Graduate Programs

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Robert Burack

Embarking on the journey of graduate school can be a daunting yet rewarding endeavor. In the podcast episode “Victors in Grad School,” Robert Burack, co-founder of Brocade Studio, shares insights from his experience transitioning from undergraduate to graduate education, offering valuable tips and reflections for success in the world of higher education.

The Non-Linear Path of Graduate Education:

Burack’s journey serves as a poignant example of how the path to graduate education isn’t always linear. Contrary to the traditional belief that one’s undergraduate major must dictate the future degree, Burack demonstrates that the diverse landscape of graduate programs allows individuals to explore multidisciplinary paths. His background in political science led him to master’s degrees in public management and strategic design, showcasing the flexibility and adaptability inherent in modern graduate education.

Imposter Syndrome and the Decision to Pursue Graduate Education:

Burack’s decision to pursue graduate education was influenced by imposter syndrome and the desire for additional credentials to boost confidence in his consulting engagements. This reflects the common sentiment among prospective graduate students who seek validation and expertise to further their careers. His experience serves as a reminder that the pursuit of advanced education should be driven by personal and professional growth rather than conforming to traditional timelines or expectations.

Discipline and Relationship Building in Graduate School:

Burack emphasizes the significance of discipline in managing time effectively during his graduate programs. This shift from the abundance of time in undergraduate studies to a more structured and disciplined approach mirrors the realities many students face in the transition to graduate education. Additionally, he underscores the importance of intentional relationship building, highlighting the value of connections within the academic community that extend beyond the classroom.

Transferable Skills and Soft Skill Development:

Reflecting on his graduate education, Burack underscores the development of transferable skills such as deep listening, writing, and relationship building. These skills have proven instrumental in his consulting work, emphasizing the practical relevance of graduate education. This insight serves as a reminder that graduate education goes beyond academic knowledge, fostering the development of essential soft skills that are indispensable in professional endeavors.

Tips for Prospective Graduate Students:

Burack’s advice for prospective graduate students revolves around cultivating opportunities outside the classroom, prioritizing reflection and introspection, and embracing the mindset of lifelong learning. His emphasis on leveraging the resources and mentorship available during graduate education aligns with the personalized and holistic approach necessary for a successful graduate journey.

Robert Burack’s journey through graduate school provides invaluable insights for individuals navigating the complex landscape of higher education. His experiences underscore the adaptability, transferable skills, and personal growth that come with pursuing diverse paths in graduate education. As aspiring and current graduate students embark on their own journeys, Burack’s reflections serve as a guide, inspiring a holistic approach to success that transcends traditional academic boundaries.


Dr. Christopher Lewis [00:00:01]:
Welcome to the victors in grad school, where we have conversations with students, alumni, and experts about what it takes to find success in graduate school.

Dr. Christopher Lewis [00:00:11]:
Welcome back to Victors in Grad School. I’m your host, Doctor. Christopher Lewis, Director of Graduate Programs at the University of Michigan, Flint. Really excited to have you back again this week. Love being able to talk to you every week because I know that the journey that you’re on is different than the journey that the person beside you is on. But it is a journey and you are either looking at grad school, considering grad school, you might be in grad school, or you might be looking at that light at the end of the tunnel and saying, I’m almost done. And that’s okay too. But every person is going on some journey.

Dr. Christopher Lewis [00:00:45]:
And as you go through that journey, there are things that you can do to be able to find success in that journey that you’re on. And that’s what this show is all about. Every week, I love being able to give you hints, tips, resources, things that you can do to be able to learn, to grow and to take as a part of your toolbox. As you go through that graduate school journey for yourself, No matter where you go, you have to find those, those resources and tips, those things that you can do to be able to be successful. And it does take some different tools from the tools that you had in undergrad to be able to do that. And that’s why every week I bring you different guests, different people that have gone before you that are, that have gone to graduate school, gone through graduate school, have learned things along the way and are wanting to give back. They’re wanting to share those things with you. And today we’ve got another great guest with us today.

Dr. Christopher Lewis [00:01:38]:
Robert Barak is with us today. And Robert is the co founder of Brocade Studio out of Toronto, Ontario. And we’ll be talking about the journey that he’s been on over the years to go through from his undergraduate to graduate school and beyond. So I’m really excited to have him here today. Robert, thanks so much for joining us today.

