Liza Zaheed's 31st birthday early last month promised to be unremarkable. In fact, she was still telling people she was 30 as she packed up her desk for an office move within Shell's Malaysian headquarters in Kuala Lumpur. Then the call came to say she had won a scholarship to study for an MBA at Durham Business School, one of three scholarships offered in partnership with The Independent.
Zaheed had hit on the MBA idea quite late. Deadlines loomed late in the summer of 2007. She had not expected to get a place, let alone a full scholarship.
She planned to take a distance-learning MBA from her home in Kuala Lumpur, and continue as a technical advisor at Shell. When she read about the Independent scholarships she spent a weekend soul-searching before talking to her boss and applying for the full-time course. "Shell encourages you to build up your technical skills in line with your managerial, commercial and leadership skills, so I thought, why not?" says Zaheed on the phone from Malaysia.
Having taken an undergraduate course and a PhD in chemical engineering at Newcastle University, she was familiar with Durham and still had friends in the area. It was clearly the right location for her.
She enjoys studying and sees an MBA as a personal goal. But Zaheed was also becoming aware of the need to learn managerial skills. "In the future I'll be going for more managerial or commercial roles, so I think an MBA will be good for stocking up on the necessary skills," she says.
Having made up her mind that an MBA was the right next step for her, Zaheed had not planned how to fund the course, which costs over £20,000 full-time. She plans to return to Shell on graduation, but was reluctant to ask her employer for financial assistance for anything other than a distance-learning course.
She would have had to wait until this coming summer to apply for other scholarship opportunities, but she can now relax and plan for the move to Durham in the autumn. She says she is looking forward to catching up with her friends and getting her hands on the enviable student discounts.
Distance learning scholarship winner Ananya Mukhopadhyay, 40, joined steel manufacturer Danieli in Rome in 2006 after 14 years at Tata Steel in his native India. His previous employer funded his PhD in metallurgy at Sheffield University, and he will follow the distance learning course while he continues working in Rome as an executive manager in research and development.
With role models such as Lakshmi Mittal, the billionaire Indian steel magnate who is Britain's richest resident, it is no surprise that candidates as gifted as Mukhopadhyay are pushing for career development in this field. He was the first Tata Scholar at Sheffield, won an award for his thesis, and received a National Award from the Indian President in 2004 for his work developing new process technologies for the metals industry.
He sees much more than pound signs in his future, though. "Having worked for many years in the steel industry I developed a broader outlook about the industry sector in which it belongs – metals, mining and manufacturing," he explains. "I'd like to work on the bigger issues associated with the sector for sustainable development.
"That requires a multidimensional approach that needs social, political, economical and, above all, a sound business knowledge to tackle the issues."
He is aware that he is coming to the course later in his career than some, but intends to move into management consulting for the metals and mining sector upon completion.
Joanne Moore, 30, who has won the Executive scholarship, will study two days a week (including two two-day visits to Durham per month) for her MBA while fitting in her job as a manager for the National Probation Service in Teesside into four days. She has barely been out of education since beginning her first undergraduate degree in modern languages at Durham in 1995. Moore has always combined work and study, but this time she will not have to take on a second job to help fund her course.
Each of the three successful applicants had to write 300 words to convince the judges of their leadership potential. Moore imagines her determination to achieve high standards in both work and education stood out, while her public sector background was a unique selling point.
"I don't imagine there are many people my age who have an honours degree, a masters degree and a professional diploma," she says.
The next scholarship competition will be announced in The Independent in SeptemberReuse content