Jim Chidester wanted to go back to school for a master's degree, but he was waiting for an opportune moment.
"I've always held it as a personal goal of mine," he said. "The timing just happened to be right when I found the online program with A-State, so I decided to do it."
Chidester graduated with an engineering bachelor's from A-State in 1993, and when he saw his alma mater offer an online Master of Engineering Management program, he decided to enroll.
"Most people who go through engineering school or some kind of technical program don't get any business training at all," he said. "This program is kind of like an engineering degree meets an MBA."
As a senior mechanical engineer at Batson Inc. in Little Rock, Arkansas, Chidester's major responsibilities have to do with HVAC and plumbing design, and energy analysis, audits and energy studies for commercial buildings like hospitals and schools. However, he also has to wear a lot of other hats.
"It's a small company, so all of the business tasks fall to engineers who, by and large, have had little formal business training," he said. "I'm a small-percentage owner in the company as well, so to me, it was important to get this degree to help make me a little better as a business owner."
As an alumnus, Chidester was naturally drawn to A-State for grad school, but there were other benefits that sealed the deal for him.
"The flexibility of being able to do the whole thing online was a big plus and the cost was a big plus as well," he said. "Other similar online programs that I had checked into were quite a bit more expensive — some as much as five and six times more expensive."
Chidester took one course almost every term and finished the program in October 2019 — exactly two years after he started.
Tools and Techniques
Chidester found immediate practical application for a lot of the information he received throughout the course of program.
"In our final project for a class, I actually wrote an integrated marketing plan for our small engineering firm. It was everything from researching your market and finding where your advertising dollars could be spent, figuring out who your audience is and how to reach your potential customers. I did a breakdown on where our income was coming from, who was hiring us, and how to target potential new customers," he said.
It would be easy to think that someone with Chidester's engineering tenure has seen it all. But modern education brings modern solutions.
Through Project Management for Engineers and other leadership courses in the program, Chidester could expand his skill set.
"I had never used some of the project management tools that I was introduced to," he said. "The management classes in general were very helpful."
In addition, Chidester found himself better equipped to guide Batson's junior staff.
"We have a number of young engineers, and it falls to those of us who have a little more experience to help train them," he said. "I was able to apply the management techniques while mentoring newer engineers.
"I tell young engineers that we oftentimes find ourselves in management and leadership positions, and sometimes we find ourselves as business owners, as well. This program is a really good platform to marry those two disciplines together."
Working for It
With his son Kyle (21) off to college, Chidester and his daughter, Natalie (17), were able to bond over a shared devotion.
"There were times on the weekends when she would say, 'I've got to go to my room to study,' and I would respond, 'I'm going to my room to study,'" said Chidester who capped his achievement by attending the commencement ceremony in December 2019.
"My daughter and I had that connection. She came with me to graduation. If I had to guess, I think she was pretty proud of her old man."
A parent's decision to go back to school is often an inspiration for the kids to do better in their own studies. Chidester, however, credits his children with being self-driven.
"I don't know if I really helped," he said. "My kids are great students, and they're very self-motivated. Kyle's been on the dean's list every semester he's been in school, and Natalie's a straight-A student who overachieves and excels."
Chidester offers some advice for those considering graduate education.
"When you find out what it is in your chosen field that you really want to do, think about a master's degree, but don't wait too long to do it," he said. "Here I am 27 years later. That might have been a little too long to wait to go back to school. Grad school is not for everybody, but if you are considering it, you ought to at least wait a couple of years after your bachelor's to get your feet underneath you."
For those who do decide to go back to school online, Chidester says that they should expect to put in the work.
"It's not a 'write a check and get an A' kind of thing," he said. "There are sacrifices. Even if they're not horrible sacrifices, there are still sacrifices. You've got to expect to do the work. If that's something that you're okay with, absolutely give it a shot."