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Phoenix Forward

How to take what you’re learning in class to work and make it pay

Use what you're learning in class on the job

“In my years as a corporate manager, I saw many employees getting degrees on the company dime through tuition reimbursement,” says Elaine Earle, a retired telecommunications executive and an instructor in the University of Phoenix MBA program. But she didn’t see those employees applying that education to their current jobs.

“It’s crucial to take what you’re learning in the classroom into the workplace,” Earle says. Here, her tips on how to share your new knowledge with finesse:

Watch your tone.

It’s critical for employees to be mindful about how they present their suggestions. “It is important not to come across as a know-it-all or make others feel inferior or less smart,” she cautions. 

“Focus should be on improving the workplace, not showing off what you’ve learned,” says Earle, who uses herself as an example. “Every single day, I went into work looking for ways to make things better. I used this approach when I was getting my MBA and wanted to share something I’d learned in class about ergonomics,” an emerging idea at the time.

Use your knowledge to make positive change.

While pursuing her MBA, Earle worked as a manager in a customer service call center for Pacific Bell (now AT&T), where she saw a growing number of employees wearing wrist braces from the effects of carpal tunnel syndrome. She took her observations to her supervisor, along with data she’d gathered for an MBA term paper on the potential business costs of carpal tunnel syndrome.

It's crucial to take what you're learning in the classroom into the workplace.

“I approached it as a potential business problem that needed solving,” Earle says. “That’s what got my supervisor’s attention.” As a direct result of Earle’s initiative, her workplace became the first Pacific Bell call center to implement ergonomic workspaces for its employees, a policy that eventually went companywide.

Earle’s success story illustrates how a savvy working student can effect significant change in the workplace with the right approach. “Always focus on problem-solving, not bragging about what you’re learning in school,” she advises. “That’s a turnoff. The key is finding ways to connect the dots between classroom theory and real-world problems.”

Know to whom to pitch.

Another factor to consider is how and where to present your ideas. “Always take any new ideas to your direct supervisor,” Earle cautions. “Don’t go over your boss’s head; that’s insulting.” She recommends that employees gain support for suggestions among their peers, then ask whether their supervisor wants to move those suggestions up the chain of command.

It’s also important to understand the company’s organizational culture when approaching your boss with new ideas. “Make sure your team or company is receptive to change before offering suggestions,” she advises.

Earle believes that working students who can bridge the gap between the classroom and the workplace effectively will advance quickly. “The person who succeeds in the workplace is the one who makes improvements,” she says. “That is what will propel you through any organization.”