Quitting my lab job for an MBA: Here’s what I learnt

For over a year, every morning I would get to the lab, put my coat on, sat behind the bench and recited to myself “Vamos, you can do this!” The oration would be then followed always by the same tedious activity: open tube, pipette stuff in tube, close tube, next. Repeat.

As days passed by, it was more and more difficult to wake up the next morning and do it all over again.

But it was my job (my first one outside academia), I had a permanent contract (and I was not even 30!), I had a salary (the times of grant-related anxieties were finally gone!)…I shouldn’t be complaining. 

The chimp in my head, though, knew that was not the place for me.

It was getting more difficult each day to repeat the same tedious task. Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

Starting a new chapter in life

I remember sitting in a café with my mom and holding my tears while I was mumbling some lie to the very simple question: “How is work?” I didn’t want to worry her with my macabre thoughts of leaving the job that appeared so perfect from the outside. But eventually, I cried in front of her and told her the truth “I hate my job, I’m sick of it, I quit!”

Against my expectations, she encouraged me in quitting if that was the best thing for me. After this very cathartic moment, I started scrolling down the rankings of the best business schools in Spain, dreaming of going back to school and finally having my brain back to work again.

I will never stop being amazed by those 10 months doing my MBA. My expectations of a business school were very low: I came from a very different world, that of academia. The most formal I had ever dressed was when I wore my clean coat right from the hospital laundry. I expected to breathe the same air as snob kids wearing a tie who wandered around a sad and flat environment that smelled like money. I couldn’t be more wrong. It was instead one of the most powerful experiences of my whole life and here are three lessons that will serve me for life.

1. Not everything is business, it is about people too

In my business school, there was a lot of focus on the students and we were treated mainly as people other than just future managers. This was such a revelation. I loved learning about (and honestly was not expecting to learn!) things such as  organizational behavior, cultural intelligence, active listening, working in teams, giving and receiving feedback. I was blown away by the things I learned about people from different countries and with different backgrounds, and how these differences should be taken into account to ensure success in business.

My favorite example was the simulation of a negotiation with Asian people. When sitting at a negotiation table, Asian executives have a specific hierarchy when it comes to the communication with the counterpart. Therefore, one person speaks, one person takes notes, one person observes. But before anyone says anything, they will first reach a consent decision: this implies that they would take their time by probably whispering to each other before the one in charge would eventually speak up. 

Fun fact: last month I attended the BIO ASIA virtual congress, and I found myself in a very similar situation. Had I not learned the lesson during the MBA, I would have probably found myself in a very uncomfortable moment of awkwardness. Instead, the moment I asked a question and they gathered to prepare the answer, whispering to each other, I waited patiently and smiled at the memory of the simulation day in class.

I was blown away by how learning from different people and cultures help to ensure success in business. Photo by Antenna on Unsplash

2. Personal growth is not the same as professional growth

It might sound obvious, but it was not that obvious for me. Since I was a kid, my personal wins were almost indiscernibly related to professional achievements: good grades in school, finishing my master’s at the university, getting my PhD, publishing an article, getting paid more. I have always identified myself with school or work. If I failed there, I was nothing.

I still remember the day I had this revelation. During the MBA, we had been assigned a personal coach with whom we had 4 sessions. In the first session, my incredibly sweet and talented coach asked me “Who are you?”. I remember being extremely uncomfortable and thinking “What kind of crappy question is that?” I started answering this question with a shallow giggle followed by “I’m Chiara, and I’m a PhD in Genomics of…”. She interrupted me “That is not the answer, Chiara. The PhD is a title, it is not who you are. Again, who are you?” Now, I’m paralyzed, I’m not giggling anymore, that’s a hard question. I am totally lost and have no clue on how to answer. I have no clue of who I am.

The MBA gave me the beautiful chance to rediscover my worth, the non-work related worth. The objective of this self-reflection is to work with dedication and passion without losing yourself in the process. Once you are aware of your strengths and especially your weaknesses, you are able to build a strategy for yourself (not without any difficulty). You will learn to celebrate not only the professional achievements you so much craved, but also those personal challenges you overcome day by day. You will learn to derive your identity to your core self, which is not work-driven. It is self-driven.

3. An MBA might not directly give you a job, but it gives you mindset

Being in an MBA enormously improved my cultural intelligence. At least in my class, we were approximately 40 people coming from 20 different countries and very diverse backgrounds. I learned that there can be so many equally valuable truths and that sometimes the easiest way to come to a solution is to just open your mind and listen to what others have to say (even though they might be on completely opposite standpoint compared to your usual way of thinking!). I was positively surprised by how this helped me over the last two years.

It also improved the conversation with myself, as well as that with others. This is extremely important for me. Through the leadership modules included in my programme, I started practicing self-reflection, the mysterious world of understanding oneself. I have never been a big fan of this type of thing, probably because I never really understood them, but I realised how much I needed it. Even if it is a painful process sometimes, the breakthroughs you reach through self-reflection are all worth it.

Final thoughts

On a conclusive note, the MBA was absolutely nothing I had imagined. It was so much more, so surprisingly more.

For all those who are thinking “my job is killing me”, you must get out of there! You don’t have to do an MBA, but get out of there. Find a place where you can first grow personally — as I did with the MBA, which happened to be that place for me. And get over yourself: the professional growth will come afterwards. You will not grow professionally if you forget about the person in the mirror; you will not be successful if you dry up your true self. I was there before, exhausted, so I did the investment in myself. And I was the richest and happiest I had ever felt in a long time.


Chiara Chianese is a Neapolitan native who strives to learn with every opportunity presented. Being hungry for knowledge, she undertook an International MBA despite having completed her PhD. She is now a startup founder of FertiLite, where her experience in the fertility area and the knowledge acquired during the MBA shaped her mission to bring mental health support into fertility care. To connect with her or for consultation, you can find her at [email protected]

Disclaimer: This article was written by a contributor. All content is written by and reflects the personal perspective of the writer. If you’d like to contribute, you can apply here

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