5 cautionary ideas about going to business school

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Here’s a collection of interesting ideas from people who are talking about the value of business school:

1. Business school is not an effective means to self-discovery.

Most business school applications require that you tell what you’re going to do with the MBA. This is because most business schools think it is a waste to get an MBA if you don’t know what you’re going to do with it. If you don’t know what you want to do, you can’t rule out that you won’t need the degree. And business school is too expensive to use as a means to simply delay the real world.

2. Maybe you should try philosophy courses instead.

One of the most recent, and cogent critiques of business schools came from management consultant Matthew Stewart in the Atlantic (paid). “Most of management theory is insane,” he writes. “If you want to succeed in business, don’t get an MBA. Study philosophy instead.”

Stewart says that the three most important pieces of advice for business are also topics dear to philosophers:

Expand the domain of your analysis

Hire people with greater diversity of experience

Get good at communication

“As I plowed through my shelfload of bad management books, I beheld a discipline that consists mainly of unverifiable propositions and cryptic anecdotes, is rarely if ever held accountable, and produces an inordinate number of catastrophically bad writers. It was all too familiar. There are, however, at least two crucial differences between philosophers and their wayward cousins. The first and most important is that philosophers are much better at knowing what they don't know. The second is money. In a sense, management theory is what happens to philosophers when you pay them too much.”

3. Business schools are headhunters who charge a fee to the employee.

Stewart says the best thing that can be said about business school is that it is a way for companies to reliably outsource recruiting. McKinsey is a company built on this model. (But you can bet these companies don’t rely on middling business schools for this purpose.)

4. Common sense might get you further.

Charles Handy, a business guru who got way more press in England than the United States, eventually came down on the side of common sense — that business schools overemphasize academics and that’s not what you need to succeed in business.

5. Good networkers reach way beyond business school.

Many people say they go to business school for the network it provides. But be careful of becoming too dependent on that idea. Networking guru Keith Ferrazzi says that you need to be able to network independently of school if you are going to be good at it.

Certainly, there are good and bad things about going to business school. But think about this: If there were something you were totally excited about doing would you do it right now or would you put it off three years to go to business school? If you would do it right now, then you don’t need an MBA, you need an exciting idea.

15 replies
  1. DIana
    DIana says:

    This advice could easily be applied to anyone thinking of entering a graduate program.

    Once upon a time, just graduating high school was considered a big career move. Then, after a large majority of people had their high school diplomas, getting your Bachelor’s was purported to be the key to a successful career. Now that the job market is flooded with undergraduate degrees, people are convincing themselves that a master’s degree is necessary to get ahead in your career.

    The problem is, most people don’t know why they want to go to grad school, let alone what they need it for or how it will actually help them get a better-paying, more rewarding position. That’s a lot of uncertainty with a VERY big price tag (time, money, emotional cost, etc.).

    For anyone interested in going to grad school, business school, law school, etc. I would recommend a book my sister lent me: _Getting What You Came For_ by Robert Peters. It’s helped me to sort out my own reasons for going to graduate school, and to develop a plan for what to do when I get there.

  2. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    This is a great point, Diana. Often I find that people who go to business school spend a lot of time thinking about the financial implications of the decision, and people who go to grad school in humanities don’t.

    I interviewd a guy who is a professor and writes an (annonymous) column in the Chrnonicle of Higher Learning. This is what he said:

    “It is almost impossible to make more than $20K in grad school. Economically is not a good move at all. For example, among students entering grad school for english only one in five will find jobs. There used to be an unspoken contract to live in poverty and then get a job. Now the deal is you live in poverty and in the end you still are in poverty.”

  3. Thad Guy
    Thad Guy says:

    What about an argument for graduate school based upon respect?

    Independent of what one actually learns in business school, law school, or medical school one is still respected more when they have a professional degree. This can translate into making it much easier to land certain jobs. Maybe one could have performed this job just as well before, but now others believe one is ‘worthy’ of it. This respect could also make the difference in getting investment money to open one’s own business.

    The US Census Bureau has stated (in 2002 I believe) that the average lifetime earnings for people with bachelor’s degrees is $2.1 million, while people with master’s degrees were able to pull in $2.5 million, and those with professional degrees averaged $4.4 million (http://www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/2002/cb02-95.html). Granted, this doesn’t involve things like job satisfaction. However, if we assume that the schooling doesn’t matter all that much then the respect earned by professional degrees appears to make a very big difference.

    One could shake their head and talk about what a misguided argument this is because it is based on money. However, money is what we can easily quantify. The opportunities and respect earned with a professional degree could also be used in non-monetary ways. It seems at least plausible that this heightened respect could allow one to undertake tasks that lead to higher satisfaction and/or intellectual stimulation.

    One could also support the belife that it is good to hire people with professonal degrees. The professional degree shows that someone has the spunk to make it through a tough level of school. If such focus and spunk is what is what is actually important, then someone with a professional degree does look like a good option. Though this may also lead to a latent form of classism.

