Finding balance and fulfilment through the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA

Before she found the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA, Jennifer Chen felt that a business degree would not be a good fit for her background as a creative. Now juggling the roles of design researcher, charity trustee, Royal Society of Arts fellow, start-up mentor and mum to twin toddlers, she’s embracing new challenges and learning to balance all areas of life more than ever.

Picture of Jenn

My background is in design and advertising. As a creative, I found the work interesting, but from time to time felt a lack of control to make greater impact with my work. The agency setting I was in was rather fragmented and figuring out the why of the projects I was working on was usually someone else’s job. There were times when I would be given a task that didn’t feel quite right, but I did not have the capability or confidence to challenge it. My role was sometimes limited to form-giving, styling, making things look pretty – there is a lot of skill to that, of course, but I knew that I wanted to do more.

I began by searching for Masters programmes in innovation. I didn’t consider business programmes at first because I didn’t think they would be the right fit for me: of my friends with MBAs, as successful as they were, none of them had a job description that sounded like something I’d want to do.

I was delighted when I found out about the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA. Working in the design community, I had always known about UAL, but Birkbeck’s strong research reputation gives the MBA more credibility in the business world.

From the very beginning, we were told that this was a safe space to share ideas, and that there were no stupid questions – I don’t think this is common practice in traditional MBA programmes. We learned from a team of excellent lecturers and industry leaders, but most importantly, from each other. As a more mature cohort with work and family commitments, we learned to plan for contingencies, to make sure colleagues could contribute to group projects regardless of their personal circumstances, and to be empathetic towards each other’s situations. We operated under the assumption that everybody wants to do their absolute best, but a bit of flexibility may be required here and there.

This was particularly true for me, since on the very first day of the programme I found out that I was pregnant with twins! It was almost surreal. My MBA cohort heard the news before some of my family. Birkbeck and UAL were very accommodating. To maximise my learning opportunities, Dr Pamela Yeow, the course leader, advised that I complete the first module, then helped me rejoin the programme a year later with the following cohort.

Picture of Jenn with her twins

Jennifer with her twins after rejoining the MBA in 2018.

Even then, balancing work and family life was not easy, especially as the estimated ten hours of reading per week turned out to be quite an understatement! Towards the end of the programme, we had all nearly become experts in information extraction and priority management.

The course was a transformative experience for me. Through theory and practice, I was able to develop my skillset as a design leader, especially in the areas of collaborative leadership, entrepreneurship and operations management. Having access to industry-specific knowledge and concrete, actionable advice from the teaching staff has really helped me get closer to achieving my goals: affecting change to the world through design.

Chris Cornell, our lecturer on strategy, who has worked extensively with the charity sector, helped me work out a clear action plan. I am now a marketing trustee for the Heritage Crafts Association, refreshing the brand to create a contemporary, engaging and relatable identity in order to attract a wider audience. I also mentor startups, helping their world-changing ideas cultivate the power of storytelling and develop clear communication approaches.

The MBA makes you ask a lot of questions about the work that you do, the work that you want to do, and the work that you can learn to do, in order to implement change and improve the world around us, and in doing so, enrich ourselves.

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An MBA with a difference

Sammera applied for the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA to build the skills to have a greater impact in the charity sector. Her efforts have been recognised by a scholarship from the Aziz Foundation, who support British Muslims into higher education to better society.

Picture of Sammera

As Head of Development at the British Asian Trust and with over fifteen years’ experience of charity and voluntary work, Sammera speaks with authority when she talks of the need to innovate in the third sector. 

“Innovation and creativity are central to developing products or services in any leading organisation,” she explains, “but in the fast-changing and highly competitive environment in which charities operate, it is essential. There’s also the added challenge of adapting within a strictly regulated and scrutinised environment.” 

Sammera wanted to return to education to consolidate the skills she had learned through her working life. The Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA appealed as it provided the opportunity to bring together creative and business disciplines. 

“I didn’t want to do anything too conventional – I wanted to bring in a creative angle,” says Sammera. “The four units of the MBA programme link in with my work, so I can apply what I’m learning in my day to day integrating the business management theories practically. There are elements of the course that require independent investigation and research, while others focus on entrepreneurship, leadership and change.” 

In January 2020, Sammera successfully interviewed for a scholarship from the Aziz Foundation, which will partly cover the costs of the MBA programme. The Aziz Foundation offers Masters scholarships to British Muslims in order to empower one of the most disadvantaged communities in the country to bring positive change to society as a whole. 

