The Master of Business Administration degree has been a holy grail for decades. If you wanted a career that mattered and didn’t have the aptitude for medical school, an MBA was a good ticket to prestige and riches.

But things aren’t so clear anymore. If the MBA used to be the entrance fee to climb the corporate ladder, there are few corporate ladders to climb anymore — and people are increasingly experimenting with ways to speed up that climb anyway. One way is to skip the MBA altogether.

So if you’re thinking of getting an MBA, you should probably think twice. Here are five signs that the MBA is becoming devalued:

Only the top business schools have high value
The difference between the value of a top-tier MBA and all the others is very big. In fact, if you don’t get into a top-tier program, the value of your MBA is so compromised that it’s not worth it to stop working in order to get the degree. Go to night school instead.

A lot of people already know this, which has made the competition to get into a top-tier b-school fierce. So much so that you probably need a consultant to help you get in. Wondering how effective those consultants are at gaming the system? So effective that schools are publicly saying they’re trying to change the application process in order to undermine the effectiveness of application coaches.

Quality is compromised by a lack of female applicants.
Harvard Business School is so concerned that it’s not receiving enough female applicants that it’s changed the admission process to accommodate the biological clock. This means that students will have less work experience coming into the program.

In the past, business schools have said that prior work experience is important to the MBA education. But apparently, the lack of women is so detrimental to the education that Harvard is willing to take less work experience.

While the changes are beneficial for women in some respects, one has to wonder if this doesn’t compromise the value of an MBA for everyone.

Business school is like buying a high-priced recruiter.
The best thing you get out of business school is a good job afterward. But how do you know you wouldn’t be able to get that job without business school?

In an article in The Atlantic, management consultant Matthew Stewert says you probably could. He also says you should consider paying a recruiter to get you a good job, and spend your time taking philosophy classes instead. That’s because philosophers, as Stewert writes, “are much better at knowing what they don’t know. … In a sense, management theory is what happens to philosophers when you pay them too much.”

And if you are thinking of becoming a CEO, Sallie Krawcheck, herself the CEO of Citigroup’s Global Wealth Management, says you should be an investment banking analyst first. That’s because being a CEO is really about making decisions with limited information, and that’s what analysts do best.

Hotshots don’t go to business school anymore.
For a while now, it’s been clear that the true entrepreneurial geniuses don’t need degrees. The most effective way to learn about entrepreneurship is to practice in real life. You don’t need an MBA for that.

Now that trend is filtering into the finance industry. Pausing one’s career to get an MBA used to be non-negotiable for investment bankers. But today, the top candidates in finance are choosing to forgo business school. They’re already making tons of money, and they’re well-positioned to keep making tons of money, so the MBA seems unnecessary.

The upshot of this is that business school might start looking like something for people who are feeling a little bit stuck in their careers and need a jumpstart, rather than just a starting gate for superstars.

People go to business school for the wrong reasons.
An MBA is very expensive in terms of time and money, and it solves few problems. If you’re not a star performer before b-school, you probably won’t be one after you graduate And if you just want to make a lot of money, the odds of you of doing that are only as good as the odds of you getting into a top school — currently about 1 in 10.

If you’re still wondering if an MBA is necessary for you, here are five more situations that might put the nail in the coffin of the MBA.

The bottom line is that very few careers today really require an MBA. If you’re getting one for a career that doesn’t require it, you might look more like a procrastinator than a go-getter.

59 replies
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  1. Kelvin
    Kelvin says:

    I would agree. Since so many people have MBAS now, even in the Philippines, it seems like it is no longer something unique that will make you stand out ffron the crowd of workers or achievers. The same thing for LLM programs for Lawyers.

    At this point, it really is better to get work experience and make some money in the process.

  2. Anirban
    Anirban says:

    Having turned down MBA fellowship myself, I cannot agree more! I’ve seen a lot of MBA’s , and found that the degree did not change the essential person. A risk averse geek becomes a well paid project manager in a large IT consulting firm and has no courage to start out on his own, others are motivated by a hunger for power in the corporate hierarchy but have nothing innovative about them. Those that make it big already had the skills to start with.

    The MBA at this time is best done part time.

    * * * * * *
    This is a really interesting point – that the MBA still has value, but it’s only enough value to justify part-time coursework. I think that’s a worthwhile approach to examine.

    –Penelope

  3. Thom Singer
    Thom Singer says:

    An MBA is still impressive to many, but it is not the “only” way. I know a guy who worked for a major company who had an MBA from a top school who was passed over for a promotion. The woman who got the job to head the department had never gone to college but had done amazing things inside the company over 20 years. He was furious because he had been lead to believe that his MBA mattered to the company. In the end, she was the better person for the job, so that is what mattered.

    He left the company because he had no respect for his new boss based on her lack of a degree.

    I think that was short sighted in today’s world where the Michael Dell’s and Bill Gates’ of the world are our corporate heroes. It takes more than the MBA to be like these guys, it take something special inside your soul. That is what matters.

  4. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    Penelope – When I click on the link to Yahoo! Finance in your post, it reverts to a “Sorry, page not found” page. I tried twice but received the same message. You may want to check that out.

    * * * * * * *
    Thanks, Andrea. I fixed it.

