Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Why I Decided to go to Business School, Part 1: A Skeptic's Perspective

Before I go into how I got into business school, I'm going to dedicate the first few posts on this blog to why I thought going to business school would be a good idea.

My thinking on this subject has evolved a lot since I first decided to apply to business school. It has been an exploratory process, complicated by the fact that some of my reasons didn't seem legit at first, so I focused on the reasons that I thought would be easier to explain.

I've gone through phases of thinking seriously about business school ever since finishing my undergraduate degree, but throughout my twenties I was never able to overcome my skepticism over its value.

Obviously I ended up changing my mind, but anyone considering business school ought to start by thinking about the reasons why it might not be such a great idea. If you still decide to apply, this thought process will strengthen your application. If you change your mind, you can thank me for saving you $100K (I think a 10% honorarium would be appropriate).

Here are my general criticisms of business school:

  1. A business degree doesn't necessarily qualify you for anything in particular.
  2. Most of the skills that are taught in business school can be obtained through other avenues. Hard skills like decision analysis, accounting and finance can be obtained through non-degree coursework, while soft skills of management and negotiation can be obtained through work/life experience.
  3. It's possible that many of the skills a person needs to succeed in business can't be taught in school. Therefore, the business school curriculum may be largely irrelevant.
  4. With one or two notable exceptions, most of the people I know who have gone to business school ended up pretty much where they left off, only now they had marketing titles.
  5. As an engineer at a high-tech company, I am concerned about the transition away from hands-on technical work. As one of my colleagues put it, "Your brain is going to turn to mush."

Unlike law or medicine, for example, there are many paths to interesting careers in business that don’t necessarily require an MBA. For example, it seems clear that getting an MBA is not a prerequisite to becoming a successful entrepreneur. Anyone thinking of getting an MBA ought to check out this posting on Both Sides of the Table.

On the other hand, many engineers wider interests struggle against the momentum of their technical track, and need a way to establish their business credibility. One tried-and-true path for engineers in this situation is project management. (Having held a project management position for the past two years, I highly recommend it to anyone with a technical background who is looking to branch out.) Another path is to pursue an MBA, and plenty of engineers have gone on to do interesting things after taking it. Here are two examples.


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