Graduate Management News
Effective Practices

Effective Practices: Cornell’s Customizable MBA Immersion Program

As a way of sharing what works in graduate management education, Graduate Management News occasionally looks in-depth at specific programs in business schools, such as the part-time Global MBA at Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School and Warwick Business School’s online MBA.

As an MBA student in Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, Daniel Hest wanted to strengthen his skills in finance and analysis to prepare for a career in strategy and marketing in media/technology companies. Cornell’s immersion program offered the chance to dive deep into those areas through intensive, integrated courses and related field work. But Hest found the school’s immersion track in managerial finance to be a little too narrow for his purposes.

Fortunately, though, Cornell also offers MBA students the option to customize their immersion experience, enabling Hest to develop his own robust curricular mix. He cherry-picked finance classes, adding courses in consulting, including one with a focus on critical thinking. He was also able to integrate part-time work he had started with the strategic planning group at the New York Times.

“The customized option is a great alternative for students whose career interests don’t fit perfectly into one of the more popular immersion tracks,” Hest said. “It allowed me the flexibility of selecting specific courses. Instead of a practicum from an immersion, my practicum was my part-time work [with the Times], and what I learned in my coursework was directly applicable to the demands of the job.”

Fast track

The Cornell immersion concept is designed as a fast track to concentrated, applied knowledge in a chosen field. After completing the bulk of their core coursework during their first semester of the two-year MBA program, most students pursue an immersion program during their second semester. The immersions plunge students into electives, site visits, and live cases aimed at getting them quickly up to speed in specific areas of interest. They create opportunities for students to network with companies, faculty, and practitioners, and to solve problems in real-life situations.

Cornell offers seven specific tracks: capital markets and asset management, entrepreneurship and private equity, investment banking, managerial finance, semester in strategic operations, strategic marketing, and sustainable global enterprise.

The immersions help students integrate material from core courses in practical ways that focus on decision making, said Douglas M. Stayman, the school’s associate dean for MBA programs and an associate professor of marketing. The task for the student, Stayman said, is to figure out how to “think about the organization and the problems more broadly, and then come to a sound business decision that takes into account many different factors—global, political, ethical, as well as strictly finance or marketing or whatever the [student’s area of focus] might be.”

The immersions are designed to give students tools they need to succeed in internships. All immersions have a hands-on dimension—for example, a consulting project with a marketing company. “The immersion program is particularly important for career switchers,” Stayman said, in that they help students learn a new focus area in relatively short time and thus broaden their skill sets.

Unique backgrounds

In any given year, some 80 to 85 percent of Cornell’s MBA students will pursue immersions. Because students have unique backgrounds and career interests, Stayman said, Cornell doesn’t expect that all of its students will fit neatly into one of the seven official tracks. The customization option usually attracts between 10 and 20 percent of students.

One student who customized her immersion had been an assistant brand manager. Seeking to hone her marketing acumen in business school, she also wanted to deepen her skills in accounting and finance. That student opted to mix marketing and finance classes “to get where she wanted to go,” Stayman said. Today, she works in brand management at Procter & Gamble.

Customization also enables students to step outside the Johnson School to take courses in some of Cornell’s other programs—for example, in the university’s respected program in real estate, which is shared among several schools and departments. A student with an interest in sustainability customized his immersion experience by taking business classes in Johnson along with technical courses in renewable energy in Cornell’s school of engineering.

Other schools offer somewhat similar programs. The Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, for example, has the Multidisciplinary Action Projects program, in which student teams consult to help companies solve problems and target opportunities for growth. The MBA program at the University of Wisconsin School of Business is designed around career specializations rather than academic majors.

Still, Stayman said that the distinctiveness of Cornell’s immersion program gives the school a unique value proposition for recruiting students. He also said that corporate recruiters hold the immersion program in high regard, especially the Cornell alumni who went through the experience themselves.

Noting that Ezra Cornell founded Cornell as a university where “any student can find study in any subject,” Stayman said the immersion program is a way to “make sure each student is taking the right curriculum, given their background, interests, and skills.” Whereas the seven tracks meet the needs of most students, he said, “If that’s not what meets your needs, we’re going to work with you to figure out something that does.”

Daniel Hest, meanwhile, has graduated but has not yet decided where to work. Perhaps in part because of his immersion experience, he says he is weighing several job offers.

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