    Just a little argument from another perspective.

    As a side note, I have a degree in philosophy and it appears to earn me very limited respect from employers.

  4. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Thad, thank you for providing another (philosophical) perspective. And, even if you are not using you philosophy degree at work, I’m happy to see that you’re using it on my blog.

    I agree with you that many people go to graduate school to get some respect. But I think truly impressive people do not need to rely on a degree to win respect. In fact, using a degree to get respect smacks of rankism to me.

    In some cases, a graduate degree will make you better qualified for a job. In many cases, two years in the workplace would have given you the same qualifications.

    So I think it’s safe to say that a degree that is necessary for the job you’re applying to makes you look better. And if the degree is not necessary then it starts to look like a tactic for putting off adult life.

    I think that statistic about average salaries is not informative because averages lie in so many different ways. And if money is your number-one concern, you should read about why it won’t make you happy.

  5. Thad Guy
    Thad Guy says:

    I thoroughly enjoy, and am impressed by, the points that you bring up in your posts. Thank you very much for putting in the effort to write them.

    You are quite right that money is not the only goal of a career, however, it can be a useful tool when looking at careers as a group. Money is something that many people want and is easily quantifiable. It would seem reasonable to think that the amount of money offered to certain groups of people can correlate with the amount of general opportunities offered to these people. Such opportunities (from flex time to intellectual challenge) can lead to other honestly valuable quantities. Thus, when looking at large groups, it seems possible that money and desired benefits might be correlated.

    I agree with you that in many situations time in the work force can be more valuable than time in the classroom. However, it is also rather common that the people responsible for filling a particular position do not know the details of the knowledge and skills that are useful in that job. This makes it hard for them to tell who will actually be good at the job in question. To make up for this many employers instead rely on things like education and work history. Because a degree can be necessary to allow work history to fully blossom it can often be the keystone for developing a good resume. It is in these annoyingly important interview situation with potential employers or clients that a degree can really matter.

    I’m not saying the careers of those without degrees are stagnant or limited in any way. They are surely not. I’m just saying that things might be a lot easier for them if they had some silly words on their resume.

    I whole heartedly agree that truly impressive people don’t need a degree to earn respect from their friends and coworkers. However, earning respect in a ten minute interview with a client or from a high level boss you rarely interact with can be different. Even truly impressive people might need a degree in order to get the job or client they really want.

    This may be rankism, classism, or racism. It is surely not the ideal meritocracy we hope for. But, sometimes even rageing against the machine is easier when one has a degree.

  6. Rebecca
    Rebecca says:

    Thanks for the dose of realism! I am in my second semester of an MBA program at a top-ranked biz school, and I’ve been contemplating leaving the program since about 2 weeks in. I know I will be an entrepreneur in the future, and I thought this would help me better prepare, plus I was banking on some of the credibility that comes along with the degree to help me secure a business loan. Clearly I have a wild imagination and somehow sold myself on the fantasy that business school was going to cultivate me into a fantastic manager ready to tackle the start-up frontier!!

    Unfortunately what I’m finding is that business schools are much like factories, and the students are like monkeys. Train each monkey to calculate, use snappy business lingo, and read between the lines on financial statements and “poof!”, you have an army of robots with no creative ability ready to take on the next generation of business. To further support my point, any applicant monkey will do! I happen to work for a company that will pay for my MBA (which still only marginally lessens the pain to attend). If your application has this company’s name on it, you are in! I happen to sit directly next to one of the most ignorant individuals I have ever met in my career, and she of course is attending the same high-ranking MBA program and passing classes with flying colors. Of course, she does no homework and misuses “commodities” in casual conversation on a daily basis, but of course the school would not leave such a well-funded monkey out of the program! Ugh, how insulting! And to think that I had a 4.0 in undergrad and actually TRIED on my GMAT!

    So, bottom line, if you have above average intelligence (even slightly above), with a strong work ethic and creative ideas, I think business school is a horrific waste of 3 years of your short life. I’m having zero trouble advancing at work without my MBA, and I’m sure if I read the right materials and get the right work experience, I’ll be a successful small business owner someday soon. I just have to find the courage to go against the status quo and not take it as a personal hit to my ego that in 2.5 years Miss Ignoramus next door will have her MBA and I won’t. Now I’m off to research drop dates…

    * * * * * *

    What a wonderful comment to leave here. Thank you for taking the time to write this, Becky. Everyone thinking about business school should read this. You give great, specific examples. Great candor. Of course, this is only one person’s experience. But it’s so well written :)


  7. Aishwarya Mishra
    Aishwarya Mishra says:

    Hoping I am not too late into this discussion, I am on the other side of the “wall” that Rebecca is facing.Simply put, I have taken my GMAT and have 750 with a 6/6 in AW (no intention of showing off).

