Military and older student attending the UC Berkeley Haas Full-time MBA program. Let’s hear his story.
Our guest today, David Middleton, graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering from the US Coast Guard Academy in 2003, when many of his classmates were in middle school. He served in different capacities in the Coast Guard, most recently as Operations Officer and Chief Pilot, responsible for over 100 aviation personnel and the management of 6 helicopters protecting 585 miles of coastline.
And he’s a FT student at Haas about to begin the second year of his MBA program. David, welcome to Admission Straight Talk!
Can you give us some background? How did you come to join the Coast Guard? [1:35]
I grew up in San Diego. I used to tell people I didn’t want to leave San Diego, and I didn’t want to join the military.
During a weeklong orientation at the Coast Guard Academy, I realized what a great opportunity it was. Leaving San Diego for CT was a big change… But I decided if I could pursue aviation I would do that.
When I learned how small the Coast Guard is and what their mission is, I was really excited.
What motivated you to get an MBA? [3:30]
It was pretty work-driven. I’ve been an operator for a long time. I’ve been flying helicopters, and I’d been on a ship as an engineer for a while.
I don’t know if most folks really understand the military – I describe it as an up-or-out system. You’re really looking to the next rank to take on greater responsibilities.
I saw education as the way to be promotable. And looking beyond the Coast Guard, I saw the MBA as preparation for whenever I did transition out.
You’ve been a helicopter pilot and chief pilot – so you’ve already done a lot in a managerial role, correct? [4:35]
Yes. In LA I did public affairs. When I was stationed in Alaska, I did a lot of aviation safety, which was good. And when I found myself in San Francisco, I was the instructor pilot – I took on a lot of leadership when my boss (the chief pilot) left unexpectedly.
What did you find most difficult about the b-school application process? [5:50]
Because I was in the job I was in at the time – everything. For context, I was on the last year of my assignment. I put in for a program that the Coast Guard has to send you to grad school. I felt rushed because I didn’t get my approval until October – too late for Round 1 deadlines.
When you interviewed, what was the most memorable or difficult question you were asked? [7:35]
A memorable question was “Have you ever had to make a difficult decision?”
Because of my work experience, it was a good question for me. I could tell a story about a rescue I’d done. In my job you’re making life and death decisions.
You’re at Haas now. What are the best aspects of the program for you? [9:45]
What stood out to me when I was applying – and now I’m living it – is the culture and diversity. People read about it, but it’s palpable.
The culture aspect – people are nice. I was used to a tightknit culture in the military and I wasn’t sure if I’d find that, but I really have.
What could be improved? [11:05]
The thing that stands out: it was challenging space-wise to do group projects. I’m excited to start class this week because the new building is opening.
You mentioned the tight-knit collaborative culture in both the Coast Guard and Haas. What are some differences? [12:00]
For me, it’s the first time being a civilian again. Even though I’m still active duty, I’m not in uniform. In the Coast Guard it’s very structured – you refer to people by rank. At Haas, it’s more independent.
You’re older than the average Haas MBA student. Was it hard to be a student again? [13:00]
The average age is about 28, and I came in at 35. It was a little challenging to be a student. I’d initially thought that since I did well in undergrad I would be able to handle it.
I was commuting in because my wife works a couple of hours away – and I found I got behind pretty quickly. The material was tough and the pace was fast.
Was there anything else that surprised you about Haas? [14:35]
I always knew I’d be surrounded by great folks. But people are really unassuming, even people who’ve started their own companies or graduated at the top of their class from Ivy League schools. I’m more and more impressed.
Has the program changed your approach to leadership? [15:40]
The leadership component is a constant work in motion. In the military, you get a lot of leadership and responsibility right away. Now with the academic angle I find myself reflecting on those experiences.
In my Leading People class, we were talking about performance evaluations. In my last role, I did a lot of them, and I thought back about how I’d done them.
What are your plans for after graduation? [18:00]
When I applied to school it was a sponsored program through the Coast Guard – so I’ll return to the Coast Guard. At some point I’ll probably transition into a civilian role.
What will you miss about Haas? [19:30]
The people – but I hope I’ll continue to build on those friendships.
I’ll also miss being a student and having the time to dig into books and articles.
Do you have any tips for MBA applicants, especially those coming from the military? [20:20]
I probably should have started a year out.
If you reach out to the veterans club or active duty club at the program, they’re very helpful.
Have you experienced any special challenges coming from the military? [21:25]
The first thing is just being a student again.
From the military side, being a civilian is different: in the military, the chain of command is so structured.
What’s your favorite class? [22:40]
I enjoyed my core classes. And I really enjoyed my real estate elective. We worked on a great project locally where we designed affordable housing for teachers. It was a really fun problem solving project. I enjoyed the design thinking aspect of it – where you don’t know the answer.
Any favorite professors? [29:42]
I really liked my accounting professor and my real estate professor.
I’ve been blown away by their background and knowledge – and their willingness to meet with you.
• David Middleton on LinkedIn
• UC Berkeley Haas MBA Essay Tips & Deadlines
• Up Close and Personal with Berkeley Haas at the 2017 AIGAC Conference
• A Veteran’s Transition to Tuck, an interview
• Leadership in Admissions, a free guide
• Exploring the Haas MBA: An Interview with Peter Johnson
• Haas, McCombs, and Case Interviews
• An NYU Stern Grad and Strat Consultant Helping Vets Get Into School
• Breaking Some HBS Stereotypes: An Interview with Ben Faw