I met an engineer at a party recently who was dissatisfied with his job. He mentioned he’d thought about getting an MBA, but as we talked, it seemed he had a lot of misconceptions about what an MBA involved, and what he could expect afterward. I’ve received similar questions in the past from engineers (probably because many of my friends fall into this category), so I thought I’d sum up my answers to some popular questions I’ve often received. Let me preface this by saying that I attended the business school program at the University of Michigan, and while I think top MBA programs are largely the same, there are a few differences in methodology and, perhaps, prestige (see below).
1. Except in a few cases, an MBA is probably a more pragmatic degree than what you studied in your undergrad years. Unless you chose business or a specific trade as a major in undergrad, you’ll probably find that an MBA degree is more about getting a job and building a career than anything else. As such, almost everything in an MBA program, from clubs to classroom discussion, is more about getting results and less about wide-open what-ifs as in other types of graduate programs, or even a PhD in Business Administration. This can come as a shock to people (like me) who have been in academia more than they care to admit, but in the end it’s a useful and worthy skill to have, and one you’ll especially appreciate during the interminable business meetings you’ll have once you’re in your new job.
2. If you’ve got an engineering or other science degree, you’ll probably find the coursework at an MBA a breeze. An MBA program will teach you many things, but most of it isn’t going to be focused on getting As in school or taking tests. To put it bluntly, in the end, most companies (save maybe in I-Banking or Consulting) won’t even care about what your GPA is in bschool. The coursework at an MBA program is not as difficult as getting a medical or law degree, nor does it take as much time. But the skills you pick up — again, practical ones like how to interview, network, and land a job — are also ones you don’t typically learn in another degree. The benefit of a good MBA program is in the networks and relationship skills you build. I find that the biggest conflict that scientists and engineers have with themselves in regards to getting an MBA is in this area. We’ve been geared toward problem-solving and taught to focus on measurement, and less on communication and “soft” skills, so the idea of paying to get a degree that focuses on the latter and not the former is disconcerting. But ideally, if you can combine the two, you’d be that asset that many corporations seek.
3. Where you go for your MBA probably matters. Because business schools are all about accessing alumni networks, the better the school you can attend, the better your chances are later on. And like it or not, an MBA from Harvard, Stanford, or Wharton means “more” in most situations than one from other programs (though you can debate endlessly on which schools comprise the “top” programs). The general consensus, if you believe Businessweek’s MBA forums and most literature out there, is that you should go to as good a school as possible, and probably one within the top 20. (I don’t advise spending too much time on the Businessweek forum as it can make you OCD about going to the “right” school). And it’s not just alumni networks. My previous employer, a Fortune 50 company, calculated base salaries and job grades for entering MBAs almost entirely based off of the prestige of the school.
4. An MBA is a time-compressed career experience. Most MBA programs use case-studies to teach in their programs. Some may use them 100% (as I understand Darden does), and others less. But the idea is the same: cram or get as much out of 2 years of school as you could have gotten from experience. This works remarkably well, and I’d swear to anyone that a high schooler could learn the academic content in an MBA program with no problem at all. But a high schooler may not have the skills and maturity to communicate, lead, and build relationships that are also necessary to be successful as a business person. Michigan’s program is a general one, where the first year is spent taking core classes. Personally, I really liked this because it exposes everyone to all the different fields available — marketing, operations management, finance, strategy, organizational behavior, etc. — but then again, I’ve always been a generalist at heart. I will say, though, that anecdotally, I think I learned more than some friends who went to Wharton and who for whatever reason did not get exposure into as many facets of business.
5. An MBA isn’t going to teach you everything. Business schools (including my alma mater) are going to hate that I say this, but there are things that you just can’t learn in school. An MBA will not teach you to be an entrepreneur. In fact, I’d say that much of the analysis taught in bschools focus on risk aversion rather than risk taking. I attended a discussion with a panel of local entrepreneurs in Ann Arbor, among them, the CEO of Zingerman’s (who told us he’s an anarchist and majored in Soviet studies in school), Border’s Books, and a few others. I believe only one of them came from a business background, and all said that if they had been reasonable and logical, they’d never have started their businesses to begin with. (I think it was the Border’s CEO who said he and his friends launched the company during the 80s when interest rates were at 20% or something ridiculous). This is not to say that an MBA is useless when it comes to running your own business, only that it’s not going to teach or give you entrepreneurial attributes that you didn’t already have.
An MBA will also not teach you leadership or sales skills. Most business schools will have leadership programs set up that attempt to focus on leadership, but I have yet to see someone who can teach leadership as a skill. I believe leadership is something you might be able to build through experience, but certainly not one you can learn from classrooms. As for sales, it’s unfortunate, but not only was there no focus on the importance of sales to a business, but anyone with a sales background was automatically respected much less than someone who was a consultant or banker before. Again, salesmanship is something that I’d be hard pressed to think is teachable via classrooms and books, but I was still surprised that there wasn’t any importance placed on this skill or role. Think about it. Sales drive revenue generation in an organization and is key to its success. But reality is that almost no one who graduates from an MBA program will go into sales, but perhaps similarly, being in sales doesn’t require an MBA.
6. An MBA will probably give you more job opportunities, but it won’t solve everything. Many people leave an MBA program thinking they’re ready to become venture capitalists or CXO of the next company. Or if not, certainly be promoted to such a level within a few years’ time. Reality check says this is an unlikely outcome. If you ran your own company, would you hire someone straight out of school to take major responsibility in your operations? Probably not. But an MBA does give you some job security. For whatever reason, in many companies, you can’t advance any more beyond a certain level before getting this three-letter degree. Similarly, if you do a simple search on Monster for “MBA”, you’ll find this waives or meets some of the requirements listed in the job description. No, it won’t guarantee you the job, but it will waive you past some of the initial hurdles (and then, presumably, your interviewing skills can push you through to the next round).
7. An MBA is expensive, but might be worth it. This program is certainly not cheap. Take a look at any brochure from a bschool and you’ll likely see figures above $30K per year for tuition. Scholarships, except through the Consortium, which serves underrepresented minorities, are also difficult to come by. Nevertheless, if you’re sure you want to continue in mainstream corporate America, an MBA is often the only way to continue up and onward. Most MBA programs also publish the median salaries and signing bonuses for recent classes, and you can quickly calculate whether an MBA is worth pursuing or not for someone in your situation.
8. A full-time MBA is not the only alternative. The benefit of a full-time MBA is presumably that you develop more camaraderie and therefore relationships and networks than if you were only attending part-time. However, for some people, part-time may make more sense. Michigan offered an evening program where many engineers and employees from local auto makers attended. In my program, I didn’t find much of a difference between day and evening MBAs myself. In both groups were people who excelled, and if anything, the part-time MBAs not only had to manage a full-time job but be organized enough with their time to plan out group meetings, classrooms, and their jobs ahead of time. If you’re interested in pursuing a part-time degree, be sure to ask the schools you’re interested in about whether such a program exists, and try to find people who are doing their MBA this way to get a feel for what they advise and how they manage it.
So in summary, I think an MBA is worthwhile, provided you go in with the right expectations. In the end, it’s a practical degree in almost every way. I’ll write more on the topic if I can think of or hear more questions about it!