Tuesday, October 4, 2011

10,000 Hours

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, makes the case for a person needing to spend 10,000 hours to become expert at the highest level in his or her field. He presents evidence related to athletics, music performance, and professional expertise (e.g., programming a computer), among other fields. (He emphasizes other significant factors that contribute to success, but I’m just focusing on the hours spent working on one’s expertise here.)

This raised the question in my mind of how the 10,000 hours compares to a college education.

Our undergraduate degrees are based on 120 credit hours of course work. A three hour class typically has about 45 hours of “contact time,” that is, the amount of time the student sits in class excluding examinations.

One hundred twenty hours of course work translates to 40 courses (40 courses X 3 credit hours = 120 credit hours for the degree). Realistically, though, only 20 of those courses will be business courses. The other 20 are courses to satisfy general education, humanities, liberal studies, science, and so forth requirements. So, to focus on the hours contributing to business expertise, we have

20 courses X 45 contact hours per course = 900 hours.

Educators like to assume that students spend at least as much time preparing for class as they spend in it, so we might optimistically double our estimate to 1800 hours. (Notably, a lot of class time is not necessarily “active learning,” so perhaps our estimate should be labeled very optimistic.)

Thus, the undergraduate business education results in 18% of the needed experience to achieve expertise at the highest level.

What happens if we add an MBA?

An MBA adds 12 to 20 more courses, depending on the program. At best, we can double our estimate again to get to a grand total of 3600 hours.

This may explain why internships and work experience are such a benefit for business students. Without these, a student has put in only a little more than one-third of the time needed to achieve true expertise in a business field.

Interestingly, if we add a Ph.D. we can get to the magic 10,000 hour number relatively easily. A Ph.D. program is typically like a full-time job for at least 4 years.

40 hours per week X 50 weeks per year X 4 years = 8000 hours. This amount added to the undergraduate and MBA experience easily exceeds 10,000 – and a strong Ph.D. student is truly an expert in his/her dissertation topic area.

In summary, it seems we should encourage our undergraduates to take internships, our MBA students to have work experience, and our doctoral students to approach their work as a full time job. Their prospects will be better – and our programs will benefit from the reputation of our graduates.