Career Advice, Leadership

Back to School Advice

4 Sep , 2023  

Fall is in full swing here in Seattle; the first of the maples are turning orange and the summer has quickly cooled. For me, it is a great change to move to the beautiful Pacific Northwest and to be part of a fine institution like the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington. The leaves are falling. The rain has begun, and still the Northwest charm continues.

In all places, fall is about change. At colleges it is also about new beginnings, making it an exciting time of the year. It is exciting to be part of the new journey that our students are all beginning. For me, I look forward to working with our new and talented students at the Foster School of Business. Heading to college (or back to college in the case of our MBAs and graduate students) is an important venture and investment in one’s life. It is also a period that moves by much more quickly than anticipated. Reflecting on what worked for me and my students, I offer some points and reminders to help incoming and returning college students get the most out of their venture and investment.

Be Organized

Although some programs like pre-medicine are really trying to separate students, I find that most universities and professors want to see their students excel. And when students struggle, it is often self-inflicted and due to poor organization – not following directions on an assignment, not meeting deadlines, not doing the reading, not doing the simple stuff. Not all of college is simple, but there is no need to let the simple and small stuff trip you up. Get Organized! Make a list of to dos each day. Knock those out. Complete tasks early. Get up early – there is so much that can be done before lunch! Ask for help before the deadline instead of an extension. In many ways, college is preparing you for work and life management. Self organization is critical (and not necessarily that hard). Also, don’t expect others to organize things for you.

Challenge Yourself

Few college students will know upon entering college what career or job they will take. College is a place to learn and grow. However, you are not growing if you are not working and challenging yourself. Indeed, it should push you and even at times hurt a bit. Loading up on easy classes will make for an easy semester and result in a high GPA, but did it advance you? Did you grow? Probably not. Companies are looking for graduates, more than ever, that can handle complexity, and STEM careers are more attractive than ever for that reason. Take classes that allow you to contribute in these expanding markets. A wise man once told me upon my entry to college:

 “Work hard for the next 10 years and you can relax for the rest of your life. Relax for the next 10 years and you will have to work hard for the rest of life.”

It still holds true today. The more you put in, the more you will get out. That is why college is an investment.

Explore and Take Risks

The wonderful thing of a university is that it is full of great classes and professors. Many students come to me and ask my advice on which classes to take or if they should retake statistics or finance of something that they already know. My advice is always, take new things and things that allow you to explore. If you already know an area well, consider exploring it in greater depth but maybe you should try a new topic. I greatly enjoyed my classes in history, art, architecture, and philosophy. Each has made my travels more enjoyable and brought richness to appreciating life and relationships with friends and business contacts. Each also has added an ability to work with and communicate with people from many cultures. So, take classes outside of your major, take those that you can use to explore genuine interests and enjoy that special opportunity!

Get to Know People…No Really!

The most troubling effect of our social media and mobile world is that many people have grown uncomfortable with in person communications. The skill and art in getting to know people is important in leadership roles of all forms. Consider college an opportunity to do that.

I teach many lab classes at Foster, in which student teams work on real-world projects. These popular classes are a great opportunity for our students. Realizing that some teams struggled to click, I now require all teams to meet over a meal and to swap personal stories. The impact has been highly positive on the team dynamics and many teams share with me that they continue to meet long after the class. Be that person that reaches out to get to know others. They will appreciate that in you and look to you as a leader.

The time spent in getting to know others will be greatly important in team work, as we conduct it in our programs at Foster but also in overcoming challenges and difficulties in college and afterwards. You might even meet someone really special with whom you’d like to share your life!

Learn New Life Skills

A wise professor of mine at Cornell University offered me this same sage advice –

Learn New Life Skills! College is not only about preparing for your first job or even your career, it is about preparing for life.

Universities offer many great opportunities to develop new skills, for life. Take a class in music appreciation, learn a foreign language, learn a programming language, visit other countries, learn about science and the body, take a geology trip, take a cooking class, build something, grow something, and for MBAs, sell something or start something special. The ability to pick up such skills is much harder once work and family set in. Identify a few skills that you would like to develop and take classes to grow those skills.

Develop Great Presentation Skills

In recent years, it seems that less emphasis has been placed on critical presentation skills. Indeed every profession that I can imagine involves some level of important presentation. Doctors are expected to have good bedside manners. Business consultants are expected to make compelling presentations to their clients. And, the chance opportunity to meet with the CEO or a possible client is most likely to occur in person with little to no warning. An observation from my career is that those people most entrusted with working on top projects or with top clients are those who have greatest presentation skills. Few firms will honestly state that, but the bias is inherent in how we view a good presentation as the sign of a better leader or more thoughtful person. Gain that advantage! Develop a natural and comfortable style presenting your ideas. Take classes in speech and speaking. Learn to write in the manner demanded of your career. For MBAs, learn to develop compelling presentations and pay close attention to formatting details. Volunteer to do this on behalf of your team. The team will thank you, and you will be the real beneficiary of the practice in presenting.

