the giant leap you’re about to take. It helps ease that transition.”

I totally agree. While moving to a new city, having a car for the first time in a decade, working in a new industry, and making new friends are all very stressful to think about, I at least know I’m comfortable with the team and work that awaits me. All thanks to the independent study MIT Sloan enabled me to explore during my last semester as an MBA.

Doing an independent study really is a way to take your future into your own hands, to test the waters before jumping in post-graduation.

To all my first year comrades, I highly recommend taking some time to do an independent study, if you haven’t already done or considered one. Whether it’s directly correlated with the career you want to build or just a topic of interest, fully directing your studies is a highly rewarding experience. And in some cases, it may just lead to a whole new beginning! If you’re like me, it may lead to a path you’d always considered but wasn’t able to try out in the past.

Happy adventures!

Erica Swallow

Erica Swallow is a technology writer, startup entrepreneur, and status quo wrecker. She is currently an MBA candidate at the MIT Sloan School of Management and her thoughts have been published in a number of esteemed outlets, including Forbes, Entrepreneur, The Wall Street Journal, and The Huffington Post, among others.

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1 Comment

  1. Hello Erica,

    That was really nice sharing. I remember when I was doing my MBA in Singapore, I took on my own to intern at a music school (my passion in life is Music!), and did an independent study there. Because of this, I decided on what I wanted to do in life, and decided to stay in Singapore from then on. Even though I was extremely busy, but life was fruitful and fulfilling, as a vision of my suture emerges. Hence, I totally agree that it’s about being proactive in pursuing new opportunities for oneself, rather than waiting for new ones to come by your way. Now, as a co-founder of a music school, training and teaching budding potential musicians, and developing young minds, I also warmly welcome interns and research assistants/ fellows to come our way.

    Here’s wishing you all the best in life!

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