Earlier this year, Forbes, one of the most respected sources of finance and business related news online, published a list of ten reasons you don’t need an MBA. It was one of many similarly themed articles that have been making the rounds online in recent years, and it definitely makes some good points. The article argues that the MBA has been devalued, that it doesn’t guarantee a higher salary, that it costs a great deal of time and money, and that it isn’t as necessary as some believe to forming a strong professional network. As someone with experience in this area, I have something to say that might surprise you given the title of this piece: I don’t disagree with any of these points!
At least not insofar as they can be true. There’s no denying that pursuit of an MBA demands a lot of time and tuition money, and some of the statistics Forbes cited are impossible to argue with. Strong return on investment isn’t guaranteed, and even favorable return-on-investment (ROI) is skewed heavily toward a handful of schools at the top of the business program rankings. It’s true, and I get it, it can make the whole idea of business school seem like something it would be best not to bother with.
But there’s another point in the article that, I believe, actually makes my point. This is that “an MBA may not be relevant to the job you truly want.” This is something that should stand out to anyone with entrepreneurial interests, because it implies, correctly, that business school provides a broad, general education and doesn’t necessarily funnel you into the office of your choice. It’s understandable that many students want graduate school to set them up for very specific careers. But why in the world a more comprehensive learning experience could be considered to be a bad thing is beyond me! To explain what I mean by this a little bit more effectively, I’ll take you through my own experiences with graduate-level education a little bit.
I know it sounds like a cliché, but looking back I feel like I started to benefit from the MBA process the very day I started applying, not just when classes finally started. That’s because framing a graduate school application is very difficult work. You need to make a strong personal case for yourself, articulating your goals and accomplishments without coming across as arrogant or unwilling to learn. I learned fairly early on that there were actually instructional courses and coaching programs to help with this effort, and I found such a coach who focused largely on a single, simple problem: writing about yourself can be hard! Compiling recommendations and academic performance records is no problem if you’re organized, but I, at least, was struggling with the essay portion of MBA applications. Working with an instructor, I found that not only did my essays improve, I also gained a better understanding of what exactly I wanted out of the process. Applying to graduate school is a very introspective process in some ways, and it helped me to really think about what I was doing it for, beyond some vague idea of career advancement.
Once in school, I discovered something that a lot of people learn as undergraduates: I was learning more and being more inspired by the overall atmosphere around me than by any specific instructor or course curriculum. But that’s not at all to say the classes weren’t valuable. I learned most of what I know about marketing, profit analytics, and, most importantly, entrepreneurial pitching and investment strategy in business school classrooms. But it was the conversations with like-minded students, opportunities to meet alumni, and the general feeling that if I wasn’t pursuing my career interests I was wasting my time that really stood out. I spoke regularly to people who wanted to enter into major financial institutions, and I knew a guy who had outlined a start-up that would make small household items (coasters and decorations and stuff like that) out of material from discarded furniture. There’s value in mixing yourself up with that kind of range of people.
I suppose my own circumstances were unique. I went into the MBA knowing that I wanted to be an entrepreneur, rather than aiming at a specific industry or workplace. I wanted to gather the tools one needs to start a successful business, and while I firmly believe that trial and error are necessary parts of the process, I held the suddenly old-fashioned belief that school might be the best thing for it. In that regard, even with entrepreneurial pursuits in mind, I wasn’t disappointed. As was stated in one article examining the impact of a Harvard MBA on students, the MBA is the most versatile degree out there and that, ultimately, is why it still holds value.
The point I’m making, really, is that the ROI discussion is running rampant and obscuring the true benefits of an MBA, even for a self-starter or entrepreneur. I believe I would have become an entrepreneur with or without business school, one way or another, and I know that most young people with similar interests feel the same way. But I also believe that the MBA helped me on my way, from helping me to shape my own goals to providing me with the perspective and expertise I needed to succeed, or at least not be a total disaster!
In the end, it’s each individual’s decision. Don’t let me push you into going for it. But don’t let a dry statistical analysis of ROI trends push you away from it either.