Let’s talk business

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During Winter 2014, I participated in Basic Business Skills for Non-Business Graduate Students (BBS), offered through SKILLSETS. Recently, I sat down with David Syncox, Graduate Education Officer, to learn more about the course.

Could you give me some insight on how the course came about?

It really is a fairy tale story. Two PhD candidates, one from Experimental Medicine and the other from Human Genetics, had the idea of setting up a lecture series on basic business skills. Unfortunately, even though they were part of a student consulting group at McGill, they experienced difficulties in doing so.

These graduate students came to me in 2009, right after SKILLSETS had been founded, and together we created BBS. To their credit, they worked tirelessly to coordinate the series, picking topics, determining the cases, booking rooms, and inviting presenters. During the first session, in Winter 2010, we had 30 students. By Fall 2010, we had 150 people apply for 50 spots. We quickly realized this was going to be a very popular course, and we needed to scale-up our capacity to accommodate students.

Who should take this course?

Any graduate student. The course is geared towards students that want an understanding of business administration or those who are looking for a career in business, including consulting. But even for graduate students who are not going into business, BBS develops a basic understanding of business administration concepts, which will be invaluable for careers in academia. Most graduate students who participate are in their fourth or fifth year.

Why should graduate students have basic business skills?

Basic Business Skills series provides graduate students with a basic understanding of the principles of business administration. Students who have an interest in business but are not sure if it is something to pursue following the graduate degree, challenge themselves with engaging discussions and practical case solving activities. Even if you go into academia, you will need to have some basic business skills. Graduate education will end. And at the end of that tunnel is a career that will depend on your ability to communicate and problem solve. Understanding the basics of business is vital for any future career.

What is the course set up?

We essentially have three people running the course under an umbrella structure. I lead the program, and rely on two people to make the course happen. There is a course coordinator, who manages the day-to-day, such as communications and thanking the professors. And then there is a case cracker, which is more the pedagogical part, who develops and leads the cases. This has been an MBA over the past several years.

The course roughly follows the book “Ten-Day MBA,” aligned with a case cracking book. As such, we have ten lectures and five case cracking sessions. We start each session with the “Marketing” lecture, and finish with “Marketing Yourself.” It’s important to realize that we are also a commodity in this big world, and we need to know how to market ourselves.

Who teaches the lectures?

We have had professors from Concordia University and McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management teach courses. We’ve also had professional consultants, from McKinsey and other consulting firms, give lectures. The presenters have really pushed BBS to another level.

Why are the case studies important?

The case studies are more interactive, providing students with an opportunity to implement some of the knowledge from the lectures. Case studies develop critical thinking, that is, they help students develop and understand a logical path to solving a problem. It’s not necessarily just about problem resolution. Rather, it’s important to consider all the variables, and think about the process involved in confronting a problem.

The case studies are also about working in a team. In some lectures, there will be opportunities for discussion, but that’s mainly in groups of two or three. For the cases, you work in a team of four or five, looking at real scenarios. This forces the team to challenge each other: Who will be the leader? What can we accomplish in the time allotted? Math is not the only thing. Strategy is not the only thing. People need to work together.

When will the course be offered next?

We will send out a SKILLSETS email around August 15th so that students can register. The course will run throughout the Fall semester, and will be offered again in the Winter 2015. We usually cap the course at 85 or 90 students. We also set up a waitlist as some people have to drop out once the semester starts.

In the future, we are considering incorporating a virtual platform. This year we piloted a virtual class room with students from Université de Sherbrooke. We’ve also thought of providing important articles or links via our LinkedIn group.

Are there cookies?

We always have coffee and cookies. We realize staying on campus for a night lecture can be difficult for graduate students. Actually, since BBS started, we’ve always had a really strong turnout.

Any final thoughts?

This is a SKILLSETS flagship event. We’ve had over 600 graduate students take the course, and we’ve received only positive feedback. BBS is inspired by students, led by students and taught by amazing professors. This interactive offering is a bucket-list course for all graduate students at McGill.

Special thanks to David Syncox for his time and insight, and Nadia Al-Banna, current BBS course coordinator, for providing input and facilitating our meeting. 

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