Thursday, June 07, 2007

When to Get an MBA

From the mailbag:

A question sparked from your recent say getting an MBA should be done earlier rather than later. How much do you think your MBA school matters? For example, if your MBA was from Harvard rather than Rice, how much different do you think your career would've been?

I actually have addressed this from time to time in the past. Here is an old post where I was giving advice that sort of answers the question:

With your background and inclination for entrepreneurship, I am not sure that you really need or would benefit from B-school, except for the possibility of networking. Even then, there are other ways to get the same level of contacts, so I am not sure taking a couple of years off and spending lots of money for a degree is needed in your case. I do believe b-school is helpful for things like finance, accounting and the drier parts of business that are harder to "pick up from experience", so just make sure you are eyeing business school for the right reasons.

In other words, whether an MBA is for you depends on your circumstances. Here is what I see are the things to look at:

1. Early Experience - As I recently wrote, I see an MBA as a way to get experience in your 20s that you might not get until you are well into your 30s. So the younger you are, the better. And if you are 40 or older, I say skip it.

2. Networking - Probably the second best reason to attend business school is for networking. And the better the school, the better the networking. But networking in itself it is not the reason to go, so if the other reasons fit, see this as a "benny".

3. Pedigree - Note that some companies only consider MBAs for open positions, so obviously not having one will hurt you in these circumstances. And some employers put a premium on having an MBA from a more prestigious school. However, this is usually in the case of someone earlier in their career. If you have a resume with 20 years of experience, that will (or should) stand out more than just an MBA from a top-notch business school. And if it doesn't, do you really want to work for a company that puts the pedigree higher than the person and his experience?

4. Technical Expertise - Accounting. Information systems management. Obscure financial theory. If you are interested in one of these areas, then getting a specialized-area MBA makes sense since you are not going to pick these things up on your own. But that is a pretty small percentage of people who go to business school (although I am not in finance I actually rather enjoyed finance theory - the engineer in me finding expression in business school).

5. Starting Your Own Business - If this is of interest then I say DON'T go to business school. Business school is not about entrepreneurship, it is about becoming a professional worker. If you want to start a business, go out and start one. Chances are you will fail, but that experience will be worth far more than an MBA. And the sooner you go out and fail in your first business, the sooner you can start the successful one. Also note that most of the most successful entrepreneurs didn't go to business school (Dell, Gates and the usual suspects all come to mind).

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