    I was searching in google for “How to zero in on the right business school” and this was the 6th link that I get :). I am thoroughly confused. I have always wanted to pursue an MBA; a good reason being learning the intricacies of economy and the human aspect to it. At a later point in life, I want to be an entrepreneur and work in the field of “social entrepreneurship”. Now I have no idea, from one end of the spectrum – “Checking out scholarships available” I am on the other end “Are B Schools really worth it”; I have read both sides. I guess I will keep on searching !

    • Shoaib
      Shoaib says:

      Take the $200k, and use it to start your business. You will learn more than b-school could ever teach you, even in just one year.

  8. Caitlin Weaver
    Caitlin Weaver says:

    This is such an insightful post, Penelope, and I wish I had read it before going to business school. I thought that business school would provide me with two years to hone in on my ideal career and develop important skills. The reality was that I had about two weeks to decide what job I wanted and a lot of the skills business schools “teach” (like networking and strategic thinking) I discovered I already had or could have developed through other arenas.

    I do believe that the right people can learn a lot from business school. The important thing is to decide if you are one of those people, or if there are other, less expensive options that will provide just as much benefit.

    If anyone is trying to decide if business school is right for them you can read more what it did and didn’t teach me at my blog, http://caitlinweaver.blog.com/

  9. Mike Huntholl
    Mike Huntholl says:

    Hey Penelope. Business school isn’t just about how to make yourself “appear” better to employers you moron. Did you know people actually LEARN stuff there? The main theme in my MBA program, one of the top in the nation, was business ETHICS. Leaders need to learn this important skill in order to make the right decisions in the real world. Sadly the lower number of MBA graduates we have today has affected the surge in arrests for fraudulent business schemes over the past several years. Stupid idiots like you who think the only value a degree has is to get your foot in the door should be banned spreading this bogus garbage. It’s obvious you never went to business school and your ignorance just makes you look pathetic.

  10. Biz Biz
    Biz Biz says:

    I agree with you Caitlin. Business school is more than just getting the degree. It’s learning how to run businesses ethically, financially, and more.

  11. Amy
    Amy says:

    First of all, MBAs are two years long, sometimes shorter.

    I doubled my salary, learned skills I never would have picked up on my own, gained an incredible network of people I wouldn’t have met otherwise, increased my confidence tremendously, and was able to switch from a position with low satisfaction and career/money prospects to one in the same industry I love, but with more satisfaction and more money. I think it worked out pretty well, all things considered.

    I agree that a top ranked MBA is incredibly important. I would also agree that self-awareness is not to be brushed over. You will have little time in school, and spending it “finding yourself” is a waste of time. Know what you want, don’t go with the herd and you can get exactly what you needed out of the experience. There are plenty of people who will never really succeed with or without an MBA, but I wouldn’t argue that an MBA is pointless just because some people don’t need one.

    I’m sorry Rebecca is having such a poor experience, but I’d suggest looking back after 2-5 years after graduation to determine whether it was a good idea. You have no idea what doors are going to be opened for you if you are willing.

  12. Moses
    Moses says:

    I would agree that getting an MBA is not for everyone but some job REQUIRE it! The CPG industry, for example, has tons a great jobs within it, but most require an MBA. For us that know exactly what we want after grad school, all the time and money is well spent.

    As for networking, you didn’t think I spent $150,000 to get a degree, did you? I bought an alumni network as well. If you are great at networking now, just imagine what you can do with a massive alumni base.

  13. Paul
    Paul says:

    So, here’s my background: I’m 28. I’m an Army officer from West Point, got out of the military after 5 years, declined to pursue some rewarding military consulting/contract jobs, went to work for a major retailer in an entry-level executive position, and… got admitted to Harvard Business School.

    Great success! So far so good.

    As an informed consumer of higher ed, I pay attention to what people say about the cost-benefit analysis of Grad School, and here in particular about MBAs.

    Here’s the calculation going on, which in the end renders this adventure worthwhile: I am switching careers, and my degree in Civil Engineering and background in Infantry and Intelligence don’t translate accessibly into general management oomph. Additionally, as a former government employee (and as Ms. Penelope says to Don’t Do), I’m still looking for that Thing That I Will Do since I spent my entrepreneurial early 20s overseas doing bad things to bad people. Which doesn’t help me in business.

    Given all this, B-school looks like a good deal for me. Given the degree and the institution of origin, I will incur a pretty good debt and pretty much wipe out what I’ve saved so far. But, by age 30, I’ll increase my last salary by 60-70%, get another immediately business-related network, and get an idea of some other careers to pursue.

    Also, and this is not to be discounted from this guy’s perspective, I get another chance to meet and marry a nice girl. This social opportunity is also another key component of the adventure, given the total lack of opportunity in such places as Afghanistan.

    In sum: It looks like each individual has to plot out his own personal cost-benefit analysis, and that the received wisdom of Always Go To School should be replaced by Analyze Your Situation, Then Act Accordingly. The one-size-fits-all go/don’t go comments and posts seem to be a bit narrowly defined. What’s good for one may not be for another–so kudos to Penelope for encouraging the critical thinking necessary to make those good decisions.

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