I decided to do a PhD rather than take up one of the job offers I received at the end of my chemistry degree partly because of the broader opportunities a PhD would offer me. In a university environment, there are numerous (free) activities and training opportunities that can extend your experiences way beyond your particular field of study--as well as providing a wealth of networking possibilities. I took full advantage of my extra 3 years as a student and in fact heard about my next career move through two different branches of my network: the French Cultural Delegation in Cambridge and a mailing for chemistry postgrads.
The Collège Des Ingénieurs ( CDI ) offers a management fellowship leading to an MBA. Exclusively for science and engineering postgrads from selected universities world-wide, the 10-month programme is based in Paris, Stuttgart, or Montreal, with classes given by industry leaders and professors from top international business schools. Hands-on business experience is an integral component. And what's more, unlike most MBAs, this one does not cost a fortune; in fact, there are no fees, and a stipend is provided.
I realised that this training and qualification would complement my research background well and could accelerate the international industry career I was aiming for. Not only would it hone my management and business skills, improve my languages, and offer extensive experience in European and North American business, this course is also designed for "high potentials." It is tailored for those thought to be the future of industry, and the opportunity to create a strong group of friends who might well develop into a very influential network was apparent and alluring.
I applied early for the January admission (there are two intakes per year--in September and January--and I was unlikely to finish the PhD in time to start in September), so it was May when I was invited to interview in Paris. The weather was warm and sunny, and the Seine was as majestic as ever; I was very glad that the interview went well and that, because I chose the Paris location, I would soon have the opportunity to appreciate Parisian beauty and elegance more and more. This choice is up to you and does not affect how likely your application is to succeed. However, work experience placements are harder to find in the Montreal area, and this can mean ending up in France or Germany after all.
CDI is looking for evidence of your dynamism and leadership abilities. I believe that all those extracurricular activities I was involved in at university--serving on many committees and starting up three new societies--really helped convince the interview panel to give me a place. Language skills can help, but talent and drive are more important; good candidates are offered a free intensive language course, and even those who had spoken very little French when applying managed fine after this. The course is in July and August, or just August if your French is already at a reasonable level. Unfortunately I could not take advantage of it; PhDs always take longer to finish than you expect.
I returned to Paris in November to attend interviews for my "mission" placement. The mission is what pays for your time at CDI: 25 weeks with a client company that pays the college for the work you do. With this money, the college funds the classes, travel, and accommodation when classes are abroad (classes can be in Paris; Stuttgart; St Gallen, Switzerland; or Montreal, regardless of your "home" base).
The choice of mission is very important, and it is one way CDI really adds value to its programme. Once you specify which aspect of business you are most interested in, the college finds a list of potential clients, whom you must meet and convince of your ability to carry out their projects. It is an interview for a consulting position and cannot be taken lightly. Equally, since you will be doing this consultancy project for 10 months, you must ensure that you will be able to gain what you want from it. I wanted to develop pure business skills, so I chose a project involving a variety of business functions: finance and performance management and reporting, benchmarking, internal marketing, and market analyses.
Of course, while not obligatory, it is helpful to add something extra to what the client has asked for by making suggestions and taking things a step further. This makes for a client who is not merely satisfied, but happy. This skill of thinking beyond the task at hand and taking the initiative is certainly something that I had developed during my PhD. In carrying out my mission, I found several other skills to be invaluable as well: conducting research, managing time, being organised, juggling many tasks at once, and meeting the demands of several conflicting interests. Having worked in a multicultural environment--in the form of a science research group--was also a large benefit ... but did not fully prepare me!
The course certainly does teach you to appreciate, and fit into, other cultures. I quickly discovered, through my mission placement, that asking people in France to go for a drink after work is anathema. It merely leaves them suspecting that you have no life and no friends. Socialising was done mainly around the coffee machines and at lunch--oh, those long lunches. It will be hard to forget the look of absolute incomprehension and disgust as I ate a sandwich by my computer (saving time and money, I reasoned). It might have been equalled only had I carried a bell and shouted, "Unclean! Unclean!"
Similarly, it was interesting to observe how fellows of different nationalities behaved when we met for classes and socially on Thursday nights. The Northern Europeans (British, Germans, Belgians) would go straight to the pub: "Eating is cheating/Manger c'est tricher." The Mediterraneans and French would go home, the former reappearing, after siestas and grooming, around midnight, but the home team simply disappeared.
One thing I wish I'd known before starting the course was the price of a beer in Paris. The high cost of liquid refreshment can severely eat into the small bursary that is provided out of the "mission fee." (It's certainly enough to survive on, but a loan is readily available for those who take socialising seriously.) Since people in Parisian bars tend to sit with the same drink for hours, I had to ask: Do bar managers charge so much because people drink so little, or vice versa? One honest Irish bartender explained that, MBA course or no, I still had a lot to learn. It's a case of pure market forces; people will simply pay that much!
That said, the possibility of getting an MBA without running up a mountain of debt--together with the high-flying network, tip-top professors (from places such as Harvard and INSEAD), and mission experience--is one of CDI's real benefits. As well, because the fellows are academically gifted (CDI does not rely on those who can afford high fees and so sacrifices neither standards nor integrity), classes are very quick and very intensive: One visitor from an American business school commented that 3 weeks of work at that school was covered in 3 hours at CDI. The disadvantage to the set-up is that all the students are scientists and engineers with little business background, so CDI offers less opportunity to learn from others' business experience. Having said that, many professors like teaching at CDI as they hear novel, innovative, refreshing solutions, rather than rehashed, existing ideas from, say, the latest publication by Porter (proclaimed business and management guru).
As well as enabling you to build a network among your peers, CDI has an established network of industry contacts (at CEO level) who are attracted to its informal events. Nonetheless, CDI is still young and so this network is now strongest in France and Germany. It has yet to target markets in the UK or US, which could improve awareness of its qualifications in some quarters.
CDI certainly opened as many doors for me as I'd hoped it would. Indirectly through it, I have found myself independently consulting for a company in Lithuania and Russia. Certainly without the training at CDI, I would not be here and would not be making a success of it. The company I work for is not related to my science background, but this illustrates one very important lesson from CDI, particularly in today's economic climate. If you limit yourself to a narrow field, you will not do yourself justice. To get to the top, experience in all roles is essential. Many of the skills that are necessary for that and that have helped me so far were enhanced at CDI--a very strong springboard at the start of my international career.