My Story: From The Military To Stanford

by Maya Itah on

Tim Hsia photo

Stanford JD/MBA ’14 Tim Hsia knows what it’s like to work in the military and in Microsoft; he just has to choose what’s next.

As a Stanford JD/MBA graduating this spring, Tim Hsia is already doing something that sounds nuts to most people: concurrently attending two of the best professional schools in the world.

But his previous career gives him some perspective. A former Army officer, Hsia served in Iraq twice—worlds apart from his wife and family. “I left the military to have more control over my work-life balance,” he says. “Sure, a JD/MBA can be difficult, but it’s a lot easier than being separated for three months to 15 months.”

Life looks very different on Stanford’s grassy campus. “I just wanted to explore what was beyond the military, and that’s why I decided to do the JD/MBA program,” Hsia explains. “I just had no idea what the civilian world was all about.”

With one foot in business and another foot in law, Hsia has been able to take on a variety of roles, from summer associate at K&L Gates to product manager intern at Microsoft. He predicts that he’ll start off by using his MBA more than his JD. In the short run, I want to do something in business,” he says. “That’s to pay off the loans. That’s to take care of the financial security of my family.” Still, he knows he’ll eventually go back to his roots—which is where the JD will come in. “I’ve continuously kept one foot in the public sector,” Hsia says. Realizing that he was “pretty good at applying to schools, he helped start Service to School, a nonprofit that assists veterans with the admissions process.

Either way, Hsia’s aspirations have a theme, one that isn’t surprising given his military background: getting stuff done. “I want to be on the execution side, which means delivering a product,” he says.

Though being a student isn’t necessarily the most hands-on thing in the world, Hsia feels at home in the JD/MBA program. “How I see it is—sure, I’m incurring more fees and I’m not advancing my professional career, but I’m being exposed to different internships and trying out different jobs,” he says. “I feel a lot more confident about what I’m getting myself into.”

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I’m committed to public service because my family owes a lot to this country. My parents are immigrants; my grandfather was in the Chinese Nationalist Army, so my parents fled China. Plus, I’m a huge military history buff. Growing up and reading about MacArthur, Patton, and Eisenhower made me want to pursue a military career.

I enrolled in West Point as a military history major when I was 17. Aside from getting married to my wife, it’s the best decision I ever made. After graduating, I spent six years—ages 21 to 27—in the U.S. Army as an infantry officer. Factoring college in, I was basically in the military for a decade. It took me a while to not have a military mindset. That means not having to call people sir, or ma’am, or professor, and just understanding what the business world is all about.

I actually didn’t want to go back to school. My thoughts were like, “Oh, you know, I don’t need an extra degree.” But the more I went out and tried to find jobs, the more I realized that coming straight from the military, people were not interested in hiring me. I checked out different military-affiliated career conferences, but a lot of the opportunities had to do with security or contracting. I didn’t find them too exciting.

Eventually, I applied to law school because of the public service element. The way I saw it, the JD is the main degree for people who want to work in government. I applied to 10 law schools across the top 24 and wound up gaining admission to Stanford.

Once I got in, I visited the campus, and in one of the classes, I met a JD/MBA guy. He told me that he was able to work at a lot of different places and develop a specialty in one area that had to do with both law and business; he found it to be tremendously valuable. The person to his left was like, “Oh, yeah, I wish I had done it too.” That really got me interested. I studied for the GMAT and applied during my first month in school.

For me, the JD/MBA has been all about closing doors—slash careers—that wouldn’t be a great fit for me. For veterans, an MBA program can be too short. It’s just two years. A lot of people come to school, zero in on internships within three months, and then just follow a path. Even in the three-year JD/MBA program, I feel that a lot of people have to make decisions really quickly. And don’t get me wrong, I think for the vast majority of students, it works out very well. But I needed the four years to explore.

I’ve pretty much ruled out consulting. It’s great, but I want to be more on the execution side. In a low-level sense, being a product manager who interfaces with all the different parts of the business would be really interesting to me.

Ideally, I’d have a career in both tech and media—the sweet spot of the Venn diagram that connects the two. But I’d be happy working in both industries. Tech is all the rage, especially in Silicon Valley, right? But I’m also very, very interested in media. I’ve blogged for The New York Times, and I just think the ability to impact, change, influence, and educate people is really powerful.

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