For Sammera, the MBA is an opportunity to gain the skills she needs to make an even greater impact: “At the British Asian Trust, I have learned the value of social finance, making sustainable changes for the longer term and helping marginalised communities in South Asia. Beyond this course, I hope to continue to empower the diaspora and wider communities locally and internationally.” 

Dr Pamela Yeow, Programme Director of the MBA, said: “We designed the MBA to equip students with the tools to make positive change. I am delighted that the Aziz Foundation has recognised Sammera’s commitment to the charity sector and that they have seen the potential for her to have an even greater impact with the help of the MBA.” 

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“I have really relished the intellectual challenge of returning to university after a break.”

When a new role saw Ella moving from practical outdoor work to people management, she applied for the MSc Human Resource Development and Consultancy to build her skills. She reflects on how the course has equipped her for the challenge.

Picture of Ella

I have had a fairly non-traditional career path so far. I worked on farms for many years engaged in therapeutic agriculture, growing vegetables with young adults with learning difficulties and behavioural issues. My passion for people and land now has me working as a senior manager for a small environmental charity which works across the UK planting orchards with urban communities.  

Transitioning from outdoor practical roles to indoor organizational-focused roles threw me into being a line manager, thinking about team dynamics and holding responsibilities across the organisation for recruitment, wellbeing, HR policies and staff development.

The MSc in Human Resource Development and Consultancy at Birkbeck has given me a good grounding in people management and organisational development, with flexibility to deepen my knowledge in areas that have interested me.  

I have really relished the intellectual challenge of returning to university after a break of many years. The course is structured to deepen academic thinking as well as practical knowledge, and that combination means I can bring practical questions from my work into an academic sphere, and I can apply thinking from my Masters directly into my work.  

The support from lecturers and fellow students is phenomenal. I have learned so much not just from lecture and seminar content, but also professors, guest lecturers and fellow students speaking about their work contexts and roles as HR or Organizational Development practitioners. 

I am about to enter my second year, of which a significant part is embarking on a management research project. This differs from a traditional dissertation as it again combines academic rigour and practical organisational focus, as we work with an organisation to address a challenge that it is experiencing as our research problem. I am really looking forward to exploring an area of HR Development in depth, and to try out new research and consultancy skills. 

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Introducing Birkbeck’s MSc in Governance, Economics and Public Policy

Sue Konzelmann, Programme Director, shares the rationale behind this interdisciplinary Master’s.

When, as in 2015, one group of economists publicly support proposed new economic policies in the press – immediately resulting in another set of economists reaching for their word processors with an entirely opposing view – it’s a pretty fair bet that the ensuing debate will be at least as much about politics as economics.

Nor is this anything new; John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Von Hayek routinely traded blows in a similar public way between the two World Wars, influencing politicians and governments of very different shades in the process.

You might think that you’d be on firmer ground with corporate governance and its more legally based rules. That is, until you remind yourself that those rules are also largely set by government – and that the views of Clement Attlee’s 1945 socialist government and Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government less than forty years later would have been as wildly opposed on corporate governance as they were on pretty much everything else. Whilst Attlee’s government was part of what is (yes, you’ve guessed it) debatably described as the “Keynesian consensus”, Thatcher’s handbag was famously home to Von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom.

However, in spite of these three subjects – economics, politics and corporate governance – being inextricably linked, they are usually taught separately, an approach which inevitably loses much of the richness of what is, after all, a game that anyone wanting to influence public policy will have to learn to play.

There is, of course, no rule book to follow. Such rules as there are, may be rewritten at any point in time, and for a variety of reasons – but that’s what allows policy to evolve in response to a changing world, changing conventional wisdom or changing politics. It’s a heady mix.

Birkbeck’s new MSc in Governance, Economics and Public Policy not only shows how each of these areas influences – and is, in turn, influenced by – the others; it also sets them into their academic context and relates them to real world events and outcomes.

Although the course was initiated at the suggestion of the Progressive Economy Forum, which has strong links to one of the two opposing groups of economists already mentioned, the course will be taught by colleagues from three of Birkbeck’s world leading Departments – Management, Economics and Politics – with a wide variety of perspectives.

I anticipate that there will be some lively discussions with and amongst the students as well. As a result, one of the first rules to go out of the window, will probably turn out to be the one about never discussing politics in a pub!

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Life in London as an international student

We catch up with Yvette Shumbusho, an MSc Marketing Communications student from Rwanda, who in a December blog post talked about settling in London as an international student. As the academic year draws to a close Yvette reflects on what she enjoys most about living in the capital.

