Friday, September 18, 2009

To MBA or not to MBA

To MBA or not to MBA?  This question has been plaguing me for quite some time now, especially since now I am 7 years out of school.  Why have I not gone back to school sooner?  Mainly due to laziness and the potential lost opportunity cost, but mostly having no motivation.

I have solicited advice from both colleagues, mentors, as well as bosses and the answers they give are all over the board.  The advice spectrum ranges from an old boss of mine who was the head of a prestigious investment bank division (who himself never went to business school) tell me I should consider going back, to another boss of mine who went to a Top Tier business school tell me that business school will be a waste of my time.

I have been told many times that individuals goes back to school to get a MBA (Masters in Business Administration) if they wish to switch careers, and if I am already in a career path I wish to stay in, the opportunity cost is too great to take that sabbatical.  In addition, because of the role I play and the position I already have, I was also told that a MBA may not be very beneficial since I already received most of it from indirect on the job learning.

In general, an MBA isn't all that bad if I want to take a break from work.  I will most likely have 2 years of "easy classes" and spend most of my time networking and taking a break from "life".  The problem with getting this graduate degree is I do know where you go get your degree matters almost as much as if you have that degree.  I don't necessarily believe this is due to the quality of education received from a Tier 1 school vs. a Tier 2, but more so the selection process itself.  In other words, for a Tier 1 graduate program such as Stanford Graduate School of Business ("GSB") or Harvard Business School ("HBS"), the tough filtering and selection process for admissions results in a class body of very highly motivated, educated, and intelligent individuals.  Based on my experience, this caliber of individuals decrease as the admission process becomes more lax in the lower ranked institutions. 

Through the process of soliciting advice, there were some commonalities in the responses that I will do my best to summarize them here:
  1. MBA does matter, sort of.  From what I gathered, many companies may use a MBA as a filter to narrow their hiring pool to only the "eligible" candidates.  Based on advice from a current boss of mine, himself a veteran of the industry but schooled in corporate law, many companies place a large emphasis on this degree as "a stamp of approval".  I have also noticed this first hand when I poked my head around at other opportunities.
  2. Studying law and other graduate degrees, although helpful, may not have the same result as business school.  This is because law school focus you on specific fields, while business school takes a more wholesome approach.  This is not to say some attorneys do not cross over completely to the business side, but it is rare.
  3. Business school is as much about learning as it is about networking.  Business school teaches you about business, and a large portion of business is knowing the right individuals.  Because of the various background of individuals who attend business school, business school is a great place for one to explore other opportunities.  Depending on the business school, classes will also invite "movers and shakers" of the industry to come speak/teach.  These are all opportunities to network.
  4. Business school is all that you need? Not really.  As I have seen with many of my colleagues in this economy, just because you go to the top business school doesn't mean there will be people bending over backwards to give you a position in their firm.  A friend of mine who went to Harvard Business School, one of the nations best business schools, is still currently unemployed and actively looking.  Why is that?  This is because companies value both relevant experience as well as that "stamp of approval".  Especially in this economy, companies want their employees to be productive from day one.
  5. Is MBA for everyone?  The further along you are in your career, the less the degree makes sense.  The assumption is the longer you have remained and excelled in your current career, the less relevant a MBA is because hiring managers will care more about your experience.  Be warned though, from my experience, this really only applies to in-house promotions and or startups.  If you wish to be hired laterally into larger corporations later on, they will probably still prefer to see that advanced degree.
  6. Do you need a MBA to be an entrepreneur?  The advice I received is no.  There are many examples of individuals who are opportunistic and hop from one startup to another.  Many of these individuals (e.g. the ex-CFO of Facebook) do not have advanced degrees.  In this situation it matters more who you know as well as what you are currently doing (current position).  There is a good article about it here.
End of the day, I feel that business school, and the MBA I receive, will be beneficial to my career.  But my main takeaway from my personal experience and the advice I have received over the years is: if you can't get into one of the best business schools, it may not be worth the lost opportunity cost to get that degree.

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