Thursday, September 3, 2009

Why I Decided to go to Business School, Part 2: Why an MBA Might Make Sense

In my late twenties I earned a Master’s degree in Systems Engineering. The program I attended included some MBA-type coursework, including risk analysis and an introduction to finance and project valuation. I was looking to get some finance and business operations experience, so I applied for two internal job transfers at the tech company where I had been working since 2000. The first was a business analyst position that I felt I was well qualified for, and the second was a financial analyst position that I was also qualified for, except for my lack of an accounting background (but hey, it was a finance position – not an accounting position).

Despite my qualifications and excellent track record, I didn’t make it to the interview stage for either position. This was understandable in a way, since I hadn't previously held any business positions, but it was also frustrating and it wasn't clear how I would get the business experience I was looking for.

After this experince I started thinking more seriously about an MBA. One potential benefit of having an MBA is it signals to the world that you have some basic business qualifications, an interest in management – and maybe even talent. You may be the next Warren Buffet, but if you’ve been working as an engineer (or an accountant, or a graphic designer, or whatever) and you’ve never had an opportunity to run a business, you won't have much luck applying for positions outside of your immediate domain.

So there's one possibly good reason for applying to an MBA. Here is my list of four reasons why an MBA might make sense:
  1. You're in a technical track, want to branch out, and need the business credentials.
  2. You want to get a job where an MBA is a de-facto prerequisite - either because the career is an end in itself, or because it is a means to an end (e.g. you want to spend some time working for a management consulting firm before going on to something else).
  3. You are established in your career and have a great job; you're on a promotion path, but you think it might be time to take a step back to let some ideas percolate in an academic environment, while establishing connections with people who can help you turn one of those ideas into a business.
  4. You majored in art history as an undergraduate, and have come to find that the world doesn't need as many art historians as the American university system manages to produce. If you're in this situation, you might also want to consider pursuing a master's degree in a technical field - in addition to or instead of an MBA. (I have a good friend who studied art history as an undergrad, then went on to earn her Masters degree in Information Technology and is now a bigshot at the Department of Health and Human Services).
In my case, reasons 1, 2, and 3 all apply.

Or rather, they have all applied to varying degrees throughout the past few years. Reason 1, feeling as though I needed the business credential, was what put me on the path to an MBA in the first place. Reason 2 will look familiar to anyone who read my application essays, since was the focus of my thinking as I was actually going through the application process. I still see it as a likely avenue, although some other ideas have come into the picture since then; so now my thinking revolves around reason 3 - i.e. I think I would benefit from a break in my career to work on some other ideas and make some contacts that I wouldn't otherwise make -- all in an academic environment, which can help get the creative juices flowing.

In some ways I think the desire to take a step back and reassess my career has been a driving factor from the very beginning. It is part of what drove me to pursue my master's degree, although I ended up in a part-time master's program, so the academic environment came but not the career break. I'm not sure how this rationale would have been received by the admissions committees though. Probably would have been okay if properly explained. The risk is you'll sound like a corporate refugee who wants to re-live college rather than a professional who is serious about his or her career, but sees this as a good time to expand their options.

In my previous post I linked to a posting on Both Sides of the Table titled, "Are MBAs Necessary for Startups or VC?" Gbattle, a Wharton grad, left a comment in response to that post that bears repeating:
" MBA allows dreamers time and a high density of the other two types of people [mid-level managers and top performers who shun management] necessary for valuable feedback to develop your idea."
Rarely in life is there only one way of achieving a goal, and I think this holds for the MBA question. Why do you need an MBA? Does anyone really need an MBA? If all MBA programs ended tomorrow, new leaders would continue to emerge, new companies would continue to emerge on the strength of their ideas, and new business jargon would continue to proliferate. But the fact that there are other ways of developing business skills, connections, and credibility doesn't mean there aren't good reasons for taking time out to pursue an MBA.

In the final analysis, business school may be unjustifiable on purely financial grounds, unless you plan to go into one of a handful of high-paying professions (Reason 2 above). But this misses the point, unless your goal in life is simple revenue maximization. If your goal is to create interesting long-term career options, an MBA might make sense.

1 comment:

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