London has been home for the past ten months, and I have easily integrated into the diverse culture. This fast-paced, metropolitan city lives up to the hype for many reasons, its culture, food and entertainment, to name a few

The diversity found in London puts it at an advantage compared to many cities in the world. There are a number of food markets that I have been able to visit such as Maltby Street Market and more in various parts of London. I have eaten some of the best meals in these places, freshly made and satisfying overall.

You don’t have to worry about gaining a few pounds because there are so many gyms around the city – there are three different gyms within a radius of 0.3 miles of where I reside! This is surely motivation to keep fit but even if you’re not fond of gyms and exercise classes, walking around alone can help you get in a quick workout. I walk almost everywhere and now that it’s nice and warm (on some days), I walk a lot more than I normally would. I have come to realise that Londoners like to power walk everywhere.

Between juggling school assignments and regular everyday activities, it is a real challenge to get time off and explore, but I have managed to visit a number of places including the London Aquarium. I was a few inches away from a family of sharks, which was exciting as I had never been so close to them. I’ve also visited a number of parks, some unintentionally as I strolled to school or back home, which got me thinking how beautiful it is that London has so many green spaces; it makes walking and general living that much better.

Before I complete my course, there is still a number of places I need to visit within the city and even outside of London but all in all; my experience has been one to remember. I will surely miss this place.

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Finding the balance between work and study

Sports Management 2017 graduate Bethan Taylor reflects on her time at Birkbeck and shares her top tips on how to find a balance between your job and your studies.

Image: Anna Rachel Photography

I studied MSc Sports Management at Birkbeck from 2015-2017, taking a special interest in women in endurance sport. I’m a civil servant working in the Ministry of Justice, and I also write for a range of publications including my own blog A Pretty Place To Play which features my new podcast The Mental Health Podcast. When I’m not working or writing, I like to run and am currently training for my first ultra-marathon – 56 miles from London to Brighton next year.

There are lots of reasons why I decided to go back and study for an MSc – I’d been working in financial services for around five years and while I loved my job, I wasn’t finding it that intellectually stimulating. At the same time, I’d become really involved in running and was writing for various print and digital publications on the topic of women in sport, which really peaked my curiosity. I decided that I wanted to be able to talk with authority on the social issues in sport, and in my mind, the best way to do that was through postgraduate study.

The whole experience at Birkbeck was amazing! I loved that I was able to study an academically rigorous and challenging course while still progressing my career. The academics I worked with in Birkbeck Sports Business Centre were really open and supportive, encouraging us to question everything and to challenge each other, which I really enjoyed.

Being able to work while I studied meant I could pay my course fees without worrying about debt. Academically, it was great studying over two years – it meant that I could really take advantage of everything Birkbeck had to offer, simply because I was there longer! It also meant I had more time to think about what I wanted to research for my dissertation, which meant I got to dig deep into issues that really fascinated me.

There were challenges, of course, one of the biggest being that I felt like I was constantly saying no to social events and letting people down. That was really hard. Thankfully my friends and family were all really supportive and totally understood when I had to decline a dinner invite again, or sloped off home after one drink to study!

Between working and training for a marathon and a couple of half marathons my time at Birkbeck was pretty busy, and it did mean that I didn’t get involved in any societies or clubs. However, I did have a mentor and she was fabulous – it was great to be able to sit down with someone and discuss my career and direction really frankly.

I think it’s really important for people in the sports/fitness industry to really understand the unique nature of their business, as well as the social issues that surround people’s engagement in sport (my area of interest). Courses like the MSc Sports Management are helping to develop a new generation of professional sports administrators, as well as the academics who’ll be thinking about how we can challenge ourselves and develop the industry in the future.

I think education is a life-long pursuit, and I was really lucky to have great role models in my parents who both studied while working throughout my childhood (in fact my Dad was also at Birkbeck last year!). Learning new things helps to boost your creativity, enhances your problem-solving skills and challenges your perceptions – it makes life a lot more interesting! I also believe that life shouldn’t be all about work, you need some challenges that are just for you, whether that’s studying for an MSc in a subject that fascinates you or running a marathon (or both!).

If you’re thinking of studying at Birkbeck, don’t question whether you can do it, as you absolutely can! You’ll need to be super organised both at work and with your studies, and there will be some sacrifices, but it’ll be worth it in the end.

Before you start your course it’s worth chatting to your employer about flexible working – I always kept my boss in the loop with my timetable so she knew why I was bolting out the door at 5pm. Also make sure you talk to your friends and family, as you will need their support and understanding because there will be times when things feel tough.