    -Penelope

  5. Don B.
    Don B. says:

    I agree and understand your point. Pursuit of further education must factor in the cost and the intangible personal value to you of the course of study to be pursued. Not all rewards are monetary. If the cost issue is overcome maybe you want the additional academic information as part of your future life enjoyment. Just remember you actually go to school to learn how to learn. You then are better able to learn on the job and get paid as you acquire job skills. Eventually you need to find what your special talents are and how to best use these to your wage benefit. How those specific talents develop in each of us is not always evident even after-the-fact.

  6. Caitlin Weaver
    Caitlin Weaver says:

    I disagree that an MBA is best done part time. I think it should be done full throttle or not at all. I attended a top MBA program, and yes, it was overpriced. But people attending the part time program at the same school were also paying through the nose and didn’t have access to the same career and recruiting resources as the full-time program.

    The reality is that there is not a lot you learn from business school that you couldn’t learn in the real world. What you are paying the big bucks for is a branded network (and thus I do agree that the only real value lies in going to a top school). You don’t extract this same value in a part-time program, even if is at a top school, because on top of having families and relationships to attend to, people have full-time jobs. This leaves little time for forging the all-important connections that will stay with you the rest of your life.

  7. Matt Bingham
    Matt Bingham says:

    I really think you have to have a plan laid out before you get an MBA. My wife started to get hers before she realized she didn’t want a job that required one. She was content with the jobs that required a BS. Now, a friend of hers knew what job she wanted and that job required an MBA – so she got one and now is doing what she set out to do. So, in my opinion having a good plan set out for yourself will help decide if you need an MBA or not. This is the same argument that I hear with Microsoft Certifications…there are companies that require you to have one…but I know people with certs that couldn’t hold a candle to others who don’t have one. There is a big difference between people that can do and people that can take tests.

    * ** * * * *
    Yes. Such a smart comment. You really need to know exactly why you’re going to business school and exactly what you plan to get out of the degree. People ignore this because it’s too hard.

    -Penelope

  8. Marsha
    Marsha says:

    I think this problem disolves if one considers education and end in itself. I went to business school for the education and self-contained experience it offered, not to get a job or for the service of some future employer. It was for me and as such was valuable and its own reward.

    Why must any education or training be valuable only in light of potential earnings? Makes no sense at all and probably the reason that no one really knows how to *do* anything any more unless it’s the one specialty with which the money is earned. As Heinlein once wrote, specialization is for insects. Go, be educated and reap the many rewards…

  9. Pat
    Pat says:

    Only the top business schools have high value

    Right on the money. And the precipitous drop starts around the 16th best school, or earlier. I tried to transfer into Kellogg (Northwestern), but alas, I was unsuccessful. Once you get past the national schools (Harvard, Stanford, etc.) there are a few regional schools that carry weight locally (U. Michigan, Duke, U. Virginia), but after that they are all the same. Sorry Indiana, you’re no better than George Washington University (where I earned my MBA in ’97).

    People go to business school for the wrong reasons

    I wanted to do this degree since high school. I hold a degree in Electrical Engineering and an MBA. The MBA turned out to be valuable for unforeseen reasons. I met venture capitalists in lectures and signed on with one of their investments during the dot-com era. That worked out very well. In entrepreneuring class I did a marketing scan and business plan for a veterinary hospital (my wife is a vet). This work was a blueprint for opening her hospital, with her partner, and 8 years later her compensation has tripled and she has an equity stake in a valuable asset, the hospital. Finally, the education has made me a better team player and better leader. I can spot problems at work, both technical and team-related, and deal with them effectively and elegantly.

    My conclusion: the MBA is a valuable degree and you should attend a top-tier school if you can gain admission. If you can’t get admitted (90% do not), then attend the best in-state school and save some money. My degree worked for me, for many unexpected reasons; I’m sure the same is true for many others.

  10. David D
    David D says:

    Penlope,

    Excellent post. Your advice is timely and also applies to JD’s. The Wall Street Journal published an article recently on the frustrations of law graduates from non elite schools facing far less pay in jobs they didn’t expect to work in while struggling to pay off their debt. I suspect quite a few MBA’s are also in this situation.

    MBA’s are marketed to keep revenue flowing into the many business schools across the country. If you cannot gain admission into a top school invest the tuition, get real world experience, and you’ll have more money in the bank in the long run foregoing the debt.

    When is your next book two coming out?!

  11. Queercents
    Queercents says:

    Penelope,

    Not too long ago I asked James Robertson, the founding co-chair of Reaching Out, a conference for gay students earning their MBA if he thought an MBA was worth the time and investment.

    I thought his answer was interesting:

    “My time at Yale was certainly worth it for me, however I'm a little wary of the proliferation of MBA programs over the last decade or so. If asked, I typically counsel someone to find out what an MBA will give them and what it won't.”

    “A good MBA provides a toolkit for solving problems and managing challenges. You aren't a carpenter just because you have a hammer and saw, and similarly, you aren't a CEO just because you have an MBA. You need to have ambition, creativity and frankly experience to take the toolkit and make something lasting out of it.”

    I have ambition, creativity & experience which have allowed me to be successful in my career… all without the MBA toolkit. An MBA doesn’t make the person. It’s the person that makes the MBA worthwhile.