Robert Burack [00:01:56]:
Thanks. It’s great to be with you and glad to be expanding the Flint alumni community here in Canada.

Dr. Christopher Lewis [00:02:02]:
Well, love to be able to chat with our friends right across the lake. Sure. And also our PAS alums to kind of learn a little bit from them. I know that you did do your undergraduate work at the University of Michigan Flint. And after completing that degree, you had some opportunities and decided along the way to continue your education. Now that that original understanding of going right to grad school or going to grad school after you probably learned something along the way of when you wanted to go to grad school. Talk to me about what made you finally decide that you wanted to take that next step and go to graduate school.

Robert Burack [00:02:40]:
Yeah. You’re right. I didn’t do it right away. There was a little bit of a a simmering and learning period out in the quote unquote real world. I cofounded Brocade, which is a boutique consulting firm in my late twenties, which in some way is at least a mildly ridiculous thing to do because there’s so much you don’t know and you don’t know that you don’t know when you’re in that stage of life. But one of the co founders was in a later stage of her career And overall, as a team, we were offering more skills than wisdom. So we felt fine about starting up the consultancy. So my decision to go to graduate school when I did was really driven to a large degree by a feeling I think a lot of folks have at some stage in their life and for many people in their twenties, which is some form of imposter syndrome. Right? I felt like some additional credentials would give me really the confidence to sell and lead consulting engagements. And having the credential behind me was a little bit of wind in my sails as I was talking to folks who were running organizations and doing amazing work.

Robert Burack [00:03:44]:
It’s only later that I really understood that people care a little bit less about your resume than whether you really deeply understand their problems. And certainly graduate school is a place where you get to expand your ability to think. But I didn’t want to lose momentum with the business and I really like working. So the graduate programs I chose, there were 2, 1 at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh and one at Parsons School of Design at The New School in New York were both part time programs geared towards working professionals.

Dr. Christopher Lewis [00:04:14]:
So I’m kind of interested in the decisions that you made because you got a bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan, Flint in political science, did very well there. And as you said, you went off, you founded your consultancy firm, got into work, got some experience under your belt, and then you decided to go to Carnegie Mellon to get a master of public management, an MPM degree. And then you also decided to get a master of strategic design and management from the Parsons School of Design. So talk to me about the decision making of choosing the degrees that were right for you and what made you choose those programs, but also those schools for those degrees?

Robert Burack [00:04:59]:
Yeah. I’ve listened to a few episodes of the the podcast, and then there’s some people describe a great, great thoughtfulness and in their decision making. And I’m here to represent the other side, which is sort of trying your best and make making a sort of a quick informed decision when there’s a lot of possibilities on the table. So I talked a moment ago about imposter syndrome and wanting a credential to have some wind in my sails. Carnegie Mellon was a program that was proximate to where I was geared toward working professionals. So the hours worked in terms of me continuing to consult and balance work in graduate school. And I had done a fellowship called the Coro Fellowship, which is sort of multi sector experience geared towards folks in their twenties and thirties. A number of US senators have done it and entrepreneurs.

Robert Burack [00:05:58]:
And Carnegie Mellon had a special relationship with the Corot Fellowship where they offered a pretty significant scholarship. So I would love to say I really scanned the market, looked at many schools, many programs, but that wasn’t the case. It was something that sort of ticked a couple of boxes and met my needs and allowed me to focus as much as possible on starting and growing the business, which I really wanted to to do. And our firm does a number of things. We’re kind of unique in terms of the blend of services we offer, but we have a design perspective, which in some ways means that we just make things that are not only functional and defective, but are beautiful. And in some ways, we try to bring in some ways of working and thinking from the world of design and see how they might be useful in other sectors and realms. So the work at Parsons was me trying to, again, get a bit more credentialed, develop some roots in that way of working and thinking. And it was a program I wasn’t quite sure I was going to do, and again, was really fortunate to get a pretty significant scholarship.

Robert Burack [00:07:05]:
And again, it was a program that was geared towards working professionals. And there’s also something about keeping sharp your ability to learn and the skills of constant learning that were attractive in a more sort of formal program. So I think many people do a lot of research, really scan the market. I didn’t do that. And so I’m here to say things can be okay as long as you really follow what’s interesting and compelling.

