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MBA independent study courses deliver academic and workplace benefits

Dr. Rich Young, a Penn State Harrisburg professor of supply chain management, says that for MBA students who take an independent study course, the experience is kind of like “double dipping” – in a very positive way.

About 90 percent of the students taking the independent study course are already professionals in full-time jobs, he said. And they come away from the course not only with academic credit, but also with knowledge and experience immediately beneficial in their workplaces.

“I encourage them to find a problem at work that is worthy of study. It is up to them to define the problem and look for solutions,” Young said. “And I remind them that it is not impossible to get a raise or promotion out of this.”

The course includes a review of current research on the student’s chosen topic and culminates with them completing a paper. Young meets with each student frequently throughout the semester to review their progress and provide guidance.

"The opportunity to complete independent study is a strength of the Penn State Harrisburg MBA program and differentiates it from many other programs," said MBA Program Director Dr. Oranee Tawatnuntachai. "We are willing to work with students who want to tackle challenges at work and also earn credits toward the degree and we can do this successfully because our faculty have extensive industry experience and a strong theoretical foundation. The success of independent studies also speaks volumes for the quality of our students." 

Chris Rowland had just been promoted to head of demand management at TE Connectivity, a global components and communications manufacturer, when he enrolled in the independent study course. He hoped to find a way to correlate his studies with his new job responsibilities.

TE Connectivity makes the electrical connectors that go into appliances, and customers include Whirlpool, General Electric and similar firms. Rowland and his team have the task of forecasting their customers' needs, using key performance indicators, to anticipate revenue for the next year. Accurate forecasting helps the company work with its suppliers to get the materials needed to meet customer demand.

In his industry, a 50-percent accuracy rate is considered good, Rowland said. After being in his new position for almost a year, he has hit that goal. Now he is aiming for 55 percent or even 60 percent accuracy, “which would be top class,” he said.

He credits his independent study research for helping him analyze the tools he needed to get there. “It was the best class I've taken,” he said. “I could relate what I learned from Dr. Young and my research to my position at TE.”

Mike Walker is a strategic sourcing analyst for TE Connectivity who will complete the MBA program this spring. He is studying the flow of raw materials from Germany, through Chicago, to Pennsylvania and eventually to Mexico, where they will be turned into electronic components for shipment around the world.

In his research paper, he wants to identify opportunities for cost savings, he said, asking “is there is a way to do this better.”

Greg Vrabel is a buyer for Philadelphia Mixing Solutions, which designs and manufactures agitation and aeration equipment for a variety of industries including pharmaceuticals. He is using his studies to evaluate ways for the company's suppliers to manage inventory. Vrabel said he probably spends a half hour a day managing inventory for fasteners needed in the manufacturing process, a low cost product he believes the suppliers could manage themselves.

Walker and Vrabel both view Young as a valuable resource, they said, thanks to his industry and academic experience. Before joining Penn State, Young spent 18 years in industry, including as head of procurement for the Healthcare Group of divisions at American Hoechst and later as international distribution director at Hoechst Celanese, a global technology and specialty materials company.

Young’s knowledge of vendor managed systems was especially helpful to Vrabel, who also appreciated the course format. “I didn't feel like I was in class, he said. “Dr. Young gave me guidance but left me open to make the necessary key decisions.”

Vrabel said he is showing his class work to upper management, and they have seemed pleased. He is starting to implement the system at work. “I'm getting college credit and real world experience, and it will help my career,” he said.

In addition to helping individuals in their careers, the independent studies can help boost economic development in the region, Young said.

“If you have a successful student who gives back and helps his employer to be more successful, the firm benefits, the region benefits, and the student advances his or her career,” he said.