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Biomedical Engineering to Business School

quizzical woman
A Smith Portrait

Q & A with Allison Smith, University of Iowa, College of Engineering.

Watch the Engineering to MBA Google Hangout with Allison and other engineers. 

What was your undergraduate engineering major specialty (electrical, mechanical, etc.)? 


Did you know in undergrad that you wanted to go to graduate business school?

I knew I wanted to attend graduate school of some sort, but wasn’t sure what for. I selected biomedical engineering as an undergraduate originally because I was interested in healthcare and wanted to be well-prepared for physical therapy school, medical school, or any other health career but also have the option of a great job after only four years of school.

What was your career before business school?

I was a Health & Public Services systems integration business analyst at Accenture in Chicago. I worked with clients like health insurance companies and state Medicaid programs to understand their business needs and then communicate with our developers to build and modify software to meet their requirements.

Tell us about yourself (who you are, where you are from, how you got to where you are today)

I grew up in Iowa City, IA, where the University of Iowa is located, but never thought I’d attend school there. When I was in junior high and high school I played volleyball competitively and also suffered two significant injuries – a torn ACL and a herniated disc – both of which required surgery and extensive rehabilitation. This was what piqued my interest in healthcare and all of the innovation that was taking place in the industry. As it came closer to selecting a college, I was offered the opportunity to walk on to the volleyball team at Iowa and a nice academic scholarship as well. It just made sense to stay in my hometown at a great university close to my family.  I have three little brothers who mean the world to me, so it was great to be nearby.

What's your current job?

Senior Consultant in Healthcare Strategy at Kurt Salmon in San Francisco. 

We work with all sizes of hospitals and health systems on strategic planning, mergers, acquisitions, and partnerships, market positioning, clinical service line and ambulatory planning, hospital network development, and financial analysis.

I think my math and data analysis background gave me a leg up as an applicant.

How many hours do you typically work each week

50-60 hours per week.

What is a day in your life like?

Our work is structured such that we work with 3-4 clients (hospitals or systems) at a time.  Typically, we meet with each client once a month for a 2-4 hour board or committee meeting. This requires travel, sometimes just a day trip, but depending on the client location and type of project, could be a couple of days. I’m in the office in San Francisco the other days, analyzing large data sets and creating decks in preparation for client meetings. I collaborate with team members located in my office but also across the country in other locations.

Why business school?

I went to business school for a couple of reasons. First, I didn’t have the opportunity to take many business classes as an undergrad – they kept us plenty busy in engineering! I wanted to better understand finance, marketing and strategy. I also wanted to improve my communication and leadership abilities and be able to move into a more managerial position eventually. Last but certainly not least, I love learning and couldn’t pass up the opportunity offered to me at Iowa.

Where would we find you when you're not working?

Reading, playing volleyball, baking, exploring San Francisco, catching up with family and friends.

How did your engineering experience help you stand out as a business school applicant?

Although my work at Accenture wasn’t a traditional “engineering” job, I definitely was using what I’d learned in school. I had worked on several different projects with different teams and different clients. I think my math and data analysis background helped give me a leg up as an applicant. In addition, I’d already had the opportunity to lead some small teams, something that engineering school started preparing us for as well.

Which skill sets from your engineering background do you think were your strongest assets in business school and on the job?

Engineering provided me strong critical thinking and problem solving skills. Having a solid grasp of statistics was also very useful. Figuring out how to work on teams with all kinds of people also proved to be helpful.

How did you fit studying for the GMAT exam into your busy schedule

I purchased two large study books that included test strategies and practice exams.  I tried to make a little time each night for a couple of weeks to get through a topic and then worked through the exams on weekends.

What's your best GMAT study tip

Take the time to go through the test strategies, not just the practice tests. Knowing how to approach the problem and tips for quicker completion are important!

What's your remedy for pre-test nerves?

Healthy eating and regular exercise in the days leading up to the exam, making sure to eat breakfast before the test, and get a good night’s sleep!

How well-prepared for business school did you feel, after studying for the GMAT exam?

I felt somewhat familiar with the basic concepts and comfortable with the types of problems that we’d be required to solve. So much of the program at Iowa and so much of business in general revolves around working as a team, which is inherently difficult to test. Preparing for the test made me confident in my technical abilities.

What advice do you have for other engineers who are planning go to business school?

Go for it! Engineers unfortunately sometimes have the reputation for not being able to communicate well or work well together. Business school helped me to better understand lots of different types of people and how to communicate more effectively both in writing and verbally. I’m still working on it, but feel much more comfortable than I did prior to attending.

What was your biggest challenge you had to overcome? Biggest reward you reaped?

My biggest challenge in business school was being a perfectionist and wanting to do everything myself.  The workload was simply too much for one person – I had to be willing to trust my teammates to get their portion of each project completed.  The biggest reward was when we collaborated effectively and efficiently, helping each other to understand the concepts and learning from our collective experiences.

What resources did you use to research graduate business schools and programs to which you applied or may apply?

To be honest, I didn’t really consider any other programs aside from Iowa. I was offered a nice scholarship in addition to a graduate assistant position to help pay for school. It was convenient and close to home, a Big 10 program with a smaller class size so that I was able to really get to know my classmates and professors. 

Did your b-school have activities, courses or clubs for students interested in engineering and an MBA?

Yes, the Iowa Medical Innovation Group (IMIG) is an experiential learning opportunity through the University of Iowa’s Entrepreneurial Center where second year MBA students lead a team comprised of medical students, law students, and undergraduate biomedical engineering students through all phases of medical device/technology development. Each spring a request is issued to the UI medical community (physicians, professors, etc.) to seek possible projects. During the summer, the MBA team leaders conduct an initial review to determine market potential, current competition and overall potential. In August, the selected projects are presented for students to select and teams are formed to take the project through to completion. 

Many engineers also pursue the Business Analytics track that is focused on teaching students how to turn data into meaningful business insights and ultimately value for their employer. There are courses in database systems, data programming, advanced analytics, supply chain management, evaluating innovation opportunities, commercializing new technology, and putting analytics into practice.

Some students have also combined their MBA with a Masters in Engineering over three years – Iowa is very willing to work with you on your own individualized experience. Other experiential learning and consulting project opportunities also exist that may have a bit of an engineering flavor depending on the company you’re working with and the project you’re working on.