January 28, 2013 12:06 am

Hopes & Fears: Bylines and bottom lines

Jeremy Lemer©Pascal Perich

'My peers have turned out to be quite unlike the finance zombies of my imagination'

Over the past four months or so I have asked myself countless times why I would want to quit my job as a journalist with the Financial Times – a job I very much enjoyed – and pay tens of thousands of dollars to study for an MBA at Wharton.

Every time I think about it I come up with a different answer. I told the admissions panel I was tired of writing headlines and wanted to appear in a few. I told my editor that I had applied on a whim and could not turn down the opportunity once I was accepted. I told friends that I wanted to relive my undergraduate days.

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In different ways they were all accurate but if I am being honest, after five years with the FT, it seemed like the right moment to step back from the day-to-day rush and to work out what I really wanted from my future. The truth is that for career-focused people, outside of business schools, there are not many opportunities to do that.

I chose Wharton the old-fashioned way: I applied to lots of schools and after they all rejected me, I realised Wharton was the one. It is amazing what the word “yes” does for the attractiveness of an educational institution.

In some respects Wharton was an odd choice. Like many financial journalists, my guilty secret is that I am terrible at mathematics. Wharton meanwhile has a deserved reputation for being among the more quantitative business schools. As a result I have spent some long nights locked in my room trying to learn calculus and sweating about various microeconomics and statistics exams. But in the end I think that it has worked out for the best. If I can get through the material here, I will have no reason to doubt myself in the future.

In general my transition from gamekeeper to poacher has gone smoothly. It turns out that in business as in journalism, a catchy headline, preferably involving alliteration, is crucial. So far we have studied the five forces in our strategy class, the five Cs and four Ps in our marketing lectures and a host of other slogans and phrases.

The parts of the course I have enjoyed most have been the interactions with the other students. My peers have turned out to be engaging and impressive, quite unlike the finance zombies I had built up in my imagination. My cohort boasts human rights activists, a former US Navy Seal and a retired tennis pro. Getting to know them during our small group projects has been a real pleasure.

Two other aspects of Wharton have pleasantly surprised me. The first is that accounting is more enjoyable than I was expecting. I like to think of it as a form of science fiction. It is a complete and internally coherent world that bears a passing resemblance to reality and helps to illustrate its flaws and foibles.

The second is that university is much more fun the third time round. As an undergraduate I was too stud­ious to take advantage of all it had to offer – youth, as they say, is wasted on the young – and as a graduate student I was too shy to make the most of my second chance.

At the age of 30 I am finally aware that what happens outside of the classroom is as important, if not more so, than what happens inside. At Wharton I have played intramural dodgeball, helped a non-profit improve its finances and signed up to advise a Chilean pharmaceutical company on how to sell prune-based laxatives in the US.

In part because of all those different experiences and opportunities, I am not quite sure what I want to do once I graduate. I have toyed with the idea of working for an industrial company, but I have been told that as a former journalist that might be a difficult leap. Indeed Wharton has a phrase for students like me. We are classed as “non-traditional” students. I looked it up and in the five-kingdom system the grouping appears somewhere near the possum family. In career sessions, weary advisers take one look at my background and explain as kindly as they can that something a little more familiar – maybe consulting – might be a safer bet. We shall see.

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Jeremy Lemer read history at Cambridge as an undergraduate and then studied journalism at Columbia University in New York. After graduating he moved to Japan for 18 months before joining the Financial Times as a graduate trainee based in London. Two years later he was promoted to US business correspondent and last year he became a writer for the Lex column. In July 2012 he left the FT to attend Wharton

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