Thursday, September 17, 2009

The MBA/EMBA dilemma

In early Fall 2008, at the age of 31 and a little more than two years after I’d finished my engineering master’s degree, I finally decided to pursue an MBA. Now I had to decide on a program, and the first part of that question was the MBA versus EMBA dilemma.

The MBA/EMBA dilemma is a unique problem for applicants in their late-twenties and early-thirties, for whom both options are viable. Like many people in this situation, on paper I was probably a better fit for an EMBA program, and this route also seemed much less risky. Furthermore, the EMBA route was likely to be less expensive in terms of lost salary and missed work experience, and I thought I might benefit more from interacting with older, more experienced classmates than I would from younger MBA students.

My other big concern about quitting my job for an MBA was that I might be throwing away a decade of industry-specific experience and connections for an uncertain prospect.

Two years earlier, one of my friends from grad school was in a similar situation, but was apparently far less conflicted by the decision than I was. After finishing his Master’s degree, he quit his job to attend Darden full-time. He was 28 when he started business school, so age was less of a question in his case than in mine, but I was still skeptical about his decision to go to business school full-time. Why not go to the Darden EMBA program? His boss was offering to pay a significant part of the bill and to put him on an accelerated career track – how could you turn that down? He explained that he wanted a break from the work world and to be back on a university campus full-time – which sounded to me like a rationale for a long vacation, not business school.

But now that I was thinking seriously about business school, I was leaning in the same direction my friend had. Despite the apparent irrationality or risk of walking away from a promising career at the company I had started off at, after ten years I was becoming antsy to see what else was out there.

In narrow terms it was clear that an EMBA was the less expensive of the two options, but the real question to me was what the long-term benefits of either option would be. If I wasn’t sold on the idea of advancing the career ladder at my current company, and this was the promise of an EMBA, then I would be throwing away my time and money on a degree that provided something for me I didn’t want. Similarly, if I really wanted to advance the career ladder, did I really even need an EMBA to make that happen?

For these reasons my enthusiasm for an EMBA began to dwindle.

As the clock ticked into late September, I met with a friend and former colleague in Boulder who had left the company three years earlier with two other engineers to start a technical consulting firm. They had then used the profits to bootstrap an educational website for children that would later become very successful. His story was inspirational, and I realized that if I didn’t at least try my hand at being an entrepreneur, I would regret it later on in life. Like many entrepreneurs, my friend and his partners had been successful without an MBA – but they were fortunate enough to have started off with a team of close-knit partners and a simple business model. I felt that an MBA would improve my odds for success as an entrepreneur, while widening my range of options.

But more importantly (and less defensibly), I wasn’t sure I could ever quit my job without committing myself to something with a definitive start date. I know this sounds a little ridiculous, but in a way I felt trapped by the fact I had a good job and a good boss. There were always a hundred reasons why now wasn’t the right time to leave my job that would conspire against my long-term goals.

After mulling it over, I realized that I was looking for a disruptive change… and that meant going for a full-time MBA.


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