Jan 082008

My first term at Oxford is over. It consisted of six core subjects: Finance I, Strategy I, Managerial Economics, Decision Science (Statistics), Developing Effective Managers (Organisational Behaviour), and Financial Reporting (Accounting).

There were a few amazing lecturers, a few average ones, and a couple of really, unconscionably bad ones. I’ve shared my thoughts on the bad ones with the course reps and the school in general, so I won’t rehash too much of that here. However, a few points are worth noting to those of you who may be teachers:

  • Start on time, end on time.
  • Don’t shout. Your students’ ears shut down.
  • Answer questions in a different way. Anyone who needs a repeat will ask for a repetition.
  • When answering questions, it helps to listen first, then answer. That way, you’ll answer the question asked.
  • It’s been proven that powerpoint makes your brain glaze over, if you’re saying the same thing that’s on the screen.

On specific courses:

Financial Reporting:

Accounting is hard and different, from company to company, from country to country, and you have to be skeptical about the numbers. Then, there are lots of convoluted calculations and ratios that could tell you something if you could trust the numbers, but a skeptical nature helps, always.

The lectures were all around issues in accounting (you’d be surprised at how different and, actually, interesting and important most of the changes are, and how it can affect your life. And how rules are less good than principles). The problem sets were what we were heavily tested on, which was something of a shame as (most of us) just ran out of time to do them. We had one large group assignment which was an analysis of a company’s most recent financial statements. This was actually pretty cool. Most of the other group assignments were cases from ages ago and, by their nature, filled with the kind of information that pointed us in the direction to go. With this, we just had numbers, ratios, and trends, and had to analyze the statements ourselves. And that was more interesting, though fairly difficult.

Overall, this was pretty good. I felt like I learned a lot and continued in my belief that everything, always, depends.

Developing Effective Mangers:

This was a really case-based course. Some of the stories were interesting, and much of it left you with the sense that if you hire the right managers (and workers), motivate them properly, and set up the right type of teams, then everything will work out just fine.

This is one of the soft subjects, and it’s hard to pin down. I/We did fairly well on the group and individual papers (as well as me– finally– figuring out that the type of writing demanded in the UK is a much more subtle, fair, and balanced type of argument than the strong arguments favored in the US.) It’s something of a fairly frustrating course to take as you get the sense that it’s really critical but that there aren’t many hard lessons you can take from it. I’ve always enjoyed watching the power and group dynamics in my workplaces, though, and having some language in which to frame it was pretty cool. Switching lecturers midway through, however, was somewhat problematic.

Decision Science:

Stats. Back up your arguments. We didn’t do much of the had math behind the stats (hard as in “work” rather than “difficult”) but focused on the aplication of statistical models, which at our level makes sense: At the end of the day, the software will do the heavy lifting for you, though it did point out to me the flaw in every high school/undergraduate’s whining: When you learn the deep math, you get the higher concepts much faster.

Many useful tools came out of this. The best parts were, actually the assignments which, while frustrating, actually concretized the work we did in the class. I’d have preferred to have more assignments with smaller grades, but it’s definitely not the end of the world.

I suspect that decision trees will play a useful role in my life. And now I actually understand Bayesian filtering. And I kind of wish I’d taken stats instead of Trig and Precalculus in undergrad.

Strategy I:

This course, like DEM, was case-based, and somewhat frustrating. I feel like I learned a lot in the course, but didn’t get particularly good marks. I’m not too concerned about the marks (as long as I pass and feel like I learned stuff) but it always leaves me with the niggling feeling that I didn’t actually learn something. Also frustrating as the work I’m heading into involves strategy quite a lot.

However, as our lecturer told us, it’s another soft subject, and most strategy directors move out of their jobs before the fruits of their labor ripen (or sour, as the case may be). And for every rule, there’s a Richard Branson breaking all of them and making out like a bandit (or a Michael O’Leary, Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs).

It’s a tough thing to teach, and all case-based, but I suppose there’s not much better way to teach it, other than to send us out into the world to start businesses and see who zags when everyone else zigs. If we could understand why Goldman Sachs was ahead of the game in getting out of the subprime fiasco before it collapsed, taking Finance CEOs with it, etc, then we could all make loads of money and never lose it. But then markets would be more efficient and we’d have trouble making money, so…

Anyway. Learned lots. Not too bad. Sometimes frustrating.