  12. Monica
    Monica says:

    This comment is cross-posted at Yahoo Finance also.

    In general I think the Yahoo Finance article is a pretty good read for the average person. MBA’s are not the solution to a dwindling career. I wouldn’t even consider getting one if I didn’t get into a Top 10. The part where it falls apart is for the not-average person that is in a Top 10 program.

    Your first point is just silly. Harvard doesn’t accept applicants that make their programs weaker, period. The people they choose who only have two years of work experience are truly the cream of the crop. Top 10 schools have been letting in people with only two years of experience for years and years. Now they are just publicizing it more to attract more applicants in that age bracket and get better candidates in that age bracket. And it really is all about the women. This is a good thing, and it will not de-value the degree.

    While your second point seemingly makes sense, the truth is recruiting at Top 10 MBA schools is up. And I-bankers still need one to move way up in the ranks. The hotshots who apparently aren’t getting MBAs are probably the ones who didn’t get into schools, since finance applicants have less spots and more competition due to schools wanting a more diverse class.

    So MBAers, don’t fear. Your top 10 degree is still going to get you a good job.

  13. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    Like everything else, decisions requiring investment of money and time should be taken having invested some time exploring one’s own motivation, possible career paths and aspirations. So one size may not fit all, at all times.

    If utilitarianism is the only filter, which on a careers related site would be a legitimate one anyway, I think a graduate degree that expands one’s options is useful; otherwise it may not be.

    That said, all PhDs (from the other link) do not decide to get one because they aspire to make more money (academic paths rarely make a lot of money in early stages anyway). Some do it for other reasons more close to self-actualisation and pushing one’s boundaries.

    My MBA changed my path from potentially being a engineer and a techie nerd to a corporate venturing business creator, an intrapreneur. The role took me on adventures yet unmatched in my peer group (which itself is a moot term after the first 2-3 year post graduation). I loved it totally. Now I am an enterprising techie nerd!

    My PhD – due in 2 weeks – is an adventure which allowed me to do stuff of my own choice. Having had a broad and generalist commercial experience, I enjoyed the deep and relatively narrow subject matter of the doctoral research. Having always worked with or in large teams, I also enjoyed the solitary nature of the pursuit (nobody apart from the researcher is ever keen on the subject matter of the thesis!). I also used it to diversify my experience from technology to health and biotechnology, from strategy to strategy in highly regulated businesses. There has been some opportunity loss but frankly I can live without all the material trappings that people seem to acquire hungrily at my age. I enjoyed them in plenty when I was much younger. Been there, done that, got the T-shirts and worn them out! :-)

    Taking a different path is tough. But the view is always better, and rewards – besides money – can be far more satisfying I think..

  14. CW
    CW says:

    ** Your sympathetic article **

    I'll try to keep this brief, Penelope, but generally I took exception to most of what you said. Here's why: the tone sounded sympathetic to people who don't have the time, inclination, resources, or aptitude to make it in (and through) business school. And you threw a few jabs in to punctuate that sentiment. If that is your goal, then you should start off by saying that and then explain why not having an MBA doesn't have to be a deal-breaker for those who can't fit it into their life. But don't discount the fact that it is still an academic program where you are expected to learn, and subsequently apply, proven and surprisingly uncommon basic practices.

    You say that only top business schools have value. I went to an average school (#25 on your US News list) and it has enabled me to successfully make a career change, triggers immediate recognition for both the school name and the program, and creates expectations of me from my supervisors. And that brings me to my first objection, which is your assertion that "if you are not a star performer before b-school, you probably won't be one after you graduate." People generally rise to the occasion and do what is expected of them – €“ it's a basic tenet of leadership. I wasn't particularly motivated prior to business school, yet I feel like I've found a great path now and have received three raises, a bonus, and a promotion in the last 18 months. I don't consider myself a star, but I definitely feel like I am directly responsible for the success or failure of my part of the business and there are rewards and expectations in place to reinforce that – rewards and expectations that would have come a lot slower had I not gone to business school.

    Saying that business schools are compromised by a lack of female applicants is a reason for why the general work population should *not* pursue an MBA makes no sense to me. If true, it is regrettable that applications among women are low, but how that affects the average person's desire (regardless of gender) to get a better grounding in management principles and to apply them in the effective operation of a business- – I just don't know how those are related.

    I'll cut this off here, but in part II of your series on discouraging people from pursuing an MBA, or some other meaningful education, you might include impressions from folks who actually received the degree you're bashing. It seems like it would be a valuable and relevant inclusion. For example, these are from a survey of MBA grads in 2002, when the economy was not in the best shape:

    "[ – ] three-quarters of the survey’s respondents rated the value of their MBAs as “outstanding” or “excellent,” and only 1 percent said it was a poor investment."

    "What are the perceived benefits of this degree among MBA graduates? Number one, the opportunity to improve personally (86 percent), followed closely by the credentials they desired (84 percent)."

    Source: http://www.cfo.com/article.cfm/3007340

    PS- I didn’t see in your bio which business school you attended …

  15. Scott328
    Scott328 says:

    Well said CW!