Dr. Christopher Lewis [00:07:32]:
Now, like you said, you decided to take a few years between your undergrad and your graduate work. You took some time to kind of figure things out for yourself and then made that choice to jump back in to that first master’s degree. And you found success in that. You were able to transition in and through, and you finished off that degree. So talk to me about what you had to do because going through your undergrad is different than a graduate degree, and you have to, you learn in different ways. You’re taught in different ways. So what did you have to do to set yourself up for success? And what did you have to do to maintain that success throughout your graduate school journey? And how did that differ between the 2 degrees?

Robert Burack [00:08:14]:
I had to be really disciplined about my time in both of those graduate school programs, which was different than in undergrad. You know, I had to in undergrad, I had to get papers in on time. I had to do some of the reading at least. But the way it’s structured for a lot of folks is to give you some experience of abundance of time because you want to be pouring that into your own self discovery and self development. And you a lot of folks come into a bachelor’s degree undergrad experience, not exactly knowing what degree they want. It’s a time of discovery. And so the luxury of time is really important. But in graduate school, I, at least in my particular setup, had to be really disciplined about time.

Robert Burack [00:09:03]:
And I really quickly came to understand that one of the primary ways I was going to get value from both programs was through relationships with folks in the cohort, with faculty, with other folks who were in the kind of university orbit. And so I had to be really intentional about building, seeking out those relationships, maintaining, cultivating them. And actually, it was just last week and Buenos Aires at the wedding of a friend from graduate school who runs a design studio, and we have been talking about collaborating. So one of the ways in which those relationships bear fruit, and certainly in undergrad, you’re building relationships and making friendships hopefully, but I had to approach it with a different level of intention. 1, given, again, the just constraint on time. And 2, given that I had a clearer sense of the kind of value I wanted from the the programs. And so I really sought out folks who, who kind of aligned aligned with that value and who I thought I would have something to offer them and advice.

Dr. Christopher Lewis [00:10:08]:
So talk to me a little bit about the straight and narrow path that you took to Carnegie Mellon in the sense that your bachelor’s of political science in some ways connects with public management. You can see that connection. But then in the new school, the degree is a little bit of a right turn, we’ll say. And a lot of times when people start thinking about graduate school, they think of that linear path. They think of, I’ve got a bachelor’s in business administration. I guess I need to get a MBA. And there’s that before and after. But that one of the things that your journey shows is that the path doesn’t have to be specifically linear in the sense of one degree to another, but that there may be other paths available to them.

Dr. Christopher Lewis [00:10:50]:
Can you talk to that?

Robert Burack [00:10:51]:
I know there are professions where you tend to follow a more linear path. You can. I had the great fortune of having a liberal arts degree, which ideally teaches you to think. It develops a lot of really critical soft skills that, even in more technical fields, are in great demand. Our team has been launching an analytics and data vertical, for example, and we’re really working hard to find people who have both technical expertise, but also are deep listeners and can reflect back what they’re hearing. And that is, they’re not in great abundance. So, you know, we need, in that case, folks who marry the technical and the soft skills. I picked political science in part because I was someone who had worked on campaigns.

Robert Burack [00:11:40]:
I volunteered on campaigns in high school. I cried when Al Gore lost in 2000. It was just sort of a passion and an interest for me. And I guess I came in thinking that it was very linear, that I’ll do something related to political science, and didn’t quite understand until a little bit later on in the degree and certainly after the bachelor’s that particularly in the liberal arts there, the number of doors open is quite significant. And when we hire now in our strategy and our planning team, we have folks who have all sorts of liberal arts degrees, anthropology, political science, marketing. As a recruiter, someone who does the hiring for our firm, I often don’t pay particular attention to what the bachelor degree is. It’s important for me to see that credential, but I wanna see their thinking and writing, etcetera. So, I learned that it wasn’t necessarily linear.

Robert Burack [00:12:45]:
But you’re right that the degree at Carnegie Mellon, the master’s of public management, does have a pretty direct connection to the political science degree. And, you know, I chose that because I was doing a lot of work at the time with cities and counties and municipalities. I did a stint at a think tank at Harvard that works with cities around the country, specifically thinking about how they can use data to improve public services. And you’re right that the degree at Parsons at The New School was a bit of a turn, but I thought about that degree as adding a adding a skill set in a layer that could be really widely, applied. So I don’t know. None of it feels linear to me looking back. And, again, I was just always doing the most interesting thing I could find to do or think to do, and that led always led to to more doors that were interesting to Walker.

