A case for the MBA

I’ve got a bone to pick with the business world. You may or may not know this, but I am part of an oft-slandered group. We’re not protected under labor laws. We’ve never held a rally to demand fair and equal treatment. And, lately, we are talked about like second class citizens because of the lifestyle we choose to live.

I am a graduate student pursuing a Masters of Business Administration degree, and I’m damn proud of it.

I’m not alone. Over 250,000 students were enrolled in an MBA program in 2008. Although this past year saw dwindling application numbers, MBA programs, from what I can tell, are not going anywhere. Try telling that to the mass of business bloggers who have fledged an all out war against the MBA.

In March 2011, entrepreneur and business writer John Warillow published a post on BNET.com outlining the reasons MBA degrees are a detriment to the entrepreneurial mind. It would be enough to discourage pursuing an MBA, but more recently he published an article for a Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail, titled “Looking for Entrepreneurs? Screen out MBAs.” Yikes, John Warillow. The following quote from The Globe and Mail sums up his opinion of the MBA succinctly:

To me, an MBA is a sign of a candidate who worries too much about what other people think. An MBA is the educational equivalent of wearing cufflinks – something you show people so they take you seriously.

There has been no end to the business writers who have come forward to stand against the MBA: Penelope Trunk, Matthew Stewart, Josh Kaufman, Geoffrey James …the list goes on and on. I’ve read the analysis of the ROI, commentary about outdated curricula focused on analyzing case studies and professors out of touch with the reality of the business world. I hear you, bloggers, and I appreciate your concern, but with all due respect please, back off!

I wasn’t crazy when I started SUNY Albany’s evening MBA program. I was in no way forced, coerced or mislead. Being part of a sales organization where the majority of the leadership did not have an advanced degree, I was not trying to impress anybody. Instead, I made a decision based on an assessment of my current skill-set, desired exposure and my ability to leverage the MBA curriculum to foster ongoing growth. By no means did I have a running start into the business world. With an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and 2 years following an unfruitful path in academia, I felt as though launching my career would be a slow, dragging process.

There is one sentiment at the core of arguments against getting an MBA: if you are motivated and play your cards right, you do not need to go to school for business. And I do not disagree. For some, entrepreneurship and business acumen are as natural as breathing, but those lucky people are in the minority. For the rest of us, we need to motivate ourselves in some way. And as behavioral economist Dan Ariely argues in his post, The Upside of Useless Stuff, striving for “useless” things can drive our productivity.

I’m not going to waste time picking apart every argument against the MBA. I know John Warillow and his cohorts would like it much more if you spent your tuition on their books instead. Can’t blame them for wanting a piece of the pie, and by all means I urge you to supplement your education with their work. Instead, I’d like to talk to two groups – perspective MBA students and employers – who are in danger of missing out on a great opportunity.

Why pursue an MBA?

I hate to admit it, but most of the value I’ve received from education has been from extracurricular activities. In high school, I participated in Habitat for Humanity and was president of the National Honors Society, which taught me the importance of community involvement and fostered leadership skills I use to this day. In college, I worked for the student calling program (leading to my first job out of college in fund-raising), studied abroad and competed in women’s sumo wrestling (which lead to my second job) and learned the ins and outs of social media by messing around on the internet (which lead to my current job). Nowhere along the line did studying Anthropology directly influence my career.

Yet all of those opportunities presented themselves because of the abundant networking opportunities, resources and knowledge available to me through school. In your MBA program, you will be surrounded by people with diverse backgrounds, viewpoints and goals. There may be the 45-year-old sales manager, or the eager entrepreneurial whiz kid. Sure, the material you’ll cover will be interesting, but the most valuable part of the experience is the exposure to a broad array of opinions. Every professor thus far has encouraged class discussions, which are always thought-provoking and have challenged me to reconsider my assumptions.

I can see Penelope Trunk readying her daggers right now. I understand that you can get this type of exposure without pursuing a degree. I’ve talked to these people. They attend every relevant networking event. They have business cards strapped to their thighs. They buy every business guide and motivational book on the market. They can pick influencers and decision-makers out of a line-up blindfolded. I admire these people, but sorry, it’s just not my style. We all have different paths. This is mine.

In all fairness, there are legitimate arguments for both sides. Here’s my perspective:

Good reasons to get an MBA Bad reasons to get an MBA
You have a very limited business background and feel you need the discipline of an academic program Your mom and dad really want you to get a Master’s degree in something
You want to expose yourself to a variety of theories and perspectives in the business world You’re unemployed and don’t have anything better to do
Your company is reimbursing your tuition costs You want to become a CEO but don’t feel like climbing the “corporate ladder”
You’re interested in a specific niche of business administration, such as IT administration or tax preparation and accounting You’ve always wanted to attend a top-tier school and think attending business school is the easy way to an Ivy League degree

Only you can decide where your reasons fall on this chart. I recommend you take sometime to check-in with yourself, build your self-awareness and outline your goals. There is no rush. To be frank, the more work experience you have under your belt, the more you’ll get out of your program.