    I’ll only add that the end should justify the means. If you go to business school only make more money, then it’s probably not the best alternative. But if the intention is to better round out your education and prepare yourself for the next level in your career, the MBA can still be an invaluable tool.

    Finally, take a look in the board rooms at the Fortune 1000 companies and I suspect you’ll find a room full of MBA’s and JD’s. Just because many small companies and start-ups are hip and do not value the MBA, doesn’t mean it’s becoming the norm. The Fortune 1000 is the wheel that drives our economy, not the start-up. Remember for every start-up like Google, there are 1000 companies like Razorfish….who?….exactly.

  16. Tim
    Tim says:

    I’m not sure if MBAs are becoming obsolete. Though maybe they should be, but that’s a whole
    different subject.

    Anyway, I think you’re dead on when you say
    that some people go to business school for the wrong reasons. Too many, I bet, do just that.

    “It wouldn’t hurt to get an MBA.” I hear that all the time. Unless you know exactly what you want out of the degree–types of skills obtained, experience, etc., and unless you’re focused on what you want out of the degree–not just a better job–then you’re wasting your time.

    So, yes, it could hurt you to get an MBA There’s a lot of debt in that thar degree!

    I also think many schools are offering MBAs because they are such a cash cow for them. It’s such a shame.

    Next to Law School, the MBA–if you don’t know exactly why you want the degree, what you want to do with it–is a waste of time and money. And, in the end, it could be a big deterrent in pursuing the kind of job that will challenge you in the right way and finding a career that will make you happy.

  17. Joe Blogger
    Joe Blogger says:

    I don’t mean to be very philosophical here but there are many paths to achieve one’s life goal. Getting a degree such as an MBA, a JD, a PhD is not going away as a valid method of getting to where you want to be, you do however need a road map of the direction you are vaguely headed in.

    Along the road you will meet people, learn things, and shape new opinions and interests, so where you end up might not be where you started but you will be happier.

    If you don’t have a road map, you will just spin your wheels, go round-and-round in circles, have a degree you don’t need and probably have an enormous amount of debt.

    I think it’s a bad idea to discourage people from education because that is one of the ways we learn new things and experience the world around us. I do think that people should be encouraged to not only plan things out, but they should also inquire and experiment. If an MBA, JD, PhD is in the cards for the – good on them, let them go do it, if an alternate road seems more appealing or useful, let them tackle it.

    There is no one way to get where you want to go.

  18. Matt M
    Matt M says:

    I agree with CW and Queercents. I earned my MBA part time at a small school and I am here to say that there are clearly some myths surrounding MBAs which Penelope’s article makes slight reference to but doesn’t elaborate enough on.

    Myth: The MBA degree is the instant ticket to being CEO. Every MBA knows everything about being an entrepreneur and basically everything about all aspects of a business.
    Fact: The MBA is just a degree. You get out what you put in and you need to have clear goals and understand realistically what the MBA will do to achieve those goals before pursuing it. If there was a degree that was a golden ticket to instant CEO status then everyone would just do that. Plus, this degree will not change your personality or personal drive, etc. Although it can give you insight into personal drive etc.

    Myth: If an MBA is not the instant ticket to being CEO or being a millionaire entreprenuer then it has no value at all.
    Fact: I have personally seen many ads for managerial jobs which state that an MBA is required. Beyond the extensive knowledge I gained in the specialty I chose, the MBA provided me with numerous networking opportunities and chances to demonstrate my knowledge to a larger group of people than most jobs will. Also, the article seems to use anecdotal knowledge (one person who didn’t get much out of their MBA) to make a point about all of society. If you use that logic then since Bill Gates dropped out of his undergrad college to pursue his business and was wildly successful therefore no one should go to business school at all. Look at how many Fortune 1000 CEOs have MBAs and you will see that it still has value. Experience will probably help anyone in their chosen field but having a degree in that area will most likely provide a base of knowledge in an area without having to spend years “learning the ropes.” If you can’t afford an MBA or can’t fit it into your schedule then my advice would be to forego pursuing it.
    In my opinion the people who would benefit the most from an MBA are those are successful in an industry by working for a company and have a non-business degree or background and want to move into a business area or start a business in that field. For example a doctor who works at a hospital but wants to move into private practice or move into a business leadership role where he works.

  19. Mark
    Mark says:

    Penelope,
    I think your article is pure silliness, but apparently that is how you get published on yahoo. In any case, saying that you don’t need an MBA to strike it big because Bill Gates, Michael Dell, etc. didn’t get one is like saying you don’t need to play college basketball to be an NBA star because LeBron James didn’t. Sure, there are people out there who didn’t go to b-school. But those people may comprise .01% of the elite among business leaders today. Previous comments that upper management at the banks and fortune 500’s (aforementioned guys excluded) all have MBA’s should be noted. Furthermore, quite a few of those guys got an MBA from a mid-tier school and were the top of thier class. If you really believe what you’re saying please give us some numbers to back it up, because I think most of your assertions here are pulled out of the air.

  20. Melanie
    Melanie says:

    If your goal is to expand your education and learn new things then why does it matter if you go to a Top 10 school? The people that go there are going for more than education – it’s for the prestige and to get to the c-suite faster. If you love education, why not get your graduate degree in something outside business? Like philosophy, communications, ecology – something that would be completely off the wall and shock people with your knowledge.

