Seasoned Engineer Marc Clay Gets Career Boost from MEMP

October 15, 2003 | By David King

For Marc Clay, his MEM degree may have been a long time coming, but the dividends were immediate.

"My perspective is a bit different than those graduates who went straight from undergrad to the MEM program," Clay said. Having worked for Los Alamos National Laboratory for twenty years before returning to earn his Masters of Engineering Management degree from Duke, Clay took nothing he learned for granted.

"I was a person who had fought and scratched his way through undergrad while working full time at Los Alamos and also raising a large family. This made the entire Duke experience extremely rewarding for my family and me."

After having worked at Los Alamos for many years, Clay knew that to move into management he needed a graduate degree. A respected mentor at Los Alamos advised Clay to consider a master of engineering management program rather than further graduate work in nuclear engineering.

Clay indeed had never heard of such a program, but the combination of both business and engineering suited his goals. He investigated several distance-learning programs, but didn't relish the possibilities of having to "piecemeal the degree together" as a part-time student over several years. Searching the internet for more options, he turned up Duke as one of two other possible programs.

"I looked through MEM literature on-line and found that the Duke program was immediately very appealing because of three factors: its strong management element, completion in one year if I attended full-time, and the 'Duke' pedigree," Clay said.

Soon Clay encountered Duke connections wherever he turned. In talking with then MEM program director Dr. F. Hadley Cocks, Clay discovered they had a common Los Alamos connection. In addition, Clay found out that then Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, John Brown, received his PhD in physics from Duke. Clay better understood that the Duke name itself means a lot.

"The choice to me then seemed clear," he said.

His choice became even more clear after the support he received from Los Alamos, who knew Clay was management material before he came to Duke.

"Los Alamos was committing to a management career path for me and was willing to give me a one-year, paid leave of absence and pay for tuition provided I could complete all requirements within that time-frame. This was a tall order, considering I had a family and established roots in Los Alamos. However, with that strong a commitment from the Laboratory and my family, and with the Duke program and institution meeting all Laboratory requirements, my choice was clear," he said. So the entire Clay family moved across the country to North Carolina, and Clay entered Duke's MEM program in 2001.

When Clay completed the program in 2002, he found his MEM degree had immediate impact upon returning to work in Los Alamos.

"The day I returned," Clay said, "I was promoted to ‘Team Leader. I immediately began applying everything I was just taught, from financial management, to marketing, to analysis, and on and on."

Then, he was informed that he was being groomed to take over as ‘Group Leader. This promotion occurred last August (2003) and along with the promotions came a net 25% pay increase from the day he had left for North Carolina. Clay's rate of promotion is astounding, and he remains on the fast track to continue up the management ladder.

When asked to think back to his expectations of the program before he entered, he replied, "I recognized it as a good degree and wanted it to be beneficial to my career, but I did not know it would have quite so much of an immediate dividend."

Yet, talking with Clay, you get the sense that the immediate dividends were only a small reason for his great appreciation of the time he spent at Duke. Even as Clay knew he would be at Duke for only one year, he made sure he packed that year full of amazing experiences.

Clay was impressed with his professor's efforts to help in his transition getting to Duke and also immensely enjoyed what he learned in his courses. Management and Marketing were his two favorite classes.

"It was the way they were taught. The format, whether working on team projects or on your own, was so practical. What I learned expanded my ‘working knowledge of business and management. Since I was already in the work force, and since I was going to go back to Los Alamos to ‘manage and ‘market, everything I was taught was applicable," he said.

Clay also fondly remembers his fellow students he met while at Duke. Although Clay may have felt that he was able to apply what he learned and appreciate his Duke experience more fully than someone without any work experience outside college, he admitted how much he learned from the diversity of his colleagues.

"I can remember sitting around the table with a student from Hawaii, a former college baseball player, and another student from France," Clay recalled. Within such diversity, Clay found these different perspectives eye-opening for his work.

"I was honored when I had opportunity to be the team lead, and I was honored when they took the lead as well," he said. This mutual cooperation made for a dynamic learning environment.

Yet Clay's "Duke experience" stretched far beyond the classroom. As a fulltime student, Clay treated his degree as a fulltime job. That meant coming to Duke "all day every day" to study. He parked his truck and rode into campus on his bicycle, and never quite grew accustomed to the beauty of the campus.

"I took in every sight and sound." Clay remarked. "My family and I also attended Duke Chapel every Sunday we could and we had the opportunity to hear, and meet, Rev. Will Willimon. I would move to Durham/Chapel Hill just to be able to continue to attend services in the Chapel."

Clay said he would never forget the time he stood in the graduate line to see a Duke basketball game. Sitting under the basket, with his five-year-old son on his shoulders, they were just two Cameron Crazies cheering on the Blue Devils.

Although Clay may chuckle at being called a "seasoned veteran," he does offer some words of wisdom to those considering an MEM degree.

"Try to get it done in a year. That keeps what you learn fresh and then you will be ready to go into the workforce." Clay also reminds younger graduates that rarely are they placed directly in management positions.

"You still have to prove yourself. Be willing to get engineering or marketing experience," he advises.

Clay now finds himself in the position to hire new engineers and he makes no bones in saying he wants people with MEMs over MBAs.

"If you are going to manage some day, and you are choosing to manage in a science, technology, or engineering company, the MEM is for you. It combines the best of both worlds," he said.

From the business side, Clay found that he learned "the important stuff, what you actually need to know to manage. At the same time, you keep your hand in on the engineering side to maintain engineering credibility," he said.

Back at Los Alamos, Clay says he finds stuff "rubbing off" from his MEM degree onto his work all the time. People ask him what is the "Duke perspective" on a particular business issue. Clay has even found himself borrowing a few catchphrases from his old professors. Team members have incorporated "Cash is king!" and "Done!" into their own vocabularies.

Just the other day he was reminding his boss of the 3 basic C's of marketing: company, competition, and customers. No doubt Los Alamos made a good investment in Marc Clay. His charisma, enthusiasm, and skills impact those with whom he works.