Monthly Archives: April 2013
There are plenty of books and websites out there that will tell you why you should get your Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree. I think there may even be a few of them that weren’t written by people recruiting for MBA programs. They bring up plenty of good points. At any rate, the 180,000 or so people per year in the US who graduate from MBA programs must agree with them. But as a current MBA student, I wish I had seen at least one list of all the reasons you might not want to go to business school.
I still think that enrolling in an MBA program was the right move for me at the time. It was a good investment, and I plan to get my money’s worth. But one thing that business school taught me is to look carefully at every major decision, considering both positive and negative factors.
This article mainly applicable to traditional, full time MBA programs. However, most of the points also apply to some extent to the other options such as part-time, on-line, and executive MBA programs.
1. You have an undergraduate business degree. The MBA is a general degree, and most programs start with extremely basic concepts. If you already have a bachelor’s in business or a related field then you will probably find that the first year of classes are complete review. The assignments will be harder but you probably won’t see any new ideas until your second year. This is terrific for people from other fields who are transitioning into management. But it’s a pretty expensive way to review material you already studied as a college sophomore. If you already have a good general background you might be better off pursuing a more specialized graduate degree that will give you advanced training in a particular field. Masters degrees in finance, accounting, project management, and other business fields are becoming quite popular. And the best news is that they often require less time and money than a traditional MBA program.
2. You already have a (good) job. A friend of mine put it best when she said “The only reason anyone would ever get an MBA degree is to get a job.” The lure of having those three letters after your name is strong. But if you already have a white-collar job with promotion prospects then you should think long and hard before quitting to go back to school. Remember, you don’t just have to pay for the MBA program, you lose the pay you would have made in the meantime, including any raises and bonuses you might have earned. After two years, the difference could easily be enough to buy a new house. Also while you are in school you will probably loose touch with your business contacts, mentors, and new developments in your industry. Is it worth it?
There are two exceptions to the above. One is if you are in middle management and you need the MBA for your next promotion. In that case, you’re probably looking at on line or executive programs anyway. The other is if you hate your current career and are looking to change disciplines. In that case and MBA program might be an effective (though expensive) way to explore other options and retrain for a different job.
3. You don’t like working in groups. Some of us are introverts. Some of us are more working alone. But in business school you don’t get a choice. Every important assignment is a group assignment. This is intentional; it mirrors the way things work in real corporations. And most MBA students learn valuable human relations skills from the experience. But an introvert is likely to feel quite drained by the interminable group meetings. Exceptional students are going to feel like they are doing more than their share of the work and mediocre students are going to feel like charity cases. The net result is an increase in stress in an already stressful situation. If you fit into one of these classifications, ask yourself if you are really ready for the challenge. You might want to look into an academic graduate program where students spend most of their time working alone.
4. Your family relationships are less than perfect. To do business school “right” is a 60-hour/week commitment—much of which occurs on nights and weekends. If you have a family you will see your fellow students more than your spouse and your professors more than your children. When you do see them you will usually be stressed out, over caffeinated, and speaking in a strange MBA language that they don’t understand. I’m not sure the proportion of marriages that fail during professional school, but the number is significant. If your marriage is in trouble starting business school, you probably aren’t going to be married by the time you get out. Even if you’re single, expect your siblings, parents, and “real world” friends to become frustrated at your unavailability. You can deal with this problem though, by making family a priority. This is the second time that my own spouse and I have been through it—first when she was in library school and now that I am in business school. We have made a point of putting aside Sunday just for each other. There is a cost though: more than one business school colleague has gotten mad at me for not answering my e-mails on Sunday, or not being willing to schedule meetings on that day. There are times I have had an exam on Monday and could really have used a few hours on Sunday to study. You will need to find your own trade off point between school and family and decide what to give up.
5. You have problems with substance abuse. It varies from school to school, but most MBA social events seem to revolve around drinking. If you are trying to be sober it can be pretty hard to achieve environmental control. Also, many professional school students get into a vicious cycle in which they nurse coffee or energy drinks all day to stay alert, then drink alcohol at night so they can calm down enough to sleep. Most students keep the problem within reasonable bounds and go on to lead healthy lives but if you have an addictive personality and/or a history of alcoholism you need to be especially careful.
6. You are coming to the MBA program to look for a spouse. This happens fairly often, and not just with women. Many of us in business school are in our mid to late twenties and are seriously thinking about settling down. At first glance it seems like a great place to find a mate: plenty of attractive, intelligent, young people with long-term prospects. It’s actually a horrible idea, though. Business students just don’t have time to date seriously. When they do, they would often rather not date classmates. After all, if things don’t go well they will still have to work in close quarters with the person for the rest of the program. If you do manage to meet the love of your life in business school you can just about be sure that as soon as you graduate both of you will get great job offers—on opposite sides of the continent. Of course one of you could always leave the world of business to be a homemaker. In that case, congratulations: you just racked up six-figure debt to accomplish a task for which a free on line dating service would have been better suited.
7. You are planning to get a PhD. This one was my own blunder. I realized that I wanted a career in academia. But I wasn’t sure in which area I wanted to do research and I was afraid that I wasn’t academically prepared for PhD work. “No problem,” I thought, “I’ll just get an MBA first and then go on for a PhD.” This was a terrible idea and I should have gone straight to the PhD. An MBA degree does not prepare you for PhD work. If anything, it keeps you from preparing because it robs you of any time you might have spent on your own research. Every professor I talk to in my school thinks it’s a great idea for me to read the literature and start publishing my own articles, but they don’t tell me when I should be able to find the time when every spare minute is filled with MBA activities. Even if I hadn’t been able to get into a PhD program right away I would have been better off taking a year or two to attend conferences, write articles, and study on my own. There is also the problem of money. The maximum amount of federal student loans you can take out is $138,500. Even if you get some fellowships, you will probably burn through more than half of this by the time you graduate from business school. Then if you go on for a PhD you will need to make the rest of it last for five more years. Basically this means that you are going to need to work the entire time you are in the PhD program just to make ends meet.
On the positive side, I am going to come out of business school with some good recommendations from faculty and an MBA thesis which might (hopefully) give me a head start on my dissertation. But if I knew what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have gone this route.
I could go on but I won’t. The point I’ve tried to make is that business school isn’t right for everyone. Don’t go just because it seems like the next step or because parents, coworkers, or recruiters tell you it’s a good idea. You should only commit to an MBA program after analyzing all benefits and costs and deciding that, at this time in your life, the benefits significantly outweigh the costs.