    Besides, who really wants to be in the c-suite anymore when corporations have become so corrupt? I’m not glamoured by that idea anymore.

  21. Mike C
    Mike C says:

    This article is right on target. I am an alumnus of a Top 10 business school, and have mixed feelings on my decision to attend.

    I am a career switcher from engineering to finance. I was never happy being an engineer and had a long motivation to get into financial services. Given the significant difference in jobs and culture between Silicon Valley and Wall Street, I felt the need to go to business school.

    And here’s where my decision to attend business school was questionable. Was I thoroughly realistic about my chances of getting my “dream” job after school? More fundamentally, what was my “dream” job? I didn’t really answer that question effectively, and I doubt many B-school applicants also do this well.

    In deciding whether to pursue an MBA degree, one should work backwards. That is, you need to be able to answer honestly the question, “What is it that I want to do with my professional life 2/5/10 years from now?”

    You need to be very specific. In the case of Wall Street, it is not sufficient to say, “I want to go into finance.” You need to know if that is investment banking, sales and trading, equity/fixed-income research, asset management, private wealth management, etc. If you’re a career switcher (like I was), then you will find that you won’t know about all the various careers unless you speak to people in those fields. While business school can be an effective way for learning those fields, you certainly can do this “networking” for much less $$$.

    In the end, I believe an MBA is only worth pursuing if the job you want is at a firm which ONLY recruits from business schools. Management consulting or investment banking at a bulge-bracket bank would likely fall under this description.

    If you decide to go to business school to gain access to on-campus recruiting, then make that your focus. If you have to sacrifice classes, GPA, sleep, etc to do networking and company informational interviews before the on-campus interview process, then definitely do so.

    Mike

  22. Jake
    Jake says:

    There are a couple of reasons to get an MBA. The first is the education and the second is all of the other "perks" (network, getting access to interviews w/ top companies, etc.). I agree that the second piece of this – €“ the perks – €“ may be declining in value from where it was years ago. However, the value of a fundamental business education will never decline. The knowledge received through an MBA program can not be completely replaced by on the job learning (especially because common business beliefs are often flat-out wrong).

    I also agree that it is important to consider the opportunity cost. That is why I got my MBA through an evening program. If it is early in your career, full-time may be worthwhile given the lower opportunity cost. However, the evening program that I attended offered a better education than the full-time program simply because I attended with people who had more experience and therefore more to offer to the learning environment.

    Jake

  23. Alice Bachini-Smith
    Alice Bachini-Smith says:

    I’m wondering when most college degrees are going to become obsolete too. Their value seems over-inflated at the moment. Interesting trends, which the internet revolution is only going to speed up.

  24. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    Based on people I’ve met and worked with who had executive MBA degrees (ie done part time), I wouldn’t want one. These individuals had no imagination, couldn’t write a business plan (and in a one case, couldn’t write a sentence or therefore a decent letter), and didn’t seem to understand the business where they worked.

    I have two graduate degrees (not business) and there is no way these people could have survived a normal graduate / masters program.

    They paid big bucks for their Executive MBA education. I can’t help but think that because they spent the money, attended class, and did some of the assignments (even if very poorly), that they automatically received their degrees. It didn’t matter whether they demonstrated that they had learned anything.

    Therefore, some executive MBA degrees, I would argue, are not much above a “mail order” degree.

    An additional issue is that these mail order executive MBA degree holders then bring down the value of the regular MBA degree at some good schools. The degree holder doesn’t need to say on their resume or business card that their MBA was an Executive one and not a 2 year, full time, intense experience.

  25. Sam
    Sam says:

    Like many, I will relate Penelope’s article about MBA’s to my own experience. Working for a large bank in the early 1990’s, it was somewhat assumed that if you really wanted to move up, you eventually needed an MBA. Interestingly though, for obvious reasons related to the costs of training management associates like me, the bank discouraged it. This was also around the time that banker pay became more competive. About five years out of school when I was going through through the thought process of deciding whether or not to pursue an MBA, several things became apparent to me. First, the cost of an MBA plus giving up my salary, which was in the $50,000 range at the time, seemed very high. I wanted to stay in banking, and remembered MBA’s making about $5,000 more than me when we started together in the bank training program. It just did not make sense financially. Secondly, I was concerned about having to start all over working my way up the corporate ladder. Looking back, I think I made the right decision. I am a CEO of a mid-sized community bank in my late 30’s. Had I taken two years out to go back to school, I think I would have missed out on some early opportunities for advancement. One of my mentors who discouraged my going back to school is now in line to be CEO of one of the largest banks in the country, at a young age and without an MBA. Things have certainly worked out well for him. Today’s economy is all out being productive and innovative. If you have those in your camp, spending time getting an MBA could slow down your success.

    So for me, it worked out. I think there are definitely times when getting an MBA makes sense, particularly for career switchers. For the rest, I think night school is a great option unless you are one of the lucky few to be accepted in a top tier program.

