Back to School

“Bring us a pitcher of beer every seven minutes until somebody passes out. And then bring one every ten minutes.”
–Rodney Dangerfield as Thornton Melon in “Back to School”


I’m taking a break from my usual writings on NASA, leadership, space policy and high performance teams to share a personal note.

After 25 years, I’m headed back to school.

…visions of Rodney Dangerfield and the 1986 movie “Back to School” dance through my head….

As I contemplate the journey I’m about to undertake, I’m reminded of an old list.  And a story that starts in the mid-1980s.  (And yes, I’m that old.)

At the time,  I was wrapping up my undergraduate studies and was contemplating three routes for the immediate future.  I was about to graduate with a BS in physics, and I was convinced I needed more schooling so that I wouldn’t end up delivering Domino’s Pizzas like some of my peers who graduated ahead of me with a BS in physics but couldn’t find a job.  (In some ways, the job market then reminds me of the job market today.)  To delay that outcome, I decided to go to graduate school…but in what?  Here is what I contemplated at the time, in “priority order”:

1)   Engineering.  During college, I found I was more attracted to applied physics versus theoretical.  My inner dialogue was to do something, anything, that contributed something tangible to the world, rather than simply to expand our knowledge.  That to me meant engineering was a logical next step.  I didn’t know for sure which area of engineering – Electrical? Mechanical? – but the concept of engineering graduate school was very appealing.  I put this first on the list.

2)   Business Administration.  Several of my physics peers shared their plans to pursue MBAs after graduation.  “MBAs with technical undergraduate degrees are HOT HOT HOT!” I kept hearing from them.  On the surface, I didn’t view the business world as an appealing pursuit.  My roommate majored in marketing, I took an economics class as an elective, and honestly the whole business thing didn’t have traction with me at the time.  However, I kept it in mind as a possibility, simply because of the attractive job marketability post graduation.

3)   Physics.  Funny that I put this third on the list, since this was my undergraduate major.  Several of my classmates were absolutely brilliant and made no bones about their respective desires to pursue advanced degrees in physics from some of the best schools in the country – MIT, Princeton, etc.  From a theoretical physics standpoint, I couldn’t hold a candle to them.  Many of the advanced senior-level topics in physics, ranging from advanced quantum mechanics to thermodynamics, were at the limit of my understanding, and I had to work hard to get the A’s and B’s I got.  Experimental physics was more my strength, although opportunities for exploring that avenue as an undergraduate were limited to one senior lab and to working as an unpaid lab assistant.  The latter wasn’t an option for me; I was already holding down a half-time job in a research lab as a FORTRAN programmer to pay for school.  In the end, because I didn’t see hard-core physics as my strength, I put it third on the list.

As I weighed these graduate school choices – engineering, MBA, or physics – I leaned heavily upon advice from one advisor.  He recognized my strengths in experimental physics and encouraged me to consider that strength very carefully.  After a lot of soul searching and much reflection, I made a decision for graduate school: physics.  Yes, I chose the third one.  It worked out quite well in the end.  I pursued a MS in physics, had a teaching assistant position and tuition waiver that covered all my expenses, and after getting the MS degree I was ready to enter the working world.

As for the next step, I ended up relying not upon my schooling, but instead upon the programming skills I learned in my half-time job as an undergraduate to land a position at NASA in – you guessed it – an engineering field.  That opportunity led to a very enjoyable and fruitful early career in mission operations for the shuttle, about which I’ve written plenty before.  So, although I didn’t pursue engineering for graduate studies, I ended up in number 1 for a career.

What I find interesting is that as my career at NASA has advanced, I am finding that I’m involved more and more on the business side.  Yes, the list is becoming an AND list rather than an OR list, completed by the real subject of today’s post.

I am about to embark on number 2 – getting an MBA.

The NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston is starting a pilot program, in cooperation with the Naval Postgraduate School, for an Executive MBA program.  NPS has an existing Executive MBA program targeted at career Navy and experienced Department of Navy civilians, which is being used as the basis for the new cooperative program with JSC.  I and a handful of other NASA candidates will enter the program as a cohort in March for two years of distance learning one day per week, focusing on management fundamentals, financial management, acquisition (which is my “day job” today more or less), and analytical and critical thinking skills to make decisions under conditions of extreme uncertainty (like what we’re facing in human spaceflight today).  The cohort takes all classes together so that we interact, share, and learn from each other.  At the end of the two-year program, we earn an accredited MBA.

I’m deeply honored to have been selected for the program.  It fits perfectly into the role I serve at NASA, and I look forward to the academic learning experience, working with my cohort, and actively applying what I learn the other four days of the week in my regular day job to make a difference as we move forward in human spaceflight.

I reviewed the course syllabus that outlines the classes over the two years.  Several of the topics may make for interesting blog posts as I learn the material and apply it in the context of human spaceflight – especially in today’s world of challenging space policy implementation and increasing budgetary pressures.  I envision using this blog in part to share my experiences in the Executive MBA program, and hone my perspectives (along with your feedback as well!) on how to move forward in human spaceflight.  Through this exchange, I hope you will benefit as well as learn something new about your space program.

OK, bring on those pitchers of beer…!


Text © 2012, Joe Williams.  All rights reserved.

Back to School