Business Schools

One Crazy Year Leads to Madison


Sometimes life can lead you to unexpected places, and choices made in response to opportunity and intuition can be the best decisions you ever make

About a year ago, I had just been recruited into what turned out to be my dream job. Never mind that I was pregnant and would need to take maternity leave when the baby was born. A 12-week leave passes quickly, and my new employer was enlightened enough to see beyond it. I became the program director at a Seattle consulting and project outsourcing firm that specializes in technical communication. The position built on my previous experiences managing consultants and project-based operations, and it offered me the chance to lead a small group of project managers.

Once I started the job, I discovered I loved it and it was everything I had hoped it would be. Then, while I was still on maternity leave, I quit. This fall I began business school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, 2,000 miles (literally and figuratively) from where I thought I would be at this time.

So what happened? Why the change of course? I will try to explain. But let me begin by offering a word of advice to those of you who are meticulously researching, analyzing, and weighing your MBA prospects: Sometimes planning is overrated. All choices in life must be made without the benefit of foresight; no amount of facts, figures, and reflective thought can predict the future. Sometimes it's best to go with your gut. My gut led me to business school.

A Cross-Country Move

It started last November. My husband's employer flew him from Seattle to Madison one day to explore the possibility of a transfer. My husband was skeptical when he left that morning, but when he returned the next day, he said, "I think we should do it, and I think we should try to get there before Christmas." My jaw dropped. He was excited about the job opportunity. We soon became excited about the prospect of moving to Madison, a small but growing city with an expansive world view, a place where we met and fell in love more than a decade ago, a place that seems perfect for raising children.

By December, the movers were packing our things, our three-year-old was a wreck from the upheaval, and I was saying goodbye to my dream job. I bristled at the suggestion from relatives and friends that maybe I should stay home and take care of the kids for a few years (not wrong for everybody, but I know myself well enough to know that it's wrong for me). I began to make plans to start an independent consulting business in Madison. These plans, and the realization that I needed help to succeed, eventually led me to consider business school a few months later. But I was not there yet. I was focused on arranging to work remotely for my Seattle employer as a business process consultant, an arrangement that has since yielded beneficial results for both of us.

The holidays came and went, and in January the dead of winter settled in. It was cold! The cold weather, the sleep deprivation with the new baby, and the complete lack of child-care resources in a new city numbed my wits. At some point in February, after we found day care for my son, I woke up, looked around, and said, "Now what?"

When "Someday" Becomes "Today"

Many of you applying to full-time B-school programs are probably in your mid- to late twenties, have a few years of work experience, and have no major family obligations. I do not fit this traditional mold. I am 33, have been managing teams—sometimes large, multidisciplinary teams—for more than five years, and have a husband and two small children. My work experience would make me a candidate for an executive MBA program, but I could not consider working full-time, going to school full-time, and taking care of two kids. Two of those three for me, thank you, and no more.

So when I finally tackled the big "Now what?" question, I did not immediately consider business school my best next adventure in life. I made some steps towards local networking. I plugged away at my consulting gig with my Seattle employer. I looked for local consulting clients. I talked to a few employers in the area, but nothing seemed quite right. On more than one occasion, my husband got an earful of fretting from me about the lost-in-the-wilderness state of my career.

Then sometime in March, I started considering education. I looked around at my options, focusing most heavily for the moment on a project management certificate. Although I always intended to get my MBA someday, it still had not dawned on me that "someday" had turned into "now, get off your butt and do it!" But one day, I surfed casually to the University of Wisconsin MBA Web site. Five minutes later, my mind was racing. Ten minutes later, my mind was set. I would give it a shot, despite the imminent application deadline. It just seemed too right.

Settling in to Study

A single month, April, was dedicated to applying to the UW (a mile away from our new house), studying hastily for the GMAT (which paid off), and corralling letters of recommendation from three references (who were exceedingly accommodating about the short time frame, thank you!). Much of May passed as I waited for my official GMAT scores to be reported, but before the end of that month, I learned that I had been accepted to the program and to my specialization of choice, operations and technology management, and I was offered a fellowship.

So here I am, less than a year after accepting an exciting new job. In that time, I had a baby, quit my job, moved across the country, bought one house and sold another, started a business, applied to business school, and accepted a fellowship. I've started school with a realistic chance that next year will be less eventful than the last. How many first-year MBA students can say that?

Perhaps it's naive to think next year will be relatively calm. I certainly hope for fewer life changes so that events become more predictable and allow me to focus on school. But I am also preparing for other changes: in my knowledge of business fundamentals, in my approach to solving problems, in my professional and social network. I hope to push myself beyond comfortable boundaries.

Baranowski is an MBA Journal writer for BusinessWeek.com and a member of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's MBA Class of 2009.

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