  26. Jake
    Jake says:

    To the person who said that executive MBAs are worthless – first, realize that there is a difference between an executive program and an evening program. Generally, an evening program is the same as a full-time program in terms of requirements, while an executive program is a condensed version. An executive MBA should be noted as such on a resume while an evening MBA is no different than full-time.

    Also, I find it interesting that you call a full-time program a "2 year, intense experience". If you think it's intense to go to a full-time program for two years, imagine how intense it is to go to an evening program (which takes 3 years) while working full-time. A full-time program is like being on vacation in comparison.

  27. jmh
    jmh says:

    Pen, you are normally so forward-thinking and open-minded that this article from you really surprises me! (And I’m usually delighted by your articles.) There are a host of reasons people go to MBA shool- beyond the self-consumed, “I want to be the CEO of an investment banking firm”. I would believe that the MBA has entered a new stage in it’s product life cycle. But obsolete? Not by a long shot. For the average MBA graduate (me), doors are still wide open that would not have been without it. Until that is no longer the case, the term obsolete can only poorly be used describe the MBA. I look forward to your next article, hoping it returns to your more insightful open-minded form. BTW- MBA night school is also a viable option ignored by your article.

  28. Jim Castro
    Jim Castro says:

    Setting aside all the flaming you took on this column and all the other people who agreed wholeheartedly, I still found this article interesting.

    I have been reading your columns for a few months — first on Yahoo and then on your blog. I wondered at first what kind of career your career advice was meant for. It seems to be aimed mostly at the small minority who work in finance, marketing, or some other job in a large corporate headquarters. It’s definitely not meant for scientists, engineers, or people who work in manufacturing, transportation, mining, oil and gas drilling, agriculture, or other non-HQ jobs, not even for the managers in those fields.

    I am a geochemist and have worked in industry, academe, and government. Obviously I am one of those people who have no use for an MBA. (I have, however, found my M.S. in chemistry and my Ph.D. in geology to be immensely useful.)

    In spite of the differences between my career and the ones you write about, I still find your insights and opinions interesting and useful. Keep them coming!

  29. Peggy
    Peggy says:

    Interesting post and comments. Like anything else in life, an MBA is what you make of it. I work with a guy who is going to graduate with his MBA in December. It’s been an 6-year, part-time journey for him – one class at a time in the evenings while working a full-timejob, raising a family, and volunteering in his community. His coursework has already helped him through two promotions and raises because he applied every project to his current work. On the other hand, I have also worked with folks who did a full-time MBA right out of their Bachelor’s program who can barely read a P&L. When I interview candidates who have MBA on their resume, I grill them about what they did in B-school and why they think it was valuable. It’s amazing what you can learn about a person.

  30. Brandon
    Brandon says:

    I have been reading “Managers Not MBAs” by Henry Mintzberg (among other books) and I have to say that a trend away from the MBAs depicted in that book would definitely be a positive move. It’s a must-read for anyone considering hiring, obtaining, or working with MBAs.

  31. pankaj
    pankaj says:

    In India MBA guys are one of the most exploited lots. Almost 99% MBA passout repent for doing the courses not due to job scarcity but for the nature of jobs offered to them.

  32. Steve
    Steve says:

    I think the top MBA schools are still worth it. However dropping out of the workforce to incur a bunch of student loans to get an MBA from piss ant State U has negative returns.

  33. alison
    alison says:

    Well, as a part-time MBA student, I can’t really agree that the MBA is obsolete. At least I hope it isn’t!

    My choice is a part-time state program, that will amount to less debt than my car (by that time, the car will be paid off – so I’ll still be ahead of where I am now), so there is no real risk, especially since my current degree is in Liberal Arts. Since the MBA only costs about 30% more than going back for a new undergraduate degree, I think it’s becoming a smart choice for people who studied another field as an undergraduate.

    I’m going for the knowledge. I don’t know how to do any form of accounting, save balancing my checkbook. If I had a business undergraduate degree, I’d probably go to grad school for something else. For me, it’s all about diversifying knowledge. The network doesn’t hurt, even if it isn’t “A List” (there are only 2 choices in my area, and the state school’s new program is just as popular with high-level executives as the expensive No-One’s-Heard-Of-It-Out-of-State Liberal Arts college.

    I think grad school is still a smart choice, but I think all students–undergrad and grad–have to remember to diversify in this market. I agree that going to grad school to be an entrepreneur is kind of silly….but not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur. It still boggles the mind that they have an Entrepreneur track in the MBA program as the two seem so fundamentally opposed. (MBA is a strict, predictable system, and owning your own company is anything but, for most entrepreneurs I know!)

  34. Kare Anderson
    Kare Anderson says:

    Penelope,
    As usually I found your post thoughtful – and provocative, yet am writing regarding a related point.

    Reading this string of comments you must be thrilled by the depth and quality of the writing in them. What a compliment to you.

    And your prompt, apt responses reinforce that level of conversation

  35. Beth Terry
    Beth Terry says:

    I think the real question is, “Have MBA’s EVER been the ticket they are hyped to be?” I remember in the 90’s Fortune or Forbes wrote about the disappointment on Wall Street over the quality of new MBA’s. They claimed that the majority of the firms surveyed would prefer a graduate from one of the lesser schools who had a Midwestern upbringing over MBA’s coming out of ivy league schools. They felt the Midwestern work ethic was worth far more than any letters after a name.

