Last year Mercedes Robinson, a third-year student at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, set her white coat aside and picked up a briefcase in order to pursue a master of business administration (MBA) through Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business. She was the first of her classmates to take advantage of this relatively new program, developed by both schools, to give future physicians a set of skills that will allow them to navigate many challenges in health care management.

“Earning an MBA really opened up an entire new world for me,” Robinson said. “I knew I wanted to go into medical leadership and administration. I came away with more foundational business skills and a better understanding of how organizations operate.”

The combined program enabled her to earn her degree in one year, including a few courses she took the summer prior to starting the fall semester. Classes met one weekend per month and rotated meeting locations between Blacksburg, Roanoke, and Richmond. The remainder of each month was spent completing assignments and working on comprehensive group projects.

The curriculum was comprised of courses in accounting and information systems, business information technology, finance, management, and marketing, among others. An organizational development class early on in the program gave students insight into their own group behavior.

“Learning my own strengths and weaknesses allowed me to understand not only how I can function better within a group but also how I can manage a team effectively and potentially an organization down the line,” Robinson said.

Her class of approximately 20 consisted of professionals from a wide range of careers. Normally a two-year curriculum, the combined program for medical students allows them to utilize some of their medical school experience to earn credits and complete the degree in one.

“Mercedes was a very insightful student in our case discussions,” said Linda Tegarden, associate professor of management, who taught a business and corporate strategy class. “She was able to apply the theoretical frameworks to analyze a firm’s strategic situation as well as draw out implications. Her critical thinking skills were outstanding.”

Robinson said one person who had a particular influence on her decision to do the program was Cynda Johnson, founding dean of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, who has both an MD and an MBA degree.

“Seeing how successful she’s been and the career path she has taken was definitely inspiring for me,” Robinson said.”

But being a pioneer is bound to have its drawbacks.

“The most challenging part for me was being the first medical student to do it,” Robinson said.  “There was no one to give me insights about the process, especially with navigating coming back after taking a year off. It felt like a risk at the time, but absolutely one worth taking. Plus, I found that I got right back into the rhythm of medical school once I started my clinical rotations.”

A rhythm that she has learned is quite different from business school.

“Medical school is mostly self-directed study with exams at the end of a block or rotation,” she said. “In business school, the process of learning is completely different. A large portion of the work is group oriented with various assignments, case studies, and papers to write. I truly enjoyed that collaborative aspect.

Robinson called the work that was carried out in groups “enlightening.”

“We are assigned to work within the same small group for one year. We quickly trusted each other and became comfortable with delegating tasks on any given project based on each of our strengths,” she said. “Group work was where I discovered that I am someone who focuses on vision. I’m a big picture person. It was so instrumental learning about myself and what my strengths are. I really think this will serve me well—not just career wise but in general throughout life.”

Although she’s not sure what path she will pursue in medicine after graduation, Robinson says she is well equipped for the future.

“Earning my MBA was not a year that was wasted,” she said. “I really came away with gaining so many new skills, a fresh perspective, and a well-rounded experience. I hope more VTCSOM students decide to go through the program."