Managerial Economics:

I was really looking forward to this. I think Economics is a fascinating subject, but I just wasn’t really into it here for some reason. The stuff was interesting– I think it may have just been a lecturer/student clash, but I didn’t feel like I walked out with a whole lot of really good information. Except the stuff around pricing. Or maybe I just knew more Economics than I thought, but I felt like I went about 10% further in all the main areas, though quite a bit further in pricing. And after that it was just learning jargon.

The assignment, however, was pretty interesting. We took a market and did an analysis of it, which was much bigger and hairier than I initially thought– the market (ebay and internet auctions in the US) kept growing (when you dig into ebay, it’s a *lot* more than beanie babies and overstocked mobile phones). I think, on the assignment, that I didn’t have any deep insights that I wouldn’t have had before I came here, but I feel like I was more clear and concise in communicating those insights than I would have been earlier.

Bearing up my thesis that an MBA above all else teaches language.

Finance I:

This was the other big surprise: This was actually not nearly as tedious or difficult as I thought it would be– and was quite interesting to boot. This was at least a little bit due to the lecturer, who is not just intelligent in the extreme, but also a really amazing lecturer, making excellent use of socratic method and patiently explaining and reexplaining concepts. If it was a question that had to do with a prior week, he had one of us explain it. He knew the course backwards and forwards (“I will answer that question in the second half of the Week 3 lecture””) and just took it on.

I’d taken part of a Finance I course before, though I had to drop it when my dad died. The lecturer there was not good at all and the concepts weren’t all that hard, but it was just tedious.


I’m happy with my choice to go to SBS. Very much so. The students are amazing, and the experience of being in Oxford is unparalleled anywhere else. I feel challenged (I haven’t received my grades yet, though I feel like I did fairly well), and I think that getting a distinction in a class here is quite a step up from getting an A in a class in a US college. There have been some speedbumps, but we the students are filling in gaps and holes in the teaching or in the course.

There are definitely some rough spots to SBS’s degree: Some of the lecturers are iffy at best. With the one-year timeframe, we don’t get quite as deep into some of the actual work, and the careers search is definitely compressed. Many of the “classic” MBA jobs are really geared to getting you into an internship between years and hiring you 9 months later; this presents challenges to the SBS student (or indeed any one-year MBA student). The careers service is too small, not particularly responsive, and doesn’t have the relationships with major investment banks that you’d get at INSEAD or LBS, but, then, if that’s your goal, you should go to LBS. They made the curious decision this year to not do careers events with Cambridge.

However, the school, once you understand the power structures (hey, there’s my DEM class talking!) becomes very responsive. We (the Social Entrepreneurs OBN) grabbed one of the bigwigs one day and expressed our unhappiness at the lack of a dedicated career rep for us social entrepreneurs: We had one within a week.

Coming up: Lots of “I’m so tired, no time to write, I’m so busy”. We just got our schedule for this term, and between Financial Management, Macro Economics, Operations Management, Marketing, Technology and Innovation Strategy, a business plan, preparations for the Skoll World Forum, our own attempts to set up an Oxford conference on business and the environment, and our attempt to align ourselves with Net Impact, it’s going to be a seriously crazy term.

Wish me luck!

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 Posted by at 11:24

  2 Responses to “Thoughts on Michaelmas (first) term at SBS/Oxford”

  1. Hi
    Thank you very much for your blog.
    This is a really very interesting blog and quite a lot of information.

    I have recently got an admit from Oxford for class of 2009 and am also attending the Skoll forum this month.

    It would be great to get in touch with you.

  2. Hi Glen,

    Your blog is very informative. I have recently got an admit from Oxford Said for MBA class of 2009. I need a favour from you. Could you share with me the details of the books that you use for your various courses. It will help me 1.) Do some homework on those topics 2.) Buy them from my home country at a cheaper price, and bring it to SBS when I come in Sep.

    It would be great to stay in touch with you.


    Mohammed Fayaz.

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