    This seems to be a recurring theme. The truth always is, we don’t hire people for what they learned in college. We hire them for how they learned to think and solve problems. Having an MBA or PhD says that you had the stamina to follow rules, take the required courses, figure out how to pass the tests, second guess your professors, and turn in required work.

    Yes – you also learned a lot along the way. But the first thing that happens in a job is the lesson that a lot of what you were taught in school is theory and doesn’t pan out in the day to day business world.

    In the 90’s I was the national manager of an $800 million company with a presence in 18 states. We regularly hired MBA’s for Partner track. Part of my assignment from the CEO was to take the newly minted MBA’s that we’d hired and teach them some soft skills — in the CEO’s words: “how to be a human being, how to motivate, how to hire and train without intimidating, how to think like your front line and treat them with the respect they deserve”… at that time NONE of those skills were taught in MBA courses.

    From one who has hired many MBA’s i can tell you this: an MBA DOESN’T say that you are a good, ethical, creative, hard-working contributor to the bottom line. THAT you have to prove along the way. If you can show — with or without an MBA — that you add value to the organization through your creativity, resilience, dedication to the job at hand, and that you can play well with others… you’ve got a future. Bottom line, corporations hire people with their lights on.

    Is it obsolete? No. Learning never is. We all need to keep learning, and an MBA of any stripe is a good way to do that. But to think it is a ticket or a guarantee is self-defeating. You may have more open doors, but they are still hiring YOU. Work on your Y O U as well as your M B A, and you’ll do fine!

    Good luck! We need all the healthy up and comers we can find!

  36. Scott Sanders
    Scott Sanders says:

    Made the same comment on another article of yours — Harvard Business School has never had a work experience requirement! … at least not in my recent memory.

    Take a look at this page:
    http://www.hbs.edu/mba/admissions/admissioncriteria.html

    “Please note that there is no minimum work experience requirement for the MBA Program. Successful candidates are able to demonstrate strength in the criteria outlined above, regardless of their number of years of work experience. They include college seniors with significant leadership experience, as well as individuals with as little as one to two years of full-time work experience.”

    Granted — HBS’s admissions stats seem to bear out the fact that they favor candidates with work experience, but their policy hasn’t suddenly changed by any means. They’re one of the only top schools (maybe *the* only) that doesn’t have a work experience requirement.

  37. Just Jobs
    Just Jobs says:

    This post makes alot of sense. It seems like the market is flush with way too many MBAs, and when there is an oversupply of anything in any economic model, prices go down. If this holds true with MBAs, salaries for MBAs will go down as well, complicating the job hunt for the average MBA. However, I do think it makes a difference what concentration an MBA chooses, as it is well known that most MBAs who concentrated in finance while they studied usually stand to make much higher salaries than MBAs in other concentrations.

  38. jhearty
    jhearty says:

    An MBA is a sign that you can follow a dedicate yourself to a process. It’s a sign that you have a desire to improve yourself and be successful. It’s a confidence builder and a chance to learn about business. Any degree is just another way to open doors that may have been closed before. Once you’re hired, you still have to prove yourself.

    The market is not flooded with MBA’s. Only about 24% of the workforce has a bachelor’s degree. A much lower percentage gets advanced degrees.

  39. Randy
    Randy says:

    Many great responses have been posted to this point. I whole heartedly agree with anonymous coward’s response. There’s a lot more to the process of obtaining an MBA. I know that is true for me. I don’t have the money or time to go to a top tier business school, so for my MBA, I’m attending a local, private university in the evenings. I won’t have any debt burden as a result of getting an MBA this way and its really more the process of getting it that I appreciate (and hope will be appreciated by potential employers later). It’s also a confidence builder for me since my undergrad degree is in Communications.

  40. Rishona
    Rishona says:

    I think that the stereotypical definition and expectations of an MBA degree are what is becoming obsolete; not the degree itself. As it stands right now, MBA programs are a dime a dozen. They have one for every kind of professional background; even the gross underachievers. There are schools out there that will award an MBA to graduates who couldn’t produce or interpret a corporate annual report to save their life. This is a far cry from being on the fast-track to the top of the corporate food chain!

    I say this as a current MBA student by the way. I have a BA degree in liberal arts, and I do not work in a professional capacity (I am an administrative assistant). Many people out there would say I am foolish for spending money on an MBA. However I feel that my return on my investment will be worth it. I am in an AACSB accredited program paying in-state tuition; so my entire program will be less than $17,000. In addition, although my Bachelor’s degree was in liberal studies, I have work experience as a bookkeeper, an assistant to a CPA and an attorney, and an insurance professional. I feel that the ‘MBA’ on my resume will help potential employers feel more comfortable with my skills as a business professional than my work experience and liberal arts degree can on their own.

    But most importantly, I am looking towards the MBA program to challenge me and help me gain or hone my professional skills. I am a little less than halfway through my program, but I already have had valuable experiences and exposures to areas of business that I have not previously encountered, or knew very little about (i.e. management information systems). I actually emerged from that course with a new awareness and fluency in these areas of business operations to the point where I could help the VP with IT with his strategic plan!