Dr. Christopher Lewis [00:13:41]:
Now, you’ve completed these master’s degrees. You’re continuing with your work with your consultancy firm. How do you feel that your graduate degrees prepared you for the work that you do on a daily basis?

Robert Burack [00:13:54]:
A couple of connections. You know, consulting is interesting work. There’s the joke that if you’re driving somewhere and a consultant is in the passenger seat and you say, should I turn left or right? They say it depends. And I think there’s a sort of an idea that where folks would bring up more questions and answers. But a large part of the work is, at least for us, is deep listening. That was something I had the opportunity to practice and to better hone in both of those programs. And writing is really critical. That’s something across all degrees that I certainly had to practice quite a bit, a better writer because of all of those papers I had to do across all of those years of undergraduate and graduate programs.

Robert Burack [00:14:42]:
And for me, writing is thinking. It’s organizing my thoughts. It’s really critical because we listen a lot, we take in a lot of information, and a lot of our work is synthesizing and organizing and reflecting back what we’re hearing and learning as a way to give or surface new insight. So thinking, writing, really critical, and then just building and strengthening the skills of relationship building. People want to work with people that they like and often people that they know. And I get to work with all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds and got practice in building relationships with people who were both like and unlike me in all of those programs. So I think that mostly what comes up day to day is some of the softer skills that I was able to develop. I knew at the time taking a math course that I was probably not going to use most of that material.

Robert Burack [00:15:43]:
But, of course, those other skills are just visible every, single day here.

Dr. Christopher Lewis [00:15:49]:
Now as you think back to the education that you went through in both of those degrees, and you think of people that are coming up now and are thinking about going to graduate school, or maybe going through graduate school, what are some tips that you might offer those individuals that are considering graduate education that could help them find success sooner?

Robert Burack [00:16:09]:
Cultivate opportunities outside of the classroom, again, in terms of relationships and what the institution has to offer. Use the time as a period for reflection and introspection. Really make that a priority, even if you’re balancing or juggling family life and or, full time or part time work. You know, who am I? What do I want to do? What do I wanna do in this world, in this life of mine? There’s so much inertia in life, and a graduate program can be an opportunity to slow down a little bit and get that critical reflection. And learning theory reflection is actually one of the critical things to really break through the ceiling of what we can learn in other ways. So take advantage of all of those things, you know, and later in life, you might not be surrounded by people also who are actively interested in mentoring, so take advantage of that. Folks who want to invest in you, want to build relationship, want to offer advice, and try to build or reinforce the habits of learning so that you’re better positioned after the program to be a lifelong learner, somebody who can adapt and upskill. So, for example, I am trying to do that now and get into the mindset of lifelong learning, and I’m seeking out learning opportunities focused on generative AI prompt writing, which is really both in vogue right now, but it seems like it’s going to be one of a set of next generation skills.

Robert Burack [00:17:43]:
And it’s a little uncomfortable for me. I mean, learning anything new can be some degree of uncomfortable, but I’m going back to the kind of habits of curiosity and knowing that if you push through, you can really get to a place where that skill brings you a lot of joy and adds benefit to your professional life. So those are some things I would suggest.

Dr. Christopher Lewis [00:18:05]:
Well, Robert, I just wanna say thank you. Thank you for sharing all of this, sharing your journey with everyone. It’s been a great road so far. Be interested to hear how things go in the future, and I wish you all the best.

Robert Burack [00:18:16]:
Thanks. I just turned 33 the other day, and so I both feel old and recognize that I’m also very young. So there’s a lot more to go, and I’m really interested to see where it unwinds, and it will continue to not be linear at all. So thank you.

Dr. Christopher Lewis [00:18:33]:
The University of Michigan Flint has a full array of master’s and doctorate programs if you are interested in continuing your education. Whether you’re looking for in person or online learning options, the University of Michigan Flint has programs that will meet your needs. For more information on any of our graduate programs, visit umflint doteduforward/graduateprograms to find out more. Thanks again for spending time with me as you prepare to be a victor in grad school. I look forward to speaking with you again soon as we embark together on your graduate school journey. If you have any questions or want to reach out, email me at [email protected].