If you’re looking to go straight into entrepreneurship, either path makes sense depending on your program. Many business schools are integrating a curriculum focused on entrepreneurial studies based on recent demand. Check your local universities to see if those programs exist, and try to meet with professors. If you find that the majority of teaching staff is steeped in academia with little to no real business experience, look elsewhere.

Why hire an MBA?

You have two resumes in front of you: one from an MBA graduate, one from someone with more work experience but no advanced degree. Who do you choose? Obviously the guy with more work experience. In all cases, you’ll want to hire the guy who can bring more industry experience to your business.

In another scenario, you have two young candidates, one who has been doing paid internships for the past two years to gain experience and make ends meet, another who has pursued their MBA full-time. Who do you choose? This is where things are not so clear. Both are hard workers in their own way (trust me, studying for the GMAT, hustling to class after work and writing papers is no walk in the park). Both may have value to bring to the table. Bring them both in for an interview. I suggest not even mentioning the advanced degree during your interview with the MBA. See how and if she brings it up. Does she wear it like a badge of honor, or talk about the knowledge and skills she’s obtained? It’s up to the candidate to shine for themselves. I absolutely do not recommend hiring someone based on MBA alone. It comes down to the skills you need for your business and the person-organization fit.

I’d break out the good and bad reasons to hire an MBA, but quite frankly it wouldn’t be fair to speak for every candidate. Are there students who go just to get a degree and don’t get anything from their program? Sure. But those are the people who wouldn’t have tried hard at anything. If I were in the market for a job (which I’m not), this is why I’d recommend you hire me:

  • I am a hard worker. Successfully balancing out work, home and school is challenging but rewarding. I truly feel as though I can manage problems that come my way and quickly learn how to solve them.
  • Everything I learn, I learn with the intention of applying it to my company.
  • I don’t participate in class discussions to flaunt how much I know. I want to challenge my own assumptions and learn new things from different perspectives.
  • I do not think linearly. This is one of the biggest misconceptions about MBAs. Instead, I can look at an organization from a birds-eye-view and in the context of a global economy. I do not expect that there is a process or procedure for everything. I think outside the box.
  • I have the expected business skills: constructing balance sheets, calculating financial indicators, times series forecasting, advanced excel, interviewing and hiring, presentation skills, marketing and management and leadership. Some of these skills are automated or outsourced, but if necessary, I can get the job done in a pinch.

The decision to get or hire an MBA comes down to personal choice. Everyone has their own reasons for pursuing the degree. Rather than listening to business bloggers who may have personal biases, try talking to a candidate. We won’t bite, but we may bore you with business theory. Approach at your own risk.

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2 Responses to A case for the MBA

  1. Harrison Greene says:

    When an MBA can represent More Business Acumen it will truly have credence based on the results that people who have an MBA are better than those who do not. I doubt that will happen because my experience is that most people who obtain a degree (BA, MS, MBA) do not continue to learn and soon forget all that they have learned. The problem is not with the MBA program, it lies with the inherent tendency for people to think their learning is over once they obtain a degree. It is not.

    I always ask job candidates to tell me what they have learned in their educational experience and very few can respond positively without giving me some nonsensical response like it “broadened my mind”, or “it taught me how to think”. There is no course that I know of called Thinking 101 in college or one called Broaden You Mind 101. Most of what is taught in irrelevant to achievement and most of what is taught is irrelevant to success.

    So, MBA or not, I want to know what people have learned and how they think.

    • Danika says:

      I agree with you, Harrison. There is no value in holding a degree if you haven’t retained anything from the program or if you think you have learned it all. That being said, I think critical thinking is something that can be honed in those with the propensity, and not everyone is on the same path to developing that skill.

      The assumption behind your argument is that every candidate learns the same way and can articulate how they have learned. Sure, maybe I do not consciously think I learned anything from my Art 101 class that I use in my day-to-day life, but how can I really know that? How do I know that my ability to evaluate website design is not, in part, due to the understanding of spatial relationships that I learned in Art? I don’t. I don’t have every shred of knowledge I’ve obtained indexed by source. My skills and knowledge are an amalgamation of experiences and data gathered from a variety of sources.

      Again, I find it hard to speak for every person in every situation. I think asking job candidates about what they’ve learned in their educational experience is somewhat irrelevant if you’re simply searching for the right skills for the job. Do you really care how someone obtained the skills you need for your business?

      And, for the record, I’ve immediately started using functions I learned about in my Advanced Excel class, and I only started this week. If you ask me in 5 years how I learned those functions, I probably won’t be able to tell you. The point is that I’ll know how to use them.

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