    Since I am a part-time, distance-learning student, I admit, I am missing out on the valuable ‘MBA professional network’ a bit. However at the end of the day, the classes that I am taking to earn my MBA are enhancing my professional skills. Skills that I am responsible for maintaining and promoting to future hiring managers. Can you get these skills and experiences outside of the MBA program? Absolutely. Is the MBA network a bit overrated? I do tend to think so. Even some of the graduates of Harvard’s Business School are graduating without job offers. They probably invested $100K+ in their degrees. Me, much less. Therefore any gains from my MBA will be felt much more.

    To revisit what I said in my 1st paragraph, it is sad to see the quality of MBA programs running the gamut. It cheapens the entire term ‘MBA’. A sharp graduate from a quality MBA program is an asset to any company. However the quality programs are in the minority. MBAs have to be very conscious of the perceived value of their degrees; and stay focused on marketing themselves holistically, and not just by their MBA.

  41. ThePowerpointMonkey
    ThePowerpointMonkey says:

    “Hotshots don’t go to business school anymore.”
    Penelope repeats a well worn argument which is almost exclusively cited by those who don’t have an MBA. The specious line of argument goes that famous entrepreneurial success stories like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs became billionaires without an MBA degree. A more recent phenomena she cites in the most is that certain lucky folks have been able to advance into post-MBA positions in finance e.g. investment banking, hedge funds, etc. without having the MBA. Because certain folks have been able to attain riches without the degree, the MBA is therefore worthless, or have little value.

    Bill Gates and Steve Jobs didn’t finish college either. Does that make the college degree obsolete? The obvious fact is that they are brilliant (Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard) and are the exceptions and not the rule. And you can’t sensibly manage your career planning on being the exception.

    The fact is, all else being equal, and MBA from a TOP SCHOOL, is going to be offered more opportunities than an MBA from a no name school or someone without an MBA at all. If you need been able to be extremely successful in a business career, early in your career, without the degree more power to you. But recognize these folks are lucky outliers.

    “People go to business school for the wrong reasons… if you’re not a star performer before you graduate you won’t be afterwards”

    There is some truth to this. The M in MBA does not stand for magic. However, the degree, assuming it is from a top school, gives the holder access to higher level opportunities than they would have otherwise. And as Malcolm Gladwell explains in Outliers, much of achieving success in life is a function of simply being given the opportunity. To deny that an MBA does not confer greater opportunities on the degree holder is to deny reality.

    Here’s some reasonable advice. One needs to examine the return on investment that the degree would bring to you. Return on investment can be compare what you are currently making against what what you expect to make coming out of the MBA program. In order to get the latter figure, you can take a look at the placement statistics of the school you are admitted into. Reputable schools have extensive placement statistics, but fly by night programs most do not. This differential must be forecast over the course of your career. These future benefit dollars need to be discounted to present using a discount factor to account for the risk in these cash flows materializing. The benefit, is today’s dollars need’s to be compared against the costs of attending the program, including foregone salary. If the benefit is larger than the cost, get the degree. If not, don’t. If you are one of the lucky investment banking analysis promoted into the post-MBA position, or already in a senior management position, the costs will outweigh the benefits. For most of the rest of the 25-30 year olds in business or technical careers, the benefits will likely outweigh the costs. But the fact is you need to do the math. Incidentally, this an approach to making decisions you will learn in business school.

  42. Ed
    Ed says:

    Just based on what I read. I disagree, even though, you may not get the job or status you unduly desire it is for you’re benefit not for anyone else. You achieved something and it is not an entitlement. You represent or embody academic success and didactic aptitude in your field (job). Charles Darwin’s theory still applies to you and everyone else. Just be glad you are given the opportunity to proper and educate yourselves. Other countries are learning very quickly when given the opportunity. In the 1980’s, President Ronald Reagan initiated many plans and one of them was that United States will implement plans to steer the US workforce into management (next step up from labor intense workforce). We are doing that globally and eventually enjoy the fruits of our labor but based on this column we would be taking a backseat to the rest of the world. Let us antithesis and synthesis our endeavors to create a verdant and meaningful life.

  43. Dennis
    Dennis says:

    I am a bit late on commenting on this subject, but like most things in life things change over time. I just finished up my MBA in May of 2011 and I viewed my MBA as a business certification, just like the hundreds of other certifications that one can obtain (PMP, Microsoft, etc…). Like with most certifications, one usually has experienced the qualifications first hand (ie. done the work) and the certification is just another way to verify that the past work was completed. I do have to admit that I did learn a few things from doing my MBA, mostly rounding out my knowledge on a few subjects and introducing me to a few new subject, but about 80% of the MBA work I had already experienced in my last 10 years of work.

  44. Frank
    Frank says:

    Is any education really all that significant?

    I remember in my undergraduate school how so many thought that school was supposed to teach them every detail about a subject so they could get a job. It won’t, but what school can do, inclusive of an MBA, is seed your knowledge base to make you competent enough to understand concepts and language that trying to learn on your own could leave you with gaps in understanding because you never thought of pursuing those subjects. You also have to continue updating your education even after a Masters program.

    So its not if the MBA is from the best school but whether you’re in over your head because of a lack of education.

    Frank L., BS, MS, MBA

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