When I was studying, being organised was essential! You cannot over-plan when it comes to studying while working. Make sure you leave lots of contingency time, just in case something kicks off at work or you get sick.

Looking back on my time at Birkbeck, I can honestly say it’s one of the best places in the world to study sports management – but beyond that, there’s so much more! Studying while working is a great way to demonstrate to employers a whole range of desirable skills, like time management, organisation and dedication. It really illustrates how dedicated you are to your subject – you have to really want to do something if you’re going to sit through three hours of lectures after a full day at work! Beyond that, I’ve had the opportunity to carry out brand new research on a topic that hasn’t been explored much in-depth before, and I think this contribution to my subject really sets me apart.

Looking forward, I would love to become an expert in my field, specifically focusing on women in sport. The dream is to be cited as an ‘expert’ in a Runner’s World investigation. In the meantime, I am working on building my experience and thinking hard about a PhD (possibly at Birkbeck…).

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Beyond Bad Apples: Bullying at the BBC

This post was contributed by Dr Andreas Liefooghe, a Reader in the Department of Organizational Psychology.

The Respect at Work Report states that ‘uncomfortable levels’ of bullying are being reported at the BBC. Uncomfortable to whom, we might ask.  A corporation that prides itself on people being “our greatest strength” has to cope with increasing levels of criticism of the way it treats and protects its employees. Covering the period between 2005 and 2012, bullying behaviour appeared to go unchallenged by senior managers, with certain individuals “seen as being untouchable due to their perceived value to the BBC”.

BBC director general Tony Hall wants “zero tolerance of bullying”, and emphasized he wants to get rid of the culture of fear, and “get employees to speak out” about bullying. Following in the footsteps of many a Chairman before him, he will focus on changing behaviour from the top. Professor Stale Einarsen from the University of Bergen suggested in a recent lecture at Birkbeck that bullying had little to do with good or bad leadership – it was those leaders that do nothing and create a vacuum that really damage the culture in organizations. People are not huddling in corners in fear of a perpetrator out there, but they are de-spirited and humiliated by ever demanding working practices. For this reason, a policy to ‘get rid of bullies’ in organisations will only have a limited effect, and will not address these organisational issues. Bullying is arguably far more often the system and one’s role in it than individual personalities, stated Prof Einarsen.

It strikes me that Lord Hall is somewhat disingenuous. Employees have spoken out, they may perhaps not have been heard. Bectu (the media and entertainment union) reported as early as 2008 that the culture at the BBC was one of fear. Why was this not picked up then? The Savile Enquiry gave rise to this current report, but it seems that what is being reported goes way beyond some individual culprits and bad bosses. The 500 or so voices of these employees point to something far more akin to institutionalised bullying. If the link is made here with findings on racism, for instance in the MacPherson Report , it becomes clear that it is not just about a few bad apples that need to be removed from the organisation, but the very practices (from recruitment and reward to ‘how things are done around here’) that need to be scrutinised.

The BBC is not alone. My research since 1998 has consistently shown that to stop bullying it’s not personalities but the systems and policies that need to be tackled – many of these are designed to cut costs, not to preserve dignity nor foster respect. Within these systems, managers are put under pressure to increase staff performance, reduce overtime, and cut costs to meet their targets – how employees experience this process is not top of the organizational agenda. BBC employees, like many others elsewhere, feel their respect at work is eroded by being kept in the dark, being serially restructured, not being consulted in earnest, feeling that sauce for the ‘grafting’ goose is definitely not sauce for the ‘talented’ gander. Telling the author of the report that the above is bullying corresponds closely to Bectu’s findings, and indeed the NUJ comments on institutionalised bullying.  Yet BBC responses to the report’s findings seem designed to tackle only bullying of the inter- and intra-personal kind.

Part of coping with bullying is challenging the organisational systems that in an ever increasing, unrelenting fashion erode the self-esteem and self-efficacy of an entire workforce – as evidenced by this recent report. What can be done to stop this organisational bullying and change a culture of fear? Arguably, the answer would be to question all organizational policies that are in place, and evaluate these in terms of their appropriateness with a dignified working life, balancing values with costs. So not just re-writing your bullying policy as suggested, BBC, if you really want to tackle these issues.

Dr Andreas Liefooghe has recently completed an ESRC Seminar Series on bullying at work called Vulnerable Selves, Discipling Others, footage available on line. He is currently analysing data from the first pan-ASEAN research study into bullying at work.

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