Be Frugal

Here is the hard and honest truth. With most Americans borrowing to go to college and with graduate students (such as MBAs) borrowing even more, the cost of college is a major drain on your future earnings. So, it is all the more important to make the most of it. Delayed gratification is really in order. If you are borrowing money to buy a $6 latte each day, that will cost you much more later. For a dollar borrowed at 6% (a common rate at least among graduate students) and paid out after college and at the end of a ten-year payback period, graduates will need to make over $3.45 for that dollar borrowed. That coffee and other expensive luxuries will really impede your lifestyle going forward. Consider alternatives. Can you live with less? Can you spend less? Prioritize those things that are most important. Consider a part-time job to offset costs or to pay for some luxury that you really want. Make a financial plan and stick to it.

Be Open Minded – Explore Other Opinions and Ideas

I think it valuable to add this point, given the direction of discourse on campus in recent years and our state of political debate in the US and on university campuses, overall. In just the last few years, we have seen student groups disrupt invited speaker events, overtake trustee meetings, and create a general climate where certain political and business thoughts leaders simply elect not to visit campus, even when invited. It is a sad situation and one that is not worth perpetuating.

Let me share an example.

In one of my introductory quantitative courses, I show our incoming students how to build an investment model with a spreadsheet. We then add the reality of taxation to the profits, reducing the gains dramatically over the life of the investment. When the students see this, I get many reactions, such as these: “That taxation is unfair!” “Who allowed this to happen?” “Your model must be wrong; taxes can’t be that high.” “We need to change that tax rate!” It strikes me that the role of taxation and its impact has not been considered in their outlook on the role of government. For many students, taxation and profit creation are an abstraction, as they have not experienced either directly. College is a place to explore and understand both for the first time. College is a place for exploring many things for the first time, so it is natural that such surprises might occur. Developing a strong and well-formed opinion about the role of government in our lives, society, and business requires learning about many topics, in sociology, economics, business, politics, and science, for instance. The time in college is a time to become educated, and to explore these topics from many angles. That can’t happen if you shut down and ignore the thoughts, ideas, (and facts) presented by others.

Go to events and presentations that challenge your perspective! Learn to respect, evaluate, debate, and consider new ideas, even if those ideas, at first, challenge your opinions. It will make you a better decision-maker and better leader in many aspects of life. It is an important perspective in life, business, and government. And we certainly need such open-mindedness in government and society.

Have Fun…by Getting Involved!

College can and should be fun and memorable. This is most likely the case when you are active and involved. Join clubs – but get involved! Start a new club. Help your student club with a new effort. Help your major or program. Meet your professors to learn about opportunities in your field (really, few people come to office hours anymore – you will have no wait). Work to bring special speakers to campus. Invite your friends and family to campus; show them what excites you about your venture and investment. Take classes that bring passion and excitement to your work and studies. Being involved and passionate will allow you to get the most from your time at college.

And if you (or your son or daughter) are coming to the Foster School of Business or the University of Washington, stop by and say hello! It would be great to meet you and them in person!

Professor Walker provides keynote talks, seminars presentations, executive training programs, and executive briefings.

Click here to learn more about his talks, references from clients, options for customized talks and programs, and details on scheduling a program for your organization.

About Russell Walker, Ph.D.

Professor Russell Walker helps companies develop strategies to manage risk and harness value through analytics and big data.



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Russell Walker helps companies develop strategies to manage risk and harness value through analytics and big data. He has done novel research in data monetization and digital disruption and advises leading firms on these topics. As Director of Experiential Learning in Analytics and Associate Teaching Professor of Marketing and International Business at the Foster School of Business, at the University of Washington, Dr. Walker is an academic thought-leader on analytics. Russell Walker has developed and taught leading executive programs on Big Data and Analytics, Strategic Data-Driven Marketing, Enterprise Risk, Operational Risk, and Global Leadership. Previous to moving to Seattle and the Foster School, Dr. Walker was Clinical Professor at the Kellogg School of Management of Northwestern University, where he founded and taught many popular courses in analytics and risk management. His is the author of the book From Big Data to Big Profits: Success with Data and Analytics (Oxford University Press, 2015) which examines data monetization strategies and the development of data-centric business models in the new digital economy. He is also the author of the award-winning text Winning with Risk Management (World Scientific Publishing, 2013), which examines the principles and practice of risk management as a competitive advantage. Dr. Walker consults with firms on the topics of Big Data and Analytics, Data Monetization, Risk Management, and Business Strategy. Russell Walker can be reached